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Ecclesiastes 1:2 (BHS/WIVU)

2          הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Just a vapor! Said Qoheleth. Just a vapor! Everything is vapor.

Comment: Literally, vapor of vapors, said Qoheleth, vapor of vapors, everything is vapor. The Hebrew could also be translated mist or breath.

The translations of  “meaningless” (NIV) or “vanity” (ESV, KJV, NRSV) or “futile/futility” (NET, HCSB) all seek to reduce the image to a point. However, if Solomon intends to make use of the ambiguity of the image (insubstantial, transient, illusory, false, fragile) it is necessary to maintain the original symbol and allow Solomon to exploit the range of the symbol.

I think Solomon may be up to more than just condemning the world. He will speak often of happiness and benefits to be had in this sublunary life. I believe vanity would be the best choice among the common translations. However, vanity may important more force in one direction than Solomon intends.

In private conversation, an OT scholar mentioned that Solomon was seeking shock value. If we think of this as the beginning of a speech, we can imagine the hearer left thinking, What does Solomon mean? How can everything be vapor/mist/breath?

The rest of the speech will answer that question and tell one what to do about it.