Since man is not able to discover the key to life by exploration, Qoheleth counsels him rather to enjoy life as a gift, in fear of the good and sovereign God.
“. . . Qoheleth deliberately chose a word with a calculated ambiguity; he skillfully employed it in a variety of contexts so that several associated meanings could be communicated without the use of synonyms. . . It must be emphasized that Qoheleth nowhere uses hebel pejoratively or with morally negative connotations. For Qoheleth hebel is a neutral term expressing brilliantly in its figurative nuances, the limitations of human activity and human wisdom” (R. Cover, “Hebel in Ecclesiastes,” Th.M thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978, p.76.)
Qoheleth consistently uses hebel with the nuance of “transient” of “fleeting” when he uses the term to describe man’s life (11:10; 6:12; 7:12; 9:9; 3:19).
Qoheleth uses hebel with the nuance of “perplexing” or “enigmatic” if occurrences upon earth which contradict the established moral order (6:2; 8:10; 8:14).
Qoheleth employs hebel often with the nuance of “futile,” “fruitless,” “unbeneficial.”
With reference to pleasure and wisdom, Qoheleth employs the hebel with the nuance of “profitless” (2:1; 2:15)
Qoheleth employs hebel in conjunction with re’uth ruach or ra’ayon ruach to denote a futile effort [(cf. Jn 3:8) 1:14; 2:11,17,26; 4:4, 16; 6:9]
. . . Here is the connection of hebel with Qoheleth’s characteristic formula re’uth ruach or ra’ayon ruach (1:14), which is to be rendered “feeding on wind” (Heb.) or “striving after wind” (Aram.). For in this combination hebel has its basic figurative meaning in the central passages, as in the royal statement of 1:12ff., with which the book originally opened. Prominence is thus given to the more intensive thought of breathing or striving for air, which symbolically undergirds statements about “vanity” (TDOT v3, p. 310).
Qoheleth employs hebel in contradistinction to yithron (profit) and tobh (good) and other terms which heighten the vividness of hebel.
Among the words used in antithesis to hebhel, yithron, “profit, advantage, gain” plays a dominant role as a term meaning “that which counts or matters,” “that which results or issues from all our work.” It forces upon hebhel the special sense “that which does not count or matter, “null,” “vain,” “that which yields no results.” Along the same lines, we find other antithetical terms such as cheleq, “part, portion,” (2:10) . . . tobh, “good” (2:3, 6:9), yether, “profit, advantage” (6:11). On the other side the parallel words tsel, “shadow,” and ruach, “wind” (5:15, 16) emphasize the aspect of fleetingness or transitoriness, while the additional terms choli, “affliction” (6:2), and ra’ah, “evil” (2:12) make the meaning of hebhel even clearer. (TDOT, v3, p. 319)
Qoheleth’s goal is to find what is lastingly tobh (good) or gives abiding yithron (profit, advantage). However, in his quest he finds nothing permanent in man’s experience, hence his verdict—hebel. (E.g. 1:3, 2:3, 11, 3:19, 5:6)
Qoheleth’s observations about the hebel nature of existence fall into two categories: Those things concerning creation and the present order which confront him on every hand and cause him to perceive the hebel condition of the world, and all human endeavors by which a man seeks for “profit and good” but which ultimately mock his attempts.
Qoheleth reflects upon creation and the present order which cause men to realize their hebel nature. (H. Baker sees these observations as “the causes of futility.” However, the ultimate cause is found in the fall of man as recorded in Genesis 3 and the fact that God has subjected the creation to vanity as Paul observes in Romans 8:20. The observations of Qoheleth drive home to man vividly, the fallen state of creation, but they are not properly causes of futility.)
Qoheleth observes the cyclical patterns in nature and concludes that the meaning to life cannot be found in the created order (1:5-8).
Qoheleth then looks at man for progress in history and technology as possibly giving the key to life, but concludes that any apparent progress is only illusionary, and that this does not held the key to life (1:9-11).
Qoheleth ponders the fact that the righteous and the wicked both suffer the fate of death, and concludes that this is another example of hebel (2:14, cf. 8:14).
