Vanity of Vanities – Really?!

Is this life really meaningless??

Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Most Bible versions say that, or something similar, for this verse. The Hebrew word translated into the English “vanity” is הֶבֶל he-vel. The actual phrase in the Hebrew is הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים ha-vel ha-vah-leem, which means the most hevel of hevels. In Scripture to say, the “something of somethings” is a means of expressing the extreme best or worst of something. Some examples are “a servant of servants” in Genesis 9:25; the “holy of holies” in Exodus 26:33; or “the song of songs” in Song of Songs/Solomon 1:1. The question is what is the definition of hevel?

I was studying this morning, and a commentator pointed out that the book of Ecclesiastes is the only book in the Bible whose interpretation is controlled by the meaning of one word. As noted above, most translations seem to state that life and everything we do is “vanity, meaningless.” The church father Jerome translated the Hebrew into Latin somewhere around 400 AD; his version is known as the Latin Vulgate. He translated he-vel with the Latin word vanitas, which Wycliffe later translated into English in the late 1300’s as vanyte. These two translations have steered most English Bible translations since that time.

How is hevel translated in other Scriptures? Psalm 62:9, in some versions, says that, “Men of low degree are only vanity (hevel)…,” while others translate more as, “Those of low estate are but a breath (hevel)….” Proverbs 21:6 in many versions says, “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor (hevel).” Isaiah 57:13 speaks of the futility of idolatry, “When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them all off, a breath (hevel) will take them away.”

קֹהֶלֶת Kohelet, the Preacher, Solomon, wrote in this same book, in 3:1a & 11a that everything has an appointed time, or season, and that God has made everything “beautiful, appropriate” for its time. Solomon also speaks many times of hevel “under the sun.” Everything “under the sun” will someday “vanish.” If we can understand that Kohelet is NOT saying that everything that we do is “meaningless,” but rather that it is JUST a “breath” which will quickly pass, we get a different understanding to the entire book of Ecclesiastes. It becomes NOT a book of seeming negativity, but a book stating that who we are, what we have, what we do, whom we have – all is but a breath, and we must enjoy it while we can.

For example, Ecclesiates 9:9 tells a married man to “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain (hevel) life….” The NAS caught it here, by translating as, “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life….” In other words, love is NOT vain, life is NOT vain, but life is really VERY BRIEF, so we need to enjoy what God gives us while we have it. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses, who said, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

So with this understanding, we can say that Solomon, the “wisest of the wise,” wrote that life is הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים ha-vel ha-vah-leem, “a breath of breaths,” or that life is “breath, just breath.” Life is temporary, fleeting, and, as Moses pointed out, “The years of our life… are soon gone, and we fly away.”

In other words, life, family, friends, resources, time, opportunities, work, ministry, projects, etc – all that we have and do, we should enjoy NOW, for soon it is gone. Life is NOT “meaningless,” but rather, it is “quickly passing.” One commentator noted that “life is a fleeting thing that needs to be savored and enjoyed as a gift from God.” And, in truth, trials and troubles we encounter are also brief, albeit troublesome at the time.

Now for faithful believers and followers of Jesus/Yeshua, there is an added benefit. This life is fleeting indeed, but the life that follows is eternal, one of joy. For those who choose to not follow and obey the Lord, the life after this life will be one of deep sorrow, regret, and pain. As Moses said, in Deuteronomy 30:19, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…!”

Ecclesiastes 12:13 pretty much wraps up Solomon’s thoughts in this book by saying “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.”

And so the next time you read Ecclesiastes (you do occasionally, right?), every time you see “vanity, vain,” etc, replace it with “breath, fleeting,” etc. It will change the meaning of the entire book, and give it all a more positive spin.

A couple more verses with hevel:

Psalm 39:5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath (hevel)! Selah 

Psalm 144:4 Man is like a mere breath (hevel); his days are like a passing shadow. 

Therefore, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7), remembering that “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22a).

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