Preaching Christ in Psalms and Ecclesiastes
How Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon?
A Psalm (Psalm 42)
In this article, I hope to show how to preach Christ from Psalm 42:1–11:
“For the choir director. A Maskil of the sons of Korah. As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, With the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; Therefore I remember You from the land of the Jordan And the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, A prayer to the God of my life. I will say to God my rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.”
The Psalms present a challenge to the preacher to be true to the text, the redemptive-historical context, and the analogy of faith. However, because we know the covenantal, law-gospel, justification-sanctification theology of all the Scriptures, we can justly preach Christ in all the Scriptures. Each sermon must have enough of the gospel to save the sinner and to edify the saint through the preaching of Jesus Christ Himself.
The Psalms are the inspired prayers of the believer. In them we find joy, sorrow, questioning of God’s sovereignty and purposes, repentance for sin, and confessions of faith beyond circumstances. The Psalms run the whole gamut of human experience and soul-thoughts. Although our Savior had neither the weaknesses of a fallen nature nor the remaining sin of the believer, He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Being fully human, Jesus experienced the inner feelings of Psalm 42 in a perfect way. Upon the cross, He was attacked by His enemies, separated from God’s immediate presence, mocked by unbelievers, and hoped to be restored to fellowship with God. Only One who sees purely and who cannot sin can feel the full power of earthly trials and temptations which come from the fall of man. Therefore, we can preach Christ from this Psalm.
This Psalm is a maschil, an instructive ode. It is constructed in two parts, each beginning at Psalm 42:1 and 42:6, both followed by the same refrain. Its title attributes its composition to the sons of Korah, the keepers of the gates to the tabernacle, but many attribute it to David himself. There is no sure quotation from this Psalm in the New Testament.
Amidst many possibilities, Keil and Delitzsch believe the author to be a Korahitic Levite who is with David in exile beyond the Jordan because of the rebellion of Absalom. It echoes the same sentiments that David expressed in other Psalms (Psalm 3; 63) yet stands as a separate author. Under the Sinai Covenant, he finds himself at a distance from the temple which the sons of Korah loved (Psalm 84) and surrounded by enemies who mock his God. He remembers the processions to the temple he participated in and weeps to join them again. He feels God’s providence overwhelming as water overwhelms the falls somewhere beyond the Jordan in exile. He responds with temptation to despair in his soul, yet he repeatedly preaches to himself to hope in God alone. Under the Sinai Covenant, the tabernacle was the only authorized place on earth for God to be worshipped fully according to His instructions. The Holy of Holies was effectively the throne and presence of God on earth, the very mercy seat of God. Even though the man of faith could pray at all places and times, to be separated from the tabernacle was to feel incomplete in worship. He longs to return to the tabernacle where God dwells on earth yet wrestles with faith that God will return him. So, he preaches to His soul God’s faithfulness to deal with his thirst and despair. The end of the story is that God returned David and the sons of Korah to Jerusalem. God answered the Psalmist’s cry.
Knowing God’s overall plan in the Covenant of Grace to keep David as king and to bring Christ born in Bethlehem, we see the struggle of an OT believer waiting for that which is perfect to come. His experience before the New Covenant is real yet tied to the tabernacle in such a way that he feels incomplete away from its presence. And not only that, the confusion of God’s enemies triumphing over David tested his faith in the covenant promises to David. His tears and mournings are real under the Sinai Covenant.
In light of all these things, the Bible student will study the whole counsel of God, the analogy of faith, and to preach this Psalm in its context, while applying it to today’s hearers. In doing so, under the New Covenant, we find that our Lord removed the earthly temple as the official dwelling place of God on earth, giving a spiritual worship of God at every place in spirit and truth (John 4:21–24). No longer does the pageantry, the priesthood, the sacrifices and the Holy of Holies locate the primary presence of God to the believer. Distance from a tabernacle no longer interferes with the consciousness of true worship. Yet, even this spiritual worship does not remove the times of opposition from enemies who mock the faith of the believer. Paul’s litany of soul struggles with the world and providence parallel the cries of the Psalmist (2 Corinthians 4:8–10). Even further, our Lord cried out to God with loud crying and tears at the oppression of the enemy and wrestling with the providential will of God, both in the garden and upon the cross (Hebrews 5:7–8). He was tempted in every point as was the Psalmist, even as we are, yet without sin, in his tears and mournings. Therefore he is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted to despair and mourning (Hebrews 4:15–16). He brings the place and experience of worship to them wherever they are on earth, lesson which the Hebrews’ church had forgotten. This calls us to preach the same message which the Psalmist preached to himself: “Hope alone in God alone.” Even yet we await the perfect worship in our heavenly place, sometimes with tears which one day will be wiped away.
Suggestions for preaching Christ in this Psalm:
Consider the wrestlings of the OT believer with worship and providence which Christians may experience.
Understand the greater worship and knowledge of God’s providence for the NT believer through Christ’s coming.
Believe in the soul-trials of Jesus Christ and His great salvation to overcome the temptations to despair, tears, and mourning in this world.
If we believe that our Lord was tempted in every point as we are, yet without sin, then we can preach the soul-life of the Psalms in their context yet show how our Lord went through all trials to accomplish our salvation and bring us to the heavenly tabernacle. We must put down despair of all kinds and preach to ourselves to hope in God in Christ. Hebrews 12:22–24 says:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a New Covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.”
There is no reason for the Christian to live in despair as did the Psalmist. God has proven His faithfulness, in which the Psalmist hoped, in the glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He Himself experienced as a man the trials of living in this world and can comfort us as our Great High Priest. Now we hope in God with greater assurance of that glory which is to come. This is how we should preach Christ in the Psalms.
How Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon?
Now I hope to show how to preach Christ from Ecclesiastes 4:4, a single verse of the Wisdom Literature. Ecclesiastes 4:1–4 says:
Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun. I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.
Wisdom Literature in the OT includes Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Some would add Song of Solomon. Each of these books has a different form, but all of them intend to communicate the wisdom of life. Ecclesiastes relates Solomon’s futile attempts to find happiness in the things of this world. Wisdom, riches, women, drunkenness, building projects, humor, entertainment, etc., can never satisfy the heart. At each point Solomon satiated himself and was disappointed, despairing of any lasting meaning or satisfaction in these earthly pleasures. At the end, in Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, he declares: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”
How should Christ be proclaimed from this passage? Christ must always be preached according to “the analogy of faith.” Every passage of Scripture contributes to the overall message of the Bible: that human beings are fallen, that Christ has come to deliver us from the fall, and that life and happiness are only found in Jesus Christ, the supreme revelation of God to humankind. The Bible’s overall message also includes the underlying theology of the covenants expressed in the Law (Covenant of Works) and the Gospel (Covenant of Grace). So, how should we interpret Ecclesiastes 4:4 in its immediate context and according to “the analogy of faith?”
The grammar of the passage is fairly straightforward and presents no significant translation difficulties. The word “labor” (“toil, trouble, travail”) communicates the idea that all work is hard and wearisome in this fallen world. The word “skill” (“success, advantage”) refers to the capacity for success in work. “Rivalry” (“jealousy, envy”) denotes the character and motive of working in this world. The conclusion is that this characterization of work in this fallen world is “vanity” (“emptiness”) and “striving” (“grasping after”) after wind. The whole idea of the verse is that all work in this world and the seeking of success above others is motivated by man’s envy and jealousy. It’s ultimately empty of lasting meaning and cannot satisfy.
Solomon gave himself to great building projects (2:4–11). He built gardens, ponds, stables, and great buildings. He extended his rule even beyond the borders of David. He built the great Temple that God did not permit David to build. Solomon appeared to be the promised “son of David.” But his life shows that he was conquered by his wealth and women. He declined spiritually to such a degree that the veracity of his faith is called into question. Ecclesiastes testifies to Solomon’s wasted efforts, to his depression, and to his failure to seek God’s glory. He died (1 Kings 11:43) and Rehoboam took his place, which resulted in a divided kingdom of Israel.
Finding a man like Solomon in Christ’s genealogy may be somewhat surprising (Matthew 1:6–7). But Solomon was part of God’s sovereign plan to bring the seed of the woman into the world (Genesis 3:15). This is a testimony to God’s covenant faithfulness throughout the OT, to His promise of a Redeemer to come from Israel, through the line of Abraham and David. Solomon was not worthy to be in Christ’s line. There are no good men of the flesh since the fall of Adam our father. We can see, however, the Law and the Gospel at work in Solomon’s life through what he concluded in Ecclesiastes 4:4. This verse reveals the futility of Solomon’s efforts without God’s glory in his eyes, the fallenness of man seeking the things of this world, and the very opposite of these realities in the glorious work of the Lord Jesus Christ and those who follow Him.
Consider the following preaching outline for Ecclesiastes 4:4:
- The original meaning and joy of labor given to Adam and his descendants.
- The curse of death and toil in the fall of Adam and his descendants.
- The present attitude of labor and business in this world.
- The hope for the Christian to have a life of purpose and meaning.
I. First, the futility of Solomon’s labors for satisfaction under the sun.
- The amazing accomplishments of Solomon’s labor.
- The depressing lack of satisfaction after his success.
- His observation of the fallen world’s motivation in all labor without God.
- His conclusion of vanity.
- Hope for Solomon: Ecclesiastes 12:13–14.
II. Second, the futility of all labor for satisfaction under the sun.
- This fallen world cannot fulfill man’s search for success and meaning.
- Man’s own fallen nature breaks God’s Law against idolatry in worshipping pleasure and self-importance.
- Examples of such futility: Ecclesiastes 2:1–11; Luke 12:16–21,16:19–31; Matthew 16:24–27.
III. Third, the perfect and glorious labor of the Son of God.
- His attitude – John 4:34: to do the will of His Father who is in heaven. Matthew 26:41–42 – your will be done. He fulfilled the Law’s demand for perfect labor for God’s glory.
- The difficulty of His labor in a fallen world: Hebrews 12:2ff.; Matthew 27:26ff.
- The perfection of His labor: “It is finished,” John 19:30; Hebrews 5:9.
IV. Fourth, the redeemed and glorious labor of the child of God.
- The redemption of all labor unto the glory of God: Colossians 3:17.
- The hopeful promise of success in all our labor for God’s glory because of the redemption and resurrection of Christ: 1 Corinthians 15:57–58.
- Our response in all our life and work: 2 Corinthians 5:14–15.
- All the labor of Solomon was vanity because he was condemned by the Law of seeking his own pleasure instead of God’s glory.
- All the labor of Jesus Christ was successful and perfect because He sought the glory of God.
- Because Christ’s labor fulfilled what Adam failed to do, and because of His success in His person and work for sinners, we may be forgiven of a self-seeking life and live a God-glorifying life that has true purpose and meaning.
- Therefore, let all repent of self-seeking and the idolatry of depending upon the things and people of this world for purpose and happiness. And let all turn to the Lord Jesus Christ for redemption from such sins and a new life lived for the glory of God.