Q&A: Why is Everything Vanity in Ecclesiastes?
From the About page comes this great question:
This may be more of a philosophical/historical question than a linguistic one, but how would you render the word usually given as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes?
Abstract nouns are notoriously difficult to track even within a language — “nobility” now is not what it was — but how would you render it given a all the time and ink in the world.
I was told recently that it should be given as either “wind” or “nothing,” but that was merely a rumour.
Hevel in Ecclesiastes
The Hebrew word is hevel, and it’s important for understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes, because that book begins: “Hevel of hevels, says Kohelet, hevel of hevels. Everything is hevel.”
On the reasonable assumption that the pattern “X of Xs” is meant to convey intensity, Ecclesiastes begins along the lines of “The utmost hevel, says Kohelet, the utmost hevel. Everything is hevel.”
Although this context lets us know how central the word is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it does nothing to narrow down what the word means. So we look elsewhere.
Hevel in Other Contexts
The poetic text of Deuteronomy 32:21 uses the word hevel in parallel with lo el, “non-god.” This doesn’t tell us exactly what the word means — the other words in parallel there mean roughly “jealous” (matching “non-god”) and “anger” (matching hevel), and those two are not synonymous — but the context does tell us that hevel is something negative, like non-god.
In I Kings 16:13 and I Kings 16:26, the word again is something that gets God angry.
In II Kings 17:15, hevel represents something unworthy of pursuit.
So far, the word could mean “vanity,” “emptiness,” “false god” (this is what the ESV thinks), but also any number of other negative things.
The word appears five times in the Book of Job, but the poetic nature of that text usually makes it hard to use the evidence there to narrow down the meaning any further. In Job 7:16, for example, we read that Job’s days are hevel — clearly not a good thing, but we don’t know any more.
Job 35:16 offers a bit of direction, again thanks to parallel structure. There we find two verb phrases, “opens his mouth” and then “speaks many words.” Describing the second is the phrase “without knowledge,” and, equivalently, hevel describes the first. So hevel may be a noun that is like “without knowledge”: “emptiness,” for example.
In Psalm 31:7 the word hevel is used in distinction to God, potentially similar to its usage in Dueteronomy and Kings.
In the context of human inconsequentiality, Psalms 39 and 62 describe every human as hevel.
And Psalm 144:4, again describing the insignificance of humans, compares a human to hevel, with the word probably in parallel with “passing shadow.”
Proverbs 13:11 is potentially helpful, because we see hevel used as the opposite of “by hand,” presumably, “by one’s own work”: “A fortune from hevel will dwindle, but by hand it grows.”
Proverbs 31:30 is perhaps the most helpful verse. There, again, we find parallel structure. This time, “charm is a lie, and beauty is hevel.” In Jeremiah 16:19, too, hevel is like a lie.
Isaiah (30:7 and 49:4) compares hevel to “emptiness.”
In Isaiah 57:13, hevel is like the wind.
Jeremiah 2:5, repeating a theme from Kings, uses hevel as something that his ancestors should not have pursued.
And Jeremiah 8:19 uses hevel as something that angers God, this time adding details: “they angered Me with their idols, with their foreign hevel.” Similarly, in Jeremiah 10:3, the “laws of other nations” are hevel.
There are a few other appearances of hevel that I don’t think add much. And we specifically avoid the details of Ecclesiastes, noting only that the point there is often “even that is hevel.”
Hevel in Ecclesiastes, Again
So where does this leave us?
We know that hevel is negative. And we know that it is like a lie, like false gods, like a passing shadow, like the wind, and like lack of knowledge.
We also know from the context of Ecclesiastes that hevel represents potentially valuable pursuits that turn out not to be worthwhile after all. The excellent Jewish Study Bible (p. 1606) explains that hevel in Ecclesiastes “concerns actions and work that do not last, or appear to lead to no lasting goal, or cannot be explained in any rational, i.e., human, way.”
So it seems that hevel (like the wind and like a shadow) is something vacuous, and (like false gods and like beauty) perhaps specifically something that is potentially alluring.
I don’t think “vanity” (as it’s used today) captures these qualities.
I think “futility” (NJB and JPS) also misses the mark, because “futility” is not potentially attractive. Similarly, “meaningless” in the NIV also seems wrong — though the NIV is correct in not limiting its search to nouns (as I discuss here).
But what’s left?
“Falsely alluring” seems approximately right, but also approximately wrong.
Any other suggestions?