1 So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.
He turns his mind to oppression - man's inhumanity to man - the pattern from the beginning - never more apparent than in this enlightened, so-called, day and age - a further emphasis on the tragedy and vanity of all things human.*
2 Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
3 Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work [ma'aseh] that is done under the sun [shemesh].
Wrongs, injustice, and oppression. These are basic characteristics of the way of man. There is no worthwhile happiness or satisfaction to be wrought within the limits of this framework.
All natural human activities not related to the divine purpose are futile and vain, like sand castles on the seashore, for the great tide of oppression and injustice and wickedness in power keeps flowing over them and sweeping them away.
Bro Growcott - This is the whole man..
4 Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.
5 The fool foldeth his hands together, and eateth his own flesh.
6 Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.
7 Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.
8 There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.
All man's labour is for rivalry and envy. This is how most translators render this. It is a sweeping generalization, but wisdom will perceive it to be true. Most human satisfaction is having or being something better than someone else - a very shallow juvenile motive. How people crave admiration and notoriety and fame and power! But how silly it all is, like squabbling infants in the playpen! Solomon is showing how pitifully foolish are the ways of man.*
9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.
11 Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?
12 And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Solitude and society. Men labour selfishly for themselves and their own. How much better to labour selflessly for the common good. Man alone is a selfish cipher. Man in society begins to have meaning - the divine mutually serving society in God is man's highest destiny. "How can one be warm alone?" Each at last has his own cold lonely box in the earth.*
13 Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
The doddering old king going down, the bright poor young man coming up-What a commentary on the endless human scene! What does every glory and power and privilege mean, when physical decrepitude makes it all a mockery? But the wheel turns on, and each strong youth in his turn stumbles at last into the same weakness in the grave.*
14 For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.
15 I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead.
16 There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit.