As a kid, I remember looking up at the clouds and thinking about how cool it would be to bounce around in them. They looked like gigantic, comfy pillows. Then I had my first airplane flight, and we passed through the clouds as if they weren’t even there. I was so disappointed to realize that even the thickest clouds were still mostly empty space. They looked so solid and substantive from the outside, but if you were to reach out to grasp them, you would only get a handful of nothing.

The author of Ecclesiastes uses that metaphor to describe our experience of life. The word he uses is hevel—translated “futility,” “emptiness,” or “vanity.” Literally, hevel means “smoke” or “vapor,” like a cloud. From the outside, so many of our earthly experiences look solid and substantive. But when you press into them, you only find them to be full of nothing.

Some scholars say the best translation of hevel is “absurd.” Life has a quality to it that doesn’t make sense. Even when you are walking with God, things don’t always end up how you think they should. You pursued marriage God’s way, but your spouse cheated on you. You raised your children God’s way, but they grew up to leave the church and ignore you. You worked with diligence and integrity, but you were laid off.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We follow the advice of books like Proverbs, but we end up with an experience more like Ecclesiastes. It’s hevel. It’s absurd.

I felt this, in a small way, when I worked a terrible job in college. Over Christmas break, I was one of the guys in the mall trying to get people to sign up for credit cards (that they didn’t want). Yes, I was that guy. And I was able to get a lot of people to sign up. But my shift leader knew that the real money was having people sign up for “credit card insurance.” No one would agree to it if you explained what it was, so he suggested just having them sign an extra line without telling them.

Pushing credit cards was one thing, but I wouldn’t trick people into signing up for a bogus fee. At the time, I remember thinking of Proverbs 28:25, “The wicked will be brought to shame, and the one who honors God will prosper.” I imagined that my integrity would somehow be noticed by one of the higher-ups, and that I would be vindicated. Instead, as you can probably guess, I was asked not to come back.

That’s a small example, but life is full of them. It’s just not fair. People get the credit who don’t deserve it. Justice doesn’t win the day nearly as often as it should. And in the end, we all die. Sometimes life just feels absurd. It’s hevel.

I find it interesting that Solomon, the same guy who wrote Ecclesiastes, wrote the book of Proverbs. They’re right next to each other in your Bible, both examples of wisdom literature. That’s intentional. Proverbs is full of wise advice—and following it does generally lead to better outcomes—but Ecclesiastes is honest enough to point out that there’s a glitch in the system.

Contrary to some interpretations of Ecclesiastes, the author isn’t saying that life is meaningless. It’s just problematic. It’s simply unsolid, like a cloud. It’s absurd. It’s hevel. For those of you who think life can be managed by neat and tidy “Proverbs guarantees,” a book like Ecclesiastes is troubling. It should be. Because at some point the hevel of life is going to smash you in the face.

For others of you, Ecclesiastes is helpful because it tells the truth about the way life feels in a fallen world. It teaches us how to trust in God when it’s all gone to hevel.

The last verses of Ecclesiastes provide a summary for how we should live in light of hevel:

“When all has been heard; the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, for this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.”
(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 CSB)

Life may be full of hevel, but there remains a God who is greater than the hevel. One day he will bring justice to our unjust world. He will vindicate those of us who have been wronged. He will satisfy those of us who have been sorely disappointed. Even when life is hevelespecially when life is hevelseek him.

The point of Ecclesiastes isn’t to turn you into an atheist but to make you a humble theist. Put up your simplistic Proverbs-formulas and realize that much of life is unexplainable, even when you know God. Seek him, fear him, and trust him, but know that until we see him face to face, the hevel isn’t going away.

I’m thankful that Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. I’m also thankful that it’s not the only book of the Bible. I’m thankful that we follow a God who lived the Proverbs life perfectly yet experienced the Ecclesiastes death. I’m thankful that Jesus experienced the hevel brought on by our sin so that we could have a life of substance, meaning, and security. I’m thankful that God didn’t give us an airtight philosophy of wisdom but an airtight Person in Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.