Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!
Very often a mistranslation like “vanity” can overturn the whole meaning of a message in the Scripture. A typical example of it is the phrase in Ecclesiastes: Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!
Is life a vanity, or the things we have labored all of our days were in vain or futile? Have we not received them from Elohim, and if we indeed have, why has the preacher called “vanity of vanities”?
What does the wisest man teach in his end-of-life message to us, when he says, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” And had he said it at all?
The answer for all these questions we will find in this study.
In general, the word “vanity” expresses feelings of excessive pride or foppishness. Interestingly enough, it is also a word for a low table with a mirror where one sits while dressing or applying makeup. Hence, figuratively, “vanity” is a quality of being “vain” or “foppish” referring to one who is preoccupied with outward appearance.
Hence, the adjective “vain” refers to having an exaggerated sense of self-importance or one who is foppish, i.e. dressed over the top or affecting extreme elegance in manner. Figuratively, “vain” expresses unproductive of success or futile.
The word “vanity” is found most often in King Shlomo’s (Solomon) Ecclesiastes (Hebrew kohelet for “preacher”), where we read in JPS,
Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (Ecc 1:2 JPS)
From this verse on, it appears that Shlomo preaches the “vanity” of all earthly things and blessings which Elohim has given him in his life. And Elohim indeed gave him a lot: not only a lot of wisdom, which Shlomo asked for, but riches, houses, chariots and horses to the extent that the king lost the point of his life and acquired a thousand wives and concubines and went after their idols.
The repetition of “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, with which Ecclesiastes begins, is an expression showing superlativeness: “vanity” in the highest degree, i.e. everything Elohim has given him is “a vanity of vanities”.
This theme follows throughout the book in Ecc 1:14, Ecc 2:1, Ecc 2:11, Ecc 2:15, Ecc 2:17, Ecc 2:19, Ecc 2:21, Ecc 2:23, Ecc 2:26, Ecc 3:19, Ecc 4:4, Ecc 4:7-8, Ecc 4:16, Ecc 5:10, Ecc 6:2, Ecc 6:4, Ecc 6:9, Ecc 6:11-12, Ecc 7:6, Ecc 7:15, Ecc 8:10, Ecc 8:14, Ecc 9:9, Ecc 11:8, Ecc 11:10, Ecc 12:8, wherein the whole of the things, King Shlomo presents to us for our consideration, is all “vanity” of his life.
A superficial reading of Shlomo’s Ecclesiastes, and as we will learn below is also a mistranslation, may mislead a reader about the real intent of the wise man that the earthly blessings and everything Elohim gives in our lives is all “vanity”. If so, hardly this can be called gratitude and appreciation.
So, what does the wise man teach us?
The Hebrew word behind “vanity”, as in the phrase “vanity of vanities”, or in some translations “futility”, is הֲבֵל havel, which literally means a vapor or a breath. Vapor or breath is something transitory and temporary in contrast of that which is firm and enduring, and is the figure of what has no support or continuance, since a vapor is short-lived.
Hence, figuratively, havel may (in certain cases) express emptiness or nothingness, but not with the same meaning. The primary meaning of havel is “vapor” in a sense of something that comes and goes and has a transitory or temporary nature.
The noun הֲבֵל havel, is derived from the primitive verb הָבַל haval, which means to become or act like a vapor. This meaning of havel and haval can be best seen in the following verse,
Thus said Yehovah, ‘What unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me, that they have gone far from Me, and went after worthlessness (havel), and became worthless (haval)?’ (Jer 2:5)
Here, the rendering of הֲבֵל havel and הָבַל haval is correct since going after a vapor (haval) is worthlessness (havel).
King Shlomo uses another expression of worthlessness in his book—”striving after wind”—used in parallel with “vapor” to bring us to a better understanding of the Hebraic concept of worthlessness, as going after the wind,
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity (havel) and a striving after wind. (Ecc 1:14 JPS)
The better rendering would be, I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is (like) a vapor and a striving after wind.
The idea of this rendering of havel is that running after the wind is all worthless like running after the short-lived vapor.
Interestingly, the personal name הֶבֶל Hevel, the son of Adam and Chavah, killed by his twin-brother Kain, means “breath” or something that is like breath that leaves nothing behind it.
And indeed, Hevel’s short life was like a breath or a vapor; he did not leave any trace of him, offspring after him, as a vapor leaves nothing either.
This transitory or temporary nature of הֲבֵל havel, a vapor or a breath, can be best seen in verses like,
I loathe, I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. (Job 7:16)
Man is like a breath, His days like a passing shadow. (Psa 144:4)
Again, the idea is that as a vapor is transitory and temporary, so is human life short, like a passing shadow under the sun. Hence, the Hebraic concept of havel is like a short-lived vapor or breath.
With this understanding of the Hebrew word havel, we are coming to the point in our study that the preacher is not teaching us that life is “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, but that life is transient and we should seek something more than earthly blessings, even if they come from Him.
In conclusion, the Hebrew word havel always describes a vapor or a breath that has a transitory or temporary nature, such as in Isa 57:13 wherein the idols Israel served would be taken in the wind and be no more.
When you cry out, let your collection (of idols) deliver you. But the wind shall bear them all away, a breath take them. But he who takes refuge in Me shall inherit the land, and possess My set-apart mountain. (Isa 57:13)
With that being said, in Ecclesiastes, King Shlomo is not telling us that the blessings in our lives, which YHVH has given us, are “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, “futility”, or even “worthless, meaningless”, but that they are transitory and temporary like a short-living vapor or a breath, and to make them the focus of our lives is foolishness, because they come and go like a vapor or a wind. Going after them is like running after the wind—always ending with disappointment in our lives.
So, the preacher begins his end-life discourse with,
Vapor of vapors, says the preacher, Vapors of vapors! All is vapor. (Ecc 1:2)
But ends with,
Let us hear the conclusion of the entire matter: Fear Elohim and guard His commands, for this is for all mankind! (Ecc 12:13)
The gifts YHVH gives us in our lives are good and we must be thankful for them, but they are transitory and temporary and short-living, impossible to store up. But what matters in our lives is guarding the Torah of YHVH. This is the message of Shlomo.
His son teaches the same message,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Mat 6:19-20)
The continuation is in the following article.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.