The word "vanity" (KJV) in Ecclesiastes was translated (possibly incorrectly) in the NIV as "meaningless".

Is "vanity" the best translation for the Hebrew word hebel (Strongs 1892) or does a newer version do it more justice? Obviously, "vanity" may have been the best rendering at the time it was translated, so I'm really looking for modern connotations.

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    I once heard Bart Ehrman describe it as meaning the smoke that drifted off of the Jerusalem dump and sometimes floated into the city.
    – user3812
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 12:43

9 Answers 9


I think the best answer is summed up by Peter Leithart (who admits to borrowing liberally from James Jordan on this):

To get the point of Ecclesiastes, we have to ignore the usual translations of several key words or phrases. The Hebrew hebel has been translated as "vanity" (NASB, KJV, ESV, ASV) or "meaningless" (NIV, New Living Translation). The Message gets much closer by translating the word as "smoke." The word means "vapor" (Proverbs 21:6) or "breath" (Job 7:16; Psalm 39:5, 11; 62:9, 94:11; 144:4; Isaiah 57:13). In describing human life as vapor or breath, Solomon emphasizes that life is brief and beyond our control. Life is vapor because the world goes on unchanged in spite of all our frantic activities (1:3-11); because things slip through our fingers when we try to grasp them and through our minds when we try to understand them; because nothing lasts, yet everything stays the same; because it ends in death (2:16), and we have no control over the future (2:18-19).

Likewise, the phrase "striving after wind" (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26) is better translated as "shepherding wind." The image does not express vain pursuit, but the effort to control or corral an elusive world. After Solomon has constructed his pleasure garden (2:4-10), he realizes that however solid his works appear they are as evanescent as wind. Man cannot shepherd the wind, but Yahweh, who rides on the wings of the wind (Psalm 18:10; 104:3), is the one Shepherd of the windy world (Ecclesiastes 12:11).

While I believe "vanity" is a fine translation as other answerers have pointed out, "meaningless" is completely wrong, because the Bible has a consistent message that we have meaning in Christ. Therefore the NIV actually changes doctrine by using it.

The message is that we don't have control over our life, God is in control, and it is vain for us to think otherwise.

  • Good comment. I would also add that Jordan considers Ecclesiastes to be a kingly meditation on the Feast of Booths, or more literally, "clouds."
    – Mike Bull
    Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 23:22
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    @Lance Roberts While I agree that at our end of the timeline, Jesus awakens us to new meaning for our efforts, the Gospel is not something the writer of Ecclesiastes was privy to, so the NIV translation, in his context, could hardly be called "wrong". Having said that, are you suggesting that people today, even Christians, are not subject to vanity, i.e. vain (meaningless) pursuits? Your use of Peter Leithart/James Jordan is great, but the personal conclusion you have drawn, misses the mark entirely.
    – enegue
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 22:26
  • @enegue, No. I'm saying that vanity is not "meaningless". The tldr is that it is lack of control, and we christians are also not in control; God is. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 23:40
  • So when was the last time you actually heard an English speaker speak of something as "shepherding wind", "vanity" or "vanity of vanity"? And the NIV changes doctrine by using the word "meaningless"? Qeholt is opining from a strong, deep tragic sense of the futility of his life. Such "churchy" words obscure that fact. It is so "Marie Antoinette". You've missed the forest for the trees.
    – user10231
    Commented May 1, 2016 at 15:57

Based on the uses in Eccl 1:2 the use of the word vanity in English was likely built on the Latin Vulgate use of "Vanitas Vanitatum". It was then translated Vanity of Vanities in a number of English translations including ESV, NASB(U), KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV, Darby, Douay-Rheims, Noah Webster's, World English Bible and Young's Literal Translation.

The idea of meaningless was used by the NIV translators in all three of their bible (NIV, TNIV, & NIRV) as well as the NLT and Easy to read Version. The word "futility" was used by the HCSB in 2004 as well as the Living Bible and the NET. "Useless" was used in the Good news Bible and the NCV and TEV. "Pointless" in CJB and God's word Translation. The BBE says "all is to no purpose" and the CEV says "nonsense".

