When one opens the Ecclesiastes, one might perceive that one is looking at a book that is totally different from other books in the Bible. That’s right; Ecclesiastes is unique and unmatched in so many counts. Because of this, it is my contention that we must employ an approach that pays respect to the peculiarities of the books.
On the other hand, Ecclesiastes is a book written by God as his Author, and He inspired it for our benefit and understanding. Therefore, the most important point of approaching the Ecclesiastes is precisely that: to open the book, read it, meditate on it, and make it part of our lives.
Taking all this into account, and after years of reading this fascinating book, I would like to submit to your consideration the following guidelines for an interpretation of Ecclesiastes:
1. First of all, this is a book whose message should be known. Therefore, read it! Read it one, two, three, one thousand times… but read it. It is God’s word for us.
2. This is a book of philosophy. Ecclesiastes is, first and foremost, a philosopher’s book with a honest, open account of this person’s search for ultimate truth and meaning in the universe. You might find some statements that are apparently contradictory; these are steps in a philosopher’s reasoning.
A cursory reading of this book will make it apparent that the author was considering questions of teleology, natural theology and theodicy, ethics and deontology, metaphysics and, especially, antropology, and all of those are given a treatment that is surprisingly contemporary and accessible.
A corollary of this point is that if this is a book of philosophy written by a philosopher and if this is a sacred book inspired by God and part of the Holy Bible, then we find that philosophy is an intellectual endeavor approved by God.
3. This is a book intended for the benefit of teenage boys. The only place where you could get an education in the Ancient Near East was in the court scribal schools. Those were schools where the male children of court bureaucrats were trained in the court business. Nevertheless to say, most of the Wisdom literature originated in this way. Thus, this is a book written for young people, dealing with things of interest to young ones, and accessible to them.
4. This is not a misogynist book. Some people have thought that Ecclesiastes is a misogynist or chauvinist book, because it warns against “the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters” (Ecclesiastes 7:25-28). That might be a somewhat serious charge, unless one thinks of the intended purpose of the book. That’s right: in a book meant for teenage boys, what would you expect?
This is nothing more than a warning against entering into a dangerous and destructive sexual relationship. I am certain that if the book was written for young women, we would be reading “beware of men, they are all mean and evil and they want just one thing from you” or something similar. How many times have the ladies complained about men, about how they are all the same, and so on? A woman reading Ecclesiastes 7:25-29 could invert the sexes of the passage and profit from the reading.
5. This is a talk about “the facts of life.” In my opinion, the best way to approach this book is to regard it as an extended talk about “the facts of life” especially for young boys. Just look at some of the things dealt with in this book: politics, administration, work ethics, friendship, the future, sex, money… and God. Those are things an older and wiser parent or teacher who has “been there, done that” would discuss with any young boy placed under his care in order to instill wisdom in him.