Life Is Not ‘Meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes

"Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End is by David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. It’s a poignant and powerful exposition of the message of Ecclesiastes." - TGC

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M. Osborne's picture

Hebel / vapor is a metaphor; the vapor is the metaphor's "vehicle"; the reader has to under the metaphor's "tenor."

If you look at the fact that life is a vapor and take away "meaningless" as the tenor, that says something about what else you believe about life. If you look at the fact that life is a vapor and take away, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth," that, too, says something about what else you believe about life.

If you're convinced that Ecclesiastes 12 is not a later and pious tack-on, but an integral part of the book, then interpreting Ecclesiastes means getting from "vapor" to "remember your Creator," and understanding the connections that Ecclesiastes makes between a statement of observed fact and its final applicatory thrust.

Leaves you to wonder what the NIV translators were thinking here. I don't object to the NIV on the whole, but they made a bad translation decision in Ecclesiastes.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Bert Perry's picture

You can quibble over some variations of meaning, but the Vulgate translates it as "vanitas", and the Luther-Bibel translates it as "Eitel", meaning roughly the same thing.  For that matter, the KJV's "vanity" translated at the time to about the same thing.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

M. Osborne's picture

"Vanity" seems to encompass both emptiness/transitoriness and worthlessness. It's not a great translation either, but the idea emptiness is getting a little closer to the idea of being insubstantial. I also wonder if contemporary readers ever confuse "vanity" with the idea of self-conceit / preening.

The Message actually translates it as "smoke." For a paraphrase that often drifts all over the place, this is an instance of trying to stick close to the original. Somehow I find it jarring.

Honestly, when I teach Ecclesiastes, I try to hit the hebel-as-flexible-metaphor point repeatedly, use the word "vanity" (for all its limitations), and hope people will come to understand "vanity" as having a little more scope to what it can mean.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Robert McCabe's picture

In my opinion, many versions that translate as either "vanity," "meaningless," or any other term that reflects a negative view of life does not fit in with the overall message of the book. In my opinion, hebel is best taken as a metaphor to describe the puzzling nature of life. I argue for this on pages 59–62 of an article that I wrote here: http://equip.sbts.edu/publications/journals/journal-of-theology/navigating-life-in-a-world-that-has-been-scarred-by-the-fall-reflections-on-ecclesiastes-97-10-and-living-in-a-world-of-suffering/. In this article, I also cite other sources with which I agree.

Robert V. McCabe

TylerR's picture

Editor

I preached through Ecclesiastes about four years ago, and it was good. The early chapters are easier. The middle ones are TOUGH. I think it's the most philosophical book in the Bible, and I need to preach through it again.

I wonder what the LXX used for the word? I'll check when I get home. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Robert McCabe's picture

The translator(s) of the LXX rendered hebel as mataiotes, which has glosses such as “emptiness, fu­tility, purposelessness, transitoriness.”

Robert V. McCabe

G. N. Barkman's picture

The word "transitoriness" seems a bit clumsy to me, but my own preaching through Ecclesiastes leads me to believe that is exactly the correct meaning of hebel.  "Transitory, transitory, all is transitory."  Therefore, live with eternities values in view.

G. N. Barkman

RajeshG's picture

Robert McCabe wrote:

The translator(s) of the LXX rendered hebel as mataiotes, which has glosses such as “emptiness, fu­tility, purposelessness, transitoriness.”

They also render another Hebrew word as mataiotes in the following verse:

BGT Psalm 118:37 ἀπόστρεψον τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς μου τοῦ μὴ ἰδεῖν ματαιότητα ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ σου ζῆσόν με

 WTT Psalm 119:37 הַעֲבֵ֣ר עֵ֭ינַי מֵרְא֣וֹת שָׁ֑וְא בִּדְרָכֶ֥ךָ חַיֵּֽנִי׃
 
KJV Psalm 119:37 Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.

Whatever this Hebrew word denotes is something vain that we are to ask God to work in our lives that He would turn our eyes away from beholding such vanity.

TylerR's picture

Editor

That's probably the best gloss to capture what I believe Solomon is saying in Ecclesiastes. I'd expressed the concept before, but not that word. I used that expression in my sermon this past Sunday, as I referenced Ecclesiastes in my sermon about following Jesus (No 8:34 - 9:1). Many thanks! Timely posting.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think "transitory" is inadequate because it seems the point of Ecclesiastes is not merely the transitoriness of life but the confusing nature of it. Yes, everything passes, but the point is that much of what goes on in life is confusing. It makes no sense and it would lead one to wonder why anything matters if everybody ends up the same anyway? Compare how many time the righteous and wicked are contrasted and the outcome is not what it seems it should be. If one is dwells on that too much, they will likely give up. That is why one must remember their Creator. In the midst of confusion, remember this is not the end.

Robert McCabe's picture

In Ecclesiastes 8:14 Qohelet describes a setting where a righ­teous person receives what the wicked should get; and the wicked what the righteous should receive. This type of situation is in conflict with the common understanding retribution dogma stressing that righteous people are rewarded for their virtuous lifestyles and the wicked are judged for their evil lifestyles. Because our author cannot comprehend this situation, he is vexed and also assesses it as hebel.This situation is puzzling, difficult to understand, but not transitory, temporary, or whatever time word one might want to use. The reversal of the retribution dogma is puzzling.

Robert V. McCabe