Of course popular vote does not make for what this question asks about "best translates", but it is useful in seeing what the top authorities felt when trying to determine the most accurate way to portray the idea being expressed by the Kohelet.


Absurd, as in this school of philosophy, does a good job of capturing what the book is all about.

Chapter 1

3. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?  4. Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises...7. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 

Chapter 2

16. For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!



What does everything being vanity mean in Ecclesiastes 1:2?

What is its literal meaning, in context?

In context of Ecclesiastes, the answer is "No". Solomon was pointing out that all human endeavors that ignore the will of God the Creator -"is vanity". In contrast studying the word of God, the Bible, and worshipping him according to the scriptures, and giving attention to our relationship with him is the key to living in a meaningful way. Solomon wrote that we should have the right attitude towards God.

Ecclesiastes 5:1 (NASB)

5 Guard your steps as you go to the house of God, and approach to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know that they are doing evil.

God does not forget the endeavors of his servants.

Hebrews 6:10 (NASB)

10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, by having served and by still serving the [a]saints.

The Hebrew word for "vanity" literally means breath or vapor and suggests a lack of substance, permanence, or enduring value.


I actually think vanity is a really good word for translating this passage. Let's have a look at the definition of vanity:


1 : something that is vain, empty, or valueless
2 : the quality or fact of being vain
3 : inflated pride in oneself or one's appearance : conceit

and the root word, vain:

1 : having no real value : idle, worthless
2 : marked by futility or ineffectualness : unsuccessful, useless
4 : having or showing undue or excessive pride in one's appearance or achievements : conceited

The overall impression is of activity that is concerned with outward appearance that conceals, or attempts to conceal, a complete lack of substance, effect or genuine value. I think that's the sense the word is used in here.

Now let's look at some of the context. Here are a few verses from Ecclesiastes 1, where the phrase vanity of vanities is introduced:

What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? ... All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full ... the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing ... The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes 1 (NRSV)

I think the author of the book wants his audience to get an impression of the futility of the works of this life: that for all a person's hard work and industry, all human activity is ultimately futile.

I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Ecclesiastes 1.14 (NRSV)

I really like the phrase vanity of vanities (particularly in comparison to the most sacred place on earth, the Holy of Holies) because I'm not sure that there's another word in English that addresses the sense of the passage. Futile comes close, although it lacks a sense of concern for appearance.

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    I'm not sure it's linguistically sound to confute the definitions of vanity. That is, I do not believe that the concern for appearance definition informs the meaningless definition. Also you don't give evidence from the original language for your take on how the passage should be translated.
    – Kazark
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 16:24
  • The definitions are hardly unrelated, and the point in any case is that the word carries all of the meanings. Any by "the original language" do you mean the original Hebrew text? Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 17:10
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    Yes, I mean the Hebrew. I don't believe it is linguistically accurate to claim that a word carries all its meanings or even connotations of all its meanings in all contexts.
    – Kazark
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 17:31
  • My point is that all the meanings are relevant, which makes vanity an excellent word in the context. I don't have the resources (Hebrew OT, lexicon, commentary) to hand, so I can't accurately address the Hebrew, but I believe the word is הבל, meaning something like "breath of wind". Since it's used figuratively, I'm not sure it particularly helps to find the precise English word. Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 17:40

The writer of Ecclesiastes uses the Hebrew word, hebel. It is one of those words that sounds like its meaning for it is spoken with a breathy sound. The word is translated as vapour, fleeting, smoke, breath (and occasionally by meaningless but that really doesn't fit at all). Although the author repeats the word a number of times at the beginning and end of the book it is not the theme. The theme is actually the question that comes right on the heals of this repeated word and it is a question "For what do we gain from all the work at which we toil under the sun." That is the question the author will develop throughout the book. Having spent five years translating Ecclesiastes and then memorizing it to tour it as a one person performance I would agree that this is indeed a difficult book to bring across into english. At times the author is so brief and the words so clipped it feels like you are listening to Yoda. Perhaps that fits for this is certainly a very true and wise book. Vance - www.artofwork.ca


1. Question Restatement:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. — Ecclesiasites 1:2, KJV 2000

What is its literal meaning, in context?

