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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless

Biblical Philosophy

Understanding hevel in this sense is also crucial to understanding the passage, in the book’s eighth chapter, which deals with the concept of injustice in the world. Read the traditional way, Kohelet explains, “Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. This,” he concludes, “is vanity.”33 Again, this is a difficult read: Why is it considered vanity if evildoers are forgotten? The verse makes far more sense if we understand it to relate to the illusory, temporary nature of evil’s success: Kohelet reassures us that setbacks to justice are transient, and that evil will not prevail in the final round: “It is of the fleeting nature of the world, that some righteous receive what befits the acts of evildoers, while some evildoers receive what befits the righteous; this too, I say, is only temporary.34


It is only through the corrected reading of hevel as “transience” rather than “vanity” that we may understand the structure of the book of Ecclesiastes, and thereby learn its message. For Ecclesiastes does not offer a single, static teaching from beginning to end, but a thematic progression, one that follows Kohelet’s own discovery of meaning.


The book can be seen as consisting of three parts. The initial stage, covering the first five chapters of the book (starting at 1:12 ), is characterized by frustration with the transience of life: Kohelet bemoans the fact that all achievements are short-lived. He is bitter about the transience of human contentment (2:1-3), riches (2:4-11), physical existence ( 3:18 -21), and corrective social remedies (chapter 4). Stylistically, this stage is characterized by the juxtapositions of the term hevel with words of despair and tragedy. Though not all references to transience, even at this early stage, are decidedly negative, most are. It is in this first part that we learn why Kohelet “hated life,” for he has discovered that all one’s worldly achievements are, like man himself, in the end but dust and ashes: “For what has a man for all his work, and for his mind’s notions, which he works at under the sun?”

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