A few years ago, I was driving with a colleague on the M1 Motorway after a day’s theological training. We were cracking jokes and mulling over the wisdom we had heard, and my mind kept turning to the squash match I had later that evening.
All of a sudden, those thoughts were shattered as the lorry in front of us drifted into a car, crushing it into the crash barrier. We slowed to stop, and ran along the verge to the stricken 4×4 to help.
In the end, the passengers were fine, thanks to some excellent engineering. But we were left shocked; not just by the crash, but by how close to death we had been; and by how suddenly and drastically everything could have changed. The Preacher’s opening words in Ecclesiastes bring me back to that big car crash—a blunt reminder to those of us who are complacent in our comfort that our lives are fleeting and fragile.
That is the idea brought to mind by the Hebrew word “hebel,” translated in the NIV as “meaningless” and the ESV as “vanity.” The word helps us see that our lives are like vapor or mist; beautiful but fragile, fleeting, and insubstantial. And this message rings true throughout Ecclesiastes, as the opening lines declare:
says the Teacher.
Everything is Hebel.”
The author writes as a spiritual Teacher (v. 1), someone privileged enough to experience all the pleasures life has to offer and wise enough to understand his experience.
And his investigation leads him to ask:
“What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?”
It’s a pertinent question for the 21st Century, where many of us toil and sacrifice everything on the altar of our careers and reputations. And the word “toil” doesn’t merely refer to paid employment. Growing a family, developing a skill, and being a faithful friend all require hard, brutal toil.
But the Preacher observes that our lives are fleeting, so the natural world doesn’t notice us (vv. 4-7), our senses don’t satisfy us (v. 8), no novelty will surprise us (vv. 9-10), and later generations won’t remember us (v. 11). No amount of toil will change that.
Cheerful stuff this is not. Why on earth is it in the Bible?
Well, as wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes inspires us to humbly trust and fear the LORD by helping us see that He is infinite but we are not.
Knowing that the things we pursue in this life—like fame, pleasure, or wealth—won’t last, or that our lives can disappear in an instant, as that car crash reminds me, I’m challenged to not take my life too seriously but to take God’s judgment very seriously indeed; to not grasp the things of this life selfishly, but to appreciate them as a gift; and to see the folly of over-planning every detail of my life, knowing that life will throw up shocks along the way.
But most of all, by showing us our lives are “hebel,” Ecclesiastes will help us long for the significance that Jesus provides.
Our lives may be a vapor. But the gospel has some uplifting words for us too. In it, we see a God who, despite a seemingly uncaring creation, dignifies us, loving us enough to die and rise again for us, to guarantee us an eternal future with Him. When we entrust Jesus with our mortality, He gives us a future and purpose that will never fade away (Mark 8:35).
—By James Bunyan, England
Questions for reflection
- Why do we forget that our life is vapor? When are we likely to remember?
- Do you naturally find these truths depressing or liberating? Why?