The Hebrew word hebel literally means ‘vapour’ or ‘mist.’ In the context of Ecclesiastes it connotes not the meaninglessness of futility nor even the ‘vanity’ of life; rather, it evokes the short lived, the insubstantial, the fleeting character of human life, as the whole of the book attest**. Percy Shelley poetically describes life’s vapor like quality in his poem Ozymandias, read by Bryan Cranston in the video above.
One of the primary themes in Ecclesiastes is time and the finitude of life (meaning that life is fundamentally limited by death). The Teacher’s world is one in which the sun and the wind and the water are in perpetual motion—rising and setting, blowing and returning, flowing and never filling—and they will remain in everlasting existence (1:5-7)**. But hebel—vapour and mist—is unlike the natural world of perpetual motion described by the Teacher, rather it comes and goes, forgotten, burned by the sun, blown by the wind.
Hebel is the fate of every human being, whether wise or foolish, powerful or weak, rich or poor, famous or unknown, oppressor or oppressed, righteous or wicked, or just average and unremarkable, all are finite. Every human being is born in time, and in time dies. Whatever one might accomplish or not, for good or evil, is accomplished in the short span between birth and death. The Teacher writes, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was [hebel] and a chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11)**.
In the verses for Sunday we read about the tragedy of our fate in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17:
“I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him.
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
And as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.
This too is a grievous evil:
As a man comes, so he departs,
and what does he gain,
since he toils for the wind?
All his days he eats in darkness,
with great frustration, affliction and anger.”
This fate is tragic and it is this finite or vapor like quality that the Teacher originally describes as evil and darkness. In a sense we act in blindness (think of Shakespeare’s’ tragic play “Romeo and Juliet”) unaware of our motivations nor what consequences might result. This finite perspective results in tragedy. In the verses above, we see the tragic fate of a father. The first father builds wealth with the intention of making a good life for his son. Unfortunately, for reasons such as greed (reasons he either ignored or was blind to) his wealth ruins him. The second father has the same intention, to build up wealth to give to his son, but through some misfortune which he didn’t see coming or to which he was blind, he loses it. As a result of the father’s tragic blindness the son is left with nothing. This is unfair! It is the evil that the Teacher sees under the sun.
Yet, the Teacher’s message is more radical: not only are we sometimes blind, but blindness is our fate. The human existence is a tragic one. We are blind from the beginning: “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,/ And as he comes, so he departs.” This blindness can be a frustration, causing the unintended, hiding that which was not anticipated. The Teacher writes, “All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.”
It’s intriguing that immediately after the Teacher describes our finite fate as evil, he then turns around and describes it as good, writing,
“Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his [fate].”
In other words, our temporality, our vapor like existence and its corresponding blindness, is actually a good characteristic of life.
The vapor like character of life enables the teacher to accept his fate for what it is, a gift of life, because :
- he acts out of an opaque context he doesn’t fully understand
- to a certain extent he doesn’t fully understand his decisions (his actions have unintended consequences).
In other words, once he accepts that blindness constitutes his being, he can receive life as a gift, rather than something for which he is in complete control.
The fact that life is not something we ultimately control or create is not to say that we give up on life or our autonomy. Rather, once we comes to terms with our fate, the Teacher tells us to enjoy life, to find satisfaction in work. In other words, we should accept our lot so that we can live and enjoy life as it is, a gift.
Perhaps that does not seem like good news. But consider: is there any part of scripture in which human beings are called to secure and establish and completely control their own existence, such that they are completely self-sufficient, enduring forever and remembered for all time? On the contrary: “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11). “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life” (Matt 6:27; cf Matt 6:16-34)**.
The good news of the Teacher is this: the meaning of life is that it is given—it is the radical and gracious gift of the good God. The good news we hear in this passage is to live life as the gracious temporal gift it is. Celebrate the vapor. Breathe deeply while you have breath.
Finally what’s even more astonishing is Ecclesiastes’ characterization of God, that God actually seeks out the Hebel, the vapour. In other words God seeks out the finite human life.
“I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds… I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil… That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.”
God therefore seeks out the finitude, the vapour that is human accomplishment, human legacy, the church, everything that ultimately comes to ruin, all that is blown by the wind.
We ended the teaching session with the question of suffering. How do we think about suffering in light of life’s blind, tragic, and gift like quality?
**The main thrust of my argument and some of my phrasing is taken from:
Douglas Harink’s excellent article on Ecclesiastes 12: 1-7 & 5:2 in
Third Way Magazine (Nov, 2002: p25).