I wasn’t raised in a barn, but I live in one now. As I write this, I’m in the basement of a 110-year-old dairy barn, in the area where Fred Redburn used to milk his cows. Fred owned 80 acres of what is now suburban Independence, Missouri. His cows ranged from the present 35th to 39th Streets. That takes us back more than 100 years. If we go back 200 years, this land was most likely wooded. Missouri statehood lay two years in the future and no one had laid claim to this tract.
Today, although the barn is still standing strong, the rest of that 80 acres is dotted with several dozen houses, mostly built in the 1970s. The cows are long dead, and whatever milk they produced has been used up. All of the work that good craftsmen and laborers put in on this property has mostly faded into faint memory. That takes us back to Ecclesiastes.
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
That’s how the Christian Standard Bible renders Ecclesiastes 1:2. Others have gone different directions: “Meaningless!” (NIV), “Vanity of vanities” (KJV), “Nothing makes sense!” (CEV), “Pointless” (ISV), among others. That famous King James “Vanity of vanities follows the Hebrew, which employs a common biblical pattern of forming a superlative (the most extreme comparison) by saying “Song of songs” or “King of kings.” In other words, this “vanity” is the most “vanity-like” of all vanities.
But what on earth is vanity in this sense? Does it relate to somebody who is thinking way too highly of themselves? Is it that person who has to constantly coif their hair? Is it a piece of furniture with a mirror attached? None of our common usages of “vanity” capture the 1611 use of the word.
The Hebrew word, hebel, means, literally, vapor or breath. The metaphorical use of it is fairly easy to see. Like a vapor of condensation from my breath on a cold morning, anything that is a hebel will quickly fade away.
As I get older, I recognize that my works, for the most part, do not last very long. When I mow the grass, it immediately begins growing again. When I change my car’s oil, it will need changing again in a few months. And that car will, despite my best efforts at maintenance, eventually cease being useful. My most clever teaching ideas from the beginning of my career are useless today. My blog posts are read by a handful of people and then quickly forgotten. My improvements from diet and exercise, if not maintained, will quickly fade and even if they are maintained will gradually, as I age, disappear as my end is in the grave.
So we can see the futility of human life. Maybe I pass on good things to my children. That’s worthwhile, but they’re going to die eventually also. Everything and everyone is destined for death and decay. Futility, vanity, meaninglessness!
Ecclesiastes has introduced a demoralizing thesis statement. We have to ask ourselves why this book is in the Bible. But that’s a question for another day. For today, we should just reflect on the many futile things that make up our lives.