The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.’
What do people gain from all their labours(Eccl. 1:1-11 NIV)
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
‘Look! This is something new’?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
The author of the book calls himself ‘the teacher’. Traditionally he was thought to be Solomon, but few commentators today think that the teacher is Solomon. It is not important for the meaning of the book to identify the author so we will just refer to the author as the teacher, the one who assembles together various proverbs and wisdom teaching.
English translations of the Bible have not served us well in its translation of the verse
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
There has been a surfeit of commentaries on Ecc. in the past few years, that take a careful look at the meaning of Ecc. 1:2. The word translated ‘meaningless’ is the Hebrew word ‘hebel’. The translation ‘vanity of vanities’ is not that helpful to modern ears, but this translation has helped shape the interpretation of the whole book. I agree that the translation of ‘hebel’ does shape the whole book because it is used over 30 times by the teacher. Therefore we need to look at this word with some care.
The literal meaning of ‘hebel’ is ‘breath’ or ‘vapour’.
When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath (hebel) will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”(Isa. 57:13 NIV)
You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath (hebel), even those who seem secure. “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain (hebel) they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be.(Ps. 39:5-6 NIV)
When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin, you consume their wealth like a moth– surely everyone is but a breath (hebel).(Ps. 39:11 NIV)
LORD, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath (hebel); their days are like a fleeting shadow.(Ps. 144:3-4 NIV)
To say that the teacher is saying that all things under the sun is ‘meaningless’, whether that is with God or without God, is not consistent with what he teaches, because he says that some things are better.
Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.(Eccl. 4:6 NIV)
The basic meaning of ‘hebel’ is vapour. Different words are required to translate ‘hebel’ because no one English word can capture the range of meaning of the word ‘hebel’. Hebel includes actions that are passing, in the sense that they make no permanent impact or impression on reality, they are futile or pointless, and their effects do not last. One commentator says that because ‘hebel’ requires so many different English words to capture the range of its meaning that, ‘It may be that the modern, Christian reader can do no better than to import hebel into his or her vocabulary. Much as has been done with ‘agape’…’
The teacher will go on to give examples of some things that are ‘hebel’. This will help us to take a hard look at the reality of life.
Life under the sun is ‘hebel’, fleeting, passing away like a puff of smoke, like a vapour. Life is short. Because life is short, we need to make the most of each moment.
Lord God help us to live in a way that recognises that the most significant part of our existence is eternity. Forgive us for living in a way that suggests that this life is all that there is. Help us to love life during this little while that we have upon earth. Help us to invest for eternity in the life that we live for Christ our Saviour’s sake in whose name we pray. Amen.