Ecclesiastes is one of those books in the Bible that don’t lend themselves to easy outlining. Still, I believe every book has some structure and by reading and re-reading them we can begin to understand the authors’ progressions of thought. Here is my understanding of that process in Ecclesiastes. Perhaps it’ll be helpful to you as you tackle the book on your own.
Purpose: The purpose of Ecclesiastes is philosophical. It aims to provide us with a working philosophy for life. Ecclesiastes is the Philosophy Department in the College of the Bible
Theme: Life is senseless and futile, ends in absurdity, and leads to existential despair – unless understood from the perspective of fearing God and keeping His commandments. The most helpful way to study Ecclesiastes is to compare the opening of the book with its closing (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 and 12:13-14).
Basic Message: We only have two philosophical options: A practical atheism — ignore God and sink into hopelessness. Or a working theism — fear God and enjoy life.
Author: Probably Solomon in his old age. The ancient Jewish rabbis believed Solomon wrote Song of Songs in his youth, Proverbs at midlife, and Ecclesiastes as an old man.
Outline: Ecclesiastes is an example of one of the Bible’s “Eastern” books in which certain topics keep recycling through the book and a clear linear outline is difficult to find (especially in chapters 7-11). In some respects, trying to find a vertical outline in Ecclesiastes is like trying to find one in the book of 1 John. The themes corkscrew through the book; they don’t descend in logical progressive points. Nevertheless there are some clear shifts in content and style, allowing us to form at least a working linear outline to the book.
Prologue: Our basic philosophical problem: Everything in Life Seems Meaningless (1:1-11)
1. Figuring Out Life – Chapters 1-6
- Purpose: Is There Meaning to Life? (1:12 – 2:26)
- Perplexities: What About the Unfairness of Life? (3:1 – 6:12)
Transience (3:1 – 15)
2. Figuring Out How to Live – Chapters 7-12
- In this section, using proverbs, illustrations, and observations, the Teacher coverts his philosophy into practical, pithy admonitions for life. It ends with a special message to young people (11:9 – 12:8).