Thankfully, Ecclesiastes puts its central theme and main metaphor at the beginning of the book. “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun?ECCLESIASTES 1:2-3
The word futile is repeated throughout Ecclesiastes nearly forty times. Some Bible versions translate this phrase as vanity (ESV, KJV) or meaningless (NIV), but none of these English words quite capture the depth of the original Hebrew word hevel.
Literally translated, hevel means vapor or smoke. It describes the way mist hovers in the lowlands on cool mornings and burns away as the sun rises.
It’s the fog that American poet Carl Sandberg describes as coming “on little cat feet.”
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.”1
It’s your breath on a freezing day that hangs and hovers in the air before it turns to nothing. It’s formless, empty, and void.
Translators render hevel as futility or emptiness to capture both the brevity of life and its mysterious nature. The point is this: Life is both short and hard to grasp. You cannot hold onto it nor can you completely understand it while you’re living it. Like a vapor, it rises quickly, coiling and twisting upward with no defined shape or direction until it simply disappears.
The book of Psalms (which is also Hebrew poetry) uses this same word to describe the fleeting nature of life under the sun.
In the New Testament, James also uses the image of a vapor to describe the brevity and unpredictable nature of life.
You do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes.JAMES 4:14
But while the imagery of vapor illustrates the brevity of life under the sun, it also hints to the Source of our life—a Source that might just provide the purpose and meaning we seek.
HEVEL AND THE BREATH OF GOD
As we’ve seen, Scripture often uses the image of a vapor or mist to describe the brief, enigmatic nature of our lives. Our days on earth float away from us before we have a chance to make sense of them. This reality has curious parallels to how Genesis 2 describes the beginning of human existence:
But mist would come up from the earth and water all the ground. Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.GENESIS 2:6-7
So how did the life that began with the “breath of God” somehow become characterized as a vapor that flies away? And how does the use of hevel in Ecclesiastes point us back to God?
Part of the answer lies in the first use of hevel which occurs in Genesis 4 only two chapters after God breathes life into mankind. Thematically, the events of Genesis 4 happen outside the Garden in a world marked by toil, sweat, and chaos. It’s there, “east of Eden” that we meet someone whose tragic existence represents all the futility and pain that life under the sun has to offer.
The Hebrew word hevel can also be transliterated hebel or even, Abel. That’s right. The word that Ecclesiastes uses to describe our brief, confusing life under the sun is the name of Adam and Eve’s second son. Why is this significant? Abel’s time under the sun was short and tragic. He did what was right but still suffered. His own brother, Cain, murdered him out of sheer jealousy. Abel’s life and name are both hevel.
Futile. Empty. Meaningless.
But that’s not the whole story. Because when God confronted Cain, God said Abel’s blood “cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). And there it is: our hope in the midst of a life of futile suffering. Just like mist and smoke ascend to heaven, so too do our cries. God hears and He responds.
Along with the Teacher, we must confess that so often our days are hevel. But even here, in hevel, we have hope. Just as God was not untouched by Abel’s suffering, He is not untouched by ours. And just as He first gave us life through His breath, we will be sustained by this same breath—all the short, vaporous, misty days of our lives.
1. Carl Sandberg, “Fog,” Poetry Foundation, accessed May 10, 2023, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45032/fog-56d2245d7b36c.
And here are some fun wallpapers for your desktop and phone! Click the images below to download.