The Meaning Of “Hebel” In Ecclesiastes -- By: Kimmo Huovila

Journal: Conspectus
Volume: CONSPECTUS 27:1 (Mar 2019)
Article: The Meaning Of “Hebel” In Ecclesiastes
Author: Kimmo Huovila

The Meaning Of “Hebel” In Ecclesiastes1

Kimmo Huovila


Dan Lioy


Ecclesiastes, Hebrew language, Hebel, הבל, lexical study, prototype theory

About The Authors2

Kimmo Huovila

PhD, SATS (2018)

Dan Lioy

PhD, North-West University, The Senior Research Manager at the South African Theological Seminary, Dan has a particular research interest in intertextuality, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings.


The interpretation of hebel in Ecclesiastes has a great influence on one’s understanding of the message of the book. This article discusses six different proposals for the meaning of hebel using the criteria of usage outside of Ecclesiastes, of natural prototype extensions from the attested meanings, of contextual fit, and of authorial cues to the reader. Using these criteria, it is argued that in Ecclesiastes the word means ‘futile’ without implying worthlessness. Ecclesiastes makes a case to value joy over pursuing the impossible task of achieving permanent profit in life and losing joy in the process.

This article:

1. The Relevance Of The Study Of Hebel To The Study Of Ecclesiastes

The interpretation of the book of Ecclesiastes depends to a large degree on the interpretation of the key word hebel. The message of the book is summarised by calling all things hebel (Eccl 1:2, 12:8). The message conveyed is quite different if all things are called worthless or meaningless (Longman 1998:61–65), temporary (Fredericks 2010:50–54), absurd (Fox 1999:30–42), enigmatic (Staples 1943, Ogden 1987:17–22, Bartholomew 2009:104–107), or futile (Huovila 2018:114–156). Understanding hebel as ‘worthless’ summarises the book in terms of value. ‘Meaningless’ leads one to think of the book as discussing the meaning of life, and concluding that it has none. If everything is called ‘temporary’, the book discusses the transience of life. If everything was called ‘absurd’, the book juxtaposes expectations with observations in life, and notes the incongruity between them. If everything is called ‘enigmatic’, Qohelet was struggling with intellectual dilemm...

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