I had a very good reader (think Ph.D. in literature) say to me, “I’ve just read Ecclesiastes, and it didn’t make sense.” She had read the NIV. I personally don’t like the NIV’s translation “ Meaningless, Meaningless.” I gave her information on the Hebrew word, hebel, which is traditionally translated “vanity.” She reported a meaningful second reading of the book.
The Hebrew word *hebel* (הֶבֶל Strong’s Number H1892) occurs 38 times in Ecclesiastes. Here are the major translations of the term.
- Vanity KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB 1995
- Futility NASB 2020, CSB
- Futile NET
- Meaningless NIV
But what does hebel mean? It means vapor or breath.* So the question is how does this word function metaphorically within the book of Ecclesiastes. The first thing we think of with vapor is that it is transient. Vapor comes and goes quickly. In the winter when we see our breath, it is momentary. When we watch the steam rise from our tea kettle, it dissipates quickly. So vapor is a fitting image for the transitory. We see it in the famous line from the Letter of James.
You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
(James 4:14, NASB)
Now that I’m older I’m noticing how fleeting life is. By virtue of my age, I’m keenly aware that the time ahead of me in this mortal life is smaller than the time I’ve already experienced.
The second aspect of vapor is that it obscures our sight. During Covid-19, we have all worn masks at some time or another. For those of us who wear glasses, we’ve had the additional experience of our glasses fogging up. It is just vapor, but for a moment I can’t see. Or maybe you’ve had the windshield of your car fog up? And if you have experienced fog, you know how vapor can keep you from seeing things clearly. Life is like that. We can’t see everything clearly even though we want to. Things happen in life that leave us with questions. For instance in Ecclesiastes, we read:
There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. (Ecclesiastes 7:15, ESV)
We would like answers to all of life’s questions. It is not that we have no answers. Ecclesiastes gives us some important answers. But we will always have questions where the answers seem obscured by the fog of this physical world.
Ecclesiastes struggles with the brevity of life and the fact that we don’t always see things clearly. In reading it, we wrestle with our limitations and are brought to worship the Eternal God who has the answers.
— Russ Holden
*BDB, s.v. “הֶ֫בֶל,” 210.