Vapor (Hebel) (in Ecclesiastes)

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The term hebel is extremely important for interpreting the book of Ecclesiastes. Hebel occurs thirty-eight times in the book and literally means “vapor”: a quantity of visible matter, such as gaseous water, diffused through or suspended in the air (Miller 2002: 60–61). Qohelet’s use of the term is particularly notable in the book’s opening and concluding phrases, which state that “all is vapor” (1:2; 12:8). Throughout the book, Qohelet frequently adds, “This indeed was vapor,” or “All is vapor and a chasing after wind.” These characteristics and the use of hebel in summary statements throughout the book suggest that the proclamation in 1:2 is a thesis that the author intends to argue (Fox: 163). (There are two textual difficulties: some would remove the phrase containing the second occurrence of hebel in 9:9, and some would emend the text at 9:2 from hkl [hakol] to hbl [hebel]. The number of occurrences in the book could therefore be thirty-seven, thirty-eight, or thirty-nine. Interestingly, the numerical equivalent of the term is thirty-seven.)

The material meaning of the term hebel is found almost exclusively in texts after the biblical period, such as the Talmud. In these writings hebel designates heat/steam (b. Gittin 69b), breath (b. Šabbat 41a), vapor within a living being (b. Bekorot 7a–b), vaporous perspiration (b. Yebamot 80b), and noxious vapor (b. Baba Qamma 50b; Miller 2002: 53–61, 188–89). Some have questioned the legitimacy of consulting these late sources for help in determining the word’s meaning in Ecclesiastes. However, all available evidence supports the likelihood that vapor was the material meaning of hebel during the biblical period as well as later. Although hebel is used metaphorically throughout the OT, two biblical passages, Psalm 62:9 and Isaiah 57:13, each present a miniature parable in which vapor fits the contextual use of hebel. Evidence in languages related to Hebrew is consistent with these findings (Seybold), and ancient versions of the OT also employ words meaning mist or vapor (when they concern the material rather than metaphorical or abstract meanings) in their translations of the Hebrew.

Hebel was used with a variety of metaphorical meanings in the Bible and elsewhere. Examples in the Bible (other than Ecclesiastes) include futile, unreliable, misrepresenting, deficient, brief, and swift. Examples outside of the Bible include unreliable, immoral, uncomprehending, and transient. Examples within Ecclesiastes include futile, frail, deficient, mystery, brief, temporary, disgusting. In addition to the above, hebel is sometimes used as a “stock metaphor” to refer to false deities and pagan nations. A stock metaphor is the use of an image that becomes standardized or “dead,” such as “red tape.” In the case of hebel, even here there are occasional hints of emphasis connected to the material sense of vapor (Miller 2002: 89–90; for nonmetaphorical uses, see 187–89). Although readers of Ecclesiastes through the centuries have recognized that Qohelet is not using hebel to mean material vapor, they have disagreed on whether or not he uses it as a true or live metaphor.

Four Theories of Hebel in Ecclesiastes

There are four theories concerning hebel in Ecclesiastes: single abstract meaning, multiple meanings, single metaphor, and vapor as symbol. The commentary employs the fourth, which is described below and summarized in the Introduction (“Theme of the Book”).

1. Single Abstract Meaning

Some have proposed a single, abstract meaning for vapor by which to do justice to its diverse applications in Ecclesiastes. Thus a single term, often a noun and its adjectival complement, is chosen to represent a meaning that applies to hebel in every one of its occurrences. “Abstract” terms are extremely broad and inclusive, such as wealth, which embraces a wide variety of valuable material items from money, to land, to investments of all sorts. Examples of this approach in Ecclesiastes include vanity/vain, emptiness/empty, futility/futile, and absurdity/absurd, in addition to meaningless, incomprehensible, zero, irony, mystery, and enigma. Several major English Bible translations take this approach (e.g., KJV, NKJV, NRSV). The insight of this approach is that, whatever the variety of contexts in which vapor is used throughout the book, there must be a consistency of meaning between its use there and the framing statements in 1:2 and 12:8 that “all is vapor.”

One weakness of this position is the high level of abstraction necessary to embrace all the contexts in which vapor is used in the book. As the examples mentioned above illustrate, quite a number of abstract terms have been argued, and it is difficult to adjudicate the superiority of one proposed term over another. It would appear that, by this procedure, other translations for hebel might also be plausible, such as “bizarre,” “frustration,” or “interesting.” All that is required is a word with a broad enough meaning to cover all the contexts in the book.

A second difficulty is the disregard for hebel’s known uses outside Ecclesiastes. A special and often unprecedented meaning is proposed for the term. If Qohelet did employ vapor in a novel way, we would expect him to provide assistance for his readers. Yet advocates of this position do not substantiate how he helps his audience move from known uses of vapor to the more unusual employments of it that they propose.

