The Genre of the book of Ecclesiastes has been identified by Dr. Tremper Longman III as a Framed Royal Autobiography With Wisdom Admonitions.
This means that the original writer’s work is “framed” by a later editor, who has written an introduction and a conclusion. This is much like a modern book with a preface and afterword written by a trusted editor or colleague.
With this in mind I drew up an outline of the book that attempts to follow the flow according to that genre.
Outline of Ecclesiastes
1:1-11 Editor’s Introduction
1:12 Qohelet’s Autobiographical Introduction
1:13-4:16 Autobiographical Narrative
1:13-2:26 Introduction and Summary of the Grand Experiment
3:1-4:16 Meditation on the work of God and of Humanity:
Who Really Benefits From Hard Work?
5:1-12:8 General Wisdom Admonitions
5:1-7:14 Wisdom Pertaining to the Mouth
7:15-12:8 Wisdom in Matters of Life and Death
12:8-14 Editor’s Conclusion
Profile of Qoheleth:
1) Descendent of David who rules in Jerusalem
2) Better than any king before him (compare 2 Kings 18:5 with Eccl. 2:9)
3) Wealthy king who builds many public works (2:5-6 compare 2 Chr 32:27)
4) Eyewitness to siege of a “little city with few people in it” by a “great king” (Eccl. 9:13-16 compare 2 Kings 18)
5) No foreign wives.
6) No mention of multiple wives.
The main Question the book intends to answer is from 3:9
“What gain have the workers from their toil?”
The book goes on to describe numerous examples of ways people can mess up enjoyment of what they already have now.
It concludes with the admonition to let trust in and obedience to God frame all of your life’s work. Putting God first is the best way to avoid engaging in the behaviours that prevent you from enjoying what you have while you have it. Putting God first won’t necessarily prevent bad things from happening to you, but it will prevent your entire life from having been lived in vain.
Two factors suggest that Qoheleth is not being pessimistic about life in general or about God’s goodness in particular.
1) It is very unusual for an ancient editor to frame a book in a way that attempts to negate what the original writer is attempting to say. In other words, the admonition to fear and obey God would not be intended to contradict Qoheleth.
2) The genre of royal autobiography itself makes overarching pessimism unlikely. The genre is usually used to pass on wisdom to the next generation of rulers (usually the sons of the monarch). It would be counterproductive to that aim to pass on the kind of pessimism that Qoheleth is often accused of by modern readers. That kind of pessimistic outlook says more about modern living than it says about ancient writers.
Reflections of Ecclesiastes in the New Testament:
1) James 3:2-12 is a section about wisdom and use of the mouth
2) 1 Tim. 6:6-10 resembles Eccl. 6:7-9
3) “Seek first the Kingdom of God” looks like Eccl. 12:8-14