“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever (Ecc 1:2-4).”
I didn’t get very far in my study before I felt the need to comment….this might be a long study! I was intrigued by the original word choice that was translated ‘vanity’ in this translation and ‘meaningless’ in the NIV. The Hebrew word is ‘hebel’. ‘Hebel’ is used in various places in the Old Testament, but it is not translated in the same manner.
Isaiah 57:13 states, “When you cry out, let you collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away.” Here, ‘hebel’ means ‘breath’ or ‘breeze’, implying something that is fleeting, or an action completed in vain.
My favorite verse is Proverbs 31:30, translated in the NIV, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” In the ESV (my preferred translation), ‘hebel’ is translated ‘vain’, but the NIV is clearer, as ‘fleeting’.
I think both of these verses help us understand the preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes, and this is fundamental to appreciating the book in its entirety. Our lives are not meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but they are fleeting or short-lasted.
This is further expounded upon by the next two verses, discussing how man doesn’t gain anything by his toil, and our lifetimes are short with respect to the age of the earth. The author is not trying to paint a negative picture of our existence, but rather a truthful picture of how quickly our time will pass by. This isn’t stated to depress us, but rather, to encourage us to live life to the fullest by focusing on what matters most.
The commentary also points out that ‘hebel’ does not only imply that life is short, but also that it’s elusive. It “resists our attempts to capture it and contain it.” We will never fully understand life, nor can we easily manipulate it. No matter how smart we think we are, we will never fully comprehend how everything fits together!
This is a hard pill to swallow, especially for a scientist! But, I’ve witnessed it first hand in my own graduate research, and also by reading scientific literature. Well-designed experiments should hold everything constant and have one variable. This way, if a change is observed during the experiment, it can be attributed to that variable. However, what if you inadvertently have more than one variable, or even worse, study something highly complex like the earth, atmosphere, or human body, it becomes impossible to isolate only one variable. Plus, it’s very easy to attribute a particular result to the wrong variable!
As scientists, we do the best we can, and we have made great strides in understanding complicated phenomena, but we still have questions to ask, and some of our answers may prove over time to be incorrect!
Is Ecclesiastes telling us that life is meaningless? Does it mean that we wasting our time chasing after wind? Yes and no…. You see, making the most out of life means choosing the correct path, which we will see is essentially wisdom over folly. We should strive to focus our greatest efforts on that which is important. What is that which is important…well, I hope that becomes clear as we go through this book! For now, we should strive to remember that we can never permanently control nature, or more importantly, control God!
*Provan, Iain “The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs”. Zondervan, 2001.