ECCLESIASTES: WHAT IS THE MEANING OF VANITY?


Ecclesiastes-Main

        

In Hebrew, the word for vanity is hebel—הָ֫בֶל, which means “vapor” or “breath”. This word is dominant in the book of Ecclesiastes compared to the rest of the Old Testament books.  Hebel can refer to that which is, worthless or       unsubstantial such as an idol (Jer.10:5) or life itself (Job 7:16).[1]  This word is found in contexts where the activity engaged brings no profit be it through: Egypt’s might (Is. 30:7); idol worship (Dt. 32:21) or Abel and Cain’s labor (Gen. 4).

Hebel evaluates people and things making value judgements on them and concluding that these lack any real “substance.”[2]  Deceitfully gaining riches in light of our finitude for example is hebel—worthless.  Among our worthlessness under the sun is our might, beauty and youth all of which in our culture are worshipped (Prov. 31:30; Is. 30:7; Ec. 11:10).[3]

To the Preacher, it is death that precisely makes life meaningless or vain (Ec.3:19) and that is why he is so pessimistic about human existence.  In Ecclesiastes the dominant use of hebel is the universally considered devaluation of a person or thing.[4]  The nihilism is very dark and gloomy for life without God is no life at all.  That’s the message, that’s the reality check, that’s the abyss.

(SDG)

[1] BDB, Pg.210

[2] TDOT, Pgs.313-314

[3] Ibid., Pg.319

[4] Ibid., Pg.319

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