Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Image from Hevel, by

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

The Hebrew word 'hevel' is translated here as vanity, but in its seventeenth century context with a meaning closer to valueless rather than today's meaning of egotism. Other translations of the Bible substitute vanity with worthless, pointless, useless, futile, all giving a very negative message of life on earth. Is this what the writer of Ecclesiastes meant? Possibly not.1

The word hevel (or hebel) can be translated a number of ways, two of those being as breath and vapour. Robert Alter, the modern day translator of the original Hebrew text offers us this translation.

Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath. What gain is there for a man in all his toil that he toils under the sun. 2

This seems to lift the text to a new, higher place, and offers a very different context for what we are about to read. Human life isn't meaningless; in the great span of time, it is simply ephemeral. Life is light, delicate, ethereal. This reminds us to treat life—our own and the lives of others—with gentleness and reverence. Far from futile life is precious and full of wonderment. We are here on earth for such a short time, so let's appreciate it. Amazing how a retranslation of a single word can open up an entirely new way to look at both the meaning of the book, and at life itself.

1 Dr. Tom Howe, Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages, writes: "Although the tone of the book as a whole seems to be pessimistic, Qohelet is not a pessimist. Rather, his goal is to demonstrate that life is meaningless, unless one lives it in the fear of God, keeping His commandments and enjoying life as a gift from Him. Ultimately, Qohelet is urging the reader not to trust in anything in this life to provide meaning and value. Rather, one should trust only and always in God, and live life before Him."
2 The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary by Rober Alter, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010