1There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is prevalent among men--
2a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner enjoys them. This is vanity and a severe affliction.
In these times, it was not uncommon for a nation to be conquered in war by another nation which would plunder it. So, a man who had been sovereignly blessed by God to have much in the way of material possessions could lose them all overnight. What was his in abundance ends up going to foreigners, causing him severe heartbreak, loss, and affliction. He had had everything that he had wanted and then lost it, which points to the infinite value of knowing God through Christ because it cannot be conquered, plundered, or taken away. Only in Christ can true satisfaction be found.
3If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, "Better the miscarriage than he,
4for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity.
5"It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he.
6"Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things--do not all go to one place?"
A miscarriage is a life that never sees life outside of the womb. It never has to deal with frustration, pain, loss, and the difficulties of life. Yet it never gets to experience the good things of life either, for in God true satisfaction can be found. Solomon says that it is better to be miscarried than to live and not find satisfaction. Life under the sun is miserable, futile, and purposeless unless one learns to fear the Lord. Even if a man were to live hundreds of years and have many children, both assumed to be signs of blessing and prosperity, he still has not found what his heart longs for if he hasn’t found God. A proper burial is a sign that a man had those who cared for him and that he was well-respected. If he didn’t have a proper burial, it was a sign that his children didn’t respect him. Thus, even if he were to hypothetically have a hundred children, if they didn’t give him a proper burial, it was all vanity. When fathers fear the Lord and teach their sons to fear the Lord, the soul’s longing is met, and a man can die with dignity. The Lord is Who makes unity possible and Who gives life meaning and joy. Yet suppose another man lived even longer, for thousands of years. If he still didn’t enjoy his life before God, his life was in vain and for a great long time. He, like all men, will die and come to an end. The issue for man is where that end is spent, and that is dictated by whether or not one fears the Lord.
7All a man's labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied.
We work so that we can eat. If we don’t work, we won’t have money to buy food to eat. Even preparing food is work, and we do it all to feed our physical appetites. Our bodies need food in order to function and have energy. This is something that must go on as long as we live. If we stop eating, we stop having energy, thus we stop working, and consequently stop eating yet more. The appetite is never satisfied because our bodies need food, and as long as we are alive, we must work to keep feeding them. The point is that work doesn’t satisfy the soul because its ultimate purpose is found in providing the resources to be able to stay alive by eating. The stomach is never satisfied so we must keep working. It is an endless meaningless circle of events and labor under the sun, unless, of course, God is brought into the mix.
8For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living?
There is no objective reason or incentive to be wise rather than foolish if there is no God. There would be no advantage to having wisdom and pursuing it because the fool would be just as well off given that there is no transcendent standard for living. The same goes for the poor and rich. Nothing matters and none has an advantage because all die and lack meaning and satisfaction. Life without God is not helped in the ultimate spiritual sense by wealth or wisdom.
9What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires This too is futility and a striving after wind.
There is much in the world that looks promising, seductive, interesting, and potentially able to satisfy, but it cannot and does not. What is perceived by the eye is thus better than what it can actually deliver because it fails to satisfy the longings of the heart and soul. Only God satisfies, and life without Him is vanity.
10Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is.
11For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man?
The NKJV says more clearly, “Whatever one is, he has been named already, For it is known that he is man; And he cannot contend with Him who is mightier than he. Since there are many things that increase vanity, How is man the better?” In other words, man is man because God made him and called him man. Man cannot become God or change himself into something other than man. Man is man because he is. He can’t argue with God or change himself into God. He has his limitations, and he is smaller and weaker than the God Who made him. Given that all of man’s attempts continue to prove vain and meaningless when he tries to live life apart from God, why does he hope to make his life better by doing so? Man’s only hope for identity, dignity, purpose, and meaning is to worship the God Who made him rather than coming up with an alternative purpose and meaning which ultimately proves to be vain and futile. Thus, even the futility of trying to find happiness apart from God proves man’s dependence and subservience to God, whether man acknowledges it or not.
12For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?
If a man ignores God and tries to find meaning on his own, how can he possibly determine what is good and what could lead him to satisfaction? Man’s life is short and finite on the earth, like a shadow is there and then gone with the setting of the sun. He can’t find satisfaction and meaning without God, and neither can he do anything to prevent dying. While he is alive, he can’t even control his life or future. He is a helpless, hopeless, feeble being left to himself.