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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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VANITY . The root-idea of the word is ‘emptiness.’ Skeat suggests that the Lat. vanus (perhaps for vac-nus ) is allied to vacuus ‘empty.’ In English literature ‘vanity’ signifies (1) emptiness, (2) falsity, (3) vainglory. The modern tendency is to confine its use to the last meaning. But ‘vanity’ in the sense of ‘empty conceit’ is not found in the English Bible.

1. In the OT . (1) ‘Vanity’ is most frequently the tr. [Note: r. Textus Receptus.] of hebhel , ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’ The RV [Note: Revised Version.] rightly gives the literal rendering in Isaiah 57:13 : ‘a breath (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] vanity) shall carry them all away.’ The word naturally became an image of, what is unsubstantial and transitory; in Psalms 144:4 man is said to be ‘like a breath’ (RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ), because ‘his days are as a shadow that passeth away.’ In Ecclesiastes ‘vanity’ often occurs; it connotes what is fleeting, unsatisfying, and profitless. ‘Vanity of vanities’ ( Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 12:8 ) is the superlative expression of the idea of the futility of life. Jeremiah regards idols as ‘vanity,’ because they are ‘the work of delusion’ ( Jeremiah 10:15 ), ‘lies and things wherein there is no profit’ ( Jeremiah 16:19 ). (2) Another Heb. word ( ’âven ), whose root-meaning is ‘breath’ or ‘nothingness,’ is twice rendered ‘vanity’ in the RV [Note: Revised Version.] , and is applied to idols ( Isaiah 41:29 , Zechariah 10:2 ). But ’âven generally describes moral evil as what is naughty and worthless; the RV [Note: Revised Version.] therefore substitutes ‘iniquity’ for ‘vanity’ in Job 15:35 , Psalms 10:7; cf. Isaiah 58:9 . (3) More frequently, however, ‘vanity’ is the tr. [Note: translate or translation.] of shav ’, which also signifies ‘what is naught.’ In the OT it is used to set forth vanity as that which is hollow, unreal, and false. In Psalms 41:6 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ‘he speaketh falsehood’ is preferable; but the AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘he speaketh vanity’ exemplifies the close connexion between vain or empty words and lies (cf. Psalms 12:2; Psalms 144:8 , Job 35:13 , Proverbs 30:8 , Ezekiel 13:8; Ezekiel 22:28 ). (4) ‘Vanity’ occurs twice as the rendering of rîq ‘emptiness,’ and refers to what is destined to end in failure ( Psalms 4:2 , Habakkuk 2:13 ). (5) In the RV [Note: Revised Version.] it is used for tôhû ‘waste,’ but the marginal alternative in all passages but one ( Isaiah 59:4 ) is ‘confusion’ ( Isaiah 40:17; Isaiah 40:23; Isaiah 44:9 ).

2. In the NT . ‘Vain’ is the rendering of ( a ) kenos ‘empty,’ ( b ) mataios ‘worthless.’ When the former word is used, stress is laid on the absence of good, especially in essential qualities. The true thought is suggested by the RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ‘void’ in 1 Corinthians 15:10; 1 Corinthians 15:14; 1 Corinthians 15:58 . A partial exception is James 2:20 a rare example of the absolute use of the word. The ‘vain man’ is not only ‘one in whom the higher wisdom has found no entrance,’ but he is also ‘one who is puffed up with a vain conceit of his own spiritual insight’ (Trench, NT Synonyms , p. 181). Even here the primary negative force of the word is clearly discernible; the man’s conceit is ‘vain,’ that is to say, his conception of himself is devoid of real content. He is a ‘man who cannot be depended on, whose deeds do not correspond to his words’ (Mayor, Com. in loc .). kenos is the word rendered ‘vain’ in the NT, except in the passages cited in the next paragraph.

When ‘vain’ is the tr. [Note: translate or translation.] of mataios , as in 1 Corinthians 3:20; 1 Corinthians 15:17 , Titus 3:9 , Jam 1:26 , 1 Peter 1:18 (cf. the adverb Matthew 15:9 , Mark 7:7 ), more than negative blame is implied. ‘By giving prominence to objectlessness it denotes what is positively to be rejected, bad .… In Biblical Greek the word is, in the strongest sense, the expression of perfect repudiation’ (Cremer, Bib.-Theol. Lexicon of NT Greek , pp. 418, 781). In 1 Corinthians 15:14 the reference ( kenos ) is to ‘a hollow witness, a hollow belief,’ to a gospel which is ‘evacuated of all reality,’ and to a faith which has ‘no genuine content.’ But in 1 Corinthians 15:17 the reference ( malaios ) is to a faith which is ‘frustrate,’ or ‘void of result,’ because it does not save from sin (cf. Findlay, EGT [Note: Expositor’s Greek Testament.] , in loc .).

‘Vanity’ occurs only three times in the NT (Romans 8:20 , Ephesians 4:17 , 2 Peter 2:18 ); it is always the tr. [Note: translate or translation.] of mataiotçs , which is not a classical word, but is often found in the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , especially as the rendering of hebhel ‘breath’ (see above). When St. Paul describes the creation as ‘subject to vanity’ ( Romans 8:20 ), he has in mind the marring of its perfection and the frustration of its Creator’s purpose by sin; nevertheless, the groanings of creation are, to his ear, the utterance of its hope of redemption. When he says that ‘the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind’ ( Ephesians 4:17 ), he is dwelling on the futility of their intellectual and moral gropings, which is the result of their walking in darkness ( Ephesians 4:18 ). In 2 Peter 2:18 the intimate connexion between unreality and boastfulness in speech is well brought out in the graphic phrase, ‘great swelling words of vanity.’ How pitiful the contrast between the high-sounding talk of the false teachers who were themselves ‘bond-servants of corruption,’ and yet had the effrontery to ‘promise liberty’ to those whom in reality they were bringing into bondage ( 2 Peter 2:19 ).

J. G. Tasker.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Vanity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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