It means vanity, nothingness, emptiness, worthlessness, smoke, vapor, fleeting time.
It's also a word that occurs over and over and over in Ecclesiastes. It's the author's favorite word.
Ecclesiastes is all about a search. A search for answers. Answers to life's big questions.
What is life all about? What can make me happy? Why am I alive? What is the purpose of life?
The answer, according to Ecclesiastes, is hebel. It's the way the book starts: "“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
It's also the way the book ends: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 12:8.
Read the book. It will take you a couple hours. It's great stuff. Lots of practical proverbs and help with life situations. But in the end?
It's all hebel.
It's a little hard to understand why such a conclusion about life would even be in the Bible! What does God want for us to get from this? It's depressing! Are we really supposed to believe this? Is this really what God wants us to know about the purpose of life?
There's another term used in Ecclesiastes a lot. It's the phrase, "under the sun." To help us understand "hebel" - the meaninglessness of life - you also have to grasp the importance of the phrase, "under the sun." The author of the book, (probably Solomon for most of it), used "under the sun" as a key that unlocks what he means about hebel. "Under the sun" suggests a context - a certain boundary, limitation, location - for the meaninglessness of life.
And we'll talk about it next Sunday.