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The word "vanity" is often used in modern Bible translations. As cited in the question, from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

  • Ecclesiastes 12:8: "'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher, 'all is vanity!'"

Here are some examples:
HEB: הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר
NAS: Vanity of vanities, says
KJV: Vanity of vanities, saith
INT: Vanity of vanities says

Which is more appropriate or justifiable: "vanity", or rather, "meaningless" or "futile"? In modern English, the word "vanity" or "vain" seems more accurately to convey "excessive pride in one's own appearance or achievements"1 Isn't use of the word "vanity" far too anachronistic in Eccl. 12:8 and elsewhere throughout the Book?

1 Google dictionary, 2021.

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  • this suits better for English Stackexchange
    – Michael16
    Oct 17 '21 at 13:33
  • The term renders the Latin vanitas.
    – Lucian
    Oct 18 '21 at 0:24
  • Something worth noting - JPS (the biblical translation used by the American Jewish world) translates the verse as follows: "Utter futility!—said Koheleth—Utter futility! All is futile!" Oct 18 '21 at 16:41
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Ecclesiastes 12:8 English Standard Version

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity [H1892].

H1892 appears 37 times in this book. It is the running theme that makes the book poetic and sounds musical.

New International Version

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”

I find this translation a bit extreme. It is too much hyperbole for my taste. There is meaning in life.

Similarly, Berean Study Bible also exaggerate too much for me:

“Futility of futilities,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile!”

vanity:

  1. the fact of being too proud of your own appearance, abilities or achievements
  2. the fact of being unimportant, especially compared with other things that are important

All is vanity; all is unimportant compared with God. I prefer this translation.

OP: In modern English, the word "vanity" or "vain" seems more accurately to convey "excessive pride in one's own appearance or achievements"

There is a secondary meaning for this word.

Isn't use of the word "vanity" far too anachronistic in Eccl. 12:8 and elsewhere throughout the Book?

No, not according to the secondary meaning.

Brown-Driver-Briggs:

I. הֶ֫בֶל73 noun masculine vapour, breath (Late Hebrew id., Syriac id.) figurative vanity
2 figurative of what is evanescent, unsubstantial, worthless, vanity, as of idols

According to Brown-Driver-Briggs, one of its meanings is worthless like idols.

At https://biblehub.com/ecclesiastes/12-8.htm, 15 out of 27 use "vanity".

Why have biblical translators chosen to use "vanity" instead of "meaningless" or "futile" for the Hebrew "hā·ḇel" in Ecclesiastes 12:8?

Because the English word "vanity" in this context could mean that something is worthless compared to God; the uses of "meaningless" or "futile" would exaggerate the point too much.

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  • Good points. +1 In my case, however, it took me quite a while to recognize what Solomon was saying. Now, having witnessed the futility in my own life, his words make perfect sense. Had there been instances (the NASB) where he specifically stated "meaninglessness" (some translations do), I'd have reflected on those words much more deeply (and, it wouldn't have taken me so long to understand them).
    – Xeno
    Oct 17 '21 at 15:34
  • We still retain the original meaning today when we say we did something "all in vain". It doesn't matter what we tried to do or how long or hard we worked at it, the eventual result was that in the end nothing was accomplished. Oct 17 '21 at 15:37
  • @Xeno I took a similar journey as you did. Decades ago, I was impressed with NIV's "meaningless" and the Chinese rendition of 虛空 which has a deep philosophical Buddhist connotation. Now, I'm more thinking about God and less about emptiness :)
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 17 '21 at 15:41
  • @Tony Tolstoy once wrote of this: “When I was 50 years [old]: What will come of my entire life? [Why] should I wish for anything or do anything? … My deeds [my work, my accomplishments], whatever they may be, will be forgotten sooner or later, and I myself will be no more. [I], therefore, could not attach a rational meaning to a single act of my entire life. [How] could anyone fail to see this? [It] is possible to live as long as life intoxicates us; but once we sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion: There is nothing [amusing] or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.”
    – Xeno
    Oct 18 '21 at 17:23
  • @TonyChan ... And, I'm an optimist. :)
    – Xeno
    Oct 18 '21 at 17:31
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The meaning of Hebrew words is more "flexible" and pliant than in Greek, Latin and English.

The operative word translated, "meaningless", "vanity", "futile", "pointless", etc, (depending on the version) is an attempt to translate the word הֶבֶל (hebel) which literally means, "vapor, breath" (Strongs, NAS). Therefore, a more literal translation might be, "vapid".

For completeness, I have included the BDB entry for this word in the appendix below, showing its versatility - it is used to denote things that are "evanescent, unsubstantial, worthless, vanity", etc.

