Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!
So declares the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. The translation of the Hebrew word hebel (“meaningless”) is debated among commentators and determined largely by translators’ views of the mood and message of the book as a whole. But the word isn’t as conclusive in its meaning as “meaningless” might suggest. If all of life was in fact meaningless, the writer of Ecclesiastes would be spouting nonsense when he calls some things better than others, encourages readers toward certain behaviors and away from others, and reminds us that God will bring all things into judgment.
Recently, I went to a golf outing with my brother and father. My brother was supplying the hole-in-one prize car from his employer (a new 2018 GMC Terrain Denali), and so we were driving it to the outing. About 10 minutes into our drive, we were cruising along in the left lane, when another vehicle swerved off the on ramp, crossed the lane between us, and struck our passenger side. Gladly, none of us were injured. Sadly, the same could not be said for the car. The life of that car was hebel.
Hebel describes the fleeting, futile, and frustratingly inexplicable realities of life “under the sun” (the Preacher’s way of saying “in this life”). Far from suggesting that life is in fact without meaning, hebel gives expression to crooked lines that can’t be made straight and cycles of life that can’t be broken. It is synonymous with biblical metaphors such as striving after the wind and grasping oil in one’s hand. Hebel is also the Hebrew name of the second son of Adam, Abel, the first person to die in Scripture – not to mention at the hand of his older brother. Abel’s life was hebel.
Moreover, the curmudgeonly caricature of the author of Ecclesiastes is unfortunate — and unfortunately has been fueled in part by the (poor) translation of this word, hebel. The author of Ecclesiastes is not a pessimist, nor is he nostalgic. While he confronts us with some plain, hard truths, he is hardly like a grumpy grandfather, who has done everything there is to do (or, so he tells you) and seen all there is to see (again, so he tells you) and would like nothing more than to get back to the “good ol’ days” (and again, so he tells you). The author of Ecclesiastes is a romantic realist: he sighs at the sharp edges and deep shadows of life, yet celebrates the brilliant rays and bountiful delights from God’s hand.
But the question remains: if everything is hebel, what is the Preacher’s message? What would he have us do? The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t, “Life is meaningless. It doesn’t matter what you do, because we’re all going to die.” But rather, something like this, “There are a lot of things under the sun that you’re never going to understand, but two things are for sure: one, you are going to die, and two, life is a gift from God. So, live life to the full, enjoy it, and rejoice! Because one day you won’t be able to anymore.” Or perhaps, to put it even more succinctly: live like you’re dying (…because you are!).
This message is in keeping with the one proposed in an excellent book by David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End. I highly recommend it.