In common parlance "vanity" and "vain" apply to conceited persons with exaggerated self-opinions. While the biblical usage includes this nuance, it describes the world as having as no ultimate meaning, a concept shared with some philosophies. The meanings of emptiness and lacking in reality are already present in the Latin vanitas, from which the English word "vanity" is derived. This approaches the chief Old Testament understanding that human life apart from God, even at its best, has no ultimate significance and consequently is valueless. This theme characterizes the Book of Ecclesiastes, which begins with "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (1:2 NRSV), words that have become classical in the languages into which the Bible has been translated. In viewing life without God the believer is on the same level as the unbeliever in recognizing the desperateness of life. Hebel [הֶבֶל], the Hebrew for vanity, as its Arabic cognate, suggests a wind or vapor. Man's life is like a breath (Psalm 39:5). The development of vanity as reflecting the despair of human life in Ecclesiastes shows to some commentators that its author was a skeptic, an agnostic, or a rationalist, as its message seemed to contradict the prophetic message that Israel place its hope in God. The tension between hope and hopelessness can be resolved in realizing that the inspired writer is expressing his emotions apart from his life as a believer. It does not suggest that he has gone after other gods, but rather he views life apart from God. Searching for wisdom is no more productive than striving after the wind (1:14, 17). All work (4:8), wealth (2:1-17), and varied experiences (4:7) add nothing to life's meaning. Human life is of equal value with that of animals (3:19-20). Though vanity is the theme of Ecclesiastes, the idea is found elsewhere. It is the despair and frustration in seeing that projected goals are unrealized as with Job (7:3), David (2 Sam 18:31-33), and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4). Despair is lacking in Jesus, who in the forsakenness of death places his confidence in God (Matt 27:46). In the Sermon on the Mount he uses the transience of life to engender in Christians confidence as God's children (Matt 6:25-33). The other biblical usage of vanity condemns idolatrous religions and philosophies as useless. Gentiles or pagans failing to recognize the true God live in the vanity of their minds. Their unbelief is caused by ignorance and hardness of heart (Eph 4:17-24). The vanity of false worship is of no value, as it fails to see that other religions and philosophies lead only to damnation. Vanity as a despair of value of human life thus destroying confidence in self, abilities, and possessions can be of value if faith is allowed to focus on him with whom true joys are to be found.
David P. Scaer
See also Ecclesiastes, Theology of
Bibliography. M. V. Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions.