The Heart of Wisdom: Chasing and Rest in Ecclesiastes

In yesterday's post I discussed the translation of hebel in the book of Ecclesiastes. Where most English translations translate hebel as "vanity" or "meaninglessness" hebel's literal meaning is vapor, breath or mist. Life, according to Ecclesiastes, isn't vain or meaningless, life is fleeting.

Consider other texts where this meaning of hebel is very clear:
Psalm 39.5
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath [hebel],
even those who seem secure.

Psalm 114.3-4
Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath [hebel];
their days are like a fleeting shadow.
And while Psalm 90 doesn't mention hebel, it is very much a description of hebel and suggests that a proper understanding of hebel creates a "heart of wisdom":
Psalm 90.3-6, 10, 12
You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Life is hebel, our years "quickly pass, and then we fly away." So the encouragement in Psalm 90 is, I think, the same encouragement in Ecclesiastes: "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom."

Number your days. Because life is hebel each day is precious, a sparkling jewel. Hallowing the moment creates a heart of wisdom.

So what about the great theme of vanity in the book of Ecclesiastes?

Like I mentioned in yesterday's post, translating hebel as "vanity" is a second-order value judgment that reflects how hebel, given its transient nature, can create futility in human striving. But this is less a commentary about the intrinsic nature of hebel than how we attempt to grasp at hebel, the "chasing after the wind" mentioned repeatedly in Ecclesiastes. What is vain is this grasping and chasing after hebel. It's the interaction of the two--hebel plus chasing--that creates the futility.

So what are we chasing? What are we grasping at?

A clue comes right at the start of the book, in 1.3:
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
The word translated as "gain" here is yithron. Yithron only occurs ten times in the OT, all of those occurrences in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Yithron is variously translated as gain, profit or advantage. The basic idea is that of accumulation, excess, and remainder--what is "left over." Basically, to use a financial metaphor, yithron is getting life "into the black" as it were.

Obviously, because life is hebel efforts to "gain" are futile and vain. Thus the examples given in the first part of Ecclesiastes about how all sorts of efforts at gaining or acquiring--creating an "excess"--are futile. Death washes any sort of "profit"--the excess remainder of your life--away.

This acquisitive grasping--this chasing after the wind--is what is vain. It's the combination of hebel and yithron that makes for the vanity. Crudely:
hebel + yithron = vanity

wind + chasing = vanity
This is why, I think, hebel is also associated with idolatry in the OT.

According to the prophets, idols are vain, they are hebel. In two different ways. First, idols are hebel ontologically--they are mist. But more to the point, the motivation behind the creation of the idol is what is vain. An idol is an attempt to create--of your own effort and out of sand--something lasting and substantial. What is vain about idolatry is the human presumption, to think that your sandcastle made of hebel is permanent, transcendent and eternal. The vanity of idols is less the fact that they are sandcastles--human products--than the idolatrous worship of sandcastles.

In this sense, then, Ecclesiastes is very much about idolatry, about our attempts to secure meaning and significance through human achievement or entertainments. The idolatrous thirst for yithron--for profit, advantage or gain--is revealed to be vanity. Because life is hebel. We are hebel. Anything we construct and worship is just going to wash away. Our idols will not last.

This is, I think, the genius of Ecclesiastes: Death is used as a universal acid for idolatry.

Hey, for a critique of idolatry I love the prophets. But few of us have a shrine to Baal in the house or an Asherah pole in the backyard. So if you want to expose and indict the vanity and vacuousness of modern American idolatry there is no better book than Ecclesiastes.

The dollars in your bank account. Hebel. The degrees hanging on my wall. Hebel. Your big house. Hebel. That new iPhone. Hebel. Your buff body. Hebel. The American flag. Hebel.

We are chasing, chasing, chasing, chasing, chasing the wind.

In fact, if you'll allow me this liberty, I think for Americans it's more like pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing the wind.

Wisdom, then, is to stop chasing and pushing. To stop seeking advantage, gain and profit. To stop creating idols out of the sand. Wisdom is settling into the preciousness of the day. "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom."

Wisdom is learning to rest.

No more anxious chasing of yithron.

Thus the constant refrain of Ecclesiastes. Enjoy the day. Enjoy your loved ones. Enjoy the simple pleasures of food and drink, the fruits of your day's labor.


You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Sabbath.

