Can you handle the “hebel”? (part 2)

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
    says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.’

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Last week, we saw that life and everything in this world is not necessarily meaningless, but it is fleeting. The idea behind “hebel” is like smoke, breath or a bubble that soon disappears.

“Hebel” is also translated in the Bible as “idol”. And of course, there is a connection between the idea of transience and an idol. So in Isaiah 57:13, for example, idols are blown away by a breath, but God is a firm refuge.

“When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”

What Ecclesiastes is going to teach us is that the very definition of an idol is something temporal that we attempt to grasp hold of as something eternal; a false god we worship instead of the true God. So what is meaningless is to search for pleasures, riches or fame, work or wisdom as something we can grab hold of and find satisfaction in forever. That is putting those things in the place of God, who alone has all wisdom and who alone gives all good gifts, and who alone is eternal.

When we know better who God is, and our place before Him, then our frustrating and fruitless quests for meaning and understanding and even our identity, are stilled.

These two ideas, fleetingness and idolatry, conveyed by the word “hebel”, provide us with much food for thought. It is not meaningless to seek something stable and lasting in a world that is transient and fleeting. What is meaningless however, is to look to anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ to provide this for us. He alone is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Reflection: Where do we tend to look, other than Christ, for stability and permanence and meaning? Why is Christ worthy of our worship?

Can you handle the “hebel”? (part 1)

The words of the Teacher,a son of David, king of Jerusalem:

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.’

Ecclesiastes 1: 1-2

Everything is vanity of vanities – utterly meaningless, perfectly useless, and totally futile? It is amongst the best known phrases in the Bible, yet as Christians we often have no idea what to make of it.

It is not a motto we print on posters of sunsets or in birthday cards, and yet Jews have always read Ecclesiastes with joy as they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles every year.

It is not a philosophy we want to proclaim when as Christians we know that God has created everything with order and purpose; even if our day-to-day lives can feel mundane, monotonous and even meaningless at times.

And tempting as it is, we cannot write it off as a “foil” where most of Ecclesiastes is seen as the depressing, “wrong” way that non-Christians see the world, which is then put right in the last chapter. The reason for this is because we are told that “The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.” (12: 9-12)

The word translated as “meaningless” or “vanity” is, in the original Hebrew, “hebel”. It is a very important word in Ecclesiastes, appearing 38 times, and in some ways, holds the key to its meaning. “Hebel” actually means a breath, or vapour, or wind. Think of a cold, autumn morning, when you can see your breath for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Think of wisps of smoke, clinging to the air for a moment, then dispersing and disappearing. Think of the soap bubbles children blow with huge excitement, then the bubbles pop and vanish into nothingness. Ralph Erskine, in his poem Smoking Spiritualised, captures the idea nicely:

And when the smoke ascends on high,
Then thou behold’st the vanity
Of worldly stuff,
Gone with a puff.
Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

It is not that there is no meaning to anything. It is the problem of trying to attach eternal meaning to things which are transient and fleeting, like the wind, like the bubble, like smoke. Trying to hold onto a puff of smoke forever would be futile, even laughable. This sets the thinking behind Ecclesiastes, and how we can understand it as Christians seeking to glorify God, enjoying living in His world under the sun.

Reflection: What in your life do you find most difficult to acknowledge will not last? What does Jesus offer us that is different? (See John 3:16)