Consider other texts where this meaning of hebel is very clear:
Psalm 39.5And 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":
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.
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.
Psalm 90.3-6, 10, 12Life 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."
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.
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 = vanityThis is why, I think, hebel is also associated with idolatry in the OT.
wind + chasing = vanity
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.