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Introduction: Utter Futility

“Futile! Futile!” laments[a] the Teacher.[b]
“Absolutely futile![c] Everything[d] is futile!”[e]

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  1. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn Heb “says.”
  2. Ecclesiastes 1:2 sn See the note on “Teacher” in v. 1.
  3. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn Heb “futility of futilities.” The phrase “absolutely futile” (הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, havel havalim) is a superlative genitive construction (GKC 431 §133.i). When a plural genitive follows a singular construct noun of the same root, it indicates the most outstanding example of the person or thing described. Examples: קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים (qodesh haqqodashim, “holy of holies”), i.e., “the most holy place” (Exod 26:33); שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים (shir hashirim, “song of songs”), i.e., “the most excellent song” (Song 1:1); אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הַאֱדֹנִים (ʾelohe haʾelohim vaʾadone haʾedonim, “the God of gods and Lord of lords”), i.e., “the highest God and the supreme Lord” (Deut 10:17). See also R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 17-18, §80; IBHS 154 §9.5.3j.
  4. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn Although כֹּל (kol, “everything, all”) is often used in an absolute or comprehensive sense (BDB 481 s.v. כֹּל 1), it is frequently used as a synecdoche of the general for the specific, that is, its sense is limited contextually to the topic at hand (BDB 482 s.v. 2). This is particularly true of הַכֹּל (hakkol, BDB 482 s.v. 2.b) in which the article particularizes or limits the referent to the contextual or previously mentioned topic (e.g., Gen 16:12; 24:1; Exod 29:24; Lev 1:9, 13; 8:27; Deut 2:36; Josh 11:19 [see 2 Sam 19:31; 1 Kgs 14:26 = 2 Chr 12:9]; 21:43; 1 Sam 30:19; 2 Sam 17:3; 23:5; 24:23; 1 Kgs 6:18; 2 Kgs 24:16; Isa 29:11; 65:8; Jer 13:7, 10; Ezek 7:14; Pss 14:3; 49:18; 1 Chr 7:5; 28:19; 29:19; 2 Chr 28:6; 29:28; 31:5; 35:7; 36:17-18; Ezra 1:11; 2:42; 8:34-35; 10:17; Eccl 5:8). Thus, “all” does not always mean “all” in an absolute sense or universally in comprehension. In several cases the context limits its reference to two classes of objects or issues being discussed, so הַכֹּל means “both” (e.g., 2:14; 3:19: 9:1, 2). Thus, הַכֹּל refers only to what Qoheleth characterizes as “futile” (הֶבֶל, hevel) in the context. Qoheleth does not mean that everything in an absolute, all-encompassing sense is futile. For example, the sovereign work of God is not “futile” (3:1-4:3); fearing God is not “futile” (2:26; 3:14-15; 11:9-12:1, 9, 13-14); and enjoying life as a righteous person under the blessing of God is not “futile” (2:24-26; 11:9-10). Only those objects or issues that are contextually placed under כֹּל are designated as “futile” (הֶבֶל). The context of 1:3-15 suggests that 1:2 refers to the futility of secular human endeavor. The content and referent of 1:3-15 determines the referent of הַכֹּל in 1:2.
  5. Ecclesiastes 1:2 tn The term הֶבֶל (hevel, “futile”) is repeated five times within the eight words of this verse for emphasis. The noun הֶבֶל is the key word in Ecclesiastes. The root is used in two ways in the OT, literally and figuratively. The literal, concrete sense is used in reference to the wind, man’s transitory breath, evanescent vapor (Isa 57:13; Pss 62:10; 144:4; Prov 21:6; Job 7:16). In this sense, it is often a synonym for “breath” or “wind” (Eccl 1:14; Isa 57:13; Jer 10:14). The literal sense lent itself to metaphorical senses: (1) breath/vapor/wind is nonphysical, evanescent, and lacks concrete substance thus, the connotation “unsubstantial” (Jer 10:15; 16:19; 51:18), “profitless” or “fruitless” (Ps 78:33; Prov 13:11), “worthless” (2 Kgs 17:15; Jer 2:5; 10:3), “pointless” (Prov 21:6), “futile” (Lam 4:17; Eccl 1:2, 14; 2:1, 14-15), (2) breath/vapor/wind is transitory and fleeting—thus, the connotation “fleeting” or “transitory” (Prov 31:30; Eccl 6:12; 7:15; 9:9; 11:10; Job 7:16) and (3) breath/vapor/wind cannot be seen thus, the idea of “obscure,” “dark,” “difficult to understand,” “enigmatic” (Eccl 11:10). See HALOT 236-37 s.v. I הֶבֶל; BDB 210-11 s.v. I הֶבֶל. The metaphorical sense is used with the following synonyms: תֹּהוּ (tohu, “empty, vanity”; Isa 49:4), רִיק (riq, “profitless, useless”; Isa 30:7; Eccl 6:11), and לֹא הוֹעִיל (loʾ hoʿil, “worthless, profitless”; Is 30:6; 57:12; Jer 16:19). It is parallel to “few days” and “[days] which he passes like a shadow” (Eccl 6:12). It is used in reference to youth and vigor (11:10) and life (6:12; 7:15; 9:9), which are “transitory” or “fleeting.” The most common parallels to הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes are the phrases “chasing after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, reʿut ruakh) in 2:11, 17, 26; 7:14 and “what profit?” (מַה־יִּתְרוֹן, mah yitron) or “no profit” (אֵין יִתְרוֹן, ʾen yitron) in 2:11; 3:19; 6:9. It is used in reference to enigmas in life (6:2; 8:10, 14) and to the future which is obscure (11:8). It is often used in antithesis to terms connoting value: טוֹב (tov, “good, benefit, advantage”) and יֹתְרוֹן (yoteron, “profit, advantage, gain”). Because the concrete picture of the “wind” lends itself to the figurative connotation “futile,” the motto “This is futile” (זֶה הֶבֶל, zeh hevel) is often used with the metaphor, “like striving after the wind” (רְעוּת רוּחַ, reʿut ruakh)—a graphic picture of an expenditure of effort in vain because no one can catch the wind by chasing it (e.g., 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9). Although it is the key word in Ecclesiastes, it should not be translated the same way in every place. sn The motto Everything is futile! is the theme of the book. Its occurs at the beginning (1:2) and end of the book (12:8), forming an envelope structure (inclusio). Everything described in 1:2-12:8 is the supporting proof of the thesis of 1:2. With few exceptions (e.g., 2:24-26; 3:14-15; 11:9-12:1, 9), everything described in 1:2-12:8 is characterized as “futile” (הֶבֶל, hevel).

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