November 9, 2021

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.

Vanity of Vanities

February 10, 2017

Ecclesiastes begins with the striking phrase “Vanity of vanities … All is vanity.” The ESV provides a helpful footnote on “vanity” in 1:2: “The Hebrew term hebel, translated vanity or vain, refers concretely to a ‘mist,’ ‘vapor,’ or ‘mere breath,’ and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context). It appears five times in this verse and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes.”

I think the idea of something that is fleeting is more helpful to me in reading Ecclesiastes than some other modern language attempts.

  • “Meaningless, meaningless … Everything is meaningless!” NIV
  • “Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless.” GW
  • “Everything is nonsense … nothing makes sense!” CEV
  • “Life is useless, all useless.” GNB

I’ve suggested to people who struggled with reading Ecclesiastes that it might be helpful to substitute their translation’s rendering of hebel with vapor or fleeting, and some have found this helpful.

In Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, the fleeting nature of life is observed in the contrast of the wise and the fool. Clearly, being wise is better than being a fool. Wisdom is said to mean that you have your eyes in your head, which is probably a way of saying the wise can see where they are going. In contrast, the fool is walking in the dark. Yet the tension of the book is this: “How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16, ESV)

The fleeting nature of life is observed in work (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19). A person with wisdom may work very hard to accomplish something that will last beyond his or her lifetime. But Ecclesiastes sees this as a vexing problem, because the heir didn’t toil for it but merely inherits it. And it is possible that the one who inherits the fruit of someone’s labor will turn out to be foolish.

Yet some of the pessimism of the book involves looking at life from the vantage point of “under the sun.” This phrase occurs twenty-eight times in the book. It is looking at life from the vantage point of this physical life. It is the contrast of the land of the living with the realm of the dead.

Life is fleeting, and the brevity of life brings to us many vexations. But the book ends by pointing us to the one who is eternal.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, ESV)