An Introduction to Ecclesiastes

Themes and Phrases in Ecclesiastes

Qohelet employs several important terms and repetitious phrases to represent key themes that weave together to illustrate the message of Ecclesiastes.  It is critical to trace these literary devices throughout the book to discover what Qohelet wanted each phrase or term to communicate to the reader.  If considered in isolation, certain phrases would appear contradictory to the message and unorthodox.  For example, if “all is vanity” provides the literal sum of the matter, why even go on reading the book!  At times Qohelet’s words appear contradictory and approaching nihilism or hedonism, but his orthodoxy is vindicated time and again as each phrase is interpreted within the context of the overall message and literary genre.

Hebel.19 Perhaps the most memorable expression in the entire book is Qohelet’s characteristic assertion “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”  The Hebrew word hebel is variously translated as vanity (NASB, KJV, NKJV, NRSV), futile (NET), and meaninglessness20 (NIV).  Further, it is translated in the Septuagint by mataio,thj,21 which carries the meaning of useless, futile, empty,22 or nonsense, nothingness, emptiness.23 Hebel has well over 30 occurrences in the book of Ecclesiastes.  Several categories of use may be seen:

First are those passages in which the author states his inability to find fulfillment in work, both in his failure to be creative and in his lack of control over the privilege of free disposition of his possessions; this is "vanity": 19, 21, 23; 8;. Second are those verses in which the author struggles with the idea that the connection between sin and judgment, righteousness and final deliverance is not always direct or obvious. This is an anomaly about life and it is "vanity":;;. The meaning of hebel here would be "senseless." Thirdly are those verses in which the author laments the shortness of life; this is "vanity":;; 10. Life, in its quality, is "empty" or "vacuous" (and thus unsubstantial), and in its quantity is "transitory."24  

Thus hebel
is used to describe the utter meaninglessness of all things apart from God.  Qohelet’s adamant assertion that “all is vanity” adeptly creates a literary effect that draws the reader into an experience of futility and frustrated reason. “The idea is that both individuals and their experiences are fleeting and transient.  The reason the writer declared everything useless was that nothing he did or gained provided him with enduring substance and happiness”25 (emphasis mine). Every use of hebel modifies a human effort, whereas it is never applied to the divine actions and gifts that are to be received as good and enjoyed.

Under the Sun.
26 Only in Ecclesiastes does this phrase make an appearance within the Hebrew canon.27 Qohelet employs this phrase to indicate that he is restricting his discussion to the earthly, temporal realm.  “Under the sun” is where the vanities of work, life, and pleasure exist for humanity.  Anything which Qohelet mentions as existing “under the sun” serves his exploration of the “abyss of pessimism.”28 This phrase is used by Qohelet as an important qualification to his use of hebel, so that God and heavenly realm are excluded.  Surely one of the most famous passages in Ecclesiastes occurs, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.”  Anything that is truly new has its origins from God, in the heavenly realm.  Mankind will continually repeat his mistakes, remaining the same fallen creature generation after generation.29

Striving after wind.
30 Qohelet often employs this phrase to describe the search for the unattainable.  The phrase is connected to hebel in all, reinforcing the conclusion that all “under the sun” is meaningless.31 Nothing will result from man’s labor in this life, just as nothing will result from a man grasping at the wind.

19Eccl. 1:2 (4 times), 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7f, 16; 5:6, 9 (English 5:7, 10); 6:2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14 (2 times); 9:9 (2 times) 11:8, 10; 12:8 (3 times).
20Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 62-64.
21Bauernfeind, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. IV, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. G.W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965. Reprint, 1999), 523, notes that mataio,thj is a very rare word in secular literature.  Noteworthy uses in the LXX are in Ps. 38:3; 143:4, and in the NT Rom. 8:20; Eph. 4:17 and 2 Pet. 2:18.  Bauernfeind argues that Rom. 8:20 is a “valid commentary on [Qohelet]…it tells us plainly that the state of mataio,thj (‘vanity’) exists, and also that this has a beginning and end.  Before its beginning and beyond its end is God…
22Louw, J. P. and E. A. Nida, Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (: [CD-ROM], Bibleworks 6, 1988).
23Friberg, Timothy and Barbara, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (: [CD-ROM], Bibleworks 6, 2000).
24Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (: [CD-ROM], Bibleworks 6, 1980).
25Bullock, C. Hassell, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, 192.
26Eccl. 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 5, 12; 8:9, 15 (2 times), 17; 9:3, 6, 9 (2 times), 11, 13; 10:5.
27Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 66.
28Eaton, Michael, Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary, 58.
29Ibid., 60.
30Eccl. 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9.
31Shank, H. Carl, “Qoheleth's World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, (1 Fall 1974), 68.