Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Meaning of Vanity

I know what you are thinking, "A blogger posting on the meaning of vanity - has that man no self-awareness?" But I don't mean narcissistic vanity. It is the meaning of the Biblical word translated "vanity" in the book of Ecclesiastes that I wish to consider. At least it is translated "vanity" in the KJV, NKJV & ESV editions of the Bible. The NIV uniformly renders the Hebrew word ebl "meaningless". This is misleading. The baisc meaning of the word is "breath" or "vapour" suggesting something that is insubstantial or transitory. This is the clear meaning of the word in Psalm 39:5 & 11(KJV):
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.
When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity
Sometimes context demands that "vanity" mean useless or futile. Idols are described as "useless vanities" (Psalm 31:6).

The NIV's translation of "vanity" as meaningless in Ecclesiastes distorts the message of the book. Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. (1:1 NIV) Life under the sun is certainly fleeting. We need to remember our Creator in the days of our youth before the difficult days come (12:1). Life is full of absurdities too:
I returned and saw under the sun that— The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all. For man also does not know his time: Like fish taken in a cruel net, Like birds caught in a snare, So the sons of men are snared in an evil time, When it falls suddenly upon them. (9:11 & 12)

The quest for fulfilment apart from knowing God and obeying him is pointless and futile,
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; And this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun. (2:10 & 11).

But the key idea of Ecclesiastes is not that all is meaningless. This insensitive translation makes a nonsence of some passages that deal with practical wisdom:
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (9:9)

What's the point in that? Much better is the NKJV:
Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun. (9:9)
The latter translation suggests that we should enjoy married life while it lasts.

Redemption from the Vanity of Life

The New Testament provides the answer to the Preacher's Sermon on "vanity".

James writes of the fleeting nature of life,
whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. (4:14)
Paul warns the Ephesian Christians that they should "no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind" (4:14). This suggests futile, empty thinking.
But we are encouraged that all is not vanity. In the light of the resurrection hope "our labours are not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Finally Peter wrote,
knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your vain lifestyles, received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21)
The death and resurrection of Christ deliver us from the transient futility of life without God. We are free to live authentic lives for his glory, in the hope of eternal, resurrection life.


Dariusx said...

Thank you for expounding on the precept of vanity . Seeing how easy it is to get caught up this world of dust and vapor, it's always good to be reminded to seek eternal, enduring, and heavenly things.

dan brown said...

Thanks that's a nice article. You're right vanity does seem a better translation than meaningless. I wonder if there's any word or phrase that would be more accurate than both of them?