What does the word “vanity” mean in Ecclesiastes? Scholars disagree on the meaning of the word; indeed, the word is subject to a wide range of meanings and interpretations from credible scholars and Bible translations. In saying that, though, we can narrow down what vanity means, and doing this will help us better understand the book of Ecclesiastes on the whole.
What Does “Vanity” Mean in Ecclesiastes?
The Hebrew word for “vanity” in Ecclesiastes is the word hebel. It’s mentioned 38 times in the book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity,” whatever this word means, is the theme of the book. It’s mentioned right at the beginning of Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 1:2), and toward the end (Ecc. 12:8), as a way of letting the reader know, “Hey, this is an important theme of the book.” When we think of vanity in general or a vain person in particular, we think of a person who spends too much time in the mirror, overly concerned about his or her appearance. But that’s not the idea with vanity in Ecclesiastes.
Strictly speaking, the Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, is “breath.” Some translations proposed have been “absurd,” “meaningless,” and “useless.”
David Gibson, in his excellent book,Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End, says “breath” or “breeze” is the best translation for the word.
“I want to propose that many well-intended Bible translations have actually led us astray by translating the Hebrew word hebel as ‘meaningless’ in this context. We tend to read this word as if it’s spoken by an undergraduate philosophy student who comes home after his first year of studies and confidently announces that the universe as we know it is pointless and life has no meaning. But that is not the Preacher’s perspective.”
He continues: “In fact, the Hebrew word hebel is also accurately translated as ‘breath’ or ‘breeze.’ The Preacher is saying that everything is a mist, a vapor, a puff of wind, a bit of smoke.”
But there is still another meaning to consider.
Craig Bartholomew and the Meaning of the Word “Vanity” in Ecclesiastes
I’m doing a Bible teaching series at our church on Wednesday nights on Ecclesiastes. In preparation for this teaching, I used part of my method on how to find the best commentaries. My method led me to Craig Bartholomew’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, which is a top-rated commentary on Ecclesiastes.
How does Bartholomew translate the word? “Enigmatic.” “Enigmatic,” of course, comes from the word “enigma.” Enigma means something that is mysterious or perplexing to grasp. I like this translation. It fits well in the context of the book. In Ecclesiastes, we are learning from someone’s hard-won wisdom, who learned that success, knowledge, and accomplishments cannot satisfy the human soul. No human can understand all of the reasons why life is so hard and why we struggle the way we do and why things don’t always work out the way we want them to. Life goes by fast and it’s perplexing. It’s a breath, a breeze, an enigma.
Abel and the Word Vanity
Do you remember the story of Cain and Abel? Abel was a keeper of the sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. Both brought offerings to the Lord. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but not for Cain’s. Then, Cain rose up and, when they were both in the field, Cain killed Abel. Unfair, jealous, brutal, envy, doesn’t make sense.
Exactly. Do you know what the name given to Abel is in Genesis 4? Hebel. If you want to know what “vanity” means in the book of Ecclesiastes, consider the unjust killing of Abel.
The best word to define “vanity” in the book of Ecclesiastes is either “breath” or “breeze” or “enigmatic.” For breath or breeze, it teaches us that life in this fallen world is short and transient. Pleasures are fleeting and success is more empty than we realize. Enigmatic, on the other hand, teaches us that life in a fallen world often doesn’t make sense. We must learn to trust, obey, and fear the Lord with all things. Our proper response as the reader is to fear the Creator God and trust and obey Him.