Published February 15, 2023
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
“Vanity” pervades the book of Ecclesiastes, occurring thirty-eight times in just twelve chapters. The book begins and ends with the refrain, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2; 12:8). This tells the reader that the vanity theme will be central to the book’s overall message. In fact, I can’t think of another instance in Scripture where our interpretation of an entire book hinges on the meaning of a single word.
The Hebrew word often translated as “vanity” is hevel (or hebel), and its most literal meaning is a “breath” or “vapor.” The image of a vapor, which is fleeting, elusive, and intangible, gives rise to a variety of more figurative meanings. Much ink has been spilled over how to translate hevel in Ecclesiastes. Some options include vanity, futility, ephemerality, evanescence, fleeting, transitory, enigmatic, and meaningless/meaninglessness.
With such a myriad of options, how do we begin to find the right word? I suggest we begin by eliminating the worst option, the one that will certainly lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the book. That option is “meaningless,” which is how hevel is rendered in the NIV and NLT. The problems with this interpretation are manifold. There are many occurrences where “meaningless” does not fit the context, and it would also create logical contradictions. For example, the preacher makes many value judgments, often declaring one thing to be better than another, yet all such judgments are logically impossible if all is meaningless. It also creates theological problems that conflict with the rest of Scripture. Lastly, “meaninglessness” as a concept sounds suspiciously like a concern of 20th century existentialist philosophy, not that of an ancient Israelite. Incidentally, the 20th century is when this translation option was first suggested.
I usually leave the habit of criticizing the NIV to others, but in this case I’ll kick a translation while it’s down. I suggest NIV readers switch translations, at least for Ecclesiastes. Hevel occurs so often and is so central to the message of the book that seeing the word “meaningless” over and over again will certainly influence one’s interpretation, and not for the better.
A Theological Word
After studying every single instance of hevel in Ecclesiastes, I am convinced that the word is being used in different ways and that there is no single meaning that fits in every context. There are at least three different meanings (and perhaps more). (1) Sometimes hevel refers to something fleeting or ephemeral, such as human life (11:10). (2) Sometimes it describes something that is futile or profitless, such as trying to find satisfaction in temporal things (2:11). (3) In a few instances, it describes situations that are enigmatic or puzzling, like when the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper (8:14).
Despite the different uses of hevel¸ I am still in favor of using only one English word to translate it throughout the book. This is because the author is intentionally using the same word repeatedly for thematic reasons. Using different words runs the risk of losing the unity of the book’s message. While the exact meaning of the word differs in each context, I believe that Solomon uses this word hevel to develop a broader theological idea. To understand this idea, it is helpful to ask what all three of the meanings in the previous paragraph have in common. The commonality of the brevity of human life, the futility of human endeavors, and the enigma of injustice is that they are all a result of the fall. Ecclesiastes does not present life as it ought to be, but as it actually is. It is life in a fallen world, a world that is broken, a world that is filled with vanity. In Ecclesiastes, hevel is a theological word that describes the effects of sin on all of creation. Since we do not have a single English word that captures the fullness of this theological concept, I prefer to translate it as “vanity.” Though it is not a word we often use in everyday conversation, it has hundreds of years of Christian tradition behind it and has thus become a theological word (like justification, atonement, etc.).
Vanity in the New Testament
This interpretation is confirmed in the New Testament. Romans 8:20-21 says, “For the creation was subjected to futility [or vanity], not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The Greek word for “futility” in this verse is the same Greek word that is used to translate the Hebrew word hevel in the Greek version of the Old Testament. In response to Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, God placed all of creation under a curse. Put another way, He subjected creation to vanity, which is what Paul says in Romans 8. Ecclesiastes will teach us how to live life in such a world. In the meantime, I’ll end this post on the hope that we are given in Romans 8:21. While we will not be free from vanity in this life, when Christ returns, all of us who are in Him will receive glorified bodies and will be set free from the bondage to corruption, from the vanity. O Lord, teach us how to live a life that brings glory to you in a world full of vanity as we eagerly await our redemption from it.