The book of Ecclesiastes has always been a bit of a mystery to me. No, it has always been a big mystery to me.
I once heard Hank Hanegraaff use Ecclesiastes 9:5 to refute prayers to and other communication with the dead. I found that application satisfying and used it myself. I later came to understand that the Wisdom Books, particularly Job and Ecclesiastes, don't always mean what they seem to mean at first glance. In the case of Ecclesiastes 9:5, here is the passage in context:
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ec 9:1–6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Even given the fact that this is from the Old Testament when they did not have a full view of redemption and salvation, this did not really fit with any doctrine elsewhere, either in the OT or NT. You could use the phrase "under the sun" to say that this applies temporally and not eternally, and that is probably true even in the context here. But that one phrase doesn't really explain the whole attitude of Ecclesiastes. Going back to Hank's use of this, this passage really isn't speaking against prayer to the dead or communication with the dead, even though we know the whole counsel of Scripture speaks against it. It's really saying, in a pessimistic way, that we're all toast no matter what.
And when someone quotes the parts in Job where his friends say something that seems correct at first glance, are they considering what God says in Job 38:2, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" Is the quote of Job's friend really valid in context? God seems to discount the wisdom of the friends, so we really can't be confident that what they say can be quoted at face value.
This all leads to the subject of this post. R. W. Glenn is the pastor at Redeemer Bible Church in Minnetonka Minnesota. He's a relative youngster, but his theological knowledge and his grasp of the Gospel are admirable. He recently finished a series on Ecclesiastes, which can be found on the media site of Redeemer, Solid Food Media. The series begins with Introduction to Ecclesiastes (on 9/12/2010), where Glenn provides a exegetical foundation for the series.
The essence of Glenn's interpretative foundation is that Ecclesiastes is really what is known as a Fictional Autobiography. That is, most of the book is about a fictional king of Israel. According to Glenn (and his sources, presumably), this type of literature was very popular in the Ancient Near East. Moreover, this particular king is very pessimistic and does a lot of musing aloud about why God does what He does. Glenn holds that the original readers would have immediately recognized it as this form of literature after they read the first few lines.
The fictional king's name is Qohelet. Qohelet is translated by most English Bible versions as Preacher. The Hebrew meaning of the word is "one who assembles." But, as Glenn points out, Qohelet is also a proper name in Hebrew and this is likely the intent: that we see the subject as a person named Qohelet. This goes against the common proposition that Ecclesiastes was written by, and is about, Solomon, since a quick surface reading seems to indicate that. (This would be the old, grouchy Solomon, not the frisky, young Solomon in Song of Solomon.) But there are grammatical reasons why this might not be true. For example, in Ecclesiastes 1:12 he says "I...have been king over Israel" (emphasis added). Since Solomon died as King (he didn't have a co-regency or abdication), there was not a time in his life where is kingship was past tense. Also, in Ecclesiastes 2:7, he speaks of his predecessors as "any who had been before me...", which would only have been David in the case of the historic Solomon, not a long line of kings.
I'm not declaring this to be the definitive interpretation of Ecclesiastes, but it does seem to make sense of some of the apparent contradictions in the book. My wife and I have listened to all but about four of the sermons and I recommend the series highly. But it is very important to hear the Introduction first.