THE BOOK OF Ecclesiastes, named Kohelet or Qohelet in the Hebrew text (קֹהֶלֶת), is one of the Wisdom Books in the Hebrew Scriptures which can be read as meditation texts rather than literal “rules”. In fact, if you read the Wisdom Books without context, there are some serious contradictions between Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes in a literal sense. Proverbs seems to say, “If you are godly and wise, everything will go well for you.” Job would indicate that’s not always the case at all. The speaker in Ecclesiastes chimes in with an admission that he doesn’t know at all: sometimes the righteous prosper and sometimes not. Sometimes the impious prosper, sometimes not. He can’t make heads or tails of the whole thing. His only draw, from 1:2 to 12:8 is that “all is vanity”. How does your text translate that word? The differences go from futility to meaningless to even “all is pointless.”
But the word might imply that in more recent English, yet I don’t think that’s the intent in the Hebrew text. I’ve been chewing on this since the word was pointed out on the Bible Project podcast last week. They mentioned this, also, in their origional overview video on this book. Neither made this connection though…
The word rendered as vanity or futility is hevel הָ֫בֶל which means “mist” or “vapor”. This is also the name of Eve’s second son, usually translated as Abel in Genesis 4:2. But it’s the same word.
The question I’m chewing on is, Why did the Babylonian compositors of the Tanakh as we know it today leave us this word in this way? They are rounding out the Torah with the names of Eve’s Children at the same time as they are dropping Koheleth into the text. What were they thinking or expecting us to see? (I also wonder, btw, Why these same compositors put the Tetragrammaton in the mouth of Eve, long before the name was revealed to Moses. It’s there in the preceding verse, Genesis 4:1.)
I remembered this post from 2017. I was commenting on 1 John 2:17, “And the world is passing away, along with its desires. But whoever does God’s will remains forever.” We think of “passing away”. like “yes, the world will end”… The Greek word used for “passing” παράγω parago, is the same word used to describe Jesus passing by the tax collector’s station or the crowd blowing past blind Bartimaeus. This is the word that Paul would have used to describe a car passing him on the freeway into Thessaloniki.
The world, in other words, is Hevel. Everything on which we hang our hopes outside of God, is Hevel. This is why “hevel” or “mist” gets used to describe idols throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, using the plural form “the hevelim of the goyim” the passing winds of the gentiles. The vanity of wealth, the mere breath of a passing shadow that is man, every man is Abel, every man is killed by the spear over doing what is right anyway… and his family mourns him. But must move on.
Abel, forgotten. But not really. For he came up again this morning in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Office of Readings for the Solemnity of St Joseph. Hebrews 11:4 “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and by it he, being dead, yet speaketh.” So, there is a way in which the righteous misty – being attested by God – is NOT just mist after all.
There is something to that at the end of Kohelet, right after he says that everything is nothing but a mist of mists.
hevel hahevelim… ha’col hevel הֲבֵ֧ל הֲבָלִ֛ים… הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל
Everything is mist except what points to God. For 12:13-14 wraps it up thus:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil.
As I noted in the post from 2017, the world is just whizzing by, is it not? Perhaps more now than ever before. And Christ on the Cross is the only still point in all of eternity.
All the things that we want today, that we didn’t even know existed yesterday, that we will have forgotten tomorrow like toys on Christmas that are forgotten by the new year, this world passes by. I’ve enjoyed, over the last three decades, watching fashion pass from the gay world into the straight world, be that shoe styles, popped collars, goatees, whatever. If it’s too gay this year, it will be all Joe the Plumber next year. But the gays will have moved on to a new thing. Tech is this way as well. What we didn’t even imagine as possible last month is all the rage now. And then tomorrow something new will come along.
The world just passes by. It is mist. It blows away when the winds change – but there is nothing but mists in that direction anyway as well.
And the cross is the center of stillness. The only solid thing in all of history is the incarnation of God. What God has done is always eternal and from conception on, History now has a solid core. There is something that makes the mist worthwhile, eternal.
We might render the verse from St John as saying, “And the world is hevel, along with all its hevelim. But whoever does God’s will remains forever.”
At funerals, the Byzantines do not sing, “rest in peace” but rather, “memory eternal.” We can be eternal too if we will cling to the only eternal real thing in all of eternity.
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