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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless


Biblical Philosophy

This, too, is the meaning of hevel in Ecclesiastes: Not the dismissive “vanity,” but the more objective “transience,” referring strictly to mortality and the fleeting nature of human life.29 “Fleeting transience (hevel havalim),” says Kohelet, “All is fleeting.”30 Or, read another way: Abel is every man. Without the negative connotations of “vanity,” we discover in Kohelet a man who is tormented not by the meaninglessness of life, but by how swiftly it comes to an end. Life is gone so very quickly, and likewise man’s worldly deeds. We now understand the significance of Kohelet’s opening proclamation that “all is hevel.” He seeks to confront his listeners with man’s own mortality—the underlying premise of any inquiry into the meaning of life in this world.31


The reading of hevel as “vanity” is not only misleading, but in some cases it makes the text impossible to read. Perhaps the most striking example can be found in the book’s ninth chapter, where Kohelet discusses the value of love in one’s life. “View life with a woman you have come to love—all the days of your transitory life (kol yemei hayei hevlecha) which he has gifted you under the sun—every fleeting day. For this is your share in life.…”32 Read the traditional way, the verse is difficult to parse. It would sound something like, “Live joyfully... all the days of your vain life.” Life is vanity, so enjoy love? The verse makes far better sense if hevel is translated as “fleeting,” focusing on life’s brevity: Cherish your time together, for life is fleeting, and therefore precious. Then is your love that much more meaningful

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