Why work? Why do anything? What is the purpose of life? The questions that have long been probed by mankind and philosophers through the ages are posed by the great teacher here in Ecclesiastes. You’ll have to read on to the end of the book to see his conclusion, however, it is a fair question, one that nags at every human soul who considers their daily toil and labor.
Some preliminary notes from the ESV Study Bible help explain the question of v.3 in relation to “under the sun”:
1:3 What does man gain? This repeated question (3:9; 5:15; cf. 2:11; 6:11; 10:11) is born out of the Preacher’s realization that “all is vanity” (1:2): if life frequently makes no sense and pleasures and achievements are “fleeting,” is there any significance to human existence? The phrase under the sun does not indicate a “secular” point of view, as is often claimed (the Preacher’s frequent references to God exclude such an interpretation) but rather refers to the world and to mankind in their current fallen state, much like NT expressions such as “this age” or “this present age.”
D.A. Carson notes our need for a “divine perspective” on life that will incentivize our faithfulness in what appears to be the meaningless efforts in this life:
In this book the Teacher probes domain after domain of life, domains that so many people value and cherish and even worship, and concludes, from his stance “under the sun,” that everything is meaningless. By the end of the book, after scraping away the detritus of life, he hits bedrock—God himself. And here and there along the way he allows us glimpses of a divine perspective that transcends meaninglessness. But he takes his time getting there, for we must feel the depressing weight of all questing visions that do not begin with God.
While Carson rightly points to the “divine perspective” Ecclesiastes eventually elevates, J.I. Packer makes a very helpful observation that this perspective doesn’t entail comprehensive knowledge of the particulars, or full insight into God’s secret providences, but instead cultivates a humility that requires faith in our daily walk:
Behind this morbid and deadening condition often lies the wounded pride of one who thought he knew all about the ways of God in providence and then was made to learn by bitter and bewildering experience that he didn’t. This is what happens when we do not heed the message of Ecclesiastes. For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives. “As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all” (11:5 RV).
 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1197). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
 Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 Packer, J. I. (1973). Knowing God (electronic ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity.
© 2014, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.