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Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
Everything hinges in this week's reading on the meaning of the Hebrew word hebel, usually translated "vanity" (KJV and NRSV), "meaningless" (NIV and NIB), or "futility" (TNK). The word first appears in the Old Testament in Genesis 4 as the name of the second-born son of Adam and Eve, the younger son Abel. This Abel (hebel) is "disappeared" by his brother Cain, who, though he is the elder, disclaims any responsibility for "keeping" the life of his brother Abel. In Deuteronomy 32:21 we begin to see both the theological significance of the term and the sense that it has in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, and especially Ecclesiastes). In Wisdom literature hebel is understood to be the natural result of foolishness, so it is not surprising to find Israel's "vanities" (hablehem) and the words "a foolish nation" (goy nabal) used as synonyms in parallel phrases. Moreover, since the "fear of the LORD" is "the beginning of wisdom," it should not come as a shock that vanity and foolishness are closely associated with the opposite of the "fear of the LORD," i.e., idols (not-gods). Quite often hablehem (their vanities) is often translated as shorthand for "their worthless idols" (1 Kings 16:13, 26; 2 Kings 17:15; Isaiah 57:13; Jeremiah 2:5, 8:19, 10:8, 14:22, 16:19; Jonah 2:9; Psalm 31:7). The pursuit of folly, which ends in futility, is idolatry.
Vanity is naught, nothing, nihil, and not. It is the tohu wabohu of pre-creation. It is the opposite of being, the opposite of full life.
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- having beauty and charm, which are fleeting and deceitful (Proverbs 31:30)
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- having a so-called ally who does not (or cannot) come to your aid when you are attacked (Isaiah 30:7; Lamentations 4:17)
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- working hard, toiling, laboring, spending your last bit of strength and energy, without seeing any result (Isaiah 49:4, note that in this case the "backstop"/insurance of payment is the LORD; if the LORD comes through, then the labor has not been in vain, though it may seem so now)
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- trusting in that which the moth eats, things that rust and decay (Psalm 39:12)
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- living as if this life were the reality and substance, though all of its hustling and bustling, to-ing and fro-ing is a mere shadow of existence, living as phantoms (Psalm 39:7, 144:4)
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- piling up stuff without any way of knowing who will benefit; showing distinction between high and low class; robbing others; getting a buck the lazy way (Psalm 39:7, 62:10-11, Proverbs 13:11, 21:6)
(Image source, http://images.oprah.com/images/tows/200909/20090910/20090910-tows-hoarding1-290x218.jpg; see Buried in Treasures)
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- continuing to argue or trying to prove one's innocence after a verdict has been rendered (Job 9:29, closely related to the notion above of "toiling in vain")
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- telling lies or babbling nonsense, words of comfort offered to someone who is inconsolable, pseudo-wisdom or advice from someone who does not know anything (Zechariah 10:2; Job 21:34, 27:12, 35:16; Proverbs 21:6)
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- having a vision, hope, or promise that comes from your own head--going our own way, following our own thoughts and designs (the human imagination)--rather than from the mouth of God (Jeremiah 23:16; Psalm 94:11)
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- one's life (hebel, "a breath"; or tephach, a "handbreadth") in contrast to eternity or "in the sight of God" (lo' le`olam, "not for eternity"; Job 7:16, Psalm 39:6)
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The word hebel, vanity-meaningless-futile-worthless, occurs in some 30 separate verses in the space of twelve chapters in Ecclesiastes. We need only read the second verse to understand the conclusion reached by the preacher/teacher, Qohelet: all is vanity. Life is a zero sum game, for wise person and fool alike. There is no difference in the end (12:8). Whether pleasure (2:1) or work (2:11), no overall profit to distinguish one from the other (2:15).
At first glance, Jesus is a kindred spirit to Qohelet. He refuses to be exalted as arbitrator. He cautions against greed and accumulation of wealth, using Old Testament Wisdom to ask: after you have died, "whose then will these things be that you have prepared for yourself?" He points to the "Lilies of the Field" (think of dandelions!) and the birds of the air as recipients of God's provision. We too may count on God to provide, releasing us from every concern save one, striving for the kingdom of God (12:31 = being "rich toward God"). [But don't worry, even about this, for it is the Father's "good pleasure" to give you the Kingdom. 12:32] Of what does that kingdom for which we are to strive consist? The gospel of Luke has a few answers: 13:20, 18:17 (children) and 18:24 (those who are poor).