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
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:43
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    Putting too much thinking into this is meaningless.
    – Ray
    Apr 4, 2020 at 12:26

4 Answers 4


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
    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
    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. 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
    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!



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
    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? 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
    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. Dec 15, 2011 at 17:40

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