Written by Keith Marriner
Maybe you’ve encountered a teacher that kept you in the dark about where they were headed. I’ve heard of preachers who thought it a virtue to keep their congregations guessing about the point of their sermons. Is that helpful? Wouldn’t it be better to tell the audience (whether students or a congregation) what your main point is and then show them?
The writer of Ecclesiastes closes his book with a brief outline of how “the Teacher” systematically went about instructing those placed under his care. I believe these verses may rightly be applied to a teacher/preacher of the Bible today. This is by no means exhaustive of what the Bible has to say about teaching others, but Ecclesiastes 12:9–11 does provide at least three principles that can (and should) guide every teacher/preacher of Scripture.
1. Prepare well to teach others.
In Ecclesiastes 12:9, the author describes the preparation of “the Teacher” in developing his “proverbs” for his audience. There are four characteristics of how “the Teacher” prepared to teach the people knowledge. “The Teacher” pondered and searched out what he would teach others. The first verb is a rarely used term. It occurs one time in the Hebrew Bible. It appears to refer to deep thinking on a matter. The idea is that the Teacher thought over what he would teach again and again. Like a steak is marinated to add flavor and to make it tender, “the Teacher” ruminated on what he was going to teach so that it would truly be helpful and appealing to others.
I realize that life is full of interruptions, many of which we have no control over. However, as teachers of God’s Word, we must take the time to consider deeply what it says and how we will communicate it to others. This is something we can do throughout the week as we drive in our cars, take a run, mow the lawn, or stand in the line at the grocery store. Make the most of those minutes and hours when we can do nothing else but think and consider deeply the riches of God’s Word.
The second verb the author used basically refers to studying. “The Teacher” studied what he would impart to his listeners. For some of us, this is the best part of preparation. We love to study Scripture. We look forward to pulling out commentaries, doing word studies, and digging into the text to find every little truth. For others of us, study is a necessary evil that must be done before we have something worth communicating to others. Whichever kind of person you are, if we are in a position to instruct others, it is absolutely necessary to set aside ample time to study God’s Word. This doesn’t mean you have to take 20 hours a week to prepare to teach. Most of us don’t have that kind of free time. However, it does mean that we make an effort to carve out dedicated blocks of time (think hours, if possible) to prepare well. It means we do what we can to improve as teachers/preachers of God’s Word by getting instruction ourselves through classes, conferences, or books.
The third characteristic of how “the Teacher” prepared was by carefully setting in order many proverbs. The verb “set in order” refers to the arrangement of the material. “The Teacher” didn’t just throw his teaching together willy-nilly, but arranged it in a manner that would be instructive to his audience.
As a teacher of the Bible, one of the things I take great care in, is providing orderly and clear outlines of what I am teaching. Often, I make my notes available to my students, so that there is no confusion about what I am saying and what is expected of them, as far as what they are required to know or do according to the learning objectives of the course. I realize it takes more time to prepare and edit my notes than it normally would if I didn’t make them available to others. However, I believe it is important for any teacher/preacher of scripture to be as clear as possible about what they are passing on to others. We are handling God’s Word. It is truth that our audience needs to hear and apply to their lives. If we are careless with handling it, we convey that it is unimportant. Handle God’s Word with care, for in it we find the words of eternal life.
Finally, in Ecclesiastes 12:10 the author notes a fourth characteristic of “the Teacher’s” preparation to teach: he searched to find just the right words. I believe “the Teacher” was a wordsmith, someone who was skilled in using words and language. He thoughtfully considered how best to express himself to his audience. What combination of words would not only communicate his message but would also have the maximum impact? I can say something matter-of-factly and get my point across. Sometimes this is the best way to communicate with others, like if the building you’re standing in is on fire. You only need to use one word to let your audience know that you need to get out of the building as soon as possible. However, when we are taking the time to unpack the wonders of God’s Word, we shouldn’t be in a hurry. We should consider, “how can I say this in a way that will truly make an impact on those listening to me?” For one who regularly teaches/preaches to the same group of people, this includes getting to know your audience well. What trials and difficulties are they facing right now? What are they currently celebrating? What are the kinds of things they are praying for? Where are they in their spiritual journey? The better we know those we are teaching/preaching to, the better we are equipped to find the right words to communicate scripture to them effectively.
