"Koheleth's Warning: Meaningless, Meaningless, All is Meaningless" (Part 4 of 8)
Let’s begin now with our journey by returning to Chapter 1 and verse 1. And let me make some observations about specific verses here. "These are the words of Koheleth, Son of David, King in Jerusalem." What is it that this Koheleth has to say? Verse 2, "Meaningless, meaningless," says Koheleth, "utterly meaningless." Everything is meaningless. Or, if you are reading the authorized version, "Vanity," says the preacher, "all is vanity." Even in Hebrew, this memorable statement is emphasized because you have alliteration going on here. In Hebrew, you have hevel, havalim, hachol, hevel. Every word begins with a hey. Hevel, havalim, hachol, hevel. Vanity. Meaningless. This is what the wise man has to say. What is this word "vanity" or in Hebrew, hevel? What does this mean? Well, we have to be careful here and not misconstrue it... You remember that song, "you're so vain..." a couple of years ago. This is not the vanity spoken of. It is not somebody who is always primping or covering their hair or whatever. We've seen a lot of that vanity, haven't we, especially in some ecclesiastical circles. But, we're speaking here of something far more philosophically profound than your mere appearance.
We're speaking at the fundamental level of something that has to do with "vapor" or "breath." That is the literal meaning of hevel. Vapor or breath. By extension therefore, it refers to anything that is insubstantial. Evanescent, Ephemeral. Something that is transient, something that is worthless. Something that is empty, futile. Or, the NIV, which I sort of like because it is so existentialist. It's meaningless. Something like Jean Paul Sartre would say. Meaningless. This is what the Biblical writer is saying. He is referring to the fact that everything, all, all has the character of a breath. You go out into the night air and it is cool outside and then you blow your breath and you see it, and then you see it no more. That is the way life is, it is but a vapor. One of the sages, one of the rabbis said our lives, even if they were just like the shadow of a tree, they would be something, but they are not even that. They are like the "shadow of a bird in flight." That's what our life is like. That's what the world is like. It's a bird in flight that suddenly casts a fleeting shadow on the ground. And then it is gone. Koheleth says, Hevel, havalim, hachol, hevel. Meaningless, meaningless, empty, empty. All of life is empty.
Now, verse 2 b says, "everything" in the NIV or "all" in the King James. What does the "all" refer to here? You've got to be careful here to understand this context. The Wisdom literature was not written primarily for God's people. Wisdom literature, typically, was written for the world. For the pagans, for anyone. It's a universal kind of wisdom. And the author here is speaking that way. What is the all he is referring to? He is referring to everything in the world. The idiom that is used in verse 3 is "under the sun." Everything under the sun. Now that idiom means, literally, "in the earth" or "in the world." Everything in the world is meaningless. We could say it, perhaps, better by saying, everything from the world's point of view, in contrast to from the divine point of view. From the human point of view, everything is a vapor, a vanishing shadow. It's empty. Of course, this doesn't refer to everything, everything. Because, if that were true, you would say that God's word is empty, and a vapor. And the rabbis addressed that point. Doesn't surprise you, does it? They say, no, it doesn't refer to Torah because Torah is not under the sun, Torah is above the sun. What are they saying? Torah, the Word of God, was created before the creation of the world. Torah was one of seven things that existed before the world was even created, including repentance and the throne of glory and so forth. And, in a figure of speech, it is above the sun. So, in other words, everything, all of man's labor, all of man's labor in the world, everything in the world, quote, unquote, all activities of life, from the human point of view, are but a vapor. They're empty. They are finally futile.
But, of course, we must remember that there is not only the human point of view, there is the divine point of view. There is not only the space/time continuum of this world. There is also the holiness dimension that intersects the space/time continuum. We'll deal with that later. But, right now, we must emphasize this point, you see. You say, I'm not interested in this point. You should be interested in this point, because the truth of the matter is, you're chasing vapors, even though you affirm the divine aspect of existence. The vast majority of your time, you are running twice as fast to stay in place and hold onto a vapor, whether it be your ambition of a job or your wealth or your good looks and buying all the new products to dry your skin and get facelifts. It is all a vapor. This is the world. And we are in the world. So we need this wisdom.
Now, notice verse 3. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun. What does man gain? This word "gain" is the Hebrew word yitron. It's an interesting word. It can be translated as "profit," because it's a term of commerce. It's a business term. It refers to a wage or reward or profit. In other words, we could rephrase Koheleth's question and say, "where's the profit in life?" Let's be good and American about this. Let's be real pragmatic. Where's the profit in life? Or where that woman said a couple of years ago...where's the beef? Let's get through the bread and the pickle and the mustard. Let's get to the meat of the subject. Where's the profit in life? Where is the gain? What is the point of it all? It reminds me of Jesus' statement, What does it profit a man even if he gains the whole world and loses his life? Where is the profit in that? It is the same idea exactly. The point that the writer is making here is that under the sun, in the world, that there is neither gain, reward nor profit. There is nothingness. There is vapor. There is meaninglessness. Our effort in the world and the world itself doesn't yield a residuum of value. It's empty. It's futile. And neither the world, nor our labor in it, profits us anything, in the ultimate sense.
But, you say, are you saying that it is not profitable to study the Word of God, Torah? The rabbis had an answer to that. Does that surprise you? Notice what it says... What does a man gain from all his labor? The rabbis, the sages said...you see, what is being talked about here is what we do by way of aggrandizing ourselves in this world, being of this world. There is nothing profitable in that. But, of course, there is profit in toiling in Torah, in laboring in the Word of God. That yields, the Word of God says, an abundant harvest.
So, we're talking here about under the sun. But what I find interesting here is this, in Hebrew, what the writer says is "Mah yitron?" Mah is the word what. What...it is a question. Do you know that the truest sign of wisdom is somebody who asks profound questions? I'm more convinced of that than ever in my life. That the greatest wisdom is given evidence when you ask the right questions. If you ask the right questions, you'll get the right answers. The people I’m impressed with are not people who have all the right answers but people who know the right questions.
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