The Hebrew word hebel has intrigued me for years. It is the word identified most closely with Ecclesiastes.
I grew up on the KJV's 'vanity' and gradually shifted across to the NIV's 'meaningless'. In between there was time for the GNB's 'useless', the NEB's 'empty', the Living Bible's 'futile', and now the CEV's 'nonsense'.
[Hint from translators: when we cannot agree, you know that you have a fascinating word.]
Once I did some theological training I was able to wade into the scholars a bit more. Like Michael Fox's 'absurd', or Peter Kreeft's 'wild goose chase - and there is no wild goose', or Chris Grantham's 'random', or RBY Scott's 'breath', and then just this year Craig Bartholomew's 'enigmatic'.
[Warning from exegetes: this is no time for 'illegitimate totality transfer' where the entire semantic range of possible meaning is poured into one single reference.]
Is it not the most fascinating word?
At its core hebel is meant to be a metaphor. We are meant to see something, the linguistic osmosis kicks in and what we see pictures what the word means. What is to be seen with this word? Vapour. Breath (on a cold day). Mist. And maybe best of all - drum roll, please, for Eugene Peterson and The Message's 'smoke'.
And what might the essence of this metaphor convey? Maybe two things?: (i) something that is brief and fleeting; (ii) something that is empty and weightless. Like 'breath' and 'smoke' - and even like 'enigmatic', as this refers to that which cannot be grasped.
What shall we do with all this? Well, John Stott is very much on my mind and so why don't we do a little 'double listening' in his honour, reflecting a little on the World and the Word. OK?
For me a striking example of hebelisation in our world is the Reality TV phenomenon. I am no fan at all. Sorry! Right at the start of Ecclesiastes - in chapter 2 - the writer embraces something similar, a host of trivial pursuits on the way to finding significance for his life. Take a close look: laughter, wine, homes, gardens, music, money, sex, celebrity - each one a Reality TV possibility (and we could add sport, food and travel) - and his conclusion on these pursuits?
Hebel. Brief. Empty.
Think about the contemporary equivalents: Extreme Makeover (homes); American Idol (music); The Amazing Race (travel); Next Top Model (beauty); Master Chef (food); Temptation Island (sex); Project Runway (clothing); America's Toughest Jobs (work); The Apprentice (business); Biggest Loser (weight loss); Last Comic Standing (comedy) etc etc. I'll stop short of being too dismissive. But what I will argue is that if a person finds a succession of these shows to be compelling and greatly anticipated each week, then that person is probably being hebelised without realising it. Maybe something dangerously vicarious is going on in their voyeuristic enjoyment of the vacuous. They will be losing touch with the real reality so poignantly described in Ecclesiastes 4, for example, with all its human trauma and sadness.
Once the subject turns to the real reality we are directed back to the Word. I don't know if you subscribe to the view that sees value in reading the Bible 'canonically' (ie that the order of the books/chapters have some significance). Here is one time when I do. Two verses before the start of Ecclesiastes (Prov 31.30) we find beauty being described as hebel - and the response which a woman is to make is given as well: "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised". In that one verse, two verses before Ecclesiastes, lies the message of Ecclesiastes. The response to Ecclesiastes 1.2, crammed with five references to hebel, comes in Ecclesiastes 12.13 - 'fear God'.
Fearing God is to take God seriously. Why? He is not brief. He is not weightless. He is neither like breath nor smoke. He is eternal and weighty - in fact 'glory' is the word that will do just fine , as that is what 'weighty' means. If Proverbs 31.30 carries something of Ecclesiastes in microcosm, so also does Psalm 62 where multiple references to our hebelised lives comes in the context of a God who is rock and fortress and refuge.
Jesus is also about the permanent and the weighty and the full. For me Ecclesiastes is pre-evangelism on the way to "I have come that you might have life - life in all its fulness".