In the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes, the author uses the word hebel almost forty times—that’s as much as in the rest of the Bible! It literally means “vapor” or “breath,” but most translations use the word “vanity.” Our writer (“Qoheleth” is the Hebrew word), after describing some human endeavor, proclaims it “vanity.” On several occasions, Qoheleth wearily cries, “All is vanity.”
But saying “all is vanity” doesn’t quite capture “the frustration that comes from the pit of the stomach,” as Elsa Tamez puts it. It still feels too scholarly—too removed from where we live. No, I think if Qoheleth were speaking today, he’d say something more like “everything sucks”!
His lament that “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9) speaks to the apparent absurdity of human actions that are repeated over and over. In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris speaks of her struggle with that illness of the spirit. Acedia mocks the repetition of daily life. It says, “You get out of bed, eat food, do whatever you busy yourself with, go to bed, and do the whole thing again tomorrow. To what end?”
Norris cites an example from her youth—her reluctance to make her bed. “‘Why bother?’ I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone. ‘I’ll just have to unmake it again tonight.’ To me, the act was stupid repetition; to my mother, it was a meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself, and a humble acknowledgment of our creaturely need to make and remake our environments” (p. 13).
Fortunately, the acedia in Ecclesiastes doesn’t have the final word. But I think we can benefit from recognizing that even biblical authors recognize, and express, a struggle that we too often try to ignore. Of course, ignoring it only gives the slothful demon more control!
The image is “All is Vanity” by Lyamkin Alexander.