It is impossible to discuss the book of Ecclesiastes without discussing the word “hebel” (הֶבֶל), a word that shapes the backbone of nearly every theme in the book. The word literally means “vapor” or “breath”, but in our English translations the word is often translated “vanity” or “futility” to give it some poetic flourish. Both sets of translations are legitimate, as the word allows for some contextual flexibility to mean both things depending on the situation1. For example, Paul uses the word “mataiotes” – the Greek OT equivalent of “hebel” – when he writes of creation being “subject to futility” in Romans 8:202. Conversely, when James writes that “you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas 4:14), he is likely making a direct allusion to Ecclesiastes, especially since Ecc 1:1-3 and Jas 4:13-17 both use imagery of financial profit.
In both cases, rendering the word “vanity”/“futility” or “vapor”/“mist”/“breath” are both legitimate options depending on the context. However, I think that “vanity” or its equivalents run the risk of being misunderstood. Often times, when we hear the word “vanity”, we think “pointless”, “useless”, or “waste of time”, but if we took “all is vanity” at the end of Ecc 1:2 and rendered it “all is vapor”, Solomon’s message shifts from “everything is pointless” to something else entirely. Like the work from your toil (v3) and the generations of the earth (v4), vapors are brief, here one second and gone the next. Like the motion of the sun (v5) and wind (v6), vapors are always changing, and never stay in the same state. Like the rivers into seas (v7) and our eyes and ears (v8), vapors are never enough for us and we always need more of them (especially if we use the word “breath”!), but as with all the vapors that have come before (v9-10) and have yet to be (v11), vapors are boring, unremarkable, and unmemorable3. Taken together, Solomon is pointing to the created order, and everything in it, and telling us there is nothing lasting to be found here, and that you should not build your life on transient mists.
1:Ryken, Philip Graham. Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010.
2: Crossway Bibles. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
3: Leithart, Peter J. Solomon among the Postmoderns. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.