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Vanity


I've long been drawn to the book of Ecclesiastes, but the real meaning of all the references to vanity has long been elusive.

For example, the King James version of Ecclesiastes 1:2 says:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

In our everyday English usage, the word vanity conveys an image of excessive pride in oneself or in one's appearance, a picture of conceit and perhaps even arrogance. But what did the author of the book of Ecclesiastes actually have in mind?

When Jerome translated the Hebrew word hebel, he chose the Latin word vanitas. And consequently, many bible translators have used the closest English word, which is vanity.

Some recent translators have used words such as meaningless or futile to translate the Hebrew word hebel, but it seems that perhaps they have missed the point.

Translation is a very imprecise art, so in order to learn more about the original intent, it is often helpful to look at the text written in the author's original language.

Here, for example, is Ecclesiastes 1:2 in Hebrew from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia:

   hebrew text

The key feature in this verse, and the entire book of Ecclesiastes, is the repeated use of variations of the word hebel. So, rather than looking at how Jerome translated that word, let's look at the ancient Semitic roots of the word hebel.

The roots of the word hebel indicate vapor, fog, steam, breeze or breath.

Note that there is a common thread running through all of these roots of the word hebel, they all describe something that is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent, and something which may at first appear to be quite substantial, but which (upon further examination) is really without enduring substance.

Indeed everything in this physical world is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent and without any enduring substance. We often try to cling to things, and attempt to resist changes, but alas that is wasted effort, like trying to chase the wind.

This is, I believe, the intent of the author of the book of Ecclesiastes... not to make everything seem hopeless, but rather to point out that we can choose to chase after the ephemeral ways of this impermanent world, or we can choose to follow the eternal ways of God, living with unbounded love for God and for one-another.

We are each free to choose which path to follow... and the harvest which we reap will be according to our choice.

Chasing after the ephemeral and insubstantial ways of this world leads only to vexation, confusion, and disappointment, while realizing the truth of our worldly situation and living a life of joyful loving-kindness brings eternal peace.

 

Wishing you love, harmony and beauty,
     wahiduddin

Resources:

http://www.biblestudytools.net/

updated 23-Jul-2008