This is part 2 of a many-part blog series on the book of Ecclesiastes.
Qoheleth (the Collector or Assembler – Solomon) begins chapter 1 with a hypothesis: everything in this life is ultimately hebel (the Hebrew word that is often translated vanity, meaningless, vapor, futility, etc). He explains:
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? (1:3).
The word “gain” is the Hebrew “yithron,” which means “to advantage.” “What advantage is there to all of this?” Solomon is asking. People are born and die, and more are born and die (1:4). No gain. The sun rises, and the sun sets (1:5). No gain. The wind blows to the south and then back to the north (1:6). No gain. Water flows toward the sea continually but the sea level is relatively steady (1:7). No gain. Rinse, wash, repeat. No matter what you do, you can’t make a discernible difference in history and change the status quo.
We are not satisfied in our seeing or our hearing (1:8). There is nothing new under the sun (1:9). Everything seems to be stuck on repeat. We forget what used to feel new and exciting…the glory and honor and fame and wealth of those who came before us fades into distant memory (1:10-11).
It gets worse before it gets better. The night is darkest just before the dawn. Verses 12-18 of chapter 1 highlight the depressing nature of life under the sun. Qoheleth applied himself fully to search out by wisdom an answer to the madness and came up empty (1:13). He now introduces one of his key metaphors: all is hebel “and a striving after the wind” (1:14).
Introduction to Hebel
Let’s pause at this point and take in a proper understanding of this difficult-to-interpret word. I will use the word “hebel” directly rather than the typical English translations because we don’t have a one-word English translation. Hebel is a concept.
Like various words and phrases in old and complex languages such as Arabic and Mandarin, there are not always one-to-one fits with off-the-shelf English words. Hebel is much better explained by the phrase “a striving after the wind” than by its actual English translations (vanity, meaningless, futile, etc.).
Solomon certainly did not mean that life is meaningless or vanity or futility. Instead, like trying to catch the wind in your hand, you open it only to find you’ve caught nothing. Or in trying to capture the contents of a spray bottle after you spray, you open your hand only to find a little moisture. Most of it is gone. Chase the wind and grab some. Open your hand and you have nothing. So the word hebel doesn’t mean “meaningless” as much as it suggests a serious lack of ability to EXTRACT meaning.
It’s not that meaning or value isn’t there—it’s that we are now frustrated in our efforts to grab it, to procure it, to make it ours. This fits much better with Genesis 3; meaning and purpose weren’t destroyed in the fall of man, but were instead frustrated by it. So when you think of hebel, think not of worthlessness but of the impossibility of extracting the full meaning in life under the sun.
Hope After All
Let’s not get depressed. There is tremendous hope, if only we can remember this book in its proper context. It’s important to note that with all the wisdom God had given Solomon, He didn’t let him see the future. He seemed to have less of an understanding of eternity than even his father David did. Solomon was trapped in the 900’s BC in his little spot within God’s progressive revelation.
To learn more about B4T, read Business for Transformation by Patrick Lai.