Ecc 1:1-3 - Vanity

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Qoheleth presents his theme in 1:2-3, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (ESV)

I think the word “vanity” is a bit hard for us to understand fully. Let’s try other translations:

GNB: It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless.
BBE: All is to no purpose, said the Preacher, all the ways of man are to no purpose.
CEV: Nothing makes sense! Everything is nonsense. I have seen it all-- nothing makes sense!
GW: "Absolutely pointless!" says the spokesman. "Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless."
The Message: Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That's what the Quester says.]There's nothing to anything--it's all smoke.
NET: "Futile! Futile!" laments the Teacher, "Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!"
NIV: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
NASB: Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Amplified: Vapor of vapors and futility of futilities, says the Preacher. Vapor of vapors and futility of futilities! All is vanity (emptiness, falsity, and vainglory).
NLT: “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”

To gain a fuller sense of the word and hence a fuller sense of the Qoheleth’s theme, ISBE gives a good insight into the word:

Vanity; Vanities
van´i-ti, van´i-tiz (הבל, hebhel, און, 'āwen, שׁוא, shāw'; κενός, kenós; ματαιότης, mataiótēs): The words “vain,” “vanity,” “vanities” are frequent in the Bible. Their idea is almost exclusively that of “evanescence,” “emptiness,” including “idolatry” and “wickedness” as being not only evil but vain and empty things. They also signify falseness. The chief word translated “vanity,” “vanities” is hebhel, a “breath of air, or of the mouth,” often applied to idolatry (Deu 32:21; 1Ki 16:13; Psa 31:6; Jer 8:19, etc.); to man's days and to man himself (Job 7:16; Psa 39:5, Psa 39:11, etc.); to man's thoughts (Psa 94:11); to wealth and treasures (Pro 13:11; Pro 21:6); to everything, in Ecclesiastes, where the word occurs frequently in various applications: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecc 1:2; Ecc 12:8). Hebhel is also the name of Adam's second son (Gen 4:2). 'Āwen, meaning also “breath,” is likewise translated “vanity” in similar connections, but it inclines more to “iniquity” (so often rendered); it is joined with mischief and iniquity (Isa 41:29; Isa 58:9; Zec 10:2); another frequent word is shāw', having also the idea of “falsity,... wickedness” (Exo 20:7; Deu 5:11; Psa 31:6, etc.). “Vanity” does not often occur in the New Testament; but see VAIN, VAINGLORY. In Act 14:15 we have mátaios, “empty,” translated “vanities” (of idols); mataiotēs, “emptiness,” “transitoriness” (Rom 8:20, “The creation was subjected to vanity,” frailty, transitoriness); “emptiness,” “folly” (Eph 4:17; 2Pe 2:18).
Among other changes for “vanity” the Revised Version (British and American) has “iniquity” (Job 15:35; Psa 10:7); “falsehood” (Psa 12:2; Psa 41:6); “deceit” (Psa 144:8, Psa 144:11); “vapor” (Pro 21:6); “calamity” (Pro 22:8 margin “vanity”); “a breath” (Isa 57:13); “wickedly” (Isa 58:9). Conversely, for “Wherefore hast thou made all men in vain?” (Psa 89:47), “For what vanity hast thou created all the children of men!”; for “Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing” (Isa 41:29), “Behold, all of them, their works are vanity and nought,” margin as the King James Version, with “nought” for “nothing.”

We’ll see tomorrow how the Qoheleth proves his theme from 1:4-3:22

Picture by Ali Taylor

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3 comment(s)

  1. Meaghan, Thanks for looking at the word so closely. If you think of a vain person as one who is only concerned about outward appearance so that their inside is hollow, it does make sense. So without God's spirit to fill us, all is vanity.

  2. the contemporary use of the word "vain" now is mainly on appearance but it certainly has a richer meaning originally.