The following meanings can be distinguished:

2. Emptiness or worthlessness. In Ecclesiastes 5:7, the RSV uses the word “empty” for the word tr. “vanities” in KJV (cf. Job 7:3; 15:31; Isa 40:17). In Jeremiah 2:5, RSV uses “worthlessness” for KJV’s “vanity” (cf. Jer 16:19; 51:18). “Futility” seems to be the basic idea in Ecclesiastes 1:2 (Meek).

4. Other less frequent usages are: a. calamity (Prov 22:8); b. nonsense (Zech 10:2); “senseless thing” (Eccl 8:14) (Irwin and Meek); c. hastily (Prov 13:11); d. destruction (Isa 30:28); e. “sorry thing” (Eccl 6:4) (Meek).

The word “vanity” does not occur in the RSV NT, but it occurs four times in KJV where the RSV trs. as follows “vain things” (Acts 14:15); “futility” (Rom 8:20; Eph 4:17); and “folly” (2 Pet 2:18).

The modern idea of vanity as: (1) selfish conceit or inflated pride; (2) “ostentation of fashion, wealth, or power” (Webster), does not seem to be prominent in the Bible. In the NT there are, however, three cases which might be cited as cognate. In Philippians 2:3 the word κενοδοξία, G3029, is tr. “vainglory” in KJV, but “conceit” in RSV. A cognate word in Galatians 5:26 is rendered “vain glory” in KJV, “vainglorious” in ASV but “self-conceit” in RSV. Finally, ὀλαζονεία in 1 John 2:16 is given as “vainglory” in ASV, but “pride” in KJV and RSV.

Some of the things which are designated as vanity (in addition to those mentioned above) are:

1. thoughts and words of the godless (Job 15:35; Pss 10:7; 144:8).

2. leaving the fruit of your toil to another (Eccl 2:19, 21).

3. that the fool and the wise fare alike (Eccl 2:15).

4. that the man has no advantages over the beasts (Eccl 3:19).

5. life (Eccl 9:9; 11:10).

6. false prophets (Ezek 13:6, 8, 9, 23; 21:29; 22:28).

7. nations, princes and rulers (Isa 40:17, 23).

8. pleasure (Eccl 2:1).

9. wealth (Eccl 5:10; cf., 4:7, 8; 6:2; Prov 13:11; 21:6).

10. every person (Pss 39:5, 11; 62:9; 144:4).

11. everything (Eccl 1:1; 12:8).

The progress of meaning, therefore, seems to be this: empty, useless, deceitful, wicked. In line with its purpose to reveal the truth which is ultimate and lasting, the Scriptures warn against that which has the appearance of reality and value, but which proves in fact not to have any real value. Since people are being led astray by such deceits, the Bible discloses and denounces them.


TWNT, TDNT, Crem; T. J. Meek, “Translating the Hebrew Bible,” JBL, LXXIX (1960), 323-338; M. A. Klopfenstein, Die Luge nach dem AT (1964), esp. 315-320.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

"Vanity" does not often occur in the New Testament; but see VAIN, VAINGLORY. In Ac 14:15 we have mataios, "empty," translated "vanities" (of idols); mataiotes, "emptiness," "transitoriness" (Ro 8:20, "The creation was subjected to vanity," frailty, transitoriness); "emptiness," "folly" (Eph 4:17; 2Pe 2:18).