The problem under consideration is: What do we have to gain from our toil under the sun?In other words, what do we get out of life? What will we have to show for it at the end? What reward will there be to make all the pain worth it? And the answer to the problem is: All that we have to gain is vanity. This much is clear, but it still begs the question: What does “vanity” (hebel) mean?
Last week I summarized three remarkably divergent interpretive approaches to the book of Ecclesiastes. A few readers helpfully pointed out that the translation of the Hebrew word hebel in Eccl 1:2 (and throughout the book) can play a role in nudging readers toward one interpretive approach or another. This keen insight warrants further exploration.
Study the Word
Canvassing English translations produces three main options for translating hebel into English:
- Vanity—ESV, LEB, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, KJV
- Futility—CSB, NET
- Meaningless—NIV, NLT
The Hebrew lexicon BDB suggests a primary translation of “vapour, breath,” with a figurative use of “vanity.”
And by looking up all uses of hebel in the Old Testament, we drum up the following variety of translations from the ESV alone (listed in order of frequency):
- gained hastily
This is all well and good. But we quickly confront the limitations of a word study. These lists don’t help us to understand what the word means in Ecclesiastes. We won’t get at the message of the book by simply choosing our favorite option from the menu and running with it. We need more help.