2. Clarification

Although "הָ֑בֶל" can denote "breath" and "vapor" -- it is certainly distinct from "ר֫וּחַ, (ruakh)", also wind - breath, or spirit.

This term, "הָ֑בֶל" - is more like the breath that is sitting in ones mouth ... perhaps an exhalation.

Job 35:16

HEB: וְ֭אִיּוֹב הֶ֣בֶל יִפְצֶה־ פִּ֑יהוּ

NAS: his mouth emptily; He multiplies

Psalm 39:11

HEB: חֲמוּד֑וֹ אַ֤ךְ הֶ֖בֶל כָּל־ אָדָ֣ם

NAS: every man is a mere breath. Selah.

3. Scriptural Use

Exhaustive Use: (BibleHub Link). Throughout Scripture, the word "הָ֑בֶל", used here for "vanity" is consistently used to connote "powerless, useless, meaningless".

It is also the same word for "Idol" ...

An implication could be the question, "Are empty pursuits considered idolatry"?

Deuteronomy 32:21

HEB: אֵ֔ל כִּעֲס֖וּנִי בְּהַבְלֵיהֶ֑ם וַאֲנִי֙ אַקְנִיאֵ֣ם

NAS: Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous


The word used in Ecclesiastes is הבל which means roughly "a fleeting breath." If the author wanted to put the focus on nothingness, he would have used the word שוא which means "nothingness." The word הבל emphasizes the breathily or temporariness which fits with the overall theme of Ecclesiastes which is "Everything done by man is temporary."

The use of this word may be a commentary on Genesis 2 where man comes to life by the נשמת חיים or the "breath of life." The difference here is the word הבל compared to נשמה. Which again הבל emphasizes the brevity rather than נשמה.


The JPS Bible Commentary on Ecclesiastes has several interpretations of Hevel (הבל) on page xix which you can see for free. They go with "Utter Futility." A kind of hopelessness statement. There is some very good commentary on that page there.

But I think this is one of the central theological concepts of the text and that it solidly maps into the New Testament intepretation of the Character of Jesus.

Cain and Abel (הבל)

I think that this term is a central concept in the biblical text. One thing to note that it is exactly the name of Cain's brother in the Cain and Abel (הבל) story in Genesis 4. I get the sense that these two stories are related quite closely. If all human endeavors are utter futility and empty of merit and value, then we might understand the Cain and Abel story a bit differently.

If there is a core philosophy that all human actions are without value or merit then we see that Cain had all the merit. He was first born and was doing the right job (tiller of the land, as God had commanded in Genesis 3:23). Cain brings the first offering from his crops. Abel (hevel) shows up after and offers his first born from his flock, and God's gaze lands on Hevel and his offering and disregards Cain.

If we read Abel's name through the lens of Ecclesiastes, we see that God's gaze lands on Abel because he is truth. Cain is lost in the delusion of value/merit (the knowledge of good and bad - sin). There is a symmetry between Genesis 4 and Ecclesiastes. For example, in Ecclesiastes 3:14 we have, "I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it;" In Genesis 4:2, we have "She [Eve] added and bore his brother Abel." This is the first instance of the word for "addition," יסף, which is also the basis for Joseph's name later in Genesis.

So in the logic of Ecclesiastes, "nothing can be added" an "Eve added Abel." We might then think of Abel as nothing. Empty. In fact, the JPS Genesis commentary notes that Abel's name appears exactly seven times in his narrative here, the number of completeness. And it is always contrasted with Cain who's name comes from "purchasing or getting or grasping." Abel is always described as "his brother" as if Cain possesses him, and never the other way around. There is this sense that Abel means non-grasping. Abel gave his first born of his flock. He is empty, meaningless, complete.

I know this sounds weird, but there are many parallels here between the character of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is the empty shepherd. He is, in Philippians 2, emptied. In John 5:19, "the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing." There is a kind of transparency of Jesus that reveals God.

