Life is Fleeting: Hebel in Ecclesiastes

We started a study of Ecclesiastes in the adult bible class I co-teach at my church.

A key to interpreting the book of Ecclesiastes is how you translate the Hebrew word hebel, which occurs 38 times in the book. Hebel, whatever it might mean, is the grand theme of Ecclesiastes but it is notoriously hard to translate.

In the major English translations there have been two schools of thought in how best to translate hebel.

The first is the King James-inspired school which translates hebel as "vanity." Hence the famous rendering in the KJV of the opening lines of the Preacher (1:2):
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 
Following the KJV in translating hebel as "vanity" are the ASV, ESV, NKJV, RSV, and the NRSV.

The other, smaller camp translates hebel as "meaningless." The NIV and NLT go in this direction.

The trouble with these translations is that the literal meaning of hebel is breath, vapor or mist. No doubt, our efforts to grasp at hebel--given its fleeting, transient insubstantiality--renders those efforts vain or meaningless. But that's a second-order value judgment, the outcome of how we interact with hebel.

Basically, castles built of sand on the beach are hebel. Thus, it might be vain or meaningless to invest existentially in sandcastles, but the sandcastles aren't intrinsically vain or meaningless for being hebel. For everything a season, right? Even for sandcastles. Thus the constant refrain in Ecclesiastes to enjoy the day for what it is. "For there is nothing better," says the Teacher, "than to enjoy your food and your drink and the fruits of the day's labor." Life is hebel. This moment, right now, and this season are good. But they are hebel, so soak up the day and the season before the tide rolls in.

All that to say, I prefer more literal translations of hebel rather than translations--like vanity and meaninglessness--that conflate hebel itself with how we interact with hebel. Because as I read the book of Ecclesiastes, hebel treated properly is a blessing of God (enjoy the day, for everything there is a season). But treated improperly hebel is vanity and meaninglessness. To be sure, because of the nature of hebel things tilt toward the vain and futile, but that's not the only whole story.

So again, I prefer a more literal translation of hebel. Trouble is, as noted above, most of the major translations go with "vanity" or "meaninglessness." So I've struggled for this bible study to find a good translation to work with.

The exception in this regard is the new translation The Voice. For sheer reading pleasure I really like The Voice. The Voice is sort of a conflation of the NIV and The Message. As far as straight-up translation of the text The Voice is a lot like the NIV. But The Voice adds text to help contextualize, explain or dramatize the passage. Sort of like what The Message tries to do. But the nice thing about The Voice is that all the extra, interpretive material they add is set off in italics. This helps give you the best of both worlds. When you read The Voice you get that really clear, dramatic and contemporary sound that attracts people to The Message. But unlike The Message you can sort the dramatic filler from the straightforward translation of the biblical text by simply looking at the fonts.

Anyway, I really like what The Voice has done with hebel in Ecclesiastes. The Voice translates hebel very consistently as "fleeting." This is much closer to the literal meaning of hebel as it conveys the notion that vapor, breath and mist are fleeting, transient, insubstantial and impermanent. And like I noted above, "fleeting"--think of those sandcastles--isn't intrinsically vain or meaningless. To be sure, it's often a precondition of those things. But just because something doesn't last doesn't mean that it is vain or meaningless. It all depends upon what you are expecting, what you are trying to do or accomplish with hebel. Which, I think, is a key lesson of Ecclesiastes.

The flowers in springtime are hebel, they are fleeting. But the flowers are not vain or meaningless. In their season flowers are very, very meaningful.

Life is fleeting. Life is hebel. To everything a season.

So work hard today. Eat and drink. Hold onto your loved ones. Enjoy.

Nothing vain or meaningless about that.

[An Appendix to the post after the jump:]

Hebel in Ecclesiastes
Comparing The Voice and the NIV

To compare The Voice with the NIV I made the following table for our bible class listing every passage containing hebel in Ecclesiastes. The main thing to note is how the The Voice very consistently translates hebel as "fleeting." And I think with very good results. Much better results than the NIV and the other "vanity" translations.

