The question of how shall we interpret the Ecclesiastes is in some ways related to the larger issue of Old Testament interpretation. Ecclesiastes has suffered greatly because of the reductionism; but the bulk of the Church’s mistakes on Ecclesiastes are due mostly to silencing. Ask yourself: When was the last time you heard a sermon on Ecclesiastes that wasn’t about Ecclesiastes 3, or Ecclesiastes 12:1ff? That’s right; for the Church, Ecclesiastes is, sadly, a closed book.
I have always been more or less amused when the most preachers and Christian writers try to wrestle with the book. How it is that they manage to explain away its contents? There are several answers.
1. Life stages. One fellow from the Plymouth Brethren camp actually told me this funny theory that I would call the “life stages theory.” According to this line of thought, the special characteristics of the book should be explained by noting that this book corresponds to the “later” stage of the life of King Solomon. That is, the Song of Solomon would correspond to the younger stage; the Book of Proverbs to the maximum height of Solomon’s prestige, power and wisdom; and Ecclesiastes would come as a book of reckoning, written after a deep reflection on the events told in 1 Kings 11. In this way, one could explain the pessimism and cynicism of many verses of the book. Of course, this is pure speculation, and I note it here only due to its novelty value. However, it seems that this is a widely held notion among preachers in my country.
2. Under the sun. This view is maintaned by the Scofield Reference Bible among others (see, for example, the note on Ecclesiastes 9:10), and states that Ecclesiastes reflects the viewpoint of the life “under the sun”, i.e., a life without the trascendent dimensions of existence, or rather, a life without obedience to God. This is often put in contrast to traits deemed consistent with a godly life; you can see often some of the darker musings of Ecclesiastes being contrasted with other statements from the Gospels or the Psalms, or even with Ecclesiastes 12:9-14.
This has the advantage of being based on a study of the text, and of trying to be fair to its message. Furthermore, it has gained widespread acceptance in the evangelical community. However, it fails to treat the book as an unity, and is guilty of imposing a preconceived worldview into it, trying to cast the book into its pious mold. Because of these reasons, this view cannot be considered as adequate.
3. All is meaningless. This school of interpretation is based on two premises: a) an existentialist point of view, that maintains that everything is meaningless, that death is the defining event in the life of a human being (hello, Mr. Heidegger!), and we are responsible for our actions; and b) a disjointed approach to the book that maintains that Ecclesiastes, as we have it in its current canonical form, is the result of the work of several editorial hands that tried to alter in some way the real intent of the original work to make it more palatable to prevalent theological opinion. Thus, we have a book that is totally laden with pessimism, angst, and lack of meaning. Everything else is ignored because it is “editorial.” Some proponents of this line of thoughts are the Roman Catholic scholars Gianfranco Ravasi and José Vílchez.
This line of thought is refreshing in the sense that it does try to make a sincere approach to the darker parts of Ecclesiastes, instead of “explaining away” those passages. However, it tampers with the integrity of the Holy Scriptures, and under the pretense of discerning some ancient editorial work, it puts itself into the role of editor, putting away everything that might not be in line with this particular approach. Therefore, it is also inadequate.
Now, how are we going to understand Ecclesiastes? If we are to offer a good understanding of our book, this must be done honestly, without conscious presuppositions, and trying to take into account the nature of Ecclesiastes as a whole, with its light and its darkness.