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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [1]

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.

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [2]

Neither in the OT nor in the NT is the word ‘vanity’ used in the sense of self-conceit or vainglory (see Pride): it is always a rendering of ματαιότης, which is an essentially Scriptural word, not being found in an ethical sense in the classical writers. There is, however, an adjective, rendered ‘vain,’ which has no corresponding substantive, namely κενός. Perhaps the prevailing sense of κενός is ‘emptiness’ or ‘hollowness,’ while μάταιος rather expresses ‘futility’ or ‘fruitlessness,’ and denotes an absence of aim or a purpose unfulfilled; but the two epithets are so nearly synonymous even on the showing of R. C. Trench ( NT Synonyms 9, London, 1880, p. 180 f., where he defines κόπος κενός [ 1 Corinthians 15:58] as ‘labour which yields no return’) that the distinction cannot always be pressed. J. B. Mayor on  2 Peter 2:10 (see The Epistle of St. Jude, and the Second Epistle of St. Peter , London, 1907) discusses the passages of Septuagintwhere ματαιότης is found, e.g.  Psalms 4:3;  Psalms 39:6 and the famous  Ecclesiastes 1:2 (‘vanity of vanities’), and concludes that in these cases, as in  2 Peter 2:10, the word approximates to the Pauline use in  Romans 8:20 (‘the creation was subjected to vanity’) and denotes what is simply passing and transient. On the other hand, in  Psalms 26:4;  Psalms 119:37;  Psalms 144:8 and  Ephesians 4:17 he is of opinion that the word expresses moral instability, being used ‘of men without principle on whom no reliance can be placed.’

As against the view of Mayor, it should be remembered that in  Romans 8:20 the meaning of resultlessness or ineffectiveness (see Sanday-Headlam, International Critical Commentary , ‘