Qohelet 4: What’s in a Word? Actually, a Whole Heck of a Lot!

I think that the most important word in the book of Ecclesiastes is הֶבֶל (i.e., hevel). Most English Bibles, until recently, chose to translate this word as “vanity.” Wycliffe, who produced the first English translation of the Bible in the late fourteenth century was using the Latin text as his source. He transliterated the Latin word vanitas with Middle English word vanyte.

  • “The vanyte of vanytees, seide Ecclesiastes; the vanyte of vanytees, and alle thingis ben vanite” (Ecc 1:2, Wycliffe Bible).

However, the main meaning of the word “vanity” in modern English is different than that of the Middle English vanyte and different than the meaning of the Latin word vanitas.

  • Vanitas (Latin): emptiness, nothingness, want of reality, uselessness, purposelessness
  • Vanyte (Middle English): That which is worthless, transitory, or illusory; also, that which has no purpose.
  • Vanity (Modern English): Excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.

In actuality, the Latin translation and the Middle English transliteration are much closer to the meaning of the Hebrew word, hevel, as used by Qohelet thirty-two times in the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes. Literally, hevel means, “vapour, breath” and figuratively, “something that is transitory, worthless, useless, without purpose or meaning.”

“Everything is Utterly Absurd”

So, what is Qohelet saying about “all things”? He is saying that like a breath of air exhaled by the lungs, all things are transitory, worthless, useless and without purpose or meaning and that striving to find meaning in the things of this life is like trying to grab hold of, and find use in, an exhaled breath of air. Qohelet himself says, nine times in Ecclesiastes, that finding meaning in the things or activities of this life is like “a chasing after wind” (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).

What would be a better translation of hevel in today’s English? While many 20th century translations stick with “vanity,” several have tried to be more accurate rather than poetic.

  • Good News Bible: “It is useless, useless,” said the Philosopher. “Life is useless, all useless.”
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible: “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
  • NET Bible: “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”
  • NIV Bible: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Robert Alter translates 1:2 as, “Merest breath,” said Qohelet, “Merest breath. All is mere breath.” Alter explains his choice of translation as follows:

  • The Hebrew hevel probably indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air. It is the opposite of, “life-breath,” which is the animating force in a living creature, because it is the waste product of breathing. If then, one wanted to line up the abstractions implied by hevel, it would include not only futility, absurdity, and vanity but, at least, insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness as well. Because of these considerations, this translation has chosen to reproduce the concrete image of the Hebrew, rendering hevel as “mere breath” (“breath” alone doesn’t quite work in English) and representing the Hebrew superlative form havel havalim as “merest breath.” … Hevel, “breath” or “vapor,” is something utterly insubstantial and transient, and in this book suggests futility, ephemerality, and also, as Fox argues, the absurdity of existence. [Robert Alter. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.]

If you didn’t read the above quotation carefully, please do so now. Why? Because this is the single most crucial concept–repeated thirty-two times–in Ecclesiastes. But even more crucial to understanding the message of Ecclesiastes is to see that the entire book is framed by these statements:

  • 1:2 reads, “Havel, havalim,” says Qohelet. “Havel, havalim. All things are havel.”
  • 12:8 reads, “Havel, havalim,” says Qohelet, “Everything is havel.”

Not grasping the meaning of hevel in Ecclesiastes is to miss or misinterpret, and thus misrepresent, Qohelet’s message entirely. Everything that Qohelet writes is soaked in hevel and must be understood in the light of hevel.

As Peter Enns notes in his commentary on Ecclesiastes,

  • This entire message is itself summarized in v. 2, where the narrator quotes Qohelet. The precise meaning of the Hebrew word hevel continues to elude us. The NIV translates it “meaningless,” which moves us further along the way, but I much prefer “absurd,” as Michael Fox has argued. Hence v. 2 can be translated “Absolutely absurd,” says Qohelet. “Absolutely absurd. Everything is absurd.” We should allow the force of this declaration to hit us. This is not an academic observation, made from a distance. It is more a cry–perhaps shout–of a desperate man at the end of his rope. To paraphrase the force of the Hebrew: “Everything is said absolutely absurd.” [Peter Enns. Ecclesiastes: The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Kindle Edition.]

However, so that we don’t dismiss Qohelet’s repeated declaration that all things are utterly hevel, as the utterance of a faithless man, let us remember how the narrator describes Qohelet in 12:9–11,

  • “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd” (NRSV, emphasis is mine).

Ecclesiastes is not an easy book to read, not because the translated words are particularly difficult, but because the message hits too close to home for many of us. And I would venture to say that if it hasn’t hit you close to home in the past or the present, it will at some time in the future. Qohelet lived in the real world. Yes, he believed in God, but he did so in a world where, in spite of that belief, everything seemed hevel. In the form of Christianity which I have experienced, Qohelet would be labelled as “struggling” or “weak” or “worldly,” at best or as “faithless,” or “heretical,” or “divisive” at worst. Yet, the narrator said he was “wise” and “wrote the words of truth plainly.”

If that alone doesn’t give us food for thought or reasons for reflection, then I don’t think anything in all the Bible will. So, what do we do with Qohelet’s observations and conclusions? What should we do? That will be the subject of my “final” blog in this Qohelet series, titled, “Since Everything is Utterly Hevel, What’s a Person To Do?”