Qoheleth observes the common fate of man and beast as another example of hebel (3:19).
Qoheleth sees that the reordering of the present order is beyond man’s control (1:15, 7:13).
Qoheleth sees prevalent injustice in the world as another example of hebel (3:16, 4:1, 5:7, 8, 7:15).
Qoheleth also sees the moral order overturned in his experience and concludes that this is hebel (8:14).
Qoheleth laments that the profit from his labor will be left to another and is hence hebel (2:18).
Qoheleth sees the fact that the future after death is unknown (11:8).
Qoheleth observes all human endeavors by which a man seeks “profit” and “good” to give meaning to life, and concludes that they are all hebel (1:14, 12:8).
Qoheleth concludes that toil is hebel because it is motivated by greed, does not yield happiness, and is impermanent.
Qoheleth concludes that wealth is hebel because it does not satisfy nor bring enjoyment, but rather brings anxiety (2:4-10, 4:17, 5:9).
Qoheleth concludes that wisdom is hebel since, rather than give meaning to life, it gives only a temporary advantage.
Qoheleth concludes that pleasure-seeking in its various forms is hebel because it ultimately accomplishes nothing (2:2).
Qoheleth concludes that fame is hebel since it is short-lived, depending on the masses who have only the briefest memory (4:13-16).
SUMMARY. Qoheleth’s verdict on life, beginning to end, is that it is all hebel (1:2, 12:8). “But is this verdict true? This is what Koheleth examines for us, turning life over and over in his hands so that we see it from every angle. And he forces us to admit that it is vanity, emptiness, futility; yet not in the sense that it is not worth living. Koheleth’s use of the term ‘vanity’ describes something vastly greater than that. All life is vanity in this sense, that it is unable to give us the key to itself. The book is a record of a search for the key to life. It is an endeavor to give meaning to live, to see it as a whole and there is no key under the sun. Life has lost the key to itself. ‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.’ If you want the key you must go to the locksmith who made the lock. ‘God holds the key to all the unknown.’ And He will not give it to you. Since, then, you cannot get the key, you must trust the locksmith to open the doors.” (J. Stafford Wright, “The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, Baker, 1972, p.140)
Qoheleth uses the term Elohim to refer to God 40 times in the book. The use of this name for God looks at his role as the sovereign creator who is transcendent over his creation. Elohim is employed particularly to drive home the point of God’s universal providence and sovereignty over all creation, who is thus to be feared and worshipped.
The personal name of Israel’s covenant-keeping God does not appear in Ecclesiastes, not because, as some have suggested, that Israel had passed beyond the need for a narrow nationalistic deity, nor because Qoheleth was estranged from an intimate relationship with YHWH (Yahweh), but because of the universal nature of his subject (“all,” “under the sun”). With a subject of common application to all mankind, the use of God’s name YHWH in his special covenant role with Israel, is inappropriate. This same preference for Elohim over YHWH can be seen in other wisdom literature as well.
Qoheleth, contrary to the opinions of many of his interpreters, has a theology proper which is totally orthodox. He is neither cynic nor skeptic. His concept of God falls well within the bounds of Old Testament orthodoxy.
Qoheleth sees as basic to God’s nature, the fact that he is good. That is, that which disposes him to be kind, cordial, benevolent and full of good will toward men.
Qoheleth sees God as the total sovereign over all of creation. By sovereignty of God it is meant that as creator of all things visible and invisible, God is the owner of all; and he, therefore, has absolute right to rule over all.
Qoheleth sees God as sovereign over time, in the sense that he foreordains a time for every event (3:1-14).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over eternity since he places the longing for it is man (3:11).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over all men whether wise, righteous, or sinner, and is recognized as such.
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over wealth and enjoyment (6:1-2,2:26).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over both prosperity and adversity (7:14).
Qoheleth believes God is sovereign over all events (7:13,1:15, 3:1-14).
Qoheleth sees God a just and righteous.
Qoheleth believes that God is eternal, since he places a sense of eternity in man, and that he judges all deeds (3:11, 12:14).
Qoheleth understands that God is wise; that is, he attains his ends in a way that glorifies him most.
