Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Eccl. 1:2 (KVJ)
The word ‘vanity’ is derived from hebel הֶבֶל (H1892), it means vapour, or breath. Its root word hāḇal הָבַל (H1891) means ‘to act emptily.’ Vanity is so defined as, ‘emptiness or vanity; figuratively something transitory and unsatisfactory.’
If we were to refer to other parts of the Bible wherein this word has been used, we can observe that it is used as something opposite to the substance of God.
They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. Deu 32:21 (KJV)
And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them. 2 Ki 17:15 (KJV)
Anything that we try to substitute God with, is eventually empty and transitory. This logic follows vanity to be unsatisfactory; its like a business deal, an occupation, a project, wherein one labours but it results in nothing close to what one anticipates.
Surely every man goes about like a phantom; surely he bustles in vain; he heaps up riches not knowing who will haul them away. Ps 39:6 (BSB)
In sum, vanity can be said as a state of total depravity. (Ps 94:11, Jer 17:9) This is a state that both man, and nature share in common ever since the fall. (Gen: 3:17, Rom 8:20) Perhaps, the reason why Qôheleth would call everything under the sun as vain in the next verse.
The word ‘saith’ is derived from ‘āmar אָמַר (H599), meaning ‘to say, utter, speak.’ It is a word used with a great latitude; i.e., it can have a width of meanings attached to it. But it is interesting to note that this is perhaps the same word that we can find throughout the creation verses as well. It makes one wonder if there is any relevance to it. But amidst the list of English words, we have for this translation, the meaning ‘to charge’ seems to be of relevance here. One could say, Qôheleth is charging believers to take wisdom and understand the state of reality we exist in; that it is counter-opposite to what our faith and our Creator demands. The truth-statement being: without YHWH all is vain.
In the literal sense, hebel does mean ‘breath or vapour.’ We gather this from Isaiah 57:13. But traditionally, hebel has also been used in a variety of ways – each carrying slightly different meaning. In Ecclesiastes though, the word has to be understood metaphorically. (Bartholomew, 2009, 90) Because it is used with a width of meaning, much like the way it has been used throughout the Old Testament. (Seow, 1997, 102) One non-controversial way to conclude here is to speak of hebel as a tensive symbol; wherein, one needs to read it as metaphorical and symbolic in nature. (Miller, 2002, 152)
Qôheleth associates hebel with the idiom ‘pursuit of wind;’ which means ‘an activity with no chance of success.’ (Seow, 122) In effect, hebel is spoken of as a great evil (2:21), a terrible business (4:8), and a terrible sickness (6:2).
But the ‘all’ in ‘all is vanity’ does not extend this condition to the divine realities of life. Hebel is a description of the human condition; that all of human activities, labour, and human experiences are at the end of the day – just a vanity of vanities.
Image: John Martin, Jonah Preaching before Nineveh (1840)
Bartholomew, C. (2009). Ecclesiastes, Baker Academic
Miller, D. (2002). Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work, Academia Biblica
Seow, C.L. (1997). Ecclesiastes, Yale University Press