Remembering Joshua: Life is Hebel


That is an important word for the writer of Ecclesiastes. It is a word that comes to mind on May 21 every year since 2001.  That was the day Joshua died. It was also the day John Robert died in 2008. Indeed, it is a day on which many people have died.joshua-1990-or-so


You may not recognize the word, but it is used 37 times in Ecclesiastes (only 70x in the whole Hebrew Bible). At a literal and formal level it might be rendered “breath” and thus allude to the brevity of life.  At a metaphorical level it might be rendered “vanity, empty, meaningless” and thus allude to the pointlessness of life.


The word has much more of a punch than even “meaningless” or “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. It encompasses the unfathomable nature of life, the deep impenetrable mystery of life….and death. Bartholomew’s commentary suggests “enigma.” Life is enigmatic because we simply don’t know; we are limited in perspective and we can’t figure it out.


But the word has more punch than that. This is why some, like Michael Fox and Peter Enns, suggest “absurd.” Life is frustrating. The seemingly ceaseless, circular, and pointless merry-go-round of life has no goal, no meaning, and no worth. Life–because of death–is simply absurd.


What lies behind Ecclesiastes is a whole Hebrew tradition, including the Torah, and more particularly the opening narrative of Genesis 1-11. When Qohelet probes life he finds the narrative world of Abel (the same Hebrew word hebel). The seemingly pointless, absurd and unjust death of Abel at the hands of Cain is a symbol for human existence. Our lives are like Abel’s.


We have to give Qohelet his due. We must sit with him–and it would do us good to sit with him for a season rather than move on too quickly. Sometimes we are forced to sit with him as we are overwhelmed with the horror of human existence. We recoil at death of children at nature’s hand in Oklahoma as well as the hand of the mentally ill in Connecticut. Sometimes all we can do is agree with Qohelet, “Everything is absolutely absurd!”


Paul alludes to this word (Romans 8:20). He uses the term that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used to translate hebel. He recognizes the frustration and futility of the present bondage which enslaves the creation. Life is not as it should be. The creation groans and the children of God lament. We lament days like May 21.


And, without forgetting that life is hebel, we also recognize the good and the joys God has provided today. Life is both hebel and filled with the gifts of the Creator.

So today, we lament and we remember that life is hebel.

But we also, today, accept God’s gifts with gratitude and joy.

How do we do both? Some days, I don’t know. Other days, it is obvious. Ask me tomorrow.

14 Responses to “Remembering Joshua: Life is Hebel”

  1.   dannydodd Says:

    Thanks for your post. As usual you take us a little deeper. My thoughts and prayers are with you, the Dobbs, the folks in Oklahoma– this morning.

    And I remain in a struggle to understand how to reconcile the concept of suffering and our God. I just keep praying- Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

  2.   TED KNIGHT Says:

    Thank you John for a most helpful post and may God bless you.

  3.   Coy Walters Says:

    My theology cannot figure it out. I’ve been trying since 1973 when a beautiful sophomore at Harding was killed while sitting in plane in Rome awaiting to depart to see her parents during Christmas break. Her brother was spared. Our memorial service speaker at Harding tried to fit it in to his theology. Hebel helps but my soul is not comforted.

    Coy Walters

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      My soul is never comforted through an intellectualization of the gospel (good news). Comfort only comes through a hope (present goodness and future realization) empowered by the Spirit (Rom. 15:13). Theology cannot rationalize it.

  4.   jmar198013 Says:

    Thanks, John Mark, for your willingness to speak personally to the topic of lament to guide the church to its faithful–and hopeful–practice.

  5.   Carisse Berryhill Says:

    That is such a sweet photo of Joshua! Thanks.

  6.   Gregg Knight Says:

    Thanks, JMK, for your comforting words during a time such as this. I have been trying to put it all into perspective as well. Your statement about “intellectualization” has struck a cord, not necessarily negative, but just that I have never thought like that. How can we do anything without it being in thought? Isn’t hope brought on by thinking, learning about it from scripture? Maybe you can enlighten me, please and thanks.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Intellectualization or rationalization refers to resolving all the tensions as well as comfort does not arise from the cogitive power inherent in the ideology. We are informed by thought and we seek to think the best we can, but comfort is given by the Spirit who provides what understanding cannot. On the move. This is a quick note from my IPhone. 🙂

  7.   Jeremy Thompson Says:

    Thank you for writing this.

