On hebel “vanity” (Ecclesiastes)
“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 KJV)
The Book of Ecclesiastes is celebrated for its opening words: “’Vanity of vanities,’ saith the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’” (1:2 KJV). The NIV reads: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (1:2 NIV). A strong opening. What is the word we are attempting to translate?
The word is hebel, which appears in related languages of the Ancient Near East. Its literal meaning is ‘breath’, ‘wind’, ‘vapour’, but it is used only twice in the Bible with this meaning, describing the worthlessness of idols. Its meaning in Ecclesiastes is much debated.
As well as vanity and meaningless, it is translated amampunge in both Xhosa Bibles, tevergeefs in the Old Afrikaans, tot niks kom in the New Afrikaans Bible, sinloos in the Nuwe Lewende Vertaling. The Septuagint has mataiótēs, the Vulgate has vanitas, Spanish has vanidad; Polish has marność, French has absurde, inutile, dérisoire; Luther says eitel, Today’s English Version has useless. The New English Bible says emptiness; and so on.
Hebel describes our experience of reality. Reality evades the mind’s grasp. Like a breath of air, you can feel it, but you cannot see it, it has no weight, and is gone before you can analyse it. Many different situations of life are described in outline and summed up as a hebel. King Solomon cannot penetrate to the depth of reality, for in his view it has no depth; it is not concrete, it does not last.
The teaching is found in the New Testament in Hebrews 11:3: “What is seen was not made out of what was visible”. The idea that reality is experienced as emptiness is relatively new to physics, but it is taught in the Bible, written long before Christ.