Fathom Mag

Nope, It Don’t Mean Vanity

An excerpt of Russell Meek’s new book “Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning in an Upside-Down World”

Published on:
June 1, 2022
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7 min.
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Editors Note

One of the unexpected aspects of adult life is the number of times I find myself asking, “What the actual hell?” Certainly, the loss of naivety makes way for me to see God’s goodness seeping into the unexpected, but it also confirms that the counterpart to goodness thrives. Wherever I look, evil finds new (to me) levels of awful, when the right thing should win out it loses in dramatic fashion, and even the best things in life fade fast while the worst things hold on to drain the dear life out of, well, everything. I think that’s why I have such an affinity for what might be the most honest, tell-it-like-it-is book in all the Bible—the book of Ecclesiastes. And I am not the only one, resident Fathom columnist Russel Meek has written a new book on it. And it’s excellent. 

Purchasing through the links in this article may earn Fathom a small comission.

Now, are my feelings about this book biased because Russ writes a Fathom column, of course. But there’s a reason we jumped at the chance to regularly have Russ’s words in our publication. Russ has a gift of inviting you into the Bible viscerally. His words make complicated ideas feel like they have always made sense. He looks at the details of the scriptures in a way that shows you the whole Bible more clearly. He writes with astuteness, with thoughtfulness, and with the kind of language that’s more than “accessible” it’s downright fun to read. In Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning in an Upside-Down World you find that “What the actual hell?” may be a question asked by the wise and that God’s answer for it leads you to meaning and to hope. 

In a few days we will have a giveaway and two of you will win the book for yourself. But  I hope all of you will read this excerpt from Russel Meek’s newest book and that you won’t stop there—there are plenty of links in this article for you to purchase Russ’s work and come to love Ecclesiastes yourself.  

- Kelsey Hency, editor-in-chief

Abel and the Meaning of “Hebel” in Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1:2 loudly proclaims that everything is hebel, a refrain repeated throughout the book. The first occurrence of this word in the Old Testament comes at the beginning of Genesis, in the Cain and Abel (hebel) narrative. Names often reveal some aspect of a person’s character in the Old Testament, or, like scholar Tremper Longman says, “naming captures the essential nature of a person or thing.”[1] For example, Cain was “gotten” by Eve (Gen 4:1), and Abraham is the “father of a multitude” (Gen 17:5). The same holds true for Abel—the non-metaphorical meaning of his name is “breath” or “vapor,” which is, by its nature, ephemeral and transient.[2] Jacques Ellul states that Abel was so named for this very reason. Even though he is the righteous character in the narrative, his life is cut short by Cain.[3] Abel is thus the embodiment of transience. Joseph Blenkinsopp also argues that Abel’s name presupposes his murder at the hands of his brother, indicating that Abel is “breath,” a theme that Qohelet develops by commenting on the transience of all humans (for example, Eccl 3:19–20).[4] This allusion continues throughout the book. By using hebel as the leitmotif of the book, Qohelet expands the theme of transience and injustice introduced in Genesis 4: everyone and everything in life is subject to the reversal of fortunes that Abel experienced.[5] 

The obedient should experience tangible blessings that add value to one’s life.

However, it seems more is at work in Qohelet’s writing than simply the matter of transience. Rather than referring only to the transience of life, Ecclesiastes uses hebel also as a symbol to discuss how several situations in life mirror the experiences of Abel. Each situation that Qohelet deems hebel in some way relates to the reversal found in Abel’s story. Instead of explicitly stating his assessment of a situation, he leaves it to the reader to decide which aspect of Abel’s life he refers to: transience, the lack of congruence between his actions and rewards, the injustice he suffers, or his inability to attain lasting value, all of which are summed up in the failure of the retribution principle in Abel’s life.

Qohelet states in Ecclesiastes 1:14 that he has seen all the works done under the sun and that they are all hebel and a pursuit of wind. By making hebel parallel with pursuing wind, Qohelet points to the inability of all people, like Abel, to grasp anything with lasting value. The obedient should experience tangible blessings that add value to one’s life. For Qohelet, however, the one-to-one correspondence between actions and rewards has disappeared, so now the attainment of lasting value through our actions is like attempting to grasp wind. In Ecclesiastes 2:15 Qohelet laments that the wise and foolish are alike in their end—death. No one escapes Abel’s fate, the culmination of the curses that God pronounced after the fall.[6] This also resembles Abel in that the relationship between one’s actions and one’s rewards is incomprehensible. Fool or wise, both are subject to the same fate.

Qohelet states in Ecclesiastes 3:19 that “man has no advantage over the beasts, for all are hebel.” This passage outlines the similarity between humans and animals, namely that they share the same breath and the same fate—death. In this way, Qohelet elaborates on the theme of transience introduced in Genesis 4. As Abel was transient, so is everything else—human and animal alike. Similarly, the “Royal Experiment”[7] of Ecclesiastes 2 finds that everything in life is ephemeral, lacking any lasting value, and that humanity’s only recourse is to enjoy the gifts of God—eating, drinking, a spouse, and pleasurable toil, which are themselves also transient (Eccl 2:24–25).

As in the Cain and Abel narrative, so in the rest of life—sometimes the disobedient receive blessing while the obedient receive curses.

