The Most Existential Book in the Bible: Part 2, Hebel as "Fleeting"

I mentioned yesterday that most Bible translations do not translate the Hebrew word hebel literally in the book of Ecclesiastes, as "mist" or "vapor." Such a translation would highlight the fleeting and transitory nature of life. Rather, most Bible translations translate hebel as "vanity" or "meaninglessness."

One translation that does attempt to stick to a more literal translation of hebel is The Voice. Throughout Ecclesiastes, The Voice consistently translates hebel as "fleeting." 

To get a feel for how that translation might change a reading of Ecclesiastes, years ago I made for my Bible class a table comparing the NIV with The Voice listing every passage containing hebel in Ecclesiastes. That table is below:

The Voice
Teacher: Life is fleeting, like a passing mist. It is like trying to catch hold of a breath; All vanishes like a vapor; everything is a great vanity.
Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
I have witnessed all that is done under the sun, and indeed, all is fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind.
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
I said to myself, “Let me dabble and test you in pleasure and see if there is any good in that.” But look, that, too, was fleeting.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.
As I continued musing over all I had accomplished and the hard work it took, I concluded that all this, too, was fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind. Is there any real gain by all our hard work under the sun?
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
I said to myself, “Why do I try to be wise when my fate is the same as that of the fool? This pursuit is fleeting too.”
Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said to myself, “This too is meaningless.”
So I began to hate life itself because all that is done under the sun is so harsh and difficult. Life—everything about it—is fleeting; it’s like trying to pursue the wind.
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
And who knows whether my heir will be wise or foolish? Still he will inherit all the things for which I worked so hard here under the sun, the things for which I became wise. This, too, is fleeting like trying to catch hold of a breath.
And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
Although someone with wisdom, knowledge, and skill works hard, when he departs this life, he will leave all he has accomplished to another who has done nothing to deserve work’s reward. This, too, is fleeting, and it causes great misery.
For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.
For every day is filled with pain and every job has its own problems, and there are nights when the mind doesn’t stop and rest. And once again, this is fleeting.
All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
To those who seek to please God, He gives wisdom and knowledge and joyfulness; but to those who are wicked, God keeps them busy harvesting and storing up for those in whom He delights. But even this is fleeting; it’s like trying to embrace the wind.
To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so does the other, for we have the same breath within us. In the end, we have no advantage over the animals. For as I have said, it’s all fleeting.
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.
Then I saw yet another thing: envy fuels achievement. All the work and skills people develop come from their desire to be better than their neighbors. Even this is fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind.
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Again I observed another example of how fleeting life is under the sun:
Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:
There seemed to be no limit to all the people who were under his authority. Yet those who will come later will not be happy with him and will refuse to follow him. Even this, you see, is fleeting—power and influence do not last—like trying to pursue the wind.
There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Daydreaming and excessive talking are pointless and fleeting things to do, like trying to catch hold of a breath. What good comes from them? It is better to quietly reverence God.
Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.
As the saying goes: Those who love money will never be satisfied with money, and those who love riches will never be happy with what they have. This, too, is fleeting.
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.
Sometimes God gives money, possessions, and even honor, so that we have everything a person might desire; nothing is lacking. But then, for reasons God only knows, God does not allow him to enjoy the good gifts. Rather, a stranger ends up enjoying them. This, too, is fleeting; it’s a sickening evil.
God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
because the stillborn arrives in a fleeting breath and then goes nameless into the darkness mourned by no one and buried in an unmarked grave.
It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded.
It is better to enjoy what our eyes see than to long for what our roving appetites desire. This, too, is fleeting, like trying to embrace the wind.
Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
For the laughter of fools is like the hiss and crackle of burning thorns beneath a pot. This, too, is fleeting.
Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.
In the fleeting time I have lived on this earth, I have seen just about everything: the good dying in their goodness and the wicked living to a ripe old age.
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
I have witnessed the wicked buried with honor because during their lifetimes they would go in and out of the temple, and soon their crimes were forgotten in the very city where they committed them. This, too, is fleeting.
Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.
Here is another example of the fleeting nature of our world: there are just people who get what the wicked deserve; there are wicked people who get what the just deserve. I say this, too, is fleeting.
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
Enjoy life with the woman you love. Cherish every moment of the fleeting life which God has given you under the sun. For this is your lot in life, your great reward for all of your hard work under the sun.
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.
If a person lives many years, then he should learn to enjoy each and every one; but he should not forget the dark days ahead, for there will be plenty of them. All that is to come—whether bright days or dark—is fleeting.
However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.
When all is said and done, clear your mind of all its worries. Free your body of all its troubles while you can, for youth and the prime of life will soon vanish.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Life is fleeting; it just slips through your fingers. All vanishes like mist.
Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”

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