Troublesome Topic: The Various Uses of the Word “Vapor”

The word I have rendered as “vapor-like” means “vapor” or “vapor-like,” and also “breath.” In what way is something like a vapor? I see six characteristics of a vapor that fit the teaching of Ecclesiastes, and they form the acrostic PASSES:

P  Not Predictable, is easily influenced, cannot be counted on

A  Accomplishes nothing, serves no purpose, does no work

S  Short-lived, brief, it does not last

S  Not Special, rather it is quite ordinary, even mundane

E  Not Easily analyzed or understood, and Endlessly frustrating

S  Not Solid, not firm, rather it is transitory and moves about.

Were the ancient people capable of seeing all the various qualities of a vapor? Absolutely.

No single word in English, apart from the metaphor of a vapor, can express this array of meanings, thus, all translation attempts that choose one word which is not “vapor” and stick with it throughout Ecclesiastes will be wrong part of the time. In my opinion, sticking with one word, like “vanity” or “meaningless,” is unfortunate because that word will only fit the context some of the time, and the other times it is used it will create confusion. The safest choice for a translator is to stick with the word “vapor” and allow that word-picture to speak for itself in the various contexts in which it is used in Ecclesiastes. The other option is to use different English words to express the different emphases of the Hebrew word “vapor;” several translations do this and do it very effectively, without creating any confusion.

As we move through the book of Ecclesiastes, you will see the acrostic PASSES used numerous times as I strive to explain what was meant each time the word “vapor” is used.