In our study of Ecclesiastes, some questions have arisen over the use of the word “vanity” in the KJV versus “meaningless” in some newer translations. This is a linguistic problem of the first order involving not one but three languages and the passage of thousands of years along with the birth and death of at least three vastly different civilizations.
The word rendered vanity in the KJV is the Hebrew word hebel. If you want to look it up in Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon its number is H1892. Strong’s defines the word as vapor or breath with a figurative meaning of vanity or vainly as an adverb. This word is not related to the word in Exodus 20:7 which is shav (H7723) defined as emptiness, vanity, falsehood, emptiness of speech, lying, worthlessness of conduct.
The problem started with the Vulgate, the Latin bible commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382 and largely the work of St. Jerome. Jerome was to revise and retranslate the Old Latin bible and provide the basis for a single, officially sanctioned text in the common tongue of the Western Empire. Jerome chose to render the word hebel as the Latin vanitas. According to the University of Notre Dame’s online Latin dictionary (I just know your dying to go there), vanitas means emptiness, worthlessness, unreality, boasting, ostentation. Here’s your link:
So when the King James Translators did their thing, among the sources they consulted was Jerome’s work. They used an English word that, at the time, had more of the Latin meaning than it has now, ie vanity. At that time the word meant something more like the word vain in the phrase “he tried in vain” more than the phrase “she was a vain person”.
But how should we view the Hebrew hebel ? After all, its understanding is pivotal to our understanding of the whole book. I think vanity, as we use it today widely misses the mark as a translation. While it’s probably a better translation, meaningless also misses for me.
What are the qualities of a vapor, more to the point a vapor of vapors? It can barely be seen, if at all. It drifts along carried by the winds. It disperses and is no more at the whim of unseen forces. There seems to be no really good translation for hebel in this context but it suggests the ephemeral and repetitive nature of life.
While life may or may not be meaningless one author writes:
The point that Solomon is making is that you live for seventy or eighty years and then you’re gone. Materially speaking, life is short and then you die. You will lose everything you own to the next generation. Your children will rent out your house, purge your possessions, and spend your inheritance. Ultimately, you will be a distant memory at a Thanksgiving meal.
The writer of Ecclesiastes certainly is asking the question: of what use is this temporary and tedious existence?
Thanks for asking me questions. The harder the better. I will not always have an answer and the answers I give may or may not be sufficient. But there should always be questions, they help keep all of us honest.
Here are some discussions more or less on the topic from around the web:
Here is a link to Strong’s so you can look it up yourself: