“What advantage is it to man, with all of his troubles with which he troubles himself under the sun.”
Solomon to set before us the overarching theme of this book with these words and to do so, he sets before us a rhetorical question: “Of what advantage is it to man?” But of whom is Solomon speaking when he speaks this way? Is he speaking of an individual or is he speaking of mankind as a collective? The term that he chooses, אָדָם (adam), is generally used in the collective sense and the word carries with it the definite article, so you might translate this as “What advantage is it to the mankind…”.
Some rabbinic scholars will argue that this ought to be translated as “What advantage is it to man himself….” Essentially, the point that is being argued for is that Solomon observes that the individual often does not gain from his endless toil, but society still does. Bridges and towers and roads and other kinds of infrastructure that was often achieved at great cost, does benefit the whole, and that is true, on a level. So, the argument, the rabbi’s suggest, addresses the question on a more personal level.
Yet, while the rabbi’s make an important point, I think that Solomon’s observations go deeper than that, for Solomon recognizes in his old age that any benefits given to society by the labors of our hands are fleeting (and such is emphasized in the following verses) and that if we wish to benefit society as a whole, it will not be by the physical things we build, but by the spiritual model we set for others — and most significantly, by our families.
Think about it, let us imagine that the things you create benefit a thousand people in a direct and tangible way, yet you are so consumed by your work that you fail to lead your family in matters of faithfulness to God. Which has longer-lasting consequences? Your failure to lead your children in faith will affect the way your children lead their families and the way your grandchildren lead their families. Given the exponential growth of the family, one can easily see how the negative effects of the one will in time outweigh the positive effects of the other. Further, if Solomon’s life demonstrates one thing, it demonstrates that he focused far more on his earthly accomplishments than on teaching his son, Rehoboam, to walk in wisdom…which had longer lasting consequences indeed! Paul writes that the one who does not provide for his family has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) — what is the most important provision that a father can give to his children? The knowledge of the things of God. He who would compromise this is worse than an infidel no matter how much he accomplishes in an earthly sense.
The phrase “under the sun” is a repeated phrase within Solomon’s work here. Rashi, the Hebrew commentator, suggests that it should be read as, “instead of the sun,” but I prefer the more standard reading of under. God made the sun to rule the day (Genesis 1:16) and thus the phrase is being used by Solomon to create a contrast between those worldly things that pass away and the eternal things of God.
So of what value is the laboring and toil for the worldly things done during the domain of the day? They will not last and so, while they may benefit society for a season, if they are done to the exclusion of spiritual things they are vanity and nothing more than vanity.
Heidelberg Catechism, question 91, asks the question, “What are good works?” It offers three criteria: they must be done out of true faith, they must be consistent with the Law of God, and they must be done for the glory of God alone. If all three of these criteria are not met, no matter what benefit there is to society, your labors cannot be called “good works,” but are labors done in vain. How often we settle for vanity instead of pursuing what the works for which we were created (Ephesians 2:10).