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Why I’m Preaching Ecclesiastes from the ESV

April 18, 2012

In just over a week I’ll begin a new preaching series at Westgate Church: Work, Wealth, Pleasure, Knowledge, and Other Dreams that Disappoint—The Surprising Hope of Ecclesiastes. And though the Bible version in our church pews and usually up on the screen is the New International Version (NIV), I’ll be preaching this series from the English Standard Version (ESV). I thought it would be good to explain why.

I’ll start with several non-reasons:

  • It’s not because I have a secret plan to replace the translation in the pews.
  • It’s not because the NIV is a bad translation. It’s a very good translation (though the updated 2011 edition is even better, or at least based on better exegesis).
  • It’s not because I think word-for-word Bible translations (like the ESV) are necessarily better than phrase-for-phrase translations (like the NIV). I prefer the former, but both kinds are helpful for understanding the meaning of the original text.
  • It’s not just because I use the ESV in my own reading and study (though I do, with much appreciation. And having used it for the past ten years, if I’m going to stray from the pew Bible, this is the version I’m likely to use).

So what is the reason?

The reason I’ll be preaching Ecclesiastes from the ESV is relatively simple: I am convinced that consistently translating the book’s key word, hevel, as “meaningless” (NIV) is inaccurate and quite confusing when it comes to understanding the book’s message. Not that hevel can’t mean something like “meaningless,” but it certainly doesn’t mean that in every (or most) instances in the book.

The Hebrew word, hevel, simply means “vapor” or “breath” (cf. Ps. 144:4). It occurs 38 times in the book, and is used by the author to summarize his findings as he sets out to make sense of life in a fallen world and whether any lasting gain can be found (1:3). So he frames the whole book with this conclusion: “vapor of vapors . . . everything is vapor” (1:2; 12:8). How we understand this word will have a large impact on how we understand the message of the entire book.

Throughout the book, the author describes several things as hevel: pleasure, toil, wisdom, life’s brevity, envy-driven work, endless and unshared toil, dreams and words, wealth, an insatiable appetite, foolishness, righteousness, wickedness, dark days, youth—in short, “everything under the sun.” It’s often paralleled with “chasing after the wind” (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9), which suggests a general inability to grasp something because of its fleeting, transitory, or insubstantial nature.

Life is vapor—a fitting description for a fallen world. Like trying to grab hold of a puff of smoke, so everything in this world that we try to take hold of in order to find lasting significance is ultimately fleeting and fruitless. There’s no substance, no lasting gain. It doesn’t last, and it doesn’t amount to much in the end.

Of course the fact that apart from God, work, wisdom, or pleasure are ultimately fleeting and fruitless can lead one to conclude that they are “meaningless” or “futile.” But that is neither the essence of the word nor the necessary conclusion. Moreover it suggests to readers that the book’s main point is essentially “who cares?”—a far cry from the (albeit subtle) hope of a joyful and reverent life lived before God (cf. 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:7, 18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9; 12:13-14).

But how is the ESV any better, with its consistent use of “vanity” for hevel? Truth be told, “vanity” isn’t a whole lot better than “meaningless.” But it is more ambiguous. It doesn’t say as much, because it can say more than one thing. “Vanity” or “vain” can be synonymous with “meaningless” or “futile,” but it can also mean “empty,” “fruitless,” “hollow,” “short-lived,” all of which capture different aspects of how hevel is used in this book and elsewhere in the Old Testament.

So no, “vanity” is not a perfect translation. In fact, there is no one English word able to capture the full range of hevel (which is not uncommon when moving from one language to another). But it is less specific than “meaningless,” and therefore less distracting when trying to explain the meaning of a passage from the pulpit. And some of us preachers need all the help we can get!

Again, the point of all of this is not to disparage the NIV, but simply to explain why some folks at Westgate, come April 29th, might find the words in the pew Bible a little different than the ones being read from the pulpit or displayed on the screen. But one thing is certain—they are words we need to hear and take to heart, as we wrestle with the tension between disappointment in life and hope in God from the pages of Ecclesiastes.

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