In James 4:13-17, we find a brief excursus on those who seek to make plans for business and future profit and how the brevity of life ought to temper the confidence in our planning. It’s very likely that James has Ecclesiastes in mind in here, not only because of his conclusion that we are “mists that appear for a little time and then vanishes”, but also because of Ecclesiastes 1:3 and Solomon’s particular use of an obscure Hebrew word.
The word יִּתְר֖וֹן , the word we translate as “gain”, appears only ten times in the Old Testament, and all ten of those times are in the book of Ecclesiastes. Hebrew dictionaries offer a consistent set of possible interpretations: one lists “advantage; profit”, another lists “outcome; profit; benefit”, and a third lists “gain; yield; success”. All ten uses of the word in Ecclesiastes occur in reference to work and wisdom, with Solomon exploring what advantageous profit there is to either of these things, and lamenting the fact the profits of our work and wisdom rarely meet our expectations. When James remarks of the shortsightedness of those who “go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”, Solomon nods in agreement that their gain is uncertain and brief – and laments this.
The question “what does man have to gain from all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” is largely rhetorical – Solomon knows the answer, and expects you to have an idea of what that answer might be. Work and labor is a major subject of Ecclesiastes, and not all of what Solomon has to say about it is negative or hopeless, but as he continues to paint on a canvas of vapor and mists, Solomon wants you to begin reflecting on the brevity of your life and your life’s work and recognize that it will not last. Your financial success, your title at work, your legacy, and your lasting accomplishments are good – Solomon himself will say so later on – but if you place your hope for security and permanence in these things, you will soon realize that your gain from your labor is as transient as the rest of your life. We can fight this reality, or embrace it, and rest from our attempts to find our salvation in our toil.