What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? Eccl. 1:3 (KJV)
‘What’ is derived from mâ מָה; it is an interrogative pronoun. (H4100) ‘Labour’ is derived from ʿāmāl עָמָל. A range of translation follows this word: labour, mischief, misery, perverse, wickedness, et cetera. (H5999) Labour here could mean, ‘a miserable toil.’ The supposition being, every labour has a result – a gain. But the kind of labour Qôheleth seems to suggest here only results in misery. The word ‘under’ is taken from taḥaṯ תַּחַת. And it has an interesting meaning. As a conjunction it means ‘instead’ or ‘in lieu of.’ (H8478) The imagery on can paint here is of a farmer labouring on the field, but instead of relying on the natural processes of sun, rain, wind, et cetera, he uses all artificial means. As a consequent, his labour always results in more trouble, and misery. Metaphorically, all human labour that replaces the sun (the Son of God) as its source of substance, the result will always be troublesome.
As human beings, labour is probably the most honest thing allotted to our lot. We are sustained by an honest day of work. We sleep in the comfort of a hard day’s labour. We built our lives, we share love, and help others through labour and pain. But then there is labour which is a fool’s toil. Quite similarly, there was labour in Eden, and then there was labour cursed to our very being after the fall. Qôheleth doesn’t seem to be speaking of labour as something negative. But he seems to be pointing us towards the reality of labour. And that, all of our labour neatly fits the second category when its motivation is not born out of the Holy Spirit, Christ, and the Father.
Image: George Frederic Watts, Jonah (1894)