Qoheleth believes that God is immutable, his being and perfections are unchanging. He sees the results of God’s activities as immutable. The necessary inference is the, that God’s character is unchanging.
Qoheleth believes that God is omniscient.
Qoheleth sees that God is omnipotent. This attribute is closely tied with sovereignty and is also reflected by Qoheleth’s consistent use of Elohim.
Qoheleth believes God is transcendent. God is in heaven (5:1).
Qoheleth believes that God is inscrutable. Man cannot discover the work of God (3:11, 8:17).
Qoheleth has a highly developed theology of creation, reflecting the opening chapters of Genesis (cf. Kaiser, p.36).
Qoheleth sees God as the creator of man (Ecc. 12:1, 7:29).
Qoheleth sees God as the creator of all things (11:5).
Adam (49 times) Qoheleth uses Adam generically for mankind. The term is universal and encompasses both male and female.
Ish (10 times) The term Ish is used specifically denoting an individual or man in contrast to a woman. (For a contrast in Qoheleth’s use of these two terms see 9:15).
Qoheleth uses the term basar as the practical equivalent of the body.
Qoheleth uses basar to refer to the person as a whole.
Qoheleth’s use of ruach, “spirit,” and nephesh, “soul,” appear to overlap.
Nephesh is what results when basar is animated by ruach. This last comes from without, only Yahweh possess it in its fullness, since occasionally he can be identified with it. . . .Ruach ceases to be a power lent to man and becomes a psychological reality residing in man in a permanent manner, and like nephesh able to be the seat of faculties and desire. . . .In the latest texts there is a tendency to identify the two terms with ruach predominating. . . .In spite of the tendency to merge, there remains a perceptible difference. . . “the spirit is the motive power of the soul.” It does not mean the centre of the soul, but the strength emanating from it and in its turn reacting upon it. (Jacob, O.T. Theology, p. 161-162)
Qoheleth uses ruach (spirit) in both the sense of the seat of emotion, and the “breath of life.”
Problematical is whether Qoheleth believes in an afterlife. The fact that he even raises the question in 3:19-21 seems to indicate that he believes that man is not merely the highest of the beasts. The fact that he states explicitly that God will bring every deed into judgment, coupled with the fact that he explicitly denies that every deed is judged during this life, indicates that he believes in some kind of an afterlife, although he nowhere speculates upon its nature.
Qoheleth uses nephesh as a near synonym for ruach, yet the nephesh seems to be joined more closely with the flesh than it the ruach.
Qoheleth uses heart as the seat of the intellect and the emotions.
Qoheleth affirms the universality of sin among men (7:20, 7:29).
Qoheleth sees man as ignorant.
Qoheleth sees a man’s life as transient (1:4, 2:3, 6:12, 11:10).
Qoheleth concludes that man is compelled to seek for an answer to the meaning of life. It is a task which wearies him and causes him grief and is doomed to ultimate failure. The failure of the search seems to be designed by God to bring men to a point of trust. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
Qoheleth does not express explicitly a belief in a hereafter. However, he hints that he does believe in some form of afterlife without making any comment upon its nature (cf. II. A. 3. above).
Qoheleth repeatedly admonishes men to “fear God” (3:14, 5:6, 8:12, 12:13). While not commanding a naked feeling of terror, the Old Testament admonition to fear God presupposed a sense of the awesome majesty of God and his holiness. The fear of the Lord involves a reverence and respect for God because of his greatness and an ordering of one’s life in light of this knowledge. (cf. ZPBE, sv. “fear,” and Payne, Theology of the Older Testament)
Qoheleth urges men to enjoy life as a gift from the hand of a good God rather than futilely pursue the key to life.
Qoheleth’s advice to mankind is to order his life according to relative good.
Qoheleth expounds other “good” by which man should order his life (7:1-12).
“Because man’s existence is perforated with puzzles, the pieces of which he can never assemble, his only recourse is to attain a posture of faith toward his life under the sun and to live it to the hilt knowing that someday the puzzle will be assembled by the One who created it and who will judge every deed.” (Howard Baker, “Theology of Ecclesiastes”)