Translators and scholars have long debated the best translation for the term הבל (hebel, traditionally “vanity”) in Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). The term refers to vapour, something intangible, but is almost always used metaphorically in the Hebrew Bible.
Now rather than discuss all possible meanings, in this post I’d like to examine one particular proposal: that הבל means ‘fleeting’.1 I’ve come across this a couple of times recently, first at The Briefing, and second from Gary Millar who’s recently taken up the post of Principal at Queensland Theological College and who spoke at Katoomba Men’s Convention.
For why “fleeting” isn’t an adequate translation of הבל, read on…
It isn’t easily derived from the phrases employed as parallels to הבל (hebel) in Qohelet. In a number of places, Qohelet expands upon the simple declaration that something is הבל with additional phrases, phrases which appear to parallel the הבל declaration but which do not sit easily with understanding that term to mean ‘fleeting’. In some places, Qohelet proclaims something to be הבל as well as evil, or painful, or unjust (e.g. Qoh 2:21; 4:8; 6:2). In other places, the term is set beside expressions such as “like controlling the wind” or something similarly impossible, but not something that is fleeting (e.g. Qoh 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26, etc.).Consider, for example, Qoh 6:1–2:
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it weighs heavily on human beings: a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honour, so he does not lack anything he desires, but God does not enable him to consume it because a foreigner consumes it. This is הבל and a sickening evil.
Reading הבל as ‘fleeting’ or ‘temporary’ here trivialises Qohelet’s complaint and doesn’t accord at all with the parallel observation that it is “a sickening evil” (וחלי רע הוא). The problem, as Qohelet sees it, lies in the fact that God has given so much but failed to come through at the end: the person has all the things that the sages traditionally understood to be signs of divine favour, but they do not benefit the person who has them but another. For Qohelet, this makes no sense, and it isn’t merely incomprehensible, it is downright offensive. It makes him sick!
“Fleeting” simply doesn’t fit as a valid conclusion to many of Qohelet’s observations. It implies that Qohelet’s concerns are ultimately unimportant because they’re only temporary (e.g. Qoh 2:15). But in Qoh 3:19, how is death ‘fleeting’? In 11:8 how is “everything that is to come” ‘fleeting’? It goes against Qohelet’s point to read הבל in 8:14 as ‘fleeting’ when the verse is obviously about the perceived injustice of the circumstances described:
There is a הבל that happens on the earth: there are righteous people to whom it comes as though they had done the deeds of the evil, and there are evil people to whom it comes as though they had done the deeds of the righteous. I say that this, too, is הבל.
These are not ‘fleeting’. But they are ‘senseless’.
The LXX consistently translates הבל with ματαιότης (mataiotēs). This does not mean ‘fleeting’ (and if the translators of the LXX had wished to express this notion there were other terms available such as πρόσκαιρος [proskairos]). The same point can be made for terms chosen in other early translations including the Vulgate’s vanitas.
So ‘fleeting’ does not adequately capture the meaning of הבל in Qohelet’s words. Rather, הבל is employed as a metaphor throughout the book and we ought to recognise that a single English term is unlikely to do it justice everywhere it occurs (indeed, many scholars agree that the sense ‘fleeting’ is appropriate at Qoh 11:10). Nonetheless, since Qohelet’s concern as a wise man was to make sense of the world around him — to discover what profit there is in all that we labour to do (1:3), the suggestion of Michael V. Fox (followed by many other scholars) that the term should be understood to mean ‘senseless’ (Fox uses ‘absurd’ but admits that, in light of changing English usage of this term, ‘senseless’ captures the sense he is after) fits the context well. Life simply doesn’t make sense and his sense of justice is violated by the fact (see Eccl 7:15; 8:14).
So for Qohelet, any attempt to make sense of the world failed. In spite of all his endeavours driven by the most profound Solomonic wisdom, he could not make sense of it, as summarised in the repeated refrain of the book. The advice he drew from this conclusion was simple: “make the most of your life, enjoy it when you can, because I can’t offer any definitive advice on how to live that will guarantee a good life.”
But that is not the end of the matter. The final word of the book is not left to the teacher, it comes from another voice in Qoh 12:9–14. This voice agrees with the teacher: the world makes no sense, and man’s endeavours to make sense of it, to work out how to make life worthwhile, are doomed to fail. We don’t need to repeat Qohelet’s quest, he’s done it for us, and shown it to be futile.
This final voice has something to add, something Qohelet didn’t consider. And that is that God has spoken (Qohelet never includes God’s words in his attempts to make sense of the world). God has told us what to do, and so this final voice tells us: in spite of the apparent senselessness of the world, we are to fear God and obey him.
1. Few scholars have gone with “fleeting” because of the difficulties it raises. Among those who do, see: D. C. Fredericks, Coping With Transience: Ecclesiastes on Brevity in Life (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1993); Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan 2001).