So a link is formed, I think, in Ecclesiastes between the celebration of Sabbath and how we resist idolatry. In Sabbath resting we stop chasing the wind. We settle into the sacredness of the day and realize that all our strivings have this potential to be vanity, to become idolatry.

Resting--numbering the day, numbering this day--helps us fight against the idolatrous pursuit of yithron.

For there is no profit or gain or advantage in Sabbath. The Sabbath is empty, non-productive activity. The Sabbath is simply resting.

And it is the heart of wisdom.

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11 thoughts on “The Heart of Wisdom: Chasing and Rest in Ecclesiastes”

  1. Now and then these feet just take to wandering

    Now and then I prop them up at home

    Sometimes I think about the consequences

    Sometimes I don't

    Well, I realize that falling down ain't graceful

    But I thank the Lord that falling's full of grace

    Sometimes I take my eyes off Jesus

    And you know that's all it takes

    Well I wish that I could say that at the close of every day

    I was happy with the way that I'm behaving

    'Cause Job, he chased and answer

    The wise men chased the Child

    Jacob chased her 14 years and he

    Captured Rachel's smile

    Moses chased the Promised Land

    Joseph chased a dream

    David, he chased God's own heart

    All I ever seem to chase is me

    Well, they say a race can only have one winner

    And you know you've got to pull out front to win

    God knows the only time I'm winning

    Is when I'm chasing Him

    Well I wish that I could say that at the close of every day

    I was happy with the way that I'm behaving

    'Cause Samson chased a woman

    and he chased the Philistines

    I'm not quite sure what Jonah chased

    But I know he caught the sea

    Cain, he chased the harvest

    While Abel chased the beasts

    David, he chased God's own heart

    All I ever seem to chase is me

    And Jesus chased the moneymen

    And he chased his Father's will

    He chased my sin to Calvary

    And he caught it on that hill

    Saul, he chased the Christians

    Till his blindness made him see

    David, he chased God's own heart

    All I ever seem to chase is me

  2. It also reminds me of Hebrews 4, "Labor ye therefore to enter into that rest." It takes work to rest.


  3. So when the teacher reaches the Conclusion of the Matter, the commandment that should be foremost in the minds of readers is "Honor the Sabbath".

    My previous readings of Ecclesiastes have led me to see it as the result of the teacher's burning inner struggle to find meaning (probably with assistance from "vanity" translations and my own modern western narcissism), but this makes me want to read it as an apology for Sabbath-keeping, focused on the Jewish community that was losing its will to rest -- perhaps in the face of imperial pressure to produce.

  4. Thank you for these reflections, Richard. Your post reminded me of the wonderful phrase, "the sacrament of the present moment."

  5. Richard, you seem to have addressed the possibility of an etymology fallacy charge in the last post.

    But if you set up a god who is ETERNAL and offers eternal life, "fleeting" can be derogatory and thus very close to meaningless, vain or empty. But, as is some Daoism, some Buddhism and all Atheism, everything is seen as transitory and that is not only OK, but also full of a beauty to be embraced. We don't need eternal to give meaning.

    So though you try to help us read hebel as breath, you still seem to use it pejoratively as an attack tool. You tell us that big house, buff bodies and big bank accounts are all hebel.

    Yet so our our marriages, our children, our meals, our orgasms, and our relationships. Hebel can be rich and full. Competing for wealth, sports and status can be rich. It is all a matter of how we hold it, what we do with it, how we live in our natural hebel state.

    So I think we agree on much, I felt you slipping back into the old sense of "hebel" -- which is unavoidable with an idealize eternal god and eternal afterlife.

    Inspired by all the work you did in these two posts, tonight I have re-read the Preacher's short essay in my Jewish Study Bible where hevel is translated "futility". The commentary their agrees with me, I think, that the etymology does not reveal its loading of meaningless, futile and more.

    To me, "Eternalism" is foolish, not the transitory life.

    People say "God passages" were later added to the book to keep it holy. I know it is a controversial book both among Jews and Christians. The book seems full of conflict -- probably due to inherent contradictions and unclear conclusions:


    "All this I tested with wisdom. I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me."

    The anti-female bigotry was clearly of the times:

    7:28 "As for what I sought further but did not find, I found only one human being in a thousand [who were wise], and the one I found among so many was never a woman." (the prev. verses are much worse)

    I loved how 4:17 warned about the assembly of believers.

