The term "vanity" appears in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrew word translated as "vanity," "hebel," appears most frequently in the Old Testament in the Psalms and in the Book of Ecclesiastes. One of the better-known lines about vanity in Ecclesiastes introduces and concludes the author's investigation into the many ways vanity takes over people, and its consequences. New Testament writers infrequently discussed vanity, but they wrote about it in negative terms. The fathers of the early Christian church continued ancient cautionary themes.
Vanity in the Bible
The biblical notion of vanity, while incorporating the common definition of a person with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, more broadly conveys a sense of emptiness and lacking -- life without meaning and a connection to God. Although literally translated as breath or vapor, the Hebrew word "hebel" -- translated as "vanity" -- in the Old Testament carries a sense of futility. In Old Testament books, including Ecclesiastes, the idea of vanity is discussed frequently, while in the New Testament, vanity appears far less often -- only three times in the letters to the Ephesians and in 2 Peter. There, too, vanity holds negative connotations for its ties with worldly things and for its harmful spiritual consequences.
Vanity in Hebrew Scriptures
One of the more familiar instances of vanity occurs in Ecclesiastes. The author, Qoheleth, begins and ends the book with passages about vanity, in this case a life without meaning because it is detached from the divine. The Hebrew word "hebel" communicates a sensibility consistent with the writer's overall skeptical tone. In Ecclesiastes 12:8, after describing the ultimate departure of all life from Earth and a return to God, Qoheleth punctuated his point with the famous phrase, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." He described the futility of placing higher value on the world than on its creator. The author followed that phrase with lines about the ceaseless flux of life coming and passing, of work performed without lasting profit.
Vanity in Christian Scriptures
Paul's letter to the Ephesians comprises one of three times in which the idea of vanity appears in the Christian scriptures. In Ephesians 4:17, Paul cautioned church members at Ephesus to discard lives of vanity or futility, which are marked by alienation and heartlessness. Within the context of his message about the church's mission in the world, Paul worried that early Christians would become disconnected from life in God.
Teachings Based on Vanity in the Bible
With consistent messages about the illusory nature of vanity throughout the Bible, early Christian church fathers picked up the theme and developed it for future generations of Christians. John Chrysostom, for instance, employed the famed Ecclesiastes line in a letter about a controversy during his time. The writer described the fleeting appearance and loss of the glittering satisfactions of festivals and applause, and warned that such a life could end only badly. Afterward, Chrysostom bemoans that the letter's recipient experienced banishment and the loss of all good enduring things.
- Art and the Bible: Concordance Vanity in the Old Testament
- Art and the Bible: Concordance Vanity in the New Testament
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Bible: Ecclesiastes, Introduction
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Bible: Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Bible: Ecclesiastesm Chapter 12
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Bible: Ephesians, Chapter 4
- New Advent Fathers of the Church: Homily 1 on Eutropius
- Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Vanity
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