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June 2019 Credo 

Since it first appeared in the 1970s, the NIV has had its ups and downs: it has been revised more than once; some have welcomed it for its clarity and readability; others have criticised it as loose and at times misleading. I am not in general an “NIV basher”, but there is one case where I regret the decision taken by the NIV translators. I refer to Ecclesiastes, and the rendering of a key term in that book as “meaningless” (1:2, etc.).

Whenever Ecclesiastes is mentioned today you are likely to hear someone gleefully declaim, “Meaningless, meaningless!” I lay the blame for this on the NIV, and I wish that the practice would cease.

Why did the NIV translators choose this translation? Were they responding to European existentialist thought of the 1960s and 1970s, which emphasised the question of meaning? Did they aim to suggest the contemporary relevance of Ecclesiastes by adopting a translation which implied that the Teacher had anticipated Camus and Sartre by over 2000 years?

Whatever the reasons, my experience has been that the translation “meaningless” discourages Christians from taking Ecclesiastes seriously. After all, if the Teacher keeps saying “meaningless”, why work at trying to find meaning in his words? Why study the book if it’s not going to yield any sense?

And what happens when Ecclesiastes is studied in the NIV? Christians conclude that Ecclesiastes cannot be taken at face value: after all, the teaching “everything is meaningless” is at odds with the rest of Scripture, so we have to find ways of interpreting the Teacher’s words accordingly. This is the root of those readings which treat Ecclesiastes as a tract illustrating what life looks like when you do not believe in God, or as showing where you end up when you “lean on your own understanding” rather than trusting God (cf. Prov. 3:5).

But I don’t believe the Teacher did think that “everything is meaningless.” On the contrary, his book contains many highly meaningful statements about the world and our place in it.

Admittedly, the Teacher is not the most straightforward of instructors. He adopts a discursive (some would say “rambling”) approach in order to prod us into thought. He does not lay all his cards on the table at once: it is easy to take some of his more extreme statements earlier in the book as a definitive statement of his views, even though he later makes other statements which give a different and balancing perspective on the same topic. He focuses much more on the dark and inexplicable aspects of life than, say, the Book of Proverbs (which may seem to be much more representative of “mainstream” Israelite thought). But, as the epilogue to the book tells us, he is a thoughtful, honest and faithful witness to the truth (12:9-14). Much of what he says, far from contradicting Israel’s traditions, restates them, though often in unconventional ways.

What is the Ecclesiastes about, then? I believe that the Teacher’s message can be summed up in the statement: “Recognise your limitations.” We humans, Christians included, should realise that we are limited, in three areas in particular: in our life-span (1:4; 11:7-8); in what we can achieve during our lives (1:3; 3:9); and in our understanding, not least our understanding of God’s ways (8:16-17; 11:5).

In the Teacher’s view, it is our refusal to recognise our limitations which lies at the root most of the frustration which we experience in life, and most of the injustice and tragedy that repeatedly mark human history on both the small and the large scale.

People devote their lives to amassing wealth, and hurt themselves and others along the way (4:1-8; 5:18-17), only to end up asking themselves why they bothered (2:18-23). People struggle to penetrate the mysteries of existence, and find themselves more puzzled at the end than when they first began (1:12-18). Certainly, wisdom does not confer immortality (2:12-17). Bad times come, cities are besieged, and rulers fail to care for their subjects (9:11-18; 10:16-20), and all because people choose folly rather than restraint.

Much more sensible (the Teacher tells us) to show an appropriate reverence for God and abandon unrealistic expectations (5:1-7); to work with others (4:9-12) rather than trying to do them down (4:4); to acknowledge the intractability of life’s enigmas and not let this prevent us from finding pleasure where it lies readily to hand, in food, friends and family (9:1-10); to abandon grandiose schemes and attempts to be sure that one is “in the centre of God’s will”, and recognise instead that everything we attempt is subject to uncertainty, because we do not fully understand God’s ways (11:1-6). Much more sensible, in other words, to accept our creaturely limitations.

At the end the Teacher sums up with a passionate exhortation to “remember your Creator” while there is still time (12:1-8). In the Epilogue the Teacher’s editor rightly describes him as a thoughtful and responsible man (12:9-10) whose message can be summed up in entirely mainstream Israelite terms (12:13): “Fear God, and keep his commandments.”

And what about that key word (Hebrew hevel) which NIV renders “meaningless”? At root the word seems to mean something like “breath” or “vapour”, and it is used in three main senses in Ecclesiastes, which correspond to the three main areas in which the Teachers encourages us recognise our limitations:

  • In some passages hevel connotes “brief”: life and particularly youth are “a breath”, over almost in an instant (6:12; 11:10; cf. Prov. 31:30, where beauty is described as hevel).
  • In other passages hevel suggests what is “futile”, as insubstantial as a breath (2:11; 6:9; cf. Deut. 32:21, 1 Kgs. 16:13, where hevel denotes idols, which it is futile to worship).
  • Elsewhere, hevel suggests “hard to grasp [comprehend]” or “confusion” (6:11; 8:14): life can be as hard to grasp as a breath is hard to get hold of.

How should one translate this term in Ecclesiastes, then? I would prefer to retain the metaphor of the Hebrew and translate by “breath” or “vapour”. Thus 1:2 would become: “A breath! A breath! The merest breath!”. Or: “Vapour! Vapour! Absolute vapour!” Preachers and commentators would then have to unpack this metaphor and its different connotations in expounding the text. This might be a little more troublesome, but it is better than an oversimplifed and misleading translation such as “meaningless”.

But however we resolve the translation issue, it is important that Christians both study and take on board the distinctive teaching of Ecclesiastes. Its message regarding our limited life-span and limited power is not something which Christians have moved beyond. Nor can we discount what the Teacher says about our limited understanding of God’s ways, even though in some areas more has been revealed to us (e.g., regarding resurrection and judgment to come) than the Teacher ever knew. We would also do well to reflect on his point that human ventures are subject to uncertainty and a measure of futility: even plans made by Christians after much prayer are subject to the qualification “If God wills”.

Now, Ecclesiastes is not the only biblical book to address questions such as how we should live, what our goals should be, how we should plan for the future, and (indeed) what God’s purposes are for the world. But it does have a distinctive “take” on these questions: among the different voices of the biblical writers, the Teacher’s coolly realistic voice is one to which we should pay attention.

So read Ecclesiastes; wrestle with the Teacher’s sometimes puzzling teaching style. The more you study the book, the more you will realise that it is far from “meaningless”, both in itself and as regards its implications for your discipleship.

Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.