The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

The Hebrew word hebel appears in more than thirty passages in Ecclesiastes (that oddly unorthodox inclusion in the Hebrew Bible), where it is always attributed to Koheleth, the skeptical sage who speaks in this book. The word is first used in the book's first passage:

Utter hebel! - said Koheleth -
Utter hebel! All is hebel!

Numerous translations have been proposed for this word: from "vanity" (though not our current understanding of "vanity" as a kind of mirror-fixation) to "meaninglessness," "futility," "absurdity," "insubstantiality," "transience," "foulness," "unreality" or "emptiness." Perhaps the best alternative is to accept what appears to be a more literal translation of hebel: "vapor," which seems to cover, metaphorically, most of those other possible meanings. According to the "wisdom philosopher" of Ecclesiastes then, toil is vapor; worrying is vapor; wealth is vapor; even wisdom is vapor.

"Who can possibly know what is best for a man to do in life - the few days of his fleeting life?" the world-weary Koheleth wonders. Well, Yahweh - as heard by Moses, as recorded in the Bible - is supposed to have determined and spelled out precisely "what is best for a man to do in life." Deuteronomy says this over and over: "Do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left: follow only the path that the Lord your god has enjoined upon you.

Surely, one of the great glories and gifts of God - as post-agriculture, post-writing religions develop - is His having "suspended...over emptiness" an understanding of what is best for His followers to do. And what begins as law also starts to be appreciated as purpose, direction, meaning: He "maketh my way straight," the Eighteenth Psalm declares, gratefully. The Lord fills the philosophical, existential void with substance. For two or three millennia people have been looking to religion for this sort of thing. That is why the vapor released in Ecclesiastes - vain, meaningless, futile, absurd, insubstantial, transient, foul, unreal, empty - is so dangerous.

In Ecclesiates God, far from being a path straightener, is a confounder: "Who can straighten what He has twisted?" Koheleth asks. Instead of justice, Koheleth sees "frustration": "Sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright." Instead of men thriving and things going well, he sees lives that "amount to nothing": "Men's hearts are full of sadness, and their minds of madness, while they live; and then - to the dead!" Instead of purpose and direction, he sees "doom": "The same fate is in store for all: for the righteous and the wicked; for the good and pure, and for the impure; for him who sacrifices and for him who does not." Instead of meaning, Koheleth sees "the pursuit of wind." Koheleth's exit line repeats his opening line: "All is vapor."

Ecclesiastes, in its skepticism, provides another perspective on the empty room Pompey found at the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: Perhaps the absence of knowledge of "what is best for a man to do in life" contributed, in some unintended but unavoidable way, to that emptiness. Perhaps, in other words, an absence of meaning haunts that emptiness. Perhaps the Holy of Holies was filled with vapor.