From the second lecture in the audio seminar Abounding Emptiness, Abundant Living
If we are to understand this controversial book of Koheleth and benefit by the wisdom of its author, it is very important that we rightly divide it. There have been numerous schemes of division proposed; some say that it has no scheme to it at all, no logic... It is just the ramblings of a sage, but I believe that the most effective division of it is four separations, following the paradigm of Professor Kaiser. The first division begins with Chapter 1, verse 2 and runs through Chapter 2, verse 26. That is where we began previously and where we will continue. The second division runs through Chapter 3, verse 1, through Chapter 5, verse 20. The third is Chapter 6:1 through Chapter 8:15 and the fourth, Chapter 8:16 through Chapter 12:14, the end of the book. This four-fold division is really very effective in building upon, establishing and then finally stating very clearly at the end what is the purpose of this book. In fact, each one of these four sections has its own conclusion. But together, taken as a whole, they lead us to what we found at Chapter 12, if we were to go there, which is the final sum of the matter, the conclusion. What is the conclusion of the matter, according to Koheleth? “Fear God and keep his commandments,” for remember that God judges the good and the evil.
In fact, this book has many themes, some negative and some positive. The seeming almost cynicism of parts of Ecclesiastes has bothered a lot of commentators but, I think it needn’t, if it is properly understood as part of the whole. In fact, it speaks of a profound wisdom of a man who has seen life, as we would say, from both sides. And at the end of his life, can turn around and say to us, here’s the sum of the matter. Here’s what really counts. Here’s the profit. Here’s the gain in your life.
The predominant theme that most people recall when you speak of Ecclesiastes is that “under the sun,” (which is a Hebrew idiom for life on earth, or we could say life in the natural) all is vanity, meaningless, empty. This expression in Hebrew ishevel, havalim, hachol, hevel. All is but a vapor; it’s like seeing your breath on a chilly evening when you step outside. That is what Koheleth is saying, it is here and it is gone. And it’s this quality of being a vapor that makes it, on the one hand, insubstantial. There really is no substance to it. There is no gain. There is no profit. And, on the other hand, it also makes it very transitory. It’s fleeting. As one rabbi said, “It’s like a shadow of a bird in flight.” That’s what life is like. It just here and it’s gone. Yet, we toil and we labor after certain things that seem so important to us. But Koheleth tells us, hey! Wise up, it’s meaningless. So, this term, hevelcan be translated by implication as empty, futile, meaningless, or as Koheleth says, “it’s like chasing after the wind.”
The mental picture I get here is from a park like we used to go to in Austin, Texas, when you had these lovely days. You are in the park and you see everybody out enjoying and you see these dogs chasing frisbees. Have you seen those dogs and you throw the frisbee and they go leaping in the air and grab it? It’s like a dog that goes leaping in the air and snaps after a frisbee and comes up with air. He misses. To me, that is what this is like. This hevel. It’s like we go leaping after goals and we snap after them and they vanish. There is no substance to them. There really is nothing there. It’s futile. The activity is so meaningless, as the NIV says. There is no profit. There is no gain.
So Koheleth, in good Jewish fashion, poses a question and then answers the question. Questions are so important. This is the key question that Kohelethasks, in Chapter 1:3. In Hebrew, he says, “Mah yitron?" NIV translates this, ”What does a man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” Where, as the commercial said a few years ago, where’s the beef? Where’s the substance? What can we point to and say, this is what gives life meaning and value? Where is it? Well, under the sun, according to Koheleth, there is none. There is just vapor. There is emptiness. There is meaninglessness. And, as we are going to see, he does say, there is meaning, but it is not under the sun.
* This is an audio transcript, listen to the original message here.