Christians and others who appreciate the Bible are often challenged by attempts to contextualize the book of Ecclesiastes. Where other parts of the Old Testament focus on glorifying and pleasing God, this uniquely charming book repeatedly returns to the refrain that, “everything is meaningless.” There are, of course, many different translations of the Bible, and readers of the King James Version or English Standard Version may have seen this phrase translated as, “all is vanity.”
Which Translation is Correct?
Anyone who has struggled with translation understands that words in different languages often have slightly different meanings. When converting texts from ancient languages like Biblical Greek into modern English, there are additional challenges. In the case of this particular text, Biblical scholars have sometimes chosen words that seem very different from “vanity” and “meaningless.” Some versions draw a comparison to vapor and breath. Instead of calling life meaningless, those scholars think a more apt phrase would be “chasing after [or shepherding] the wind.” Certainly more poetic, this windy version may also be closer to the intent of the original author(s).
Who is the Author?
Many books of the Old Testament are a patchwork of combined work from many different historical sources. In this case, some pastors and laymen believe the simplest explanation, which is that Solomon was responsible for writing Ecclesiastes. In one verse, the narrator says, “I was King of Israel,” which is significant because Solomon was King until he died. Those who choose to believe that Solomon was the author, however, say that the writer used the past tense because he was looking back over his life. A majority of professional Biblical scholars tend to find that the text suggests at least three different perspectives are included.
The book itself opens by quoting a “Qoheleth” character who can be described as a preacher or teacher. In fact, the Greek word for teacher is “Ekklesiastou,” which ultimately gives this book its name. A natural reading would also suggest that a third party or skeptical voice also adds its perspective later, though this can be interpreted as an artistic choice made by a single writer. Christians who believe in divine inspiration may be less concerned with the question of exactly how many humans were involved in penning the original text. Many believers would rather focus on the intended meaning of these potentially confusing verses.
Can the Bible Endorse Meaninglessness?
It’s no surprise that the Old Testament would tell readers not to waste their time accumulating wealth or fame. We are all accustomed to hearing pastors warn about the dangers of secular culture and focusing on pleasure or possessions. The writer of Ecclesiastes goes much further than the typical pastor. He appears to say that working too hard and being morally pure can also be described as vanity (or a waste of time). Students, writers, and editors also sympathize with the teacher when he says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” In the end, most critics find that the unifying idea is moderation. We don’t need to live as Puritans or the Amish-it is also important to enjoy life. Carefully reading Ecclesiastes is the best way to learn more about interpreting the tricky phrase about vanity.