Understanding Ecclesiastes: Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World, Part 1

Many interpreters maintain that the overall message of Ecclesiastes is one of cynicism and vanity (e.g. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 212–15). According to this perspective, the author of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet (an epithet for Solomon), has written a book unlike any other in the canon—one that focuses on cynicism and complete despair.

Those who take this view derive the message of despair from some “negative” motifs in Ecclesiastes. The most dominant of these begins the book in 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (NASB). “Vanity” translates the Hebrew word hebel.

Since hebel occurs multiple times in every chapter of Ecclesiastes, readers must understand it in order to grasp the message of the book. But if this term is exclusively negative, how do we explain its juxtaposition to exhortations to enjoy life (the carpe diem passages)? More specifically, is “vanity” or any other negative term (such as NIV’s “meaningless” or HCSB’s “futility”) the best way to render hebel in Ecclesiastes? The purpose of this article is to suggest an alternative to negative renderings of hebel and to suggest how the resulting message of Ecclesiastes should impact our lives.

An alternative to a negative rendering of hebel

Before examining the use of hebel, we should note that its placement in Ecclesiastes reflects that it is the subject of the book. After a brief introduction in 1:1, Qohelet provides a sweeping generalization in 1:2, “hebel of hebels, says Qohelet, hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” He places this term at the inception of the book where we would expect an author to place his subject. His catchword hebel occurs five times in this verse. That this is the book’s subject is further confirmed by the fact that Qohelet concludes his work with three uses of hebel in 12:8 in addition to the thirty uses in between. The noun hebel is used in the Hebrew Bible seventy-three times. Thirty-eight of these occur in Ecclesiastes.

The literal meaning of hebel is “vapor, breath.” In Isaiah 57:13 a “breath” will carry away idols. In this context hebel, “breath,” is parallel with ruah, “wind,” in the preceding colon. Besides this literal use, hebel is also used metaphorically to denote that which is “evanescent, unsubstantial, worthless, vanity.” Outside of Ecclesiastes the metaphorical use of hebel consistently denotes something that is vain or has no value (for example, see Ingram, Ambiguity in Ecclesiastes, pp. 105–7). This pejorative understanding has influenced many interpreters to view hebel in Ecclesiastes in the same way and to argue on that basis for a negative view of the entire message of the book (e.g., Stuart, pp. 212–15). However, some interpreters have recognized that assigning an exclusively negative meaning to hebel does not harmonize with Qohelet’s exhortations to enjoy the gifts of life or with his commendation of wisdom. Furthermore, if the author’s point was that life had no value, we would expect to see him use words or phrases synonymous with hebel. We need to examine the word more carefully in Ecclesiastes to determine exactly how it is being used.

Its use in Ecclesiastes

The metaphorical rendering of hebel in Ecclesiastes goes back to the Septuagint translation of the book where it was rendered as mataiotes, “emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness” (BAGD, p. 495). Since the Greek term includes the nuance of “transitoriness,” it allows for a broader use than a strictly negative sense. However, the pejorative sense of hebel dominates today because of the work of Jerome, who translated it with vanitas, “unsubstantial or illusory quality, emptiness, falsity, untruthfulness” (Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary, p. 2010). Since that time most versions have rendered hebel as “vanity.” Currently, “vanity” as well as similar negative translations is found in the majority of English translations.

However, a few versions (such as NASB, HCSB and NET) use multiple renderings of hebel, ranging from “vanity” (or a negative equivalent) to “fleeting.” The multiple renderings of these (and other) versions is a problem in the contexts where hebel is defined as part of the “all is hebel” assessment of 1:2 and 12:8. If Qohelet announces in 1:2 and 12:8 that “all is hebel,” then describes the specifics of the “all” and evaluates them also as hebel, then the term must have a common nuance in Ecclesiastes. This has also been noted by Fredericks, who has observed perceptively that it is an error “to see distinct spheres of meaning for the word and to select the correct one for each context, ending in a multifarious description of reality that is contrary to a significant purpose for the unifying and generalizing agenda of Qoheleth—‘everything is breath’ ” (Coping with Transience, pp. 23–24).

A consistent meaning

If hebel does not contain distinct spheres of meaning in different portions of Ecclesiastes, what is the common sphere of meaning? Various suggestions for this common sphere of meaning include translation values such as “absurd,” “transience,” “contingency,” and “incomprehensible” (for a more complete list of translation values, see my article, “The Message of Ecclesiastes,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 [Spring 1996]: 89–92).

The problem with “absurd” is that it is tied to Fox’s existentialism (“The Meaning of hebel for Qohelet,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 [September 1986]: 414–27). The problem with “transience” is that it does not do justice to passages such as 8:14. A “fleeting” problem would not have been a problem to Qohelet. If hebel represents a devaluation of life, can this legitimately be harmonized with his praise of wisdom and the carpe diem motif? As for “contingency,” Qohelet’s description of the sovereignty of God in 3:1–15 is too absolute to allow for the ambiguity associated with that option.

Though it appears that no English term provides an equivalent to hebel, the closest of the options is probably “incomprehensible” or a synonym such as “enigmatic” or “mysterious.” In his recent commentary, Craig Bartholomew (Ecclesiastes, pp. 104–7) comes independently to a similar conclusion about the meaning of hebel. However, one weakness of the “incomprehensible” option is that it does not necessarily account for the emotive connotations of hebel. One example is 2:17 where Qohelet states that he hates life because his work is grievous, then declares that all is hebel. The situation he describes is indeed hard to comprehend, but it is more than that. Life with its difficulties and vicissitudes as a result of the Fall is a puzzle that finite man cannot figure out, and it frustrates Qohelet in his search for meaning and purpose. In his attempt to master life, Qohelet eventually realizes—through defeated expectations—that he cannot understand God’s scheme of things. Though English does not provide a precise word equivalent to the meaning associated with this Hebrew term, I prefer to translate it along the lines of “frustrating enigma” or “frustratingly enigmatic.” Three reasons for this follow in part 2.


Robert V. McCabe is registrar and professor of Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He joined the faculty of DBTS in 1983 as head of the Old Testament department, and he became registrar in 1987. He earned the M.Div degree at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary in 1974 and the ThM and ThD degrees at Grace Theological Seminary in 1980 and 1985 respectively. Dr. McCabe and his wife, Linda, reside in Allen Park MI and have three children.

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Dick Dayton's picture

Some years ago, I came across a commentary written by Jay Adams in his Christian Counselor's series, and found it very helpful in making practical applications in teaching through Ecclesiastes in an adult Sunday School class. As noted above, Solomon is telling us that, if we confine our viewpoint and affections to the things of this earth, it will be fleeting, and we will ultimately be empty handed. Only a life lived for God will produce the kind of inner satisfaction we need.

Dick Dayton

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