The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1.1-2.
Anyone opening Ecclesiastes for the first time must surely ask, “What on earth is it doing in the Bible?” On page after page, King Solomon, the son of King David, describes the “meaninglessness” of life; the fact that everything turns to dust, even pleasure becomes boring and burdensome, all striving is futile, all man’s achievements die with him, and in the end everyone gets forgotten. Meaningless!
In the Hebrew, the words are habel habelim which the King James Version translates with the well-known phrase “vanity of vanities” but is literally “vapour of vapours” or “nothing but vapour”. (In Hebrew, the singular form of a word followed by its plural is the way of saying “utter” or “nothing but”.) And vapour is what Solomon is talking about. I like to think that the Hebrew words and the way that Solomon is using them, lie behind the “Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble” of the witches’ incantation in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They describe steam rising from a pot, smoke from a fire. (In The Message, Eugene peterson paraphrases verse two of this morning’s text as “Smoke, nothing but smoke … There’s nothing to anything — it’s all smoke.”)
But the interesting thing is that, in the Septuagint — the Greek version of the Old Testament that was widely-used in the Greek-speaking world of the first century — habel habelim is translated by mataiotes — “frustration, futility” — which then crops up again in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed,” says Paul. “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8.19-23).
There, Paul is saying that, yes, because of what sin has done in the world, frustration is felt by everything in creation … because neither we nor anything else in creation is being what God made us to be or living as God meant us to live. And that frustration … that sense of futility and pointlessness … is only removed when we find Jesus as the point in life, the universe and everything.
Another favourite expression of Solomon’s in Ecclesiastes is “a chasing after wind” which he uses in much the same way as his cries of “Meaningless!” — see 1.14,17; 2.11, 17, 26; 4.4, 6, 16; 6.9. But “chasing after wind” is literally “grasping after the spirit” — the word for wind and spirit and breath is the same in Hebrew … ruach. And it can truly be said that, underneath it all, every attempt by human beings to find satisfaction and fulfilment in life is a striving to catch and be caught by the Spirit of God who breathed life into us in the first place and who alone can turn us back into the joy-filled children of God that he made us to be.
Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew,
that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, breath of God, until my heart is pure,
until with Thee I will one will, to do and to endure.
Breathe on me, breath of God, till I am wholly Thine,
until this earthly part of me glows with Thy fire divine.
Breathe on me, breath of God, so shall I never die,
but live with Thee the perfect life of Thine eternity.