“Vanity of vanities…All is vanity” declares the wise Solomon, as he writes of the emptiness of life (Eccl. 1:2, NASB). When selecting a word to describe the vanity he saw in life, Solomon chose the Hebrew noun hebel which has at its core meaning the idea of “vapor” or “breath.” Hebel is like the wispy vapor of one’s breath on a cold morning; it appears to have substance, until you grasp at it, and it passes through your fingers and disappears. Hebel also refers to what is empty, useless, futile or meaningless. Note these other English translations:
“Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!” (Eccl. 1:2, NET)
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2, NIV)
Solomon primarily uses hebel throughout the book of Ecclesiastes to refer to the worthless activity of human accomplishments (Eccl. 1:14, 18; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9; except for 4:6). Solomon sees the skillful labor of men as temporary, unsustainable, and sometimes given over to others who don’t deserve it; and this he regards as “vanity and a great evil” (Eccl. 2:21). Hebel is also used in Scripture to:
Refer to idols worshipped by the Israelites
They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols [hebel]. (Deut. 32:21a; cf. 1 Ki. 16:13, 26)
Express a man’s frustration
I have toiled for nothing; I have spent my strength for emptiness and futility [hebel]… (Isa. 49:4a)
Reveal the transitory nature of life
Man is like a mere breath [hebel]; his days are like a passing shadow. (Ps. 144:4)
So, remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting [hebel]. (Eccl. 11:10)
Show that much of the works of men are worthless
I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity [hebel] and striving after wind. (Eccl. 1:14)
Solomon likens hebel to “striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14), which is the most common picture employed throughout the book of Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 1:14, 18; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9). When I think of the phrase “striving after wind”, I imagine someone wasting his time trying to catch the wind in his hands. It’s as futile as someone trying to hold his breath for a thousand years or trying to pour the ocean into a thimble.
Solomon also sees much evil in the world, and this is in connection with hebel (Eccl. 2:21; 4:3-4; 8; 5:1, 13, 16; 6:1-2; 8:3; 11-14; 9:3, 12; 10:5; 12:1, 14). Certainly the world can be a frustrating and evil place, full of worthless activity that consumes our time and makes us feel like we’re chasing our tails. Frustration and evil is all around us and sometimes it’s all we see and hear on the news. A man would have to be blind to miss it. However, if frustration and evil is all a man sees, then he is a very poor man, for he does not see the good things that God gives to men.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon identifies God’s simple blessings for life. These are the natural blessings that are a part of everyday life that we enjoy in time. Solomon reveals God’s basic blessings to be the ability to enjoy the labor of our hands (Eccl. 2:24; 3:13; 5:19), a good meal (Eccl. 2:24; 8:15; 9:7), and relationships with other people (Eccl. 9:7-9). Solomon calls these blessings a “reward” and “gifts from God” (Eccl. 5:19-20; 9:9; cf. 3:12).
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? (Eccl. 2:24-25)
I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God. (Eccl. 3:12-13)
Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart. (Eccl. 5:19-20)
So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun. (Eccl. 8:15)
Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting [hebel] life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. (Eccl. 9:7-9)
Solomon was a realist who had divine viewpoint, seeing both the evil and the good in this world. Solomon spent much of his life comparing the things he saw and making judgments about life, declaring that some things are better than others (see Prov. 24:30-34). Though his eye was fixed on things eternal (Eccl. 3:11; 12:5, 13-14), Solomon was also concerned with identifying the things of this life that give us enjoyment. These things, according to Solomon, are the ability to enjoy the labor of our hands (Eccl. 2:24; 3:13; 5:19), a good meal (Eccl. 2:24; 8:15; 9:7), and relationships with other people (Eccl. 9:7-9). Solomon calls these blessings a “reward” and “gifts from God” (Eccl. 5:19-20; 9:9; cf. 3:12).
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
Brown, F., Driver, S. R., Briggs, C. A., & Gesenius, W., The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass., Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 210.