This is part 1 in a many-part series on the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is widely believed to be the most difficult to interpret of all of the Bible, even more so than Revelation. Perhaps the central reason for this difficulty is that the main message of the book is wrapped up in a key word that has no English equivalent.
The word guanxi (关系) in Mandarin loosely means a person’s relationship and influence network. The word Ma’sha Allah (ما شاءالله) in Arabic loosely expresses a joy that God has willed something good to happen. These two words encompass hard-to-explain concepts. Similarly, the Hebrew word “hebel” (לבה) is actually as much a concept as it is a word. The word hebel is so important that it is mentioned 5x in the first sentence after the introduction. It is mentioned a further 33x in the book—meaning that 38 out of the 73 times the word is used in the Old Testament are in this one book.
So, it is obviously crucial to understanding Ecclesiastes, but what does it mean in English? Hebel is a noun that is usually translated vanity, meaningless, or futility, but none of those capture the actual meaning of hebel. We will dig deeper into the meaning as we go through our Ecclesiastes series.
By placing this book and its central concept of hebel into the wider narrative of the Scriptures (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) we can properly discern what the author is communicating to us. He calls himself the Qoheleth (Hebrew), often translated as the “Preacher” but more accurately as the “Collector.” This is important because the concept of hebel had been around for quite a while by the time the Collector stumbled across it. He sees himself not as a creator of new information but as an archaeologist, digging up the past to recover its meaning. He is gathering—collecting—what has already been to understand life as a whole.
In Genesis 1, God created a good world. Every time He created something, He said it was “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). But then something happened to God’s good world. The man and the woman broke faith with their Creator and God put a curse on the world, to be undone at some undisclosed time in the future by some undisclosed means. For now, there would be pain in childbirth (3:16a). There would be strife in relationships (3:16b). There would be toil in work (3:17-19). From then on, carrying out God’s command of having dominion over the earth would be toilsome, from multiplying (childbirth) to creating community (relationships) to establishing dominion over the earth (work).
Shortly after Genesis 3, murder entered the world. Then corruption. And famine. And slavery. The list goes on. By the book of Judges, life under the sun was downright ugly. Indeed, the period of the Judges belongs as much in a gory rated-R movie as in the Bible. Fast forward to Solomon’s time, and besides the direct sin of man, there seems to be an indirect evil that keeps the world from working correctly. Solomon (the presumed author of Ecclesiastes) refers to this as life “under the sun.” Up to that point, little thought had been given to the curse God put on the world after sin entered. Until Solomon, no one took pause to put that fateful curse under microscope. Enter Ecclesiastes.
After writing Proverbs and presumably feeling increasingly frustrated that the world wasn’t working the way it was supposed to, Solomon began to study and pen his learnings in what we now call Ecclesiastes.
What exactly does this book have to do with B4T? Join us on this journey and by the end you will see!
To learn more about B4T, read Business for Transformation by Patrick Lai.