Thursday, June 15, 2006

The reasons I am so strongly opposed to the NIV rendering of hebel (the Hebrew word translated “meaningless” in Ecclesiastes in the NIV) are as follows:

1. The basic meaning of hebel is "breath." It is, to an extent, synonymous with ruach.

2. Thus, something that is hebel is evanescent, not long-lasting, not having much in the way of substance, impossible to grasp (hence the occasional pairing of hebel with "chasing after wind" in Ecclesiastes).

3. None of those uses argue "meaningless" as an apt rendering for hebel.

My own sense is that "meaningless" for hebel comes from two sources. First, it is (and I am admittedly psychologizing here) an attempt to render "vanity" in modern English, rather than to render hebel in modern English. That is, I suspect the NIV translators were, in part, motivated by a desire to have the modern reader understand the English word "vanity" (so familiar from the KJV), rather than to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word hebel.

Second, I think the rendering "meaningless" has arisen out of a misreading of the book as a whole. Modern evangelical scholars have been too influenced by the idea that Ecclesiastes was (a) influenced by Greek skeptical thought of one sort or another, or (b) that the bulk of the book was written by some heterodox Jew that some orthodox Jew later tried to rehabilitate (though God alone knows why that scenario would produce a book in the canon of Scripture), or (c) that the book, whatever its background and influences, is in its essence contradictory, cynical, skeptical, lacking faith. In that context, perhaps "meaningless" makes a good rendering of hebel, but it has to ignore lexical as well as contextual evidence to do so.

A careful reading of Ecclesiastes would show the reader that the author (Solomon, in my view) is actually using the word hebel in a number of ways, here indicating that something is brief, there indicating that something lacks substance, another place that because of the nature of something as hebel that it produces frustration. In none of those cases is "meaningless" a good fit for the use of hebel.

Finally, there are two NT passages that are intended to inform us regarding the significance of Ecclesiastes (and of hebel). The first is Romans 8:20 "for the creature is subject to vanity" (Geneva Bible). The word translated "vanity" there is the same Greek word used in the Septuagint for hebel. God did not subject the creation to meaninglessness, but to temporariness, to frustration, in order to remind us that "under the sun" is not all there is.

The second passage is James 4:14. I think the significance relative to Ecclesiastes is evident.

1 comment:

Mr. Baggins said...

Hello, Dr. Shaw. My name is Rev. Lane Keister. I am a PCA minister in North Dakota. Found your blog from the Warfield group. I will definitely be a regular reader, and will link to your blog from mine. I have a very high respect for Greenville, and am glad that you guys are holding to the Reformed faith.

My blog is

I am currently ripping through Wilkins's exam, destroying every false argument. Lord bless.