Meaningless, Vanity, Frustration and Futile

On Tuesday, City Bible Forum has started a new series on Ecclesiastes with Al Stewart. It was Al's favourite book, and there was no lack of things that I have learnt or have heard the first time. We looked at 1:1-11 on Tuesday, and the series would be running for the next 7 weeks - highly recommended for those who work in the Sydney CBD to take lunchtime off and come to listen to Bible preached.

One thing I have learnt is the word "Meaningless" or "Vanity" in 1:2, which also occurred in the whole Ecclesiastes no less than 37 times.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 (ESV)

NIV translated the word as "Meaningless", NET Bible as "Futile", and ESV and KJV as "Vanity". The original Hebrew is "hebel", which is the same word used in Genesis 4:2 as the name "Abel", meaning "breath". Al described that it is like the vapour you breathed out in a cold morning. Within seconds it disappears - something empty, unsatisfying, vain. One issue I found translating this into "meaningless" is that it somehow left out the "emptiness" that the Preacher tried to bring out.

It is also interesting to see how Al has concluded the sermon with a New Testament reference. In Septuagint, the Hebrew Old Testament translated into Greek, the word "hebel" in Ecclesiastes got translated into "mataiotè„s", meaning:

1) what is devoid of truth and appropriateness 2) perverseness, depravity 3) frailty, want of vigour (Thayer)

Moreover, it is the same word used in Romans 8:20:

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Romans 8:19-21 (ESV)

The same word got translated to "futility" in ESV, and "frustration" in NIV. The whole creation, including you, me and the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, are subjected, or are placed under this futility/frustration/vanity/meaninglessness. From Ecclesiastes' arguments, we know that it is sound but there is just something not right. How can the existence of each of us individually all meaningless? How can what we work and labour everyday brings nothing but emptiness?

Because it is God who has subjected us under that futility. It is God who frustrated us - so that we will want to be set free, seek God, and find the true meaning under him.

One cross-reference via Septuagint has helped me having better understanding of Ecclesiastes.