Philip Graham Ryken. Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters. Edited by R. Kent Hughes. (Preaching the Word). Crossway. 2010. 317 pages.
There is perhaps no more significant Presbyterian church in America than Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church. There is perhaps no more significant Christian college in America than Wheaton College. Philip Graham Ryken, the son of the Christian literary scholar Leland Ryken, will move this year from the church to the academy as he leaves his post as senior pastor at Tenth Presbyterian to become the eighth president of Wheaton College. Ryken would certainly be uncomfortable with any comparison to Solomon, but in evangelical circles, he certainly has some purple in his robe. While Ecclesiastes has often been the place where Christian misfits and rebels have congregated, it is fitting to have a stately presence guide us through Qoheleth’s (the self-identification of the author, which Ryken loosely — and intriguingly — translates as “preacher”) book.
Ryken delivers his thesis immediately. Contrary to the many who have interpreted Ecclesiastes as being about the meaningless of human existence, Ryken argues that the author of Ecclesiastes is “really about the meaningless of life without God” (12). But, since, in Ryken’s estimation, the author clings to his belief in God, “his ultimate purpose is to show us how meaningful life can be when we see things from God’s perspective. His message is not that nothing matters, but that everything does” (12).
Everything matters: that’s not a tough pill to swallow as a Christian, but a difficult one if you’ve been around Ecclesiastes or contemporary interpretations of the book for any length of time. Most modern interpreters are so uncomfortable of any part of the book smacking of that kind of message that they insist that the famous final two verses (“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”) were added by a redactor.
Ryken’s reading of the book is both careful and unique. Unlike many other interpretations, where various moods or voices are read into the text to help explain some of Qoheleth’s bleaker statements, Ryken carefully and persuasively argues that Qoheleth speaks with a singular voice calling us to find meaning in everything in light of life with God.
What’s impressive when one begins to see the book in this light is that the book becomes the topical preacher’s dream. Faithfully following the text, Ryken moves from the human search for true wisdom to harsh critiques of American hedonism, to chapters on death and dying, sexuality, and justice. And all of this taught in a way that is text directed and Christ-saturated. No pastor who finishes this book will want to keep his congregation out of Ecclesiastes for long.
The book is a commentary, but like the growing number of sermonic commentaries, Ryken’s book can easily be read start to finish and does not bog down with exegetical or interpretative analysis. If you’re a pastor and you’re looking for a thick commentary on Ecclesiastes to help guide your careful language study of the book, this isn’t the book for you. But I would readily encourage you to pick it up and read it start to finish before you start your series as a way to help shape your reading and engagement of the book.
Another real strength of Ryken’s interpretive work is that his sermonic style fits well with the book itself. Ryken’s sermonic writing is full of both a call for practical, “real life” wisdom as well as a call to understand “true” wisdom: knowing our one, true, and wise God. Ryken also brings a great variety of voices into his writing, allowing the reader to encounter alongside the words of Qoheleth, those who speak wisdom from “under the sun” and those who speak wisdom from a place that begins with the fear of God. If you love quotables, you’ve found yourself a treasure trove.
There is very little by way of critique to say about Ryken’s fine work. I would offer two small complaints: the first is that the publisher chose to exclude the text itself from the book surely as a way to make the book more readable and less like a resource commentary. But I think that omission was a significant oversight. I kept finding myself flipping open my Bible alongside the chapter to place myself back into the text as I read. The second minor criticism would be that while Ryken has a nice opening chapter setting up the book, its themes and background, he doesn’t have a corollary at the end of the book. I felt that, given all the terrain he had covered, it would have been helpful to have Ryken pull the threads together in a final chapter. This is a book I would recommend, without hesitation to any reader at any level of spiritual maturity. God has indeed given us stewardship over lives where everything matters. May this book convict, encourage, and call us to wise living in a this life.Tags: Meaning, Purpose