The jury has reached a unanimous verdict: 2016 was an altogether unrelenting beast.
Without wanting to regurgitate what’s been countlessly covered in all those ‘looking back on the year’ programmes and weekend paper supplements, 2016 had many lethal strings to its devastating bow: the worrying new wave of terrorist attacks on western soil; countless incidents of tragic migrant drownings; the bloody carnage of Aleppo; the never-ending stream of celebrity deaths, often ‘before their time’ and right up until the last few days of the year. And then there was the shock and division of Brexit, followed by the almost unbelievable ascendancy of Trump. 2016 seemed to leave the world feeling like a different place than it was before.
So, perhaps with the exception of Leicester City fans, it’s no surprise that most of us are glad to be seeing the back of this past year. ‘Thanks, 2016’, as countless memes put it.
I guess January 1st will always end up being treated as if we’re turning a blank page, with the promise of vague hope and apparently guaranteed change. And yet because of all we’ve seen these past twelve months, 01/17 is being held up as even more of a fresh start than normal, a precious doorway out of despair and darkness into the light.
And, of course, that’s not even to consider the personal circumstances of our own lives in 2016.
Now throw into the mix the traditional custom of making new year resolutions, and you can start to see why 2017 might well be buckling under the weight of all our hopes and dreams. If years were performers, 2017 would surely be suffering from a severe case of opening night stage-fright: “There’s no way I’m going out there; they all expect too much.”
And we daren’t ask whether we’ve got any right to be quite so expectant; we’d just prefer not to imagine the alternative, thank you very much. Crack that fortune cookie open, force a smile, jot down some positive resolutions, and hope for the best.
But over the last few weeks I’ve become increasingly fond of one little word that I think will serve us surprisingly well in 2017, if we let it soak into our souls.
It’s not a word that is going to crop up in the columns of news-sheets or the tweets of C-list celebrities. It’s not a word you’ll hear thrown around your local or dropped into conversations at the hairdressers. And yet I’m persuaded it’s a word that holds the power to illuminate the year ahead and prepare us for all that may come our way.
Here it is: hebel.
Not heard of it? That’s ok, it’s Hebrew for a start.
It occurs throughout a perhaps undervalued part of the Bible known as Ecclesiastes, and it’s a word that’s often translated into our English translations as either “vanity” or “meaningless”. In fact hebel occurs a staggering 38 times in Ecclesiastes, which is more than in the rest of the Bible put together. The barefaced writer of Ecclesiastes scatters the word all over his observations on the world, again and again describing life as hebel. And to really drive home his conclusion, his opening and closing salvos include this particularly explosive rocket:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1v 2-3)
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12 v8)
That’s called making a point.
So what value does all this have for us as we head into a new year? Am I suggesting that the solution to facing 2017 is being a glass-half empty person? Just set the bar so low that you can’t possibly be disappointed?
Hebel isn’t about unadulterated pessimism, contrary to how Ecclesiastes is often perceived. It’s not about the cynical pontifications of some overly-dramatic philosophy undergraduate. Nor is it about the despondent groans of a miserly Scrooge, as the ‘meaningless’ translation can imply. If it were, that would give us little relief or purpose as we face up to a new year.
But Ecclesiastes has something far more refreshing to say about life.
Because actually ‘meaningless’ is a slightly unhelpful translation of hebel. Primarily it’s a word that referred to breath or vapour, something fleeting and transient in nature. It’s the early morning mist on a winter’s day, soon to be burnt up by the rising sun, or the enchanting wisp of smoke that temporarily hangs in the air after you blow out a candle.
Understanding that life is hebel is not to dismiss it as meaningless, but is rather to conclude that, though life is full of meaning and significance and joy, it remains elusive. It is hard to catch and bottle. It slips through our fingers before we know it. In other words, I don’t think the writer of Ecclesiastes would have been particularly surprised by 2016. He’d be moved at the tragedies and he’d be glad of the good times, but he wouldn’t be fazed. After all, 2016 is hebel.
And so as we move into a new year, and especially a year that many of us are pinning our hopes on, Ecclesiastes warns us to give up on approaching 2017 as a quest to achieve and attain – whether happiness or permanence or security or legacy. We can be liberated from the lie that life is about carving out a name for ourselves, plotting and scheming to be somebody and gain something.
And this is where the tyre of our expectations hits the tarmac of hebel.
If life is fleeting and a gift from God, then instead of trying to make it a means for our own gain, we need to receive it as the gift that it is – from the God who is good. A God who has entered this world of hebel in Jesus Christ so that we can know him. Don’t begin January expecting to reach December having achieved anything, or aiming to leave a particular legacy. If we do, we’re flying in the face of hebel.
Instead hebel says receive – and consider your Creator, whom you receive it all from. Enjoy every good thing that comes our way this year: food, friends, family, work, breath. That’s where joy and purpose are found, not in the striving for gain.
And don’t be surprised: 2017 takes place in a broken world. Maybe it won’t feel as overwhelming as 2016, but you can be pretty sure we’ll still encounter the hopelessly tragic, the bitterly unjust, and the despairingly wasteful.
So at this time of year when we’re encouraged to fill our journals with resolutions and summon up within ourselves almost superhuman levels of positivity, I hope hebel feels like a breath of fresh air. Because that’s pretty much what life is, breathed out by God.
Hebel is a reminder of reality, liberating us from the lie that life is what you achieve and painting a picture for us of the transient, tragic, and often frustrating backdrop against which we live out our created existence. The very same backdrop against which we will live out our 2017s. And our 2018s. And every day of our lives ’til the day we have our final breath.