The Hebrew name for this book, Qohelet comes from the named author. Ecclesiastes is the Greek version of the Hebrew word. The Hebrew root qhl and the Greek word both have to do with an assembly or congregation. (i.e. “ecclesia” in Greek meaning congregation) The name of the book in Hebrew literally means “gatherer” or “acquirer”. The Greek word means a member of an assembly. Sometimes the author is referred to as “Preacher” but that comes from a misinterpretation (one who gathers the assembly) rather then a member of an assembly.
Ecclesiastes is one of the wisdom books. Traditionally Solomon is considered the author of Ecclesiastes, but that is probably not accurate. While there are not good historical clues in the text with regard to dating, the language suggests a dating during the Persian period, and the Aramaic loan words also suggest a post exile date(539 BCE). There are no Greek loan words and so the book probably dates before 450-330 BCE.
It is important to understand a bit about the Persian period. One of the important achievements of the Persian government was the standardization of money in the last of the sixth century. This caused much growth in the economy. This helped economic opportunity extend to the poor as well as the rich. Money became valued for its own sake. All the economic growth also brought volatility and thus economic insecurity. People tried to get ahead but there was also a real risk of financial ruin. It was a time of opportunity and risk. It was a time of economic, political and social change.
The author points out the inconsistencies and contradictions of the time. As modern readers we tend to classify statements as positive or negative. In the ancient Near East it was common to explore contradictory ideas either as conversations between people or as an inner dialogue. God for the author is a distant God and a mystery. Notice how this viewpoint compares and contrasts with other parts of the Old Testament. Ponder as you read if the author is pessimistic or perhaps honest about the human condition.
The structure of the book is difficult to set out. Some believe there is no structure, others have found a complex structure. Most find a rough structure. Watch for repeated phrases and watch for the tensions in the text.
There is a superscription and an epilogue and there are an opening poem (1:3-11) and a concluding poem (12:3-7). 6:10 is the mid point of the book
An Outline ( after Leong Seow)
1:2-6:9 The First Half
1:12-2:11 The Author’s Autobiography
2:12-26 The Leveling Effect of Death
3:1-15 The Determination of Events
3:16-22 The Determination of Humanity’s Lot
4:1-16 Relative Good
5:1-7 Attitude before God
5:8-6.9 Enjoy but do not be Greedy
6:10-12:14 The Second Half
6:10-7:14 The limits of knowledge
7:15-29 Righteousness and Wisdom are Elusive
8:1-17 The Limits of Power
9:1-10 Enjoy Life
9:11-10:15 The World is Full of Risks
10:16-11:6 Living with Risks
11:7-12:8 Conclusion: Enjoy Life Before It is Too Late
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of the Ecclesiastes
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Leong Seow, Choon “Ecclesiastes”” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Leong Seow, Choon “Ecclesiastes” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Silby Towner, W “Ecclesiastes”,in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 5, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.