Without question, there is a strong element in Ecclesiastes of “been there, done that, didn’t work.” The author appears to have been an older wisdom teacher who’d kind of seen it all. We see him sitting back now, reflecting on what he’s learned.
And the lessons are on one level a little depressing. It’s not just that he’d tried it all and found it less than satisfying – the mansion with the gorgeous landscaping and the in-ground swimming pool, the parties, the pretty girls, the fast cars. Those of us who’ve done any reading around in the Bible are a little too savvy not to see that part coming. You know – rich people can have trouble entering the kingdom of heaven, you could build bigger barns to hold your possessions and then find that night your soul is required of you, and all that. Of course that part wasn’t enough.
But did you catch the punch line? Here’s someone trained in those Wisdom Schools we talked about back in the fall – someone who would have felt that the pursuit of knowledge, at least, would bring him fulfillment – here he is saying that even Wisdom itself has turned out to be a chasing after wind. The authors of Proverbs must have been rolling in their graves! But he’s tried wisdom too, he says, just like he’s tried everything else, and you can almost hear behind his words the lyrics of that old U2 song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Even Wisdom, declares this Wisdom teacher, even Wisdom – as fantastic a goal as it is – has its limitations.
Generations of Christian commentators have come to the conclusion that Ecclesiastes cries out for a New Testament answer, and they find that answer in the person of Christ. That is one way to read the book—as such all-out bad news that it can’t help but prepare the way for the great good news to come. But I would argue that the message of Ecclesiastes isn’t actually so depressing after all, and that it can also be appreciated on its own.
First let’s get back to that famous opening: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Many take ‘vanity’ in this context to mean emptiness at best, if not utter futility. As if this guy is saying: look, it’s all pointless, all meaningless, why bother. But here’s one of those times our understanding of the Scriptures can be enriched by a little foray into the original Hebrew. There’s an incredibly loaded word here that’s not coming across in English, because there’s no single English word that can really capture it. That word is hebel. (Pronounced H-E-V-E-L. Rhymes with level.)
So that opening line again: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Or “hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” And what is hebel exactly? Think about one of those grey Seattle mornings that starts out in a thick fog. Then, just a couple hours later, the fog lifts. The mist dissipates, and suddenly we find ourselves enjoying a clear sunny day. Or think about a really cold day, cold enough to see your breath as you talk; your warm breath appears and then instantly disappears.
Hebel is a word that is used in the Hebrew Bible both for mist, or vapor, and for breath, for precisely those reasons. It’s got this sort of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality to it. If something is hebel, it can’t be grasped, can’t be pinned down; it’s here one minute and gone the next. It’s real, but it’s fleeting. That’s why the word pairs so nicely with the phrase “chasing after wind,” which we also heard a couple times in our readings today. We can chase the wind all we want and never catch up to it, never lay hold of it. Ecclesiastes tells us that’s what life is like. Uncertain. Fleeting. Sometimes irrational. Sometimes ironic. Something that can’t be pinned down or grasped or counted on to unfold in predictable ways. Does that make him an Eeyore? I’m not sure.
At the very least, the message of Ecclesiastes can be interpreted rather differently when we go with one of these other meanings of the Hebrew word hebel, instead of reading it as total futility. We’ll also see over the next couple of weeks that the author of this book actually counseled his readers to enjoy life, to find good work to do, to appreciate food and drink with family and friends and generally to make the most of our days. Did he think life was entirely empty, or meaningless? I don’t think so. But he knew it was uncertain, full of surprises, with many things out of his control. “Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” Some find this a discouraging word. I find it profoundly realistic.
We began the fall in the book of Proverbs – there are many important lessons to be learned from its pages, but one thing Proverbs does not do well is allow for the unexpected. It doesn’t address the unpredictability of life. Instead, we read over and over again that the righteous get what they deserve, and the wicked get what they deserve. You come away with the sense that if you just follow the rule-book to the letter all will be well. This action will result in these consequences. Life will play itself out according to your best-laid plans. But of course for the vast majority of us, life just isn’t that tidy.
That’s where Ecclesiastes comes in. And I love the fact that it’s found its place in the Bible immediately following Proverbs. As if to help complete the picture. As if to say to those of us who are left wanting more – hang on, here’s another way of looking at things.
If Wisdom is the art of steering, a way of charting our course through life, then Proverbs teaches us how to do that when everything’s going pretty well. Proverbs is a good instruction manual for smooth sailing on fair weather days. But we may want to turn elsewhere for advice when the rules we’ve been taught don’t make sense anymore. The author of Ecclesiastes calls it like he sees it, and what he sees is “righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecc. 8:14) Whether it’s Alzheimer’s or a stroke, a miscarriage or a layoff, a car accident or cancer, all that nice, neat logic we were taught can vanish like so much breath, and we can find ourselves once again asking why bad things keep on happening to good people.
“Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” I’ve often wished that biblical books were available on DVD –not with a famous actor reading the King James Version grandly in a classic British accent, but to showcase the voices and facial expressions of the original authors. Like the author of Ecclesiastes. “Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” Fleeting. Uncertain. Ironic. Did he say it with a casual shrug? Did he sound sad? Or more resigned? What was his tone of voice? Was there a little twinkle in his eye?
Again, some find this a discouraging word. I find it deeply realistic. Think about it -- no matter what in this world we hold up as important, if we make it our ultimate value, we will eventually encounter a situation where that too turns out to be hebel. The economy could take another dive. A loved one could die. And poof—it’s gone. That sense of order. That illusion of control. And we’re left standing there like Wile E. Coyote, clutching a purple feather in our fists, wondering how that doggone Road Runner got away again. We look at our feet, suspended in mid-air for a second, and wonder how someone managed to pull the earth out from under us when we weren’t looking. Then down we go.
We do our best to grasp and control life. We make predictions and plan and store away for later. . . And we can even appear to succeed for little awhile at a time. But then the mist dissipates. And where does that leave us?
Whether you consider it bad news or the very best news, it leaves us right where we have always been: in God’s hands. If there is one thing the author of Ecclesiastes is certain of, it is that God is in control.
God is God, and we are not – and in this proclamation, Ecclesiastes doesn’t sound so unbiblical after all. The bad news is that there will obviously be many things in life that don’t make sense to us. Things that don’t happen the way they would, if you’ll pardon the expression, if I were God. (Some of you know how I prefer life to be tidy and under control!) But that God is God and we are not is of course very good news. Because even when our present reality suggests otherwise, we know there’s a bigger picture out there, a picture in which good ultimately triumphs and things are finally set right. Even when everything else around us turns out to be hebel (temporary, uncertain, unpredictable), God remains – a solid rock, standing firm, while fleeting mists appear and disappear.
“Hebel of hebels, all is hebel.” Where’s the gospel in that? The good news is that it’s true a lot of the time, and here’s a biblical author who wasn’t afraid to say so. The good news is that we’re invited to speak the truth, too, when our own experience flies in the face of what we’ve been taught. Sometimes life doesn’t work according to those old proverbial rules. Exceptions can be disorienting, even painful. But God is still God, even in the face of life’s exceptions. And the God who saw to it that these kinds of words were preserved in the pages of Scripture won’t be scandalized by hearing similar sentiments from any of us. So don’t be afraid to call it like you see it. The author of Ecclesiastes would want you to know, first of all, that you’re in good company. And more importantly, that God’s not going anywhere, no matter what. Amen.