Following the superscription (v. 1) the theme of the book is given (v. 2), “Everything is meaningless.” Not only some aspects of life are meaningless, but the sum total is. The Hebrew word hebel, translated “meaningless” by the NIV, designates that which is not substantial—breath, vapor, cipher, absurdity, irony, futility. By the doubling of this word the writer achieves the superlative.
The monotonous routine of nature and human effort is stressed (vv. 3-11). Nature is characterized by sameness—sunrise and sunset (v. 5), shifting winds (v. 6), and ever-emptying streams (v. 7). Not only are the motions of nature repetitious, so is human effort. Though the world remains, its occupants change (v. 4). There is the constant search for emotional and psychological satisfaction (v. 8) and the redoing of that which already has been done (v. 9). Nothing under the sun is new (v. 9). This does not refer to scientific achievement but to the human condition.
The phrase “under the sun” occurs only in this book in the OT, appearing some thirty-four times. It refers to the observable world and is used to show the absurdity and futility of life if confined to these horizons. There would simply be no gain or satisfaction (v. 3), only hopelessness with such existence.