Solomon shows us how.
I first encountered Ecclesiastes in a university literary course a number of years ago. I was groping for a belief system that would enable me to understand my combat experiences and my having been spawned in a fractured family. I read philosophy, I studied world religions, and I became enamored by the existentialists who seemed to grapple realistically while seeking to live meaningfully in a world without meaning.
Ecclesiastes seemed to float in that philosophical stream with its refrain, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Or, as my professor translated it, “Meaninglessness, meaninglessness, all is meaningless.”
After I became a believer, I returned often to Ecclesiastes. I found it to be a counter to the company of people whose faith was simplistic at its best, and Pollyannish at its worst. Some people I encountered were proponents of “recompense theology,” which maintains that people get what they deserve in this life. Ecclesiastes helped me keep my balance in a world turned upside-down.
Ecclesiastes’ refrain uses the Hebrew word heḇel which literally is a mist, a vapor. It is metaphorically translated as “vanity,” “emptiness,” “meaningless,” “absurdity.” The word appears some eighty-six times in the Old Testament in various contexts, but most frequently appears in Ecclesiastes where it appears thirty-seven times. In Ecclesiastes, the word appears in every chapter, except Chapter 10.
Heḇel can be likened to one’s breath that appears on a cold winter’s morning, only to vanish. In other Old Testament contexts, it can refer to idol worship, empty words, or the brevity of life. As mentioned, Solomon uses the Hebrew word thirty-seven times in various contexts. In the Hebrew, thirty-seven is the numerical value of heḇel (h=5; b=2; l=30). Heḇel has two uses in the book: that which is insubstantial, and that which is illusory, or enigmatic (Bruce K. Waltke, with Charles Yu, “The Gift of Wisdom, Part 3: Ecclesiastes,” in An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach).
Russell L. Meek’s little book, Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning in An Upside-Down World, explains how Qoheleth, the Preacher, uses allusions to Genesis to show how we can live realistically in a world that pursues heḇel. He refers to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Abel’s name is heḇel. This story shatters the theory of recompense theology being in play “under the sun.” Abel, who did right and was commended by God, had his life cut short, whereas Cain, under God’s curse, lived a long life and built cities. Meeks points to this as the beginning of our now living in an upside-down world. Evil people often thrive, while the righteous suffer. Abel is thus the one whose life was brief, whose life was just a mist.
How, then, does Ecclesiastes tell us how to live in a world like this? Meeks states that the book encourages us to take a “carpe diem” grasp of the gifts of God, but with the understanding that we can only receive joy in these gifts in the moment. We are thus to take joy in our work, in food and drink, and in companionship. In planting gardens. In building. But we must understand that even these gifts will pass. And if we are not diligent in being grateful for these momentary gifts, they, too, can become heḇel in the sense of being vain and meaningless, rather than just merely insubstantial.
And for those whose hearts are evil, God allows them to do all these things, but these things are never enough. They are always Heḇel.
Ecclesiastes ends with this (12:13-14, ESV): “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Meeks points out that it is difficult to translate what the ESV renders, “the whole duty of man.” He says this idea is there in this passage, but that the phrase better states that this is the very essence of who we are. We were created to keep his commandments.
So, what does Meeks see that Ecclesiastes teaches us? It teaches us that life is upside-down, life is heḇel in its brevity and can often be vain and meaningless, but in an upside-down world, life can only have true meaning “under the sun” if we “live,” as Meeks puts it, “in right relationship with God and enjoy his gifts.”