The Hebrew word “Hebel” has a pretty broad semantic range – meaning that translating it as “meaningless” is just one of many potential meanings. Literally it means “breath” – but its use in Ecclesiastes is metaphoric.
Scholars are divided on how best to translate it – Fox, in a 1986 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, settled on “absurd,” Waltke in his Old Testament Theology settled on “nonsense,” Provan, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes chose a “fleeting breath,” while Kidner, in his commentary chose “airy nothingness.”
Provan recognises a bit of circular reasoning involved in the process – Hebel is not used this way in the rest of the Bible, and to understand the way it is used we must understand Ecclesiastes, but to understand Ecclesiastes we need to understand the function of Hebel.
Fox, comments on the difficulty the word presents:
No one English word corresponds exactly to the semantic shape of hebel as Qohelet uses it, but it is possible to render the word by an equivalent that comes close to representing its range of meaning and that bears similar connotations. The best translation equivalent for hebel in Qohelet’s usage is “absurd, absurdity… The essence of the absurd is a disparity between two terms that are supposed to be joined by a link of harmony or causality but are, in fact, disjunct. The absurd is an affront to reason, in the broad sense of the human faculty that looks for order in the world about us.
Barry Webb’s Five Festal Garments follows the NIV’s “meaningless” translation, but agrees with Eugene Peterson that the notion of trying to pin down an exact translation of the word is futile. Peterson says “various meanings glance of its surface as the context shifts.”
Webb and Peterson suggest the word serves to demonstrate Qoheleth’s role as a debunker:
“He will not tolerate pretension or allow anything to appear more solid or satisfying than it really is. In a delightful image coined by Peterson, he uses hebel like a broom to sweep away all our illusions.”
Webb comments on the structure of the book, demonstrating a unity within the “frame” – “The body of the book is framed by a superscription, a thematic statement, and an opening poem at the beginning, and three corresponding elements in reverse order at the end: closing poem, same thematic statement, epilogue.”
He sees the internal structure of the book as a series of observations and instructions – hebel occurs 23 times in these observations (out of 38 times in the book). In the observations it is almost always used in a stereotyped conclusion: “This too is hebel.”
Hebel appears as a negative refrain, a “chasing after the wind” eight times. The observations made are to back up the introductory thesis that everything is meaningless.
Webb believes that ultimately hebel refers to the universality of death – it doesn’t matter what we achieve, we’re going to die. He says that’s part of the purpose of representing Solomon’s works and achievements as meaningless – it’s not his apostasy, as the prophets suggest, but his mortality, that makes his great wisdom altogether hebel.
Webb suggests that the writer of Ecclesiastes has Genesis 1-11 in mind as he writes, and that Hebel is not a simple fact, but a reference to the judgment God has placed on the world, a manifestation of the fall.
“The special contribution of Ecclesiastes is to insist on the presence of Hebel as a universal datum of human experience which must be acknowledged, and to rule out of court any kind of wisdom that refuses to do this – even if its practitioners claim to be disciples of Solomon. It guards wisdom against unreality.”
Kidner, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, suggests the “mere breath” of Ecclesiastes is a desperate and ominous description of that which is slight and passing. He thinks the doubling effect common in references “vanity of vanities” is a parody of “holy of holiness” – and thus utter emptiness stands in contrast with utter holiness.
Kidner both suggest the phrase “under the sun” is the key for defining the scope of the “hebel” statement – it’s not life under God, but life without him.
It is a phrase almost as common as “meaningless” – occurring nearly thirty times in the book. Others have suggested a temporal notion that goes with the phrase – that it means this lifetime, in this place.
Webb suggests that the “under the sun” is not exclusively used to exclude God from the picture.
“What is significant, however, is that the verdict of hebel is consistently maintained, whether God’s involvement with the world is on view at a particular point or not. Belief in God does not relieve the observed and experienced fact of hebel.”
Kidner believes that theologically, we need to read Ecclesiastes in the light of the epilogue to appreciate its place in the canon, and the nature of the discussion.
Webb suggests that the epilogue reintroduces the frame narrator, who seeks to put Qohelet’s thoughts into perspective. He suggests that the epilogue points to the one thing that remains when the searching of wisdom ends in frustration – the Fear of the Lord, which consists of keeping his commandments.
Andrew Shead makes an argument from the text itself, studying the form, and grammar to make a case for unity in style between the epilogue and the rest of the book, suggesting a single author, and a single voice. At this point, Tremper Longman’s objections that Ecclesiastes is a pagan book with no real redeeming features except the opening and closing statements fails to take into account Qoheleth’s purpose as identified by Kidner and others.