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Word Study Wednesdays

God bless you and greetings in the name of Jesus Christ who can save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).

Although some words may seem to deal with abstract concepts, finding their associations with concrete realities can help to visualize the abstraction and make its usage more tangible.  Words may be considered abstract if they express a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance, such things as justice, poverty, speed and the one we will be handling today, vanity.

The first words of the preacher or teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes are, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities; all is vanity!”  What a way for the preacher to start his instruction.  This declaration is only 6 words in Hebrew, and 5 of the 6 are the Hebrew, hebel.  Hebel occurs 37 times in Ecclesiastes, and only 33 times in all the rest of the Old Testament.  Its primary meaning is breath or vapor.  Whatever the translation of hebel may be, each is an attempt to grasp the elusive meaning of the original Hebrew, but they all capture something of the original’s emphasis on emptiness.

“Vanity of vanities” is a well-known Hebrew idiom signifying vanity in the highest degree.  It is a common Hebrew superlative, as are the phrases “Heaven of heavens,” “Song of songs,” “Holy of holies,” “Lord of lords,” and “King of kings.”  It refers to highest form of vanity, or vanity taken to the nth degree.  In English “vanity” can refer to the state of being vain in the sense of overestimating one’s self-importance, and it can also refer to worthlessness, futileness, and unprofitability.  It is the major thrust or theme of Ecclesiastes.

People came from all over the earth to hear Solomon’s instruction.  He was not a common or ordinary preacher; he spoke much in public and his instruction was eagerly sought out.  Certainly, if his instruction was so eagerly pursued, it could not have been worthless.

I Kings 4:34:
And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom.  [See also. I Kings 4:31; 10:24).

Hebel refers to a fleeting breath or a puff of air.  It’s here one moment and gone the next.  It functions much like a bubble:  it exists shortly before disappearing and leaves nothing profitable behind (James 4:14).  Whereas the word ruach tends to carry positive associations having to do with life-giving breath, the word hebel carries negative associations relating to what vanishes.  It never appears in the same verse as neshamah, that life-giving breath mentioned in Genesis 2:7.  It only occurs with ruach in Ecclesiastes and Isaiah 57:13.  Although all three words can refer to “breath” hebel is not perceived, positively.

Hebel is used to describe the temporary nature of accomplishments (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3; 2:4-11, 18-23; 4:4-8), words (Ecclesiastes 5:2-7; 12:12), memory (Ecclesiastes 1:11; 2:15-17; 9:4-5), possessions, (Ecclesiastes, 2:4-11; 4:8; 5:10-11; 6:1-2), human life (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22; 8:8-10; 9:12), and justice (Ecclesiastes 3:16; 5:8; 8:10–14).

Ecclesiastes talks repeatedly about everything being hebel.  If we associate it with the bursting of a bubble or a puff of smoke, we have a concrete image to relate to.  Now we can view life as being filled with things that vanish as quickly as a breath of air.  We seek pleasure, laughter, enjoyment, and youthfulness, but they vanish quickly (Ecclesiastes 2:1; 7:6; 9:9; 11:10).  Although we try to become wise, we stumble around as fools (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16, 19).  We work hard but have so little to show for it in the end (Ecclesiastes 2:21, 23).

Ecclesiastes 2:11:  [NET]
Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it, I concluded:  “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless [hebel] ― like chasing the wind [ruach]!  There is nothing gained from them on earth.

In Deuteronomy 32:21 God grows upset that people have run after fleeting and worthless idols while ignoring what truly lasts.  Reducing idols to puffs of air, deprives them of their power.  The Hebrew word hebel, as used in the Bible, calls readers to new ways of thinking and acting in the world.  It refers to something we all can feel, like a momentary breath.  The Bible uses this sensory word to make us rethink our priorities and bring the abstract concept of vanity into something tangible we can wrap our heads around.

Next Wednesday we will handle the fifth tip:  Words from the original text may be translated into English words which have been abandoned and not in common use.