Tag Archives: Hebel

God in the “Hevel”

God in the "Hevel" (CaD Gen 45) Wayfarer

[Joseph said] “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Genesis 45:5, 8 (NIV)

Two weeks ago, among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, I was tasked with giving the final message in a twelve-weeks series on the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the main themes of the ancient book of wisdom is that everything is “meaningless,” a word the author uses 33 times in the book. The Hebrew word the ancient Sage used was “hevel” (or “hebel“, it can be transliterated either way) for which there’s not really a good English equivalent. It’s like smoke or vapor that you can see with your eyes but can’t physically grasp or hold onto. It evades full comprehension or understanding.

In an earlier message in the series, I used my blog post on Ecclesiastes 9 as a springboard to try and help communicate what I think the Sage was trying to get at by describing life as smokey hevel:

One couple in our midst prayed for a baby and gets pregnant. Another couple prayed for a baby and remains childless. “What the hevel?”

We watch so many young people grow to adulthood while a family tragically loses a child at a young age. “What the hevel?”

One person in our community is miraculously cured while another suffers and dies when no miracle occurs. “What the Hevel?”

I provide you this flashback on Ecclesiastes because the story of Joseph could be Exhibit A in understanding hevel. I even used it as an illustration in my message. The fact that I was reading through the story at the same time I was tasked with the message felt like a divine appointment. Joseph, the favorite son did nothing more than share with his family a dream he had. He’s beaten, sold into slavery, wrongfully accused of rape, unjustly imprisoned, and unfairly forgotten. He had every reason to sit in prison groaning “What the hevel?! Why is this happening to me? Life isn’t fair. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Why me, God? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Why!?”

We find out in today’s chapter, which is the climax of the story. Joseph, having been raised to a leadership position in Egypt, and having miraculously been given prophetic foreknowledge of a seven-year famine, reveals himself to his brothers. The same brothers who sold him into slavery now come and bow down to him, begging him for food. Joseph reveals himself to them. It all comes together, and Joseph sees God’s hand in the hevelish circumstances that brought him to this moment. As Paul might have described it: All things worked together for good.

Just yesterday morning, over coffee, Wendy and I recounted some painful moments and relationships we’ve experienced over the years. With each one, we were able to look back and see how God used those moments and difficult stretches of the journey both in our lives and the lives of others involved.

I ended my message two weeks ago with an observation. Just a few chapters further into the story, in the book of Exodus, God will lead the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Each day, for 40 years, God will lead them by appearing in the form of a cloud. What is a cloud? It’s water vapor. It’s like smoke. You might say it’s hevel.

God is in the hevel.

My friends even gave me a coffee mug to remember the lesson. 😉

FWIW: Here’s a link to the message I referenced in today’s post. You can find it and an archive of other messages on my Messages page.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Circumstances I Don’t Control

Circumstances I Don't Control (CaD Gen 40) Wayfarer

The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Genesis 40:23 (NIV)

This Sunday, I am giving the final message in a series on the sage words of Ecclesiastes among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the themes of the ancient book of wisdom is that the notion we have any control in this life is an illusion. In fact, the Sage has a Hebrew word for it: hevel (or hebel). It gets translated into English as “vanity” or “meaningless” but its meaning is really more like “smoke” or “vapor.” I can see it. It looks like I should be able to touch it, grab it, or contain it but I can’t.

The continued story of Joseph in today’s chapter is a prime example of life and circumstance being out of our control. Life is not turning out to look anything like he expected. He thought things were comfortable at home being his father’s favorite. Then his brothers sold him into slavery and told their father Joseph was dead. Joseph then became a successful house manager for a powerful Egyptian official, only to be falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown into prison. In today’s chapter, Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer who is reinstated to his position. Joseph asks the man to “remember him” and it appears that circumstances are finally in Joseph’s favor.

Alas, no…the restored cupbearer completely forgets Joseph. He continues to languish in the Egyptian prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His circumstances are out of his own control.

As I look back on my own earthly journey, I have so many examples in my own life. A grandmother was run over and was killed by a distracted teen driver. Getting unexpectedly fired. The “perfect job” turned out to be a year of purgatory within a dysfunctionally chaotic system. My marriage fell apart. I was scandalized by wrongful accusations. Family members were diagnosed with cancer. Mom developed Alzheimer’s. And these are just the big items. There as countless small experiences that have affected my circumstances and my life; Circumstances that were unexpected, unforeseen, and completely out of my control.

Meditating on the reality of control being an illusion leads right to where the Sage ends up. It’s futile. It’s like trying to chase the wind or contain the morning fog. It’s all hevel.

But there’s another layer that I have to consider as a follower of Jesus, and this layer redeems the hevel. It’s a parallel reality that we are part of the Great Story, and the Author of Life is a sovereign storyteller.

Once again, Joseph is a prime example. Prior to his life being hijacked by circumstances out of his control, Joseph had a dream. That dream was a foreshadowing of the end of Joseph’s story. Joseph couldn’t see it in the moment. Every hevelish circumstance in Joseph’s experience is leading somewhere that’s known and has been foreshadowed. In the next chapters of the Great Story, God will lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the Promised Land. He chooses to appear to them each day as a cloud. What is a cloud? It’s water vapor. It’s hevel.

God is in the hevel. That’s good news within the out-of-control circumstances of my life.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling hevelish moments along my life journey that seemed out of control. Looking back from my present waypoint on Life’s road, I can see how God used each one to grow me up, teach me, hone me, and lead me to another waypoint a little further up the road and further in my own story. God has always been in the hevel.

I have to believe that Joseph was frustrated, angry, and depressed that the cupbearer forgot him rotting away in his cell. I imagine he felt the futility of his circumstances. He might have even whispered, “It’s all hevel.” What he doesn’t recognize is that he is part of a larger story. The cupbearer will remember him at just the right moment. The rest of the story has yet to be told.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

What in the “Hebel?”

What in the Hebel? (CaD Ecc 9) Wayfarer

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.
Ecclesiastes 9:9 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I were working from the lake. Often we’ll work from a table where we can look out three large windows at the lake. It was a particularly calm, overcast day, and we watched as fog rolled into the bay and descended like a cloud. In a matter of minutes we went from a crystal clear view to impenetrable mist. It was so fascinating to watch. Then, a short time later, it faded as quickly as it. One minute it was there. Then next it was gone.

This past Saturday I was reading a book review in which the writer spoke of the difficulties of translating certain American ideas into other languages. He cited the example of a team being an “underdog” which he saw translated into French as literally the “belly of a dog.” Welcome to the challenge of translation. One of the struggles a modern reader has with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is also that of translation. Hebrew is an ancient language and there are Hebrew words that can’t be defined with certainty. This adds a certain level of mystery on top of the challenge.

The challenge and mystery is front-and-center in Ecclesiastes because the Hebrew word translated as “meaningless” (or “vanity” in traditional translations like the King James Version) is hebel, and it’s a tough one to translate like translating “underdog” into French. The root of the word hebel is that of vapor, mist, wind, or breath. One can think of futility, insubstantial, or empty. One source I found discussing this same subject landed on the word fleeting like the fog that rolled in and out of our bay at the lake. I like it. I think it gets nearer the mark:

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting mist of a life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days.

It brings me right back to the subject of numbering my days. Suddenly the Sage is not so much as saying that everything is nihilistically void, but more like reminding me to seize the day, to be fully present, and to find joy even in things redundant. Before I know it, perhaps sooner than I think, life will roll out like the fog. Enjoy the moment.

In the quiet this morning I find that to be a good thought as the weekend was a vapor. Where did it go? A new work week has rolled in.

In a few hours I will be muttering to myself, “Where did the day go?”

Today will be fleeting, gone like the mist.

Be present.

Be mindful.

En-joy each moment.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.