    I don't think this is great literature at all and rather simple fatalistic ideas -- I will take those who learn how to embrace our breath-nature and live well -- something the Preacher occasionally seems to realize.

  6. BTW:

    Romans 8:20 "For the creation was subjected to futility [mataiotēti], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope." (NASB)

    Interestingly, other translations of mataiotēti, were:

    frustration: NIV
    futility: NASB, ESV
    vanity: KJV, AKJV

  7. Great article. Nice to see that someone understands Kohelet and does not dismiss him as a cranky old nihilist.

    Love the connection to the sabbath. Kohelet is commenting on the early chapters of Genesis, "by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread" not "get ahead". This is our lot in life until we return to the dust. The reality of death forces us to make choices on what we will pursue in this life.

    Kohelet says "One handful with rest is better than to handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind." He repeats it later, "I say again, it is better to enjoy what we have than to chase what we lack for that pursuit is futile, like trying to chase the wind." For Kohelet, the pursuit itself is futile and lacking in "yithron". Anything pursued as an end in itself will let us down and will be and exercise in futility, be it wealth, popularity, justice, wisdom and even religion. Everything pursued as a goal is futile, but Kohelet also points out that all these things can also be accepted as a gift from God in our daily lives and be a great blessing. This is the irony in his teachings which we often miss. He asks what we hope to gain from all our hard work under the sun by contrasting the pursuit with the journey. "When God provides us with wealth and possessions and also grants the ability to enjoy them, by accepting our lot and being happy in our work, this is God's gift to us. If we accept it we will seldom look regretfully on our past for God will keep us occupied with joyful hearts."

    Kohelet weaves the futility of trying to get ahead in a world that God has permanently twisted together with the joys of creation that remain accessible to us. "Go then, eat your bread with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for today your works blessed by God. Put on your best clothes, use your finest perfume and enjoy each futile day of your fleeting life with the people you love for these pleasures are God's gifts to you in your toilsome labour under the sun."
    What a great philosophy of life. I can see the smile on his face as he writes.

    Thanks again for a great blog. I have been studying Kohelet all my adult life and recently finished a translation of the book ( memorized it and now travel about performing it for those seeking instruction in the path of wisdom. It doesn't provide any yithron but it certainly is an enjoyable journey.

  8. Brilliant couple of posts.

    I am wondering if Ecclesiastes also sets a foundation for 1 Cor 15:58, that we learn to recognize our fleeting nature, so we can appreciate the miracle of "knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.".

  9. Richard, I have just began reading your blog having linked over from Patheos. Twice in the last week you have blown me away. In the Advent message on the Piss Christ I was stunned into silence. For the first time in over 30 years in Christianity I feel like I finally understood the incarnation, and all words failed. I was overwhelmed by the grace of G*D. In this post, I read the sentence "You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Sabbath." and again I was stunned in silence, and it was like a fresh breeze blew over my soul. I felt peace. The first peace I have felt in a very long time. Thank you.

  10. Although Paul (I Cor. 15:58) and Kohelet are often put into the same arena to fight it out they are actually complimentary.

    Kohelet (writer of Ecclesiastes) is discussing human labor in a twisted world where God has sown thorns and thistles and introduced randomness, ("time and chance happen to us all"). He is exploring what lasting benefit can be gained from all our hard work "under the sun" or "under heaven" or "on this earth". This is the labour we are to do by the sweat of our brow in return for our daily bread. But Kohelet recognizes that life under the sun ins not the end. He says "There will also be a time to evaluate every activity, a time to judge every deed," (the real ending of Kohelet's time poem that the Byrds missed in their song). The conclusion of the book says that "one day everything we do, including every secret thing, will be judged as evil or good." Kohelet believes in the afterlife but is writing on the effects of the cursed ground upon our work here and now.

    Paul is talking about that time of judgement in the future, about the fact that he has been working for the gospel and that after life is over we all will see what part of our labor was truely the "work of the Lord" and was not in vain. As Jesus pointed out there are many who will think they worked for God who will be proven false.

    The problem is that we jam these concepts together and try to imagine that just because we have faith we are no longer susceptible to God's intentions for all mankind after the twisting of the world and that all our labour is the "work of the Lord." This has caused no end of problems and has produced people of "faith" who run after all the same futile things as those without a faith in God.

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