This is part 15 of a many-part blog series on the book of Ecclesiastes.
Qoheleth (Solomon) has used the term “under the sun” 26 times to indicate that we are under a curse. He used the word “hebel” more than 35 times. Everything is out of balance under the sun. Some people die too early and some live long lives. Some have too many resources and hoard them; some have too few and starve. Some start in wisdom and end up in jail; others start with foolishness and end up in the palace. Hebel, hebel, hebel.
The name “Abel” (Cain’s brother) is also the word “hebel” transliterated into English from Hebrew. He was likely named that after he was killed. What was his life? It was cut short for no good reason. Hebel. Abel may even be where Solomon got this critical word from. Perhaps he looked on the world around him and related the inability to extract the full meaning back to the first murder in human history.
Brevity of Time
Hebel is really about our inability to control outcomes combined with the brevity of time our achievements last. Sometimes we do everything right and a tornado destroys it, and sometimes we do actually achieve something groundbreaking and spectacular but a generation later society has moved on and no one cares about your entire life’s work. Hebel.
Sin is to man as hebel is to creation. Creation has been subjected to hebel since the curse in Genesis 3. That’s what Paul in Romans 8:20-30 is arguing: creation longs to be freed from the hebel it’s been subjected to, and we groan inwardly for our bodies to be redeemed in the same way. Jesus came to fulfill Solomon’s cries against hebel and the prophets’ cries against sin. Solomon was trapped in progressive revelation and couldn’t extract the full meaning of life under the sun, but one came from over the sun and began freeing Creation from the effects of hebel.
Brevity of Things
One key way to fight hebel under the sun is to obey Solomon’s instruction and stop striving to enjoy what you have. God already commanded us concerning this ahead of time: honor the Sabbath. Stop at the end of every week and enjoy the fruits of your labor, even if they are few. Be grateful. This fights the hebel in profound ways by refusing to succumb to a hamster wheel view of life.
Solomon, for all his wisdom, couldn’t see a way out of the hamster wheel. He felt trapped, and in a very real sense he was – in his time within history. God had not yet revealed how He would make everything right, but only that He would.
Just before the “hebel curse” God put over Adam, Eve, and the earth in Genesis 3:16-19, He cursed the Enemy in Genesis 3:14 and promised redemption and restoration from all sin and all the hebel that was to come (Genesis 3:15).
That great reversal of hebel would come as God Himself as He entered life “under the sun” to begin the great rescue. After the Cross, hebel is (slowly and painfully) coming undone, losing its power over us until its day of reckoning.
In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Solomon was frustrated that eternity was put into our hearts, yet he could not find out what God has done from beginning to end. Jesus showed us what God was up to when He inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Just read Ephesians 1:3-14! Now the sin and hebel we fight against have no ultimate power over us. We are winning (albeit much slower than we would like).
In Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, he wrestles with the fact that God allows wickedness to take the place of justice and righteousness in His world. But God doesn’t allow it: through the church He is taking back His Kingdom and restoring justice and righteousness to their rightful place.
In Ecclesiastes 3:22b, Qoheleth asks, “Who can bring man to see what will come after him?” Jesus gave us the hope (certainty) of eternal life with Him!
Frustrations of LIfe
The list of Solomon’s questions and frustrations being answered goes on: Why is it better to go into the house of mourning than the house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:2)? “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
“Consider the wisdom of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). Answer: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord…’” (John 1:23, Isaiah 40:3). Jesus would fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy about mountains being laid low and valleys being lifted up and uneven ground being leveled so that the glory of God could be fully revealed (Isaiah 40:4-5).
“Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked…” Ecclesiastes (8:12-13). Others in the Old Testament, like Asaph in Psalm 73, also had trouble understanding why God allowed the wicked to prosper. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:13). Now we know our place.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol to which you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Remember to be forgiving, because Solomon was trapped in the 900’s BC long before the Cross. On the other side of the Cross, we have a far better perspective of “why” we should work with all our might: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the inheritance as your reward” (Colossians 3:23). On this side of the Cross, we know that we will live forever with God, and our work on this side of Eternity prepares us for the other side!
It only takes a little bad to spoil a lot of good (Ecclesiastes 10:1). But it’s now also true that it only takes a little light to overcome the darkness (John 16:33)!
Rather than saying, “You May die tomorrow so live it up today,” Solomon says, “You may die tomorrow so give away what you can while you can” (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2). Why? Solomon doesn’t know, but Jesus would live out and fulfill this logic: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
“Remember the days of darkness are many” (Ecclesiastes 11:8). The effects of hebel hit much harder when our expectations are for everything to work correctly. But now we can have hope, because Jesus is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Now we can look forward, with CERTAINTY within the uncertainty, to That Day when all will be fully restored. In reality, the more things go wrong now or just don’t work quite right, the more we long in our hearts for Eternity. We are driven by hope to look forward to That Day rather than this one. It keeps us focused on His Kingdom as supreme rather than our own little domains.
Over the Sun
In Shane and Shane’s magnificent song, “Over the Sun,” they have an imaginary fireside chat with Solomon. They ask his advice in how to best live under the sun, and he councils them, “Get over the sun.” Only because the Son condescended under the sun to redeem us can we truly ever get over the sun. Indeed, as Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Abundant life—eventually a life completely devoid of hebel for all eternity. Count me in! Are you with me?
You may be thinking this doesn’t quite feel wrapped up. Is there an application missing, besides simply knowing about hebel and having a vocabulary for it? Yes. There is one more place we need to go, and it will bring B4T to center stage.
Greg is the President of OPEN USA. He used his education to work as a tentmaker in the Middle East for 8.5 years seeking to plant a church amongst a least-reached people group. Currently back in the USA with his wife and children, they aim to return to finish what the LORD used them to start.
To learn more about B4T, read Business for Transformation by Patrick Lai.