All is ‘Hevel’: Finding Meaning in Ecclesiastes (Koheleth)

Ecclesiastes - hevel - vapor

Many great thinkers have reported benefiting considerably from the book of Ecclesiastes (or ‘Koheleth,’ as it’s known in Hebrew). The word ‘Koheleth’ directly translates as the assembler of the people and true to its title, the book states, for these people, the author’s conclusions of his long and fully-lived life.

Ecclesiastes is both an incredibly easy book to synthesize (its leading refrain—that all is ‘hevel’ or vapor/meaningless—is repeated throughout) and a great challenge to explain (it’s nihilism is found essentially nowhere else in the Bible).

Personally, I’ve not benefited much from the wisdom literature of the Scriptures, but I think that is because it is so challenging to understand. Yet, on my most recent read-through of Ecclesiastes it made sense like never before. I hope, perhaps, I am learning what Solomon learned without the painful end that he experienced.

Much scholarly debate about the book centers on its structure and whether there is a single or multiple voices represented in the text. However, the most helpful framework I’ve found for approaching this book has simply been to reflect on its plainly stated conclusions while considering what we know of Solomon’s life.

It’s quite remarkable that we actually have so much of Solomon’s life in the books of Scripture. Portions of his life are recorded in the historical books of Kings and Chronicles and his own first person writings appears in Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. The multiple books actually fit together quite nicely.

In his life, Solomon set out to be the wisest of all men and his quest led him, as we are told in Ecclesiastes, to experience everything ‘under the sun.’ We read of Solomon’s romantic pleasures as a young man in his Song of Solomon. Next, we read Solomon’s insightful guidance put forth in Proverbs, likely written as a middle-aged, venerable monarch. And lastly, we read the conclusion of all of Solomon’s observations of this world in Ecclesiastes, which some say was Solomon’s final book, written as an elderly man. We have herein in Scriptures not just a historical picture of Solomon at each stage of his life but a primary corpus of work from each stage.

So what is it that Solomon concludes?

Solomon reasons that all activities on this earth are ‘hevel,’ or like smoke, vapor, a breath. They are ephemeral. And Solomon appears to be in anguish over this.

When Solomon was first appointed king, he approached God’s altar and begged in earnestness for wisdom, and seemingly for pure reasons. Yet Solomon’s wisdom was not enough to keep him from turning from God.

Interestingly, God’s law (Deuteronomy 17:16-17) contained fascinating guidance for rulers: “The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.”

Yet, we are told in 2 Chronicles 1:14-15 that “Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones…Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt.” Furthermore, Solomon acquired hundreds of wives and concubines. It seems Solomon violated nearly every tenet set forth for a king in Deuteronomy.

(As an aside, I find some of the Deuteronomy text simply fascinating. For example, “When he [the King] takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites” (Deuteronomy 17:19-20). Not only is the king to read the Scriptures daily, but he is to copy the scroll himself. What a remarkable retention and focus on the Torah this would have created in a leader. And the explicit goal of not having the king consider himself any greater than his subjects shows how early God was teaching these values to humanity.)

Nevertheless, Solomon’s desire to experience everything, in the name of wisdom, led him to turn from God. Solomon ultimately allows the worship of idols and sinister deities in Israel. Yet, in all, Solomon retains his wisdom. And at the end of Solomon’s life he reflects that all of his early striving for success, power, and pleasure were vapor. This book is perhaps so painful because Solomon’s regret is palpable.

The phrase ‘under the sun’ is repeated disproportionately in the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon writes only of life ‘under the sun’—that is, here on earth and its physical dimensions. Solomon does not meditate deeply on life ‘over the sun’—the spiritual dimension, the realm of Yahweh.

To me, Ecclesiastes has been yet another reminder to not seek meaning or permanence in what is done here ‘under the sun.’ Rather than advance a nihilistic mindset, this book is a confrontation to the lies I am so prone to believe, that I can build something here that will be grand, that will bring acclaim, that will last forever. That desire for foreverness is not meant to and cannot reach its fulfillment in what we do ‘under the sun’—that sort of quality (I must constantly remind myself!) can only be found in Yahweh, in life ‘over the sun.’