An example of “hebel” is the statement: ‘One person in this town will win lotto this week.’ They may or may not. They may win the jackpot or just a couple of dollars. If they do, I can say they did. If no one does, it is of no consequence to me. Hebel.
On the other hand, the word “Amen” means rock solid, absolute, no doubt YES. The chair I am sitting on is AMEN. If it wasn’t, I’d be on the floor. It is absolutely here underneath me, I know it, I feel it, it supports me (and is indeed very comfortable).
When Ecclesiastes was (as we think) compiled, there were numerous religious/philosophical systems of thought across the Jewish landscape, influenced by the traditions of Moses (Israelite), Eastern traditions (Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian, and increasingly Chinese), and Western traditions (Greek and increasingly Roman).
The clear waters of the faith of Israel were more and more polluted with all these other influences, from fresh waters of the Amen of the LORD their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samuel, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Ezekiel – to hebel water of mixed ideas and confused rituals.
Worse, these septic waters were being bottled and sold by religious teachers to willing buyers who wanted ‘modern’ ideas to scratch itchy ears, ideas that suited their lives and times. Sounds very familiar to me, even if we are thousands of years after Ecclesiastes was written.
Meaningless. Flatulence. Hebel.
We need to remember that we need to hear “No” from time to time. We need to be told “that is not correct” when our itchy ears desire hebel teaching above the biblical Amen. This occurs when the blessing of God (commonly understood of ‘happiness’, or ‘wholeness’) is separated from the God of blessing.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, only known to us as Qoheleth (disregarding for this moment the debates of Solomonic authorship), was trying to rediscover the fresh water of Amen amongst the flowing rivers of hebel. His writings were a warning to his own society, and ours, that there are clear boundaries in this life, outlined in Scripture (in his case, the Mosaic writings of the covenant, for us today the New Testament), granted to us by our Creator.
And we know that there is grace sufficient to redeem us from lives of hebel into lives of Amen in Christ Jesus, to drink the clear, cool, refreshing living water of life.
Reference: Eugene Peterson “Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work”