Vanity of vanities, all is vanity
I love the book of Ecclesiastes. LOVE it. If you've never read it before, take a look. This is a book in the Bible which declares that everything is meaningless, and we all die in the end, so what's the point?
It shouldn't be comforting and yet, strangely, it is. I think it's because the writer is so honest about what it really feels like to be human. He takes on the received wisdom - that the good prosper and the wicked perish - and debunks it. Sometimes the wicked prosper and the good suffer, he says, and anyway, we all end up six feet under. Ecclesiastes gives us permission to be depressed. There is a little hope offered in the book, but it doesn't sound very religious: because life is short and death is inevitable, says the writer, eat, drink and enjoy your life while you can.
The word 'vanity' comes up again and again - 'all is vanity' - and it's a word that's very difficult to translate. In this extract from my book I make a suggestion of my own:
'In the book of Ecclesiastes all those who face disappointment and senseless suffering find company, no easy answers are forthcoming, and God does not make an appearance. The Teacher declares that everything is ‘vanity’. The Hebrew word hebel, traditionally translated ‘vanity’ ... is very difficult to render reliably in English and translators of the Bible have opted for a wide variety of different possibilities ... There are a considerable number of possible meanings, and it is difficult to know what to make of them. Was the Teacher emphasising our mortality, that life was short – hence, ‘impermanence’ or ‘ephemerality’? Was he trying to say that, since life is short, all our endeavours are pointless – in which case ‘worthless’ or ‘futile’ would fit better? Was he saying that the world could not be understood; that it was ‘incomprehensible’ (R.N. Whybray; Michael V. Fox)? In Ecclesiastes we have a thinker whose view of the world is very different to that found in Proverbs – in fact, very different to the rest of the biblical canon. To those who joyfully declare that God is good, those who follow God prosper, and the world makes sense, the Teacher declares: everything is meaningless. Life is short, incomprehensible, and pointless. These are strong statements indeed, and rather startling to find in the Bible. And yet, here they are.
To the many possible translations of hebel, I might add, ‘barren’. The concept of barrenness expresses for me, not simply my body’s inability to conceive and nurture new life, but the profound desolation that inability has wreaked in every area of my existence. It seemed impossible for a time to find any substantial meaning in my life when I knew I would not have a baby. The heart of the Teacher’s complaint is that good does not always win out, and anyway, we all die in the end, so everything is hebel. My complaint with life was, and to an extent still is, that I cannot bring forth new life, I cannot create new people to love, and so everything is barren. Barren, for me, captures so many of the possible translations of hebel. I feel a sense of worthlessness, of “less than”, because I am childless. My life feels futile, because I will never have the joy of a baby, of nurturing and loving them and watching them grow up to have babies of their own. My life is perhaps even more impermanent and ephemeral than others’, because I will not be granted the genetic immortality of biological children. Where the Teacher declares, ‘all is vanity’, I declare, ‘all is barren.’ '
Strangely, even though this should all be quite depressing, reading Ecclesiastes doesn't depress me. I think it's because it gives me permission to feel the way I do. And once I have expressed my sadness, my anger, my hopelessness - and been heard - then I am able to go on living. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes exhorts us to enjoy life while we can - to eat, to drink, to enjoy meaningful work and loving relationships. While this does not encompass all of Christian hope, it captures the truth that we are embodied beings who can only live moment by moment. When I have spent too much time with my thoughts, regretting the past and fearful of the future, I can come to my senses and be fully present in the moment. And that is enough.