The despondency of the book of Ecclesiastes centers around a word that the author uses repeatedly: Vanity. Vanity – hebel – means vapor or breath. It is translated in this manner when it is used throughout the Bible with the exception of the book of Ecclesiastes where it is most often translated as vanity.
There are a couple of things of interest concerning this word that should be noticed. 1) Hebel is the same as Abel the name for Adams son. It should be noticed as well that for some reason this is one of the few significant names in the book of Genesis that was not defined in the text. 2) The word is often used to describe “worthless” idols and their worshipers. In connection with this two principles are found: a) those who worship take on to some degree the character and nature of the god or God that they worship. b) it is the characteristic of all false gods to destroy those who worship them.
Hebel is normally found in one of three categories in its Old Testament usage. 1) It is used to designate the false gods that are worshiped by the people. 2) It is used to describe the exasperated person and his remarks. 3) Thirty-six times the word is used in the book of Ecclesiastes to mean vanity but with various shades of meaning. First, Solomon expresses his inability to find fulfillment and satisfaction in his work. He is exasperated because of his lack of creativity and his lack of control over the circumstances involved. Second, Solomon expresses his inability to understand the connection of sin and judgment, righteousness and deliverance when he sees that judgment and deliverance are not immediate. Third, Solomon expresses his lament regarding the shortness of life.
As we study the book of Ecclesiastes we should never be discouraged but should remember that the book was written by a sinful and disillusioned man. His logic is at time skewed by an improper premise. His claims are often exaggerated. His hopelessness due to the fact that he is trying to find meaning in life without going to the Author of life in repentance. He is trying to interpret what he sees without the aid of divine revelation and interpretation.
(Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament)