Ecclesiastes is a difficult book—difficult because of its alleged contradictions and alarming negative conclusions.
A casual reading of the book will reveal apparent contradictions (cf. 2:2 and 7:3 with 8:15 relative to joy; cf. 8:12 with 8:13 relative to the life span of the wicked). The writer not only seems to contradict himself, he also seems to contradict the traditional views of Israel.
The negative tone of the book is also readily detected. “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Adjectives such as fatalistic, pessimistic, skeptical, even nihilistic have been used to characterize this book.
Various efforts have been made either to deny the existence of these problems or to account for them:
A. The hermeneutical approach used by both Christians and Jews avoids a straightforward interpretation of the difficult passages and spiritualizes them, thus muting any problem.
B. In the past more than now, scholars were inclined to tear apart the various books of the Bible by seeing them as the composite of many sources. Ecclesiastes so viewed was said to be the product of two or three or as many as nine sources. Today scholars are inclined to see the book as a single literary unit.
C. Another suggested possibility is that the original book was prepared by a sage who was heterodox. To secure a place for Ecclesiastes in the canon a pious believer added a number of glosses that made the book orthodox.
D. The writer is role playing, putting himself in the shoes of the secularist. He will present the claims of the secularist and then proceed to discuss them and refute them. Ecclesiastes is a kind of notebook in which Qoheleth enters the thoughts of others and reflects on them. This could explain in part the apparent lack of overall organization in the book and the fluctuation of thought.
E. Ecclesiastes is essentially a kind of diary in which the writer records his oscillating thoughts, his struggles, doubts, and groping. This accounts for variations in the book both in tone and position and necessitates the reading of this book with the heart as well as the head.