Vanity of vanities

30 Jul

The book of Ecclesiastes has the phrase “… Vanity of vanities…” (in many translations) which must make us stop and think. The phrase is translated variously: “sheer unreasonableness”, “nothing makes sense”, “it is useless, useless”, “Smoke, nothing but smoke.” The phrase is a superlative, where we might say completely or utter; it is the same with the phrase ‘king of kings’ which means the greatest of all kings. For ‘vanity’ here we could use adjectives such as fleeting, ephemeral, futile, vaporous, senseless. The repetition expresses a superlative and it could be preceded by “utterly” or “most.” The Hebrew word is related to wind – something like the breath we breathe out which might momentarily be visible but soon lost in the whole atmosphere.

The opening few verses are like an introduction to the rest of the work attributed to some wise ‘preacher’.  I like to think that the overall theme might be not to put too much value on what we do: not to over-value the good things we do, the wisdom of the things we know and understand, or (for us today) the conclusions of science we accept and live by, or even the rituals, regulations and doctrines of the religion we follow, or the customs we are brought up to respect … We must do what good we can in our lives and for others and for the world we live in, but, I think we must not be rigid or certain about anything: just live the best we can, respecting others with different attitudes and ways of life.

It is so easy to be sure of what you think, believe and practice. But that confidence must not make one scorn different beliefs and practices that others have. At the end of the book of Ecclesiastes the editor writes “… the end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.


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