Thus, I conclude that the various versions that use words like, "meaningless", "vanity", "futile", "pointless", etc, are all equally correct.

APPENDIX - BDB entry for הֶבֶל (hebel)

I. הֶ֫בֶל73 noun masculine vapour, breath (Late Hebrew id., Syriac id.) figurative vanity (so Late Hebrew, Syriac ) — הָ֑בֶל Ecclesiastes 1:2 +; construct הֲבֵל Ecclesiastes 1:2 (twice in verse); Ecclesiastes 12:8, suffix הֶבְלִי etc. Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 9:9 (twice in verse); plural הֲבָלִים Jeremiah 10:8 +; construct הַבְלֵי Jeremiah 8:19 +, suffix הַבְלֵיהֶם Deuteronomy 32:21 +; — 1 literal Isaiah 57:13 all of them (the idols) יִשָּׂארֿוּחַ יִקַּח הָ֑בֶל a breath (ᵑ9 aura) will carry away, Proverbs 21:6 the getting of treasures by a lying tongue is הֶבֶל נִדָּף a vapour driven away. Elsewhere always

2 figurative of what is evanescent, unsubstantial, worthless, vanity, as of idols Jeremiah 10:15 = Jeremiah 51:18; Jeremiah 16:19 הֶבֶל וְאֵין בָּם מוֺעִיל "" (שֶׁקֶרׅ, heathen observances Jeremiah 10:3, and in phrase הָלַךְ אַחֲרֵי הַהֶבֶל Jeremiah 2:5; 2 Kings 17:15; Proverbs 13:11 הוֺן מֵהֶבֶל wealth (gotten) out of vanity, (i.e. not by solid toil, opposed to קֹבֵץ עַל יָד) is minished (but ᵐ5 ᵑ9 Ew מְבֹהָל, see Proverbs 20:21 Qr), Proverbs 31:30 שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּ֑פִי, Lamentations 4:17 אֶל עֶזְרָתֵנוּ הֶבֶל to our vain (Dr§ 193 n.) help; of life Job 7:16 כִּי הֶבֶל יָמָֽי׃, Psalm 78:33 וַיְכַל בַּהֶבֶל יְמֵיהֶם consumed their days as (בְּ I:7 d vanity, man Psalm 39:6; Psalm 39:12; Psalm 62:10 הֶבֶל בְּנֵי אָדָם ֗֗֗ הֵמָּה מֵהֶבֶל יָחַד׃ they are altogether (made) of vanity, Psalm 94:11; Psalm 144:4, especially in Ecclesiastes (31 t. + הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים Ecclesiastes 1:2 (twice in verse); Ecclesiastes 12:8) of the fruitlessness of all human enterprise and endeavour, Ecclesiastes 1:2 הַכֹּל הֶבֶל, Ecclesiastes 1:14 הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ all was vanity and the pursuit of wind, Ecclesiastes 2:1,14,15 etc., Ecclesiastes 6:4 (of an abortion) בַּהֶבֶל בָּא i.e. into a lifeless existence, Ecclesiastes 6:11 יֵשׁ דְּבָרִים הַרְבֵּה מַרְבִּים הָ֑בֶל (of discussions leading to no result), note also the phrases יְמֵי (הֶבְלוֺ, הֶבְלְךָ) הֶבְלִי Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 9:9, ׳יְמֵי חַיֵּי ה Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Job 27:12 (see הָבַל), Isaiah 49:4 לְתֹהוּ וָהֶבֶל for nought and vanity have I spent my strength; as adverb accusative vainly, to no purpose Isaiah 30:7 הֶבֶל וָרִיק יַעֲזֹ֑רוּ, Psalm 39:7 אַךְ הֶבֶל יֶהֱמָיוּן they disquiet themselves to no purpose, Job 9:29: הֶבֶל אִיגָָֽע Job 35:16, with נִחַם to comfort Job 21:34; Zechariah 10:2. Plural הֲבָלִים of false gods, Deuteronomy 32:21 ) כִּעֲסוּנִי בְהַבְלֵיהֶם "" בְּלֹאאֵֿל) 1 Kings 16:13,26; Jeremiah 8:19 הַבְלֵי נֵכָר "" (בִּפְסִילֵיהֶםׅ, Jeremiah 10:8; Jeremiah 14:22 הַבְלֵי הַגּוֺיִם, Psalm 31:7 הַשֹּׁמְרִים הַבְלֵישָֿׁוְא empty vanities Jonah 2:9; in more General sense Ecclesiastes 1:2 (twice in verse); Ecclesiastes 12:8 הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, Ecclesiastes 5:6.

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