This is the last of the “introductory” posts I will write on Ecclesiastes before diving into the text itself, and before I do that a brief word needs to be said on how one ought to read this book. Much of the misunderstanding, confusion, and aversion of Ecclesiastes comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of book Ecclesiastes is and how one ought to read it.
All of us understand what a “genre” is and how a genre shapes the way you interact with and interpret something. You wouldn’t listen to a prog metal album and expect for it to make good party music; you don’t watch an action film expecting it to be educational; you don’t read a recipe card as though it were a list of mysterious suggestions. Yet when it comes to the Bible, most people expect that you can read the Bible in the same way for each book, not recognizing the Bible has multiple subgenres of its own that require different “glasses” to read and understand properly. Usually this isn’t a problem when reading historical books (Genesis, Acts) or epistles (Romans, James); the problem arises when treating wisdom books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) the same way you treat a historical book or an epistle. They’re not written in the same way, and not meant to be read in the same, but too often we treat them the same way without realizing it or intending to.
How then should one read Ecclesiastes? It’s impossible to adequately answer that here; I highly recommend Leland Ryken’s very short and practical book “Short Sentences Long Remembered” for a good introduction to reading wisdom literature. Instead, I want to posit a general rule of thumb for reading this book: if a passage confuses you or troubles you with what it says (or it’s implications), question the way you approach the text before you question what you think the text is saying. Be willing to recognize that you may not be as good at reading wisdom literature as you may think you are (I will be the first to admit that of myself!) and that you may need some new tools or learn new techniques to understand this book – and that it will be worth it if you invest in them to better understand the masterpiece of Ecclesiastes.