I do realize that “the Teacher” was also inspired by the Holy Spirit, since much of his teaching would find its way into the pages of scripture. But this still doesn’t exclude the fact that he was diligent in searching for just the right words to say to his audience.
Another principle to keep in mind is that we do not let our overzealousness, to connect with our audience, lead us to be untruthful. Notice “the Teacher” wrote what was “upright and true.” Some folks know how to tell a good story, and by that, I mean they tend to exaggerate the truth. However, that isn’t what teachers/preachers are called to do. We give to people the Bible as it is; even the parts we, or our audience, may find difficult to hear. We seek to teach all of it, cover to cover, accurately and faithfully dividing the Word of truth.
“Teaching the Scriptures according to ‘the Teacher’: Part 2”
2. Teach with a specific goal in mind.
Following the characteristics of how “the Teacher” prepared to instruct others, the author of Ecclesiastes comments on the goal for which “the Teacher” taught others. Ecclesiastes 12:11states, “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails.” A “goad” was an implement that prodded an animal in a desired direction. A “goad” was used to direct an ox while plowing. “The Teacher’s” instruction is likened to a goad. It is intended to lead his audience to a certain place. According to 12:13 that place is genuine worship of the one true God and following his commands wholeheartedly.
This understanding does not negate that fact that a “goad” was a painful instrument. It had sharp, prickly nails fastened to the end of it to get the attention of a large animal, like an ox. “The Teacher’s” instruction was likewise difficult and painful for some of his listeners to hear. Being confronted with God’s Word may have a similar effect on people. The writer of Hebrews speaks of its ability to cut to the heart and expose us before God (Heb 4:12).
As teachers/preachers of scripture, we should have a goal for which we are teaching others. A rather general goal would be to see our listeners conformed into the image of Christ. But we should also consider a more narrowly focused goal for each time we engage an audience with scripture. The text should drive our goal. It may be helpful, after having surveyed the text you will be presenting, to consider developing a thesis statement for the message. You may or may not want to convey this to your audience, but at least you, the teacher/preacher, will have focused the emphasis of what you are teaching and what you desire the Lord to do through your message in each listener’s life. Again, it isn’t enough to transmit information. What we should desire is a change in the hearts and minds of those to whom we teach God’s Word; a transformation that will result in people being genuinely changed for the good, to live according to the precepts of scripture.
3. Place your confidence in scripture’s effectiveness to transform people.
There is a reason why we should have confidence in teaching/preaching the content of scripture. Christian scripture is the Word of God. Its source is divinely inspired. It’s not solely the work of human beings, but human beings who were carried along by the Spirit, so that what they recorded was truly God’s words to us (see 2 Pet 1:21). This is what the author of Ecclesiastes was alluding to when he stated, “The words of the wise … are given by one Shepherd” (Eccl 12:11b).
The words of “the Teacher” are ultimately effective for one reason. It wasn’t because of his preparation in study, his effectiveness as a communicator, nor the thoughtfulness with which he considered his teaching. It had lasting effect and impact on his audience because what he taught was God’s Word.
Christian teachers and preachers may also confidently trust that what they teach is not in vain. This is because “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). Scripture is effective in shaping and changing those who hear it because the God who inspired scripture is the same God who created us for him. He knows us better than we know ourselves (Ps 139). He can direct his Word to penetrate our hearts and minds and do a reforming work in us. Scripture is also the chief God-ordained means for transforming people who are lost and in rebellion against God (see Rom 10:17). Therefore, the Lord commands not just teachers/preachers, but all Christians to “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col 3:16).
This does not mean we grow slack in our preparation to teach. “The Teacher” was diligent in his preparation, even though what he taught was God’s Spirit-inspired Word. So, Christian teachers and preachers must also give great care and time to being well prepared before they instruct others in the truth of God’s holy Word.