The Voice
Teacher: Life is fleeting, like a passing mist. It is like trying to catch hold of a breath; All vanishes like a vapor; everything is a great vanity.
Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
I have witnessed all that is done under the sun, and indeed, all is fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind.
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
I said to myself, “Let me dabble and test you in pleasure and see if there is any good in that.” But look, that, too, was fleeting.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.
As I continued musing over all I had accomplished and the hard work it took, I concluded that all this, too, was fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind. Is there any real gain by all our hard work under the sun?
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
I said to myself, “Why do I try to be wise when my fate is the same as that of the fool? This pursuit is fleeting too.”
Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said to myself, “This too is meaningless.”
So I began to hate life itself because all that is done under the sun is so harsh and difficult. Life—everything about it—is fleeting; it’s like trying to pursue the wind.
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
And who knows whether my heir will be wise or foolish? Still he will inherit all the things for which I worked so hard here under the sun, the things for which I became wise. This, too, is fleeting like trying to catch hold of a breath.
And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
Although someone with wisdom, knowledge, and skill works hard, when he departs this life, he will leave all he has accomplished to another who has done nothing to deserve work’s reward. This, too, is fleeting, and it causes great misery.
For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.
For every day is filled with pain and every job has its own problems, and there are nights when the mind doesn’t stop and rest. And once again, this is fleeting.
All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
To those who seek to please God, He gives wisdom and knowledge and joyfulness; but to those who are wicked, God keeps them busy harvesting and storing up for those in whom He delights. But even this is fleeting; it’s like trying to embrace the wind.
To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so does the other, for we have the same breath within us. In the end, we have no advantage over the animals. For as I have said, it’s all fleeting.
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.
Then I saw yet another thing: envy fuels achievement. All the work and skills people develop come from their desire to be better than their neighbors. Even this is fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind.
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Again I observed another example of how fleeting life is under the sun:
Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
There seemed to be no limit to all the people who were under his authority. Yet those who will come later will not be happy with him and will refuse to follow him. Even this, you see, is fleeting—power and influence do not last—like trying to pursue the wind.
There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Daydreaming and excessive talking are pointless and fleeting things to do, like trying to catch hold of a breath. What good comes from them? It is better to quietly reverence God.
Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.
As the saying goes: Those who love money will never be satisfied with money, and those who love riches will never be happy with what they have. This, too, is fleeting.
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.
Sometimes God gives money, possessions, and even honor, so that we have everything a person might desire; nothing is lacking. But then, for reasons God only knows, God does not allow him to enjoy the good gifts. Rather, a stranger ends up enjoying them. This, too, is fleeting; it’s a sickening evil.
God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
because the stillborn arrives in a fleeting breath and then goes nameless into the darkness mourned by no one and buried in an unmarked grave.
It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded.
It is better to enjoy what our eyes see than to long for what our roving appetites desire. This, too, is fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind.
Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
For the laughter of fools is like the hiss and crackle of burning thorns beneath a pot. This, too, is fleeting.
Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.
In the fleeting time I have lived on this earth, I have seen just about everything: the good dying in their goodness and the wicked living to a ripe old age.
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
I have witnessed the wicked buried with honor because during their lifetimes they would go in and out of the temple, and soon their crimes were forgotten in the very city where they committed them. This, too, is fleeting.
Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.
Here is another example of the fleeting nature of our world: there are just people who get what the wicked deserve; there are wicked people who get what the just deserve. I say this, too, is fleeting.
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
Enjoy life with the woman you love. Cherish every moment of the fleeting life which God has given you under the sun. For this is your lot in life, your great reward for all of your hard work under the sun.
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.
If a person lives many years, then he should learn to enjoy each and every one; but he should not forget the dark days ahead, for there will be plenty of them. All that is to come—whether bright days or dark—is fleeting.
However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.
When all is said and done, clear your mind of all its worries. Free your body of all its troubles while you can, for youth and the prime of life will soon vanish.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Life is fleeting; it just slips through your fingers. All vanishes like mist.
Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”

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9 thoughts on “Life is Fleeting: Hebel in Ecclesiastes”

  1. Go, lovely Rose!
    Tell her that wastes her time and me
    That now she knows,
    When I resemble her t thee,
    How sweet and fair she seems to be.
    Then die! that she
    The common fate of all things rare
    May read in thee;
    How small a part of time they share
    That are so wondrous sweet and fair!
    --Edmund Waller 1606--1687

  2. Read Robert Alter's translation of Ecclesiastes. He translates hebel as "mere breath."

  3. Thanks Richard; a great piece as ever. I've always appreciated Michael Fox's translation 'absurd'. It captures the fleeting sense but also imparts a wry humour which accords with my enjoyment of Camus and Kierkegaard. Plus, it captures my constant awareness of the fruitful, fun and often bewildering absurdity of our existence. Thought the article itself might be of interest to you too.

    The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet
    Michael V. Fox
    Journal of Biblical Literature , Vol. 105, No. 3 (Sep., 1986) , pp. 409-427

  4. Since Alexandrian and Byzantine text forms refer to NT, I don't understand how that could be relevant here? For OT all mentioned translations of course use the masoretic text.

  5. LOL -- you are absolutely right. I was feverish the day I wrote that (believe it or not). Good catch.
    Nice to get some feedback on comments after putting some effort into them, even if only for 1/4 points. Thanx, Sami

  6. Congratulations on tackling a portion of the Bible rarely read much less taught in a church setting. Is trying to understand Eccleasties a profitable pursuit or an exercise in futlity? Under your challenging tutelage surely something helpful and uplifting will occur.....I hope. :)

  7. I've been looking at The Voice, the translation not the tv show, and have liked most of what I have read so far. I noticed that they changed Junia to Junias in Romans 16:7. It is not a change I would have thought they would have made.

  8. I agree that "fleeting" captures the essence of Hebel much better than "meaningless" (that was a translation error based on an erroneous view of the book). Fleeting works well in verses like 11:10 where our youth is fleeting and does not last. It doesn't appear to communicate quite as well when paired with its companion phrase, chasing or shepherding the wind. In this situation it appears that the older word "futile" works better. Kohelet's key question is "what do you gain from all your hard work?" As he examines different pathways to finding gain he declares that each one is indeed futile for it cannot take you anywhere. Something may be fleeting but still provide a benefit - when we work together we both benefit from our labor. As Kohelet compares work pursued as an end versus work enjoyed as part of the journey he argues that none of our efforts at finding lasting benefit (yithron) through our work will result in anything lasting, they are all futile.

  9. Ooh. It's about time for me to try a different translation of the Bible, and this one looks interesting. Thanks.

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