Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Ecclesiastes Essay part 3

The key term hebel
Since the frame narrator claims Qohelet chose his words with great care (12:9-10), the particular words used in Ecclesiastes are significant for interpreting the author’s message. The Hebrew term hebel occurs nearly 40 times[1] and, from its primary meaning ‘breath’[2] is translated ‘vanity’ (KJV), ‘meaningless’[3] (NIV), or ‘futility’ (HCSB). The prevalence of this word, together with multiple mentions of death[4], often sees Ecclesiastes labeled pessimistic.
Qohelet observes hebel in earthly situations: pleasure (2:1); achievements and inheritance (2:11, 19, 21, 26; 4:4); wisdom (2:15) and foolishness (7:5-6); work and striving (2:17, 23; 4:4); the fate of death (3:19; 11:8) and the days of life (9:9); loneliness, wealth and discontent (4:7-8; 5:10; 6:2, 9); succession politics (4:16); rash vows (5:7); the unknowable future (6:12; 11:8); injustice (7:15; 8:10, 14); and youth (11:10). Whether hebel means futile[5] or fleeting[6], it is Qohelet’s account of ‘everything’ (1:2; 2:11; 3:19; 12:8). But it is vital to recognize that Qohelet never applies the term to God’s gift of joy nor to fearing God. Rather, his intent appears to be ‘first, to show where happiness could not be found.’[7] Qohelet’s observations here are similar to Isaiah’s comments regarding the futility of idolatry, and may be taken as a commentary on Isaiah 57:13 (also featuring the word hebel[8]):
  ‘Let your collection of idols save you!
The wind will carry all of them off,
  a mere breath will blow them away.’
Certainly this is cynicism in a high degree, but it must also be admitted that Qohelet’s pessimism is limited in scope to specific earthly idols through which people seek meaning. It does not apply to joy found in the simple life lived in fear of God.

[1] Schultz p. 212
[2] Weeks p. 79-80
[3] Fox argues for a definition of ‘absurd … counter-rational.’ (Fox p. xix)
[4] Enns p. 127
[5] useless, profitless, without purpose, ‘under the impact of death’ (Webb p. 93), unproductive (Fox p. xix). Goswell relates the ‘futility’ of Ecclesiastes to its reading at the Feast of Tabernacles (Goswell p. 686).
[6] transient, temporary (Fredericks & Estes p. 32; cf Schultz p. 212); transitory, passing, of no lasting significance (Webb p. 93, 95), ephemeral (Fox, p. xix)
[7] Welton p. 186
[8] e.g. Isaiah 57:13, Weeks p. 80-81

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