You will find an introduction and outline of Ecclesiastes, here.
A prayer of John Calvin to use before reading:
May the Lord grant that we may engage in the heavenly contemplation of the mysteries of God’s heavenly wisdom with ever increasing devotion to God’s glory and our edification. Amen.
An Outline (after Leong Seow)
1.1 Superscription: The “Teacher” may be better translated as “Gatherer”. The verse suggest Solomon as the author, but may be an allusion to Solomon as he was one who “gathered” wealth and wisdom.
1:2-6:9 The First Half
1:2-11 Preface:”Vanity” can also be translated at “breath” or “vapor”.
“Vanity of vanities” this is a way a superlative phrase is stated in Hebrew, so this could also be translated “utter vanity”. “Gain” in Hebrew means more than “benefit”, it also has conotations of excess, advantage, or surplus. “Toil” is not “work”. In Hebrew “work” is a different word. “Toil” has negative conotations. “Toil” also, in this book, refers not only to the physical act but also to the fruit, the end result of one’s toil. “Under the sun” is a way of speaking about the realm of the living. What is the view of life presented here?
1:12-2:11 The Author’s Autobiography: This section resembles a royal inscription in style and vocabulary, Usually royal inscriptions were to make the king look extraordinary. What does this list of accomplishments tell us about the author?
2:12-26 The Leveling Effect of Death: Wisdom, like toil does not bring an advantage in the end.
3:1-15 The Determination of Events: A set of seven pairs of opposites. Verse 9 essentially repeats the question of 1:3 ad 2:22 (and 6:11). What do verses 9-15 tell us about God, or the author’s understanding of God?
3:16-22 The Determination of Humanity’s Lot: God will deal with injustice. But the fate of humans and of animals is the same- death. What does the author suggest (again) the human response to this should be?
4:1-16 Relative Good: This section has a series of “better than” statements, which were common in the ANE. It is advice about relative good. Verses 1-4 a bleak assessment of life. Do you think verse 4 is accurate? Verse 6 suggests that it is better to have a small amount with peace. Verses 7-12 describe the advantages of friend or family. Verses 13-16 fame is fleeting.
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.