The significance of the word “hebel” is so important that I want to spend a second installment further fleshing out why the range of this word matters so much in Ecclesiastes. If you haven’t read the previous installment I encourage you to scroll back down to find it.
In translating “hebel” as “vapor”, “breath”, or “mist”, we are drawing out Solomon’s literal point that life is brief, and all the gains and accomplishments of our lives are here one moment and gone the next. Under the sun, there is nothing lasting or permanent, and to attempt to find permanency or the “ideal state” in this world is difficult as herding mists together (the verb in “striving after wind” can also mean “shepherding”1) – even if you somehow succeed, it will not last very long. Not only is impossible to permanently attain to the “ideal state” in this brief life, but your life and the memory of your life will soon fade away and be forgotten. No matter how much we try, our ability to recall our past and hold on to our successes will eventually fade away as though it were a mist among other mists2.
But there is good news to this: if the best days and times of our live are here one moment and gone the next, so also are our trials of our life. Solomon reflects on this point at length in Ecc 3:1-8 and at other points throughout the book, and under the sun we can (and should) expect trials that never end, but we can also expect brief moments of enjoyment in our toil and the life God has given. When those seasons of joy end fade away, it is not your fault that they came to an end and the memories fade away, because those times were not meant to last forever. For the Christian, a special care extends to the people of God from the eternal God who never forgets us and who promises to use our trials for his glory and our good. If there is no God, then life under the sun is cruel, brutal, and short, but if Jesus Christ is God, there is a life to look forward to under a new sun for those who are in the Son that is peaceful, joyful, and eternal. Under the sun, everything is vapor; above the sun, where the only good, wise, and eternal King rules in glory, nothing is vapor.
1: Ryken, Philip Graham. Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010.
2: Leithart, Peter J. Solomon among the Postmoderns. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.