Another aspect of Abel’s life that Qohelet discusses is the disconnect between hard work and the fruits of one’s labor. For example, he states in 4:4, “And I myself saw all the toil and all the skill of work, that this is from the envy of a man of his fellow. This also is hebel, and a pursuit of wind.” Qohelet indicates that labor and work—the effort to acquire—result from envy of others. Instead of obedience to the Lord that results in blessing, people rely on their own ingenuity and hard work, thus reversing the order of the world. Blessing appears to come from one’s own hand, not God’s.[8] 

Qohelet goes on to discuss the fact that the person who has no children in 4:8 resembles the life of Abel: “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself from the good? This also is hebel and an evil task.” Qohelet works tirelessly to establish wealth and honor, yet he does not receive the blessing of descendants to inherit his wealth. This is a situation that should not exist, for wealth itself represents blessing from Yahweh, a “normal reward for righteous living.”⁹ However, Yahweh has withheld from him the further blessing of progeny, even though the person who has obtained the blessing of wealth should also experience the blessing of children. The former without the latter is an “evil” thing. 

Finally, Qohelet states in 8:14 that “there is hebel that is done upon the earth: that there are righteous to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is hebel.” This passage is Ecclesiastes’s most explicit reference to the reversal of the expected order of life. As in the Cain and Abel narrative, so in the rest of life—sometimes the disobedient receive blessing while the obedient receive curses.[10] Life often lacks congruency between actions and results, which is perhaps what Qohelet asks his readers to remember when he says “Abel of Abels, everything is Abel.”

It’s a book that guides readers—ancient and modern alike—through the vagaries of life in the post-fall world.

As I mentioned at the outset of this chapter, the linguistic overlap between the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes and its use in Genesis is only one term. However, hebel is a rare word in the Old Testament, occurring only eighty-six times, with thirty-eight of those occurrences in Ecclesiastes and eight of them in Genesis 4. The clustering of the term in Ecclesiastes indicates its prominence for the book as a whole, and its use in Gen 4, where it names one of the narrative’s main characters, indicates its prominence there. The bulk of the evidence for Qohelet’s use of hebel as an intentional allusion to Genesis 4 rests on Qohelet’s overall use of Genesis and the thematic correspondences between Genesis 4 and Ecclesiastes. 

Purchase Ecclesiasties and the Search for Meaning in an Upside-Down World.

All that said, if we read hebel in Ecclesiastes as a reference to some aspect of Abel’s life, then the implications for how we understand “the Bible’s strangest book” are enormous.[11] First, reading the book as an examination of the “Abelness” of life—those situations in life when the relationship between actions and their expected results is broken—helps us to see the book not as the rumblings of a discontented sage but rather as the wrestlings of a faithful follower of God. Second, and related, if Ecclesiastes is using hebel as a symbol to refer to Abel’s life—and all that goes wrong in it—then the book also becomes about much more than the “meaninglessness” or “vanity” of life. Rather, it’s a book that guides readers—ancient and modern alike—through the vagaries of life in the post-fall world and offers solutions for how to navigate such a dark and twisted world—faithful obedience to God and enjoyment of his gifts. Taken together, these two implications mean that this ancient book is particularly relevant for not only our current cultural moment but for all times in which humans struggle to figure out what it means to follow God in a world turned upside down, which is what we’ll talk about next.

Russ Meek
Russ Meek (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a writer, editor, and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute. When he isn’t working, you’ll find him with his (much) better half, Brittany, and their three sons. You can follow him on Twitter at @russ_meek.

[1] Longman, Ecclesiastes, 177.

[2] K. Seybold, “Hebel,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 3:315. See also HALOT, 236–237.

[3] Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 50.

[4] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1–11 (London: T & T Clark, 2011), 84–85. See also Charles C. Forman, “Koheleth’s Use of Genesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 5, no. 3 (1960): 258.

[5] See Daniel Fredericks, Coping With Transience (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 1–32. Note also Robert Alter (The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary [New York: Norton, 2010], 346), who prefers the word “breath” because “Hevel, ‘breath’ or ‘vapor,’ is something utter insubstantial and transient, and in this book suggests futility, ephemerality, and also as Fox argues, the absurdity of existence.” 

[6] William H. U. Anderson, “The Curse of Work in Qoheleth: An Exposé of Genesis 3:17–19 in Ecclesiastes,” Evangelical Quarterly 70 (1998): 99–113.

[7]  Thomas Krüger, Qoheleth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 45

[8] This passage could also refer to the envy that Cain felt as a result of Yahweh’s accepting Abel’s offering while rejecting his own, which resulted in Cain’s acquisition of wealth and progeny while Abel suffered from lack of both. See Radiša Antic, “Cain, Abel, Seth and the Meaning of Human Life as Portrayed in the Books of Genesis and Ecclesiastes,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 44 (2006): 203–11.

[9] Robert Ellis, “Amos Economics,” Review and Expositor 107 (2010): 463–79. See also Deut 7:11–15.

[10] Longman (Ecclesiastes, 131) makes a similar observation about Eccl 3:22 but argues that Qohelet is uncertain whether there will ever be justice. 

[11] Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 23.

Cover image by Trevin Rudy.

Excerpt used with permission. 

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