Ecclesiastes: what does ‘hevel’ mean?

by | May 1, 2024

“Vanity of vanities,” begins the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity!” In a sense the rest of the book will unpack what exactly he means by this, inviting us to follow him down various avenues of attempted fulfillment and disappointment. But before we can follow him down those paths we might get stuck at the gate wondering, “Wait, what in the world does vanity mean?”

The Hebrew word there is hevel, which literally means “vapor” or “mist.” Used metaphorically, it can describe ephemerality or fleetingness, or something more like futility. We see both in Psalm 39:5-6 (NIV):

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath (hevel),
even those who seem secure.
Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain (hevel) they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.

“Vanity” is a rather old translation of hevel, dating back to the 400s AD; we get “vanity” from the Latin vanitas meaning “worthless.” From that early on you can see translators trying to make good sense of the usage, preferring the metaphorical idea to the literal image of vapor. However, the way English-speaking Americans use “vanity” has changed over time, now mostly to describe being overly self-centered or image-conscious (or the thing a bathroom sink sits in). So while the English Standard Version and several others have clung to the traditional English translation “vanity,” you’ll notice other translations use “futility” (CSB) or “meaningless” (NIV) to avoid this confusion.

Unfortunately, these translations are not without their own problems. There’s no word in the English language that quite captures the imagery and implication of hevel in Ecclesiastes, which means words like vanity, futility, and meaningless only capture slices of the word. Of the available options, meaningless in the NIV is one of the least helpful, mostly because the Teacher’s argument is exactly the opposite. Take Ecclesiastes 8:14 (NIV) for example: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.” He brings up this scenario not because it’s devoid of meaning but because it means something and we should take notice of it!

Other translations fail in other regards, but we needn’t pick them all apart. As you read through Ecclesiastes, simply identify whichever word your translation prefers (it’ll be the one repeated multiple times in Ecc 1:2), then take two points into account.

First, remember that vapor or smoke is the metaphorical image. Imagine blowing out a candle and then trying to grab ahold of the smoke coming off the wick. That illusory experience, seeing something that looks solid and having it slip through your fingers, is the sort of idea here.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, take the book’s broader context into account. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes isn’t saying all of life is futile or worthless because he’ll go on to recommend taking pleasure in eating and drinking and working (2:24), delighting in your spouse if you have one (9:9), getting outside to enjoy some sunshine (11:7), and fearing God (8:12), and he recommends these things as if they really matter.

What the Teacher is exposing for us is a kink in the hose; there’s something disjointed about earthly experience, like something further up the line isn’t quite flowing right. The Teacher walked down every alleyway and gave it all a shot; he tried to delight in delightful things but only found them empty (2:1-11), tried to find insight in wisdom but only found it worrisome (1:16-18), tried to figure out the order to the universe but only found it confusing (3:11; 7:25-29). There’s an inherent disorder or brokenness at work here that explains both our inability to see and perceive it all (3:11) and our surprise at things not being or behaving like we think they should.

To summarize, just remember the combination of fleetingness and brokenness; this will help us better understand what the Teacher has to say here and help highlight in comparison the eternal nature and steadfast love of God.