Third, without exception the suggested abstract terms are cast in a negative direction. This is necessary because much of what Qohelet evaluates as vapor warrants such negativity. But it then becomes unclear how someone as disparaging of life as Qohelet is supposed to be can nevertheless repeatedly commend enjoyment and guide his readers to genuine wisdom. For throughout the book, Qohelet urges his readers to be content, to cooperate with others, to enjoy their food, their work, their spouse, and to accept these as gifts of God. How then can we understand him to insist that all is emptiness or zero?

Finally, no proposal to date has been completely successful in its attempt to translate vapor by one abstract concept. Every term or phrase offered for vapor in all of its contexts fails in one or more of them. For example, it seems forced to say in 6:4 that a stillborn child “comes into absurdity [vapor] and goes into darkness” (Fox: 241). The context suggests that mystery is indicated here. Likewise, it seems unfitting in 11:10 to describe the time of youth as meaningless (T/NIV) since Qohelet is actually commending youth. The sense of urgency there requires that vapor means something akin to brevity (cf. also 6:12). In fact, Fox—who urges that hebel means “absurd” throughout—translates here, “for youth and juvenescence are fleeting” (Fox: 316, emphasis added; see 318–19).

Those who acknowledge this difficulty often propose that Qohelet largely makes a distinctive use of hebel—such as to mean vanity—but occasionally relapses into conventional uses of the term. This resolves the tension between the thematic statement of 1:2 and the diversity of vapor contexts by positing that Qohelet is inconsistent in his use of vapor. A multiplicity of meanings suggests a second approach to this issue.

2. Multiple Meanings

The diversity of contexts in which Qohelet uses the term vapor has motivated some toward translations employing multiple terms. Typically, a word such as vanity or futility is used to translate the majority of occurrences, and then other words are employed for the remainder (e.g., NASB, NAB, JB, GNB), some of which are metaphors. This position reflects the insight that there is complexity in Qohelet’s use of the term.

However, the theory fails to account for Qohelet’s framing statements that “all is vapor” (1:2; 12:8). If a shopkeeper were to announce that “all is on sale,” then point to items throughout the store and say, “this is on sale,” “that is on sale,” “this too is on sale,” and finally conclude by repeating “all is on sale,” we would expect that what was said of any one item was true for all. Qohelet appears to be saying one thing when he pronounces that all is vapor, and yet the multiple-meanings approach interprets him as also saying certain other things by use of the same term. If vapor sometimes means “fleeting,” while at other times means “nothing,” “frustration,” and “illusory” (so NJPS), what is meant by “All is vapor”?

Those who would espouse this approach, then, must content themselves with the book’s inconsistent use of vapor, and particularly with the problem of the framing thesis statements (1:2; 12:8). Such inconsistency in an author is certainly possible, but it raises questions about the quality of Qohelet’s communication and the coherence of his thought.

3. Single Metaphorical Meaning

The third approach emphasizes the metaphoric nature of vapor. Its insight is the recognition that vapor serves as a live metaphor in the book: thus clues are both needed and provided in context to understand its meaning. This is similar to the single, abstract meaning approach in that it construes vapor as having one meaning in all of its uses. It differs by insisting that this meaning is metaphoric. Two scholars have argued that vapor has a metaphoric meaning of “transience” (Farmer; Fredericks).

However, this meaning for the term will not work in every passage. It does not appear to be appropriate when used of verbosity (5:7; 6:11), an irrational obsession with work (4:7–8), or the laughter of fools (7:6), among others. In addition, Qohelet calls certain things vapor that would be much less of a problem if they were fleeting, such as the confiscation of one’s wealth by a stranger (6:1–6, also called a “bad sickness”), or the turning over of one’s wealth to one who never worked for it (2:18–23). Fredericks correctly notes that in such passages vapor does not simply indicate meaninglessness, a much too casual attribution for the magnitude that Qohelet gives these problems. However, it is not adequate for Fredericks to relate such texts to the theme of transience by describing them as matters “that at times only transience can remedy,” as if the fleeting nature of life was somehow the solution as well as the problem for Qohelet (Fredericks: 31). Fredericks’ acknowledgment that, in at least some instances (5:7; 6:4, 11), vapor may mean futile in Ecclesiastes makes his proposal, in effect, a type of the multiple-meanings approach.

Another commentator has identified “ephemeral” as vapor’s metaphorical meaning (Seow): “Something that is vapor cannot be grasped or controlled. It may refer to something that one encounters or experiences for only a moment, but it cannot be grasped—neither physically nor intellectually” (Seow: 47). In particular, Seow uses the term “ephemeral” to embrace both those contexts where Qohelet talks about matters that are transient and those that discuss what is insubstantial in various ways. By including the intellectual realm, he extends the metaphor to include things that are an enigma. By this reckoning, many vapor passages concern what is intellectually ephemeral.

