Sfumato. It is a technical term from art history that describes a “smoky” look, a look without harsh dividing lines. Leonardo DaVinci was a master of sfumato. He accomplished the effect quite masterfully in the Mona Lisa. DaVinci used tiny brush strokes to blend colors, then he applied thin layers of varnish, up to 40 of them. This technique produced a hazy, yet strangely realistic and compelling depiction of light and color. When you look at the Mona Lisa, her smile seems to disappear into a smirk; her features look feminine, but then masculine. Sfumato, for DaVinci, was more than a technique; it was a theme.
Ecclesiastes is a book of sfumato. The old King James Version gives us the iconic opening words of the narrator: “Vanity of vanities … vanity of vanities – all is vanity” (1:2). Other translations give a similar flavor: “Meaningless, Meaningless! … utterly meaningless – everything is meaningless” (NIV). These are good translations; they help us get at the intent of the message of this book.
The word translated “vanity” or “meaningless” is hebel. The idea of hebel is “vapor” or “mist” or “breath.” In using the word hebel, the author is launching us in the realm of metaphor. He is using a poetic image. So, to get at the poetry, the language of the book, I prefer Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “Smoke, nothing but smoke… there’s nothing to anything, it’s all smoke.”
Even the identity of the author is shrouded in haze and smoke. Tradition has said that Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes. However, the author adopts an interesting identity: that of Qohelet, which most translations render as “The Preacher.” However we shouldn’t take that as a title in the sense of our modern English use of “preacher.” Qohelet isn’t a socially recognized title like our word “preacher.” The idea behind the Hebrew word seems to be “One who speaks to the assembly.” We might think of how Socrates was considered a gadfly in ancient Athens.
A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled trying to state why or why not Solomon is indeed the author. However, the author purposely chose the mysterious identity of Qohelet. Doesn’t it mean something that we’re not supposed to know the author, but that the author gives us hints and clues?
The author’s very identity is cloaked in sfumato, in hebel. In vapor and smoke and mist. Solomon was a potentate who became legend. Qohelet, on the other hand, is no-one, and everyone.
Could this be part of the message? Could Qohelet be hinting that he is hebel, and so are we? Could it be that when we embrace that we are hebel, we more fully become ourselves? Is it possible that this is part of what John the Baptist means when he points to Christ and says: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30)? Perhaps this very loss of self that Qohelet seems to demonstrate is a preparation for us to understand more fully Paul’s statement “for you died, and your life is hidden with Christ.” (Colossians 3:3)