Relationship to Kenosis

There is also a lexical overlap between the hebrew word ריק (reek). The two words are connected through their meanings of emptiness, but also through the septuagint's usage of overlapping greek terms κενός and μάταιος (entry in Trench's Synonyms of NT). This connects this term up to a broad range of related ideas in the New Testament interpretations of Jesus as well as to stories like the narrative of Gideon's army who held up ריק pots with torches inside and smashed them to reveal the light. One might view these as equivalent to the crucifixion where Jesus smashed his empty pot (his body) and revealed God's light. The warriors in Gideon's narrative (Judges 7) are characterized as obedient dogs.

The Knowledge of Good and Bad

Especially compared to the story of Gideon, the Exodus to Promised Land narrative, and the story of Cain and Abel, we might see that the bible has a running theme of emptiness and obedience.

This is in contrast to an ethical interpretation of the Bible. Instead of finding ethics in the book, we might see it as a narrative of obedience. The problem in Eden could be that we acted in disobedience to God's command and internalized the idea of Ethics and judgment.

In fact, In Numbers 13, God commands Moses to enter the promised land, but instead, he sends in spies to see if the land is good or bad and any number of attempts to judge it. It is these people who cannot enter. It is only the children (Deuteronomy 1:39) that may enter because they do not know good from bad. There is a sense here that may be mapped into first century Jewish interpretations of Jesus's comments that we must be as children, and not judging, to enter the kingdom of heaven.

So in this sense, one interpretation of the biblical text is that we must be empty of agency/ego to enter into paradise. This can be interpreted as seeing the emptiness of all the world around us. Paul says "hope all things" in 1 Corinthians 13, he doesn't say "hope a specific thing." It is when we try to control the outcome of things and don't yield control to God that we suffer.

It should be noted that there is a fundamentally different conception of the hero in the Hebrew narrative. Joshua, the ultimate guide into the promised land in the Torah, is one who is characterized (along with Caleb, whose name means "dog") as utterly following the Lord. He didn't try to make his own judgments like the other 10 spies.

The 300 dog like warriors in the Gideon story (Judges 7) had no weapons, and were selected from 32,000 israelites exactly so that it would be clear that God did it, and not the israelites. They were EMPTY of merit in this. They had no swords, just trumpets. They fought the midianites (name means "with judgment" - perhaps referring to the knowledge of good and bad). When the 300 blow their horns and smash their empty (ריק) pots, the midianites (who have all the swords - live by the sword) die by the sword.

Compare this to the 300 Spartans of the Greeks who lived on their own merit and by their own sword. They were led by Leonidas (the lion) and were contemporary to the Gideon story - and fought the Persians who had liberated the Hebrews from Babylon. And Ecclesiastes has this fascinating line:

Ecc 9:4, ...for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

The hero in the Bible is one who is obedient, rejecting his own concepts of good and bad. He is utterly obedient to God (as a dog). He illustrates God's agency and not his own. That seems like a good definition of emptiness.


I understand through the lens of determinism. I believe that there is no free agency in any of us, but it is our condition to think that we do have free will. This false idea that we have merit is the basis of our condition, but in fact, there is no merit (maybe "only God is good" - Mark 10:18). If we believe we have merit, but we don't actually have merit, then we might understand the biblical narratives call for obedience and non-judgment as a call to realize a fact. We are not in control. We are obedient perforce, but the suffering we have comes from not realizing this. Hence why it is not helpful to judge those who act in apparent disobediently (as if they are free agents).

We might take this and apply it to the meritocracy that makes up the western economic systems or really any human system and say "nope, that's actually empty - hevel." Whenever anyone claims merit or pride in their own accomplishments, we might say "nope, that's empty."

This is peculiar because most religious interpretations see the bible as an ethics text. Like it is a place we can turn to find the knowledge of good and bad to bolster a human merit system. But it really contains a theology of emptiness (הבל). All is hevel. Abel is an empty shepherd who is complete and God's gaze is fixated exactly because he has no merit and is empty. God's gaze lands on truth. Then throughout the text and into the New Testament we have Jesus, a reiteration of the narrative of empty shepherd. The bible is not an ethics text as I see it.

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