What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 is one literary unit that provides the introduction to the entire book. There are two words or phrases that appear in the first two verses that are repeated often in the book of Ecclesiastes. The first is “vanity,” which appears 38 times. Like the name of the preacher, Qoheleth, the word “hevel” translated “vanity,” is also a word with diverse meanings. The word literally refers to a vapor or breath. Like that puff of smoke that comes out of your mouth on a cold day, the preacher is telling us that life is elusive, temporal, and brief. This is amplified by the phrase “vanity of vanities,” which like “holy of holies,” heightens the meaning of the word beyond what it means by itself. So life is enigmatic; it’s unsubstantial; you can’t get your hands on it; it slips away; like breath, it disappears as suddenly as it comes. The way it is used here is to emphasize the temporary nature of life in this world, but also the absurdity or futility of life apart from God. The fact that life is transitory is taught in Psalm 39:5 where it says that life is a mere breath. James 4:14 confirms that life is as a “mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
The second phrase of importance, “under the sun” occurs 29 times in Ecclesiastes, and refers to secular life on earth. When the Preacher refers to “all things under the sun,” he again is talking about earthly, and therefore temporary things. Life lived “under the sun,” is a life lived without reference to God, without an eye to God; it is a godless life. You will notice that God is not mentioned at all in these first eleven verses. This sets the stage for our understanding of the whole book.
Qoheleth’s first application of these two themes to humanity, is in his work. From a merely secular viewpoint, a person’s work is without purpose. In verse 3, he employs two more words that we will find repeated throughout the book, “gain” which will appear 8 more times, and “toil,” which we will find 22 more times. Apart from an eternal perspective, earthly material gain for one’s labor is fleeting. People gain nothing from their toil; their work is all pain, no gain. But do not forget that “under the sun” is the major qualifier to this statement – so people gain nothing from all their toil … as they toil “under the sun,” with all of the implications associated with that phrase.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes is driving home the truth that, when one does not look up to the One who rules over the sun, but lives apart from Him, life is utterly empty and his labor is pointless. He illustrates this idea using pictures from nature. Unlike the Psalmist in Psalm 104, who exults in God as he sees the sun and the streams, Qoheleth sees the very same natural elements as merely in an incessant cycle with no ultimate purpose. The sun rises and sets, only to rise again (v. 5), and the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is never full (v 7).
As Christians with an eternal perspective, we can glorify God through His creation. We see His hand in the rising and setting of the sun, as markers of time in which God fulfills His redemptive plan. We hear His voice in the wind, which is used as an allegory to the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Birth. To the Christian life is not a meaningless repetitious cycle, but it is a linear history, dotted with redemptive events which point to a glorious end. And so then in light of this, our toil in Christ is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).