Qohelet does employ hebel on the issue of wisdom or to suggest mystery (2:12–17; 4:16; 6:4, 9, 10–12; 8:10–15; and 9:1–2 [if emended]). However, in the book’s second half—where the primary focus is on the limits of human understanding—vapor is most often directed at other matters, such as the transience of youth in 11:10. Where Qohelet does discuss life’s mysteries, it is frequently with terms other than vapor, as in 1:16–18; 3:11; 5:8; 7:13–14, 23–29; 8:1–7, 16–17; 9:11–12; 10:14–15; and 11:1–6. In particular, the concept of ephemerality for hebel seems inadequate to explain the texts in which Qohelet expresses frustration at injustice, as in 2:15, 17; 8:10–14.

4. Vapor as Symbol

This writer has concluded that the author of Ecclesiastes adopted vapor (hebel) as a tensive symbol by which to represent the entirety of human experience (Miller 1998; 2002). Such a symbol is an image that holds together a set of meanings that can neither be exhausted nor adequately expressed by any single meaning. Eugene Peterson’s The Message, which translates hebel fairly consistently as smoke throughout Ecclesiastes, is the English translation that comes closest to helping the reader explore the possibility of vapor as symbol.

The symbol thesis has three distinctives: (1) it claims that vapor in Ecclesiastes is used as a “live” metaphor (clues to its meanings are needed and provided), yet with more than one meaning, (2) it claims furthermore that vapor also becomes a literary symbol in the book, incorporating the individual (metaphorical) meanings of the term as used throughout the book, and (3) while “insubstantiality” and “transience” are generally accepted metaphorical meanings for vapor, this proposal claims there is a third, “foulness,” developed by Qohelet.

Other adherents of the Realist approach to Ecclesiastes have acknowledged Qohelet’s diverse usage of the term vapor and made various attempts to reconcile these with the programmatic statements of Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8, “All is vapor.” The symbol approach shows how Qohelet is able to employ vapor with different meanings to declare that, like vapor, some things are transient, other things are insubstantial, and still other matters are foul (or evil). He can then hold forth vapor at both the beginning and the end of his treatise as a figure representing the totality of human existence and experience: all is hebel, all is vapor. In one image the term vapor symbolizes, summarizes, and embraces the complexity of human experience. Not everything is vapor in the same way, yet all is vapor in one way or another, and sometimes in more than one way.

Many proposals for the meaning of vapor in Ecclesiastes are plausible, yet each has its own difficulties (as above). The symbol approach proposes a method for interpreting metaphor and symbol and follows it consistently, citing specific evidence in the text to determine, for each use of hebel, the role that vapor plays in that specific context. In the process, the difficulties of the other positions are minimized or eliminated, and the insights of each are retained: there is a rationale for the relationship between the framing statements (1:2; 12:8) and other uses of vapor in the book; there is a spectrum of diverse uses of the term; and vapor is used as a metaphor that requires alertness to clues to its meaning in context.

Qohelet has taken three characteristics or connotations of vapor—insubstantiality, transience, and foulness—and developed metaphors for each. In each context, the intersection of the attribute with the topic determines the specific nuance. For example, the insubstantiality of toil could be translated as “futility” or “vanity,” while the insubstantiality of human beings could be translated as “frailty.” Over the course of the book, Qohelet constructs these three metaphorical meanings of vapor into a single symbol embodying all three.

There is no certain evidence for the metaphorical use of foulness outside of Ecclesiastes, though we should note its use as stock metaphor to represent pagan nations and false deities (see above). In this case, Qohelet may have creatively employed the material use of poison vapor (for which there is significant evidence; Miller 2002: 189) to develop a new metaphor. Regardless, a consistent application of the method used in this commentary to discern metaphorical meaning supports foulness as a key association with hebel, upon which Qohelet drew.

The symbol thesis demonstrates how (1) Qohelet is consistent in his use of vapor and in his construction of the book overall; he is not haphazard or sloppy in his use of language; (2) he is artful and creative in his construction of vapor as a literary symbol, yet he draws upon known uses of the term elsewhere; he is able to build on what his readers already understand about the term; (3) Qohelet is not declaring all of life to be meaningless or absurd; he uses vapor to describe a life full of perplexities, tensions, difficulties; in this context, he offers help for living with both the good and bad aspects of life.


  • Farmer, Kathleen A. Who Knows What Is Good? A Commentary on the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. International Theological Commentary: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Fox, Michael V. A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  • Fredericks, Daniel C. Coping with Transience: Ecclesiastes on Brevity in Life. The Biblical Seminar 18; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
  • Miller, Douglas B. “Qohelet’s Symbolic Use of הבל.” Journal of Biblical Literature 117/3 (1998): 437–454.
  • ______. Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work. Academia Biblica 2. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
  • Seow, Choon-Leong. Ecclesiastes. Anchor Bible 18C. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  • Seybold, Klaus. “הבל.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, 3:313–320. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

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Douglas B. Miller