The word translated in this way is the Hebrew word הבל ‘hebel’ which literally means ‘air’, ‘vapour’, ‘breath’. But it’s usually used metaphorically, as it is obviously meant to be here. The problem is that the author of Ecclesiastes has (deliberately!) not explained the metaphor. Translators therefore often have to make a choice about what it means, which, as we’ve seen elsewhere, means that they have to decide whether Ecclesiastes is positive or negative. One good way round this is to translate it as ‘enigmatic’, as Bartholomew (2009 Baker Commentary) does, which works rather better.
But what happens if you don’t do any of this? “Vapour of vapours, everything is vapours”. It means that you make the reader do a bit more work, which was one of the points of using the word in the first place, and indeed for the whole book of Ecclesiastes. Let’s encourage people to wrestle with Scripture, to engage with it and be shaped by it.
I was reading the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and came across his poem Describing Clouds (in The Butterfly’s Burden 2007 translated by Fady Joudah). I think that this poem picks up some of the themes of ‘vapour of vapours’:
I am walking on a mountain and looking from a height
toward the clouds, as they hang from the lapis orbit
light and diaphanous,
like cotton ginned by the wind,
like a white idea about the meaning of existence.
Unknown painters are still in front of you
playing, and drawing the absolute eternal,
white, like clouds on the wall of the universe…
And the poets build homes with clouds
then move on…
but clouds have short lives in the wind,
like the temporary eternal in poems,
which neither vanishes nor lasts…