On a cold winter day, as someone walks outside, his breath hangs in the air as a vapor, and then it is gone. You see it for a moment, but it does not last. The Hebrew word hebel (pronounced hĕ-vel) literally means breath, and it is one of the key words of the book of Ecclesiastes. In his old age, Solomon looks back at his life and many of the things that he has done. He concludes that they are hebel; they are a breath that has vanished away. The figurative idea that is often used is vanity. He has found these things to be vain and empty. They appeared to be good for a time, but they have disappeared.
So what was hebel? What was a vain vapor that passed away? Ecclesiastes 1:13a says, “And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven . . .” Solomon, who was one of the wisest men to ever walk the earth, declared that a pursuit of wisdom alone was vain and empty. It did not satisfy. Ecclesiastes 2:1 says, “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.” Solomon also pursued whatever pleasure he could fine. Solomon was a very rich king who literally could buy about anything that he wanted. But that pleasure also did not satisfy. It was vain and empty. The wealth, possessions, and pleasures that he pursued turned out to be a breath that hung in the air for a moment, and then vanished away.
We so often spend our lives pursuing things that will not last and that will not satisfy. Instead of wasting our lives pursuing things that will ultimately fail us, we should listen to what God teaches us through Solomon. When Solomon speaks of the vanity of these things, he is not just calling them sour grapes because they were out of his reach. He reached them. He enjoyed them. He indulged in them. But they could not satisfy. They were hebel.
So why do these things not satisfy? Ecclesiastes 3:11b says, “. . . He hath set the world in their heart . . .” But the word in this verse that is translated world would better be translated as eternity. It is the Hebrew word ‘olam and it means eternity or eternal. It is the word used twice in Psalm 90:2, which says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” In other words, God has put eternity in the hearts of man. So what does that mean? It means that God has put into the heart of man a desire for eternity, a desire for something different than just this life. That is why so many hope for life after death. That is also why the things of this life cannot fully satisfy. They do not fully satisfy us because we were not designed for them. God designed us for a much bigger and eternal purpose. C.S. Lewis said, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists . . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” God has designed us for eternity, and that is what we should be seeking and pursuing with our lives, because that is what will truly satisfy.
So how do we seek eternity? The first step is to seek God’s way of salvation from sin so that we can spend eternity with Him. God made the way to heaven exclusive; He made one way for us to be saved, and that way is through faith and trust in Christ alone for our salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 6:23; 10:9-13). But once we have received God’s gift of salvation, then we should be seeking the things of eternity that God calls us to live for. Colossians 3:1-2 says, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” Once we have accepted God’s gift of eternity, then we should be seeking the things for which God has designed us. We should be seeking the things above (the things of heaven), not the things of earth that will not satisfy. The things of earth do not fully satisfy, because God designed us for something bigger.