  8.   Matt Sears Says:

    March 23rd is that day for me. This was the day Angel died, wife and mother of my first born son. Yet, for a couple who are close friends it is also their wedding anniversary. Hebel and gifts. You’re always spot on Dr. Hicks. Thank you for allowing the LORD to speak through you!

  9.   Ray Pippin Says:

    I also have had those days that stick in my memory. The most recent being Feb, 21st of this year when my 55 year old daughter was found dead in bed of an apparent heart attack. This was all so unexpected as I had often wondered what would happen to her when I was gone and having to bury her was the opposite of what I had thought would happen.
    I have a long list of unanswered questions which from all reason offers no comfort. In the end, my only comfort comes from faith in the One who gives life and has the right to take it as He pleases. God had never had to seek the advice of man for anything. I can almost hear Him asking, “What makes you think you are suppose to have all the answers? If you did you would not need Me”.
    I remember preaching a sermon years ago about why we come to worship. One reason is, we come seeking answers to the questions about life that are too big for us on our own. We really are a fellowship of the confused. Death entered this world because of sin and along with death came a whole list of questions that we in this life will never find answers for. No wonder Paul would proclaim “If in this life only we have hope, we are of all people most miserable.”
    We have two choices. One is, we will try to find answers by our own reasoning which has proven to be futile and leads to depression. Or,in simple trusting faith, we can turn to Him who is the author of life and has the right to govern the same. This will require more humility than we are comfortable with. Our stubborn will keeps saying, just leave me alone and I will find the answer.

    In the end we will choose to walk by faith in the One who has the answers or wear ourselves out trying to walk by sight and coming to realize in the end that it is “all vanity”. I strongly recommend, walking by faith.

  10.   rich constant Says:

    JOHN mark
    I would like to point out (which i did not bring foreword a few years ago)our feelings, yes they do have a tremendous impact on each and every one of us.
    Seems we ether externalize them or internalize them for a time depending on our point of preconditioned behavior ( the ontology experienced through what and how we were taught) our frustration of our inability to find answers that make sense leads us to what i call a frustration factor, that varies in impact for each of us.
    none the less we find ourselves blaming another for it, “GOD” for instance or oneself and leads to self abuse.

    as far as i am concerned when i see this sorta issue in my self i am in for what i call bad times.
    i am into self-abuse, i am the one that failed to live up to my expectations, and have let down GOD so bad that it seems there is no way out of the spiral into a more progressive idiocy of deviation from the good i know to do.

    i do see Paul standing by while Stephen is being stoned and giving approval.
    so i figure i can find grace in my time of need.

    john MARK


    after the mystery came to fruition through God’s faithfulness to his words rom: 3:4

    Hebel is not an a word i would use any more
    although i do understand its meaning and why it is used in Romans 8:20

    16:25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, 16:26 but now is disclosed, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – 16:27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever! Amen.

    2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 2:5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved!16 – 2:6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 2:7 to demonstrate

    blessing,s always

  11.   Mary Lee Brock Cunningham Says:

    Very sad memory – your loss of Joshua. Very sad post, too. Some things like the illness and loss of Joshua we cannot understand and simply must bear in this journey through life. I know [“simply” is a poor word choice, but I can’t think of better one.]
    I am reminded of a prayer/poem I wrote for you and Barbara after sitting in on a small group study on pain and suffering you led at a Memphis Area-Wide trainings while Joshua was still with us. I had taken away from your teaching that day the importance of accepting and appreciating the fleeting days and moments you have with your loved one who is changing before your eyes and will soon be gone.
    Through the years I have shared versions of that poem with many people in different situations as they grappled with hard changes that came about as their loved ones went through devastating illnesses and losses. The inspiration for my poem of comfort had been my contemplation of Joshua’s suffering and your own as you reacted to it. The blessings that others received as they read the poem were then in actually an outgrowth of your suffering and Joshua’s, thus underscoring the profound meaningfulness of his life, his illness and your responses to it. What a powerful testimony of “faith in spite of” provided by what was experienced by Joshua, your family and you.
    I still may not understand “Hebel” but I’m grateful that in the suffering you shared I was drawn nearer to my Lord.
    Blessings, my dear brother.

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