The biblical-theological-philosophical masterpiece called Ecclesiastes is framed by the superlative construct “Vanity of vanities” (Eccl 1:2; 12:8). In the midst of this inclusio, out of his personal experience, Solomon provides ample reasons why he thought “all of life is vanity.” This declaration is the result of Israel’s aged king exploring such life-topics as pleasure and work (Eccl 2:1-11), wealth (2:18-26), friendship (Eccl 4:7-16), religion (5:1-6:9), and even wisdom itself (2:12-27). All of these are shown to be, in the ultimate sense, unfulfilling. The English word chosen to convey this concept in many Bible translations is “vanity.” While “vanity” conjures up thoughts of selfish pride and conceit here in the West—a nuance lacking in its Hebrew root—the word should be understood in its Semitic context as “vanity” appears in Ecclesiastes a total of 38 times.

The Hebrew word translated “vanity,” הֲבֵ֤ל (hevel, hebel, or even Abel, cf. Gen 4:2), carries with it a colorful range of meaning. In fact, the following brief sample of English translations of Ecclesiastes 1:2 demonstrates the word is rather nuanced:

ESV: “‘Vanity of vanities’, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’”

NET: “‘Futile! Futile!’ laments the Teacher, ‘Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!’”

NIV: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything  is meaningless.’”

While acknowledging the term’s nuanced character, the most consistent word picture of the word hevel is that of “breath” or “vapor.” Because of this it carries a meaning of “temporary,” and stresses its subject as being “unable to be controlled” or in Solomon’s poetic expression, “chasing after wind” (1:17; 2:11; 4:4; 6:9). It is a word Job was familiar with as he used it to describe his life as wasting away and fleeting toward death (Job 7:16; cf. Ps 39:5, 11). According to Rooker, “Hebel conveys notions of transience and insubstantiality.”[1] Barrick helpfully employs the idea of a bubble to describe its meaning: “Bubbles are delightfully beautiful, multicolored shimmering globes dancing in the air gracefully changing their form until poof! they disappear in a brief shiny cascade of tiny droplets.”[2]

woman suffering from a severe depressionSo, what does all this mean for the believer today? Ecclesiastes makes it clear that a life lived solely “under the sun” (i.e., a life lived apart from the fear of God) will only bring misery and a deep sense of dissatisfaction. Without living in a conscience, moment-by-moment existence under God, all of life’s benefits are hebel (meaningless, futile, vanity). This is because death is the great equalizer for both the fool and the wise, the rich and the poor; indeed, death comes to all (2:14-16). Because God has placed “eternity on every one’s heart” (3:11), human beings can ironically seek to quench a thirst in life that cannot be quenched by earthly life itself. Therefore hebel becomes the best term to describe an attempted life without God as it is a life of “nothingness, perishable, void.”[3] As such, the word hebel powerfully leads the reader of the book to find satisfaction in the eternal God above all things.

Jesus, the eternal God made visible, has freed us from our vain attempts of seeking supposed unending pleasures in this world—a burden under the sun that can never ultimately satisfy. This includes our work, our pleasures, our relationships, and even our service in church if these are not done from the right motives. What we need are motives that move us from life under the sun to life beyond the sun. Or, in other words: a life of glorifying God through the Son. It is in Jesus Christ alone where we find the rest and satisfaction our souls are desperately seeking (Matt 11:28-30). Resting in, and enjoying life in Christ, to the glory of God, is the only true, lasting satisfaction that Solomon was seeking—and pointing us to—when he looked at life under the sun and declared it nothing but vanity.

[1] Mark F. Rooker, “Ecclesiastes,” in The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. by Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2011), 541

[2] William D. Barrick, Ecclesiastes: The Philippians of the Old Testament (Scotland, UK: Focus, 2011), 12.

[3] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000), s.v. “הֲבֵ֤ל.” Bible Works Software.


Posted by CMarsh

Cory M. Marsh is Coordinator of Bible and Theology and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Southern California Seminary, and holds memberships in the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Philosophical Society, Society of Biblical Literature, & Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics. Cory is married to his high school sweetheart Shannnan, and they are both members of Mission Bible Church. They currently live with their cat Wednesday in Mission Viejo, CA.

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