VANITY OR VAPOR?
I happen to like the professor who shared this Bible correction with a Hebrew class that I took with him, but it greatly grieved me when I heard him discuss a sermon that he delivered in his church. The sermon was on the topic of how we cannot really know the Bible without understanding Greek and Hebrew. Now we have all heard this same blather from behind pulpits, lecterns, and from every armchair theologian under the sun, but most of the time this elitism is implied by the speaker and not explicitly preached. This is the example that was presented in this sermon, as well as in our class, which was devoted to reading Ecclesiastes.
Ecc 1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
This base meaning of the word is a breath or a vapor, but it means something vain, empty, useless or trivial by extension. The above-mentioned professor suggested that vanity is a mistranslation based on the LXX’s alleged misreading of the word hebel. Indeed, the LXX has its share of misreadings, but mataiotes does not happen to be one of them. Yes, the base meaning is vapor, or breath, but the extended meaning fully captures the idiomatic purport of its use. To take an example from another language pair, we could say that “life is a breeze” in English and translate it into “jivan hava hai” in Hindi. What you would be saying in Hindi is “life is a wind.” This would be meaningless and confusing. What you would want to say is “jivan asan hai,” which means life is easy. Likewise, if one were to tell an American woman that she walks like an elephant and expect her to respond favorably because it was a compliment in ancient Sanskrit poetry that implied gracefulness, you will have a rude awakening.
Both of these examples fail to convey the intended meaning. Translating vapor of vapor, saith the Preacher, vapor of vapor, all is vapor, might be intelligible to someone with a poetic temperament in this particular passage, but it does not work when we look at the rest of the Bible. Before we look at other examples of the word, let’s present some relevant definitions of the word vanity from the Oxford Dictionary.
Vanity 1. That which is vain, futile, or worthless; that which is of no value or profit. b. Vain and unprofitable conduct or employment of time ME. 2. The quality of being vain or worthless; the futility or worthlessness of something ME. b. The quality of being foolish or of holding erroneous opinions -1660.
Now let’s try exchanging vanity for vapor in a sampling of passages from various books of the Old Testament. I have bracketed the altered words.
2 Kings 17:15 And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed [vapor], and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them.
Psalm 78:33 Therefore their days did he consume in [vapor], and their years in trouble.
Proverbs 13:11 Wealth gotten by [vapor] shall be diminished: but he that gathereth by labour shall increase.
Proverbs 21:6 The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a [vapor] tossed to and fro of them that seek death.
Jeremiah 2:5 Thus saith the LORD, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after [vapor], and are become vain?
Jeremiah 16:19 O LORD, my strength, and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, [vapor], and things wherein there is no profit.
Zechariah 10:2 For the idols have spoken [vapor], and the diviners have seen a lie, and have told false dreams; they comfort in vain: therefore they went their way as a flock, they were troubled, because there was no shepherd.
In none of these examples is the meaning made clearer, but, on the contrary, they lose much of their eloquence.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any of those church members tried looking at how this criticism would fit into the rest of the book. Instead, they probably all went home impressed by how much the college professor knew, but with even less faith in the Word of God than they had when they got there. This is the practice of a great many pastors, ministers, pastorettes, and ministerettes, as well as of numerous Sunday school teachers and the pseudo-intellectual laymen with delusions of grandeur that every KJV defender on the internet knows so well. They have all become convinced that they are worthy and qualified to “correct” God’s Holy Book. They plant seeds of doubt and confusion, perform an exercise in vanity (encompassing the modern meaning as well as the old), and do nothing but harm to the body of Christ.
John Hinton, Ph.D.
Bible Restoration Ministry
A ministry seeking the translating and reprinting of KJV equivalent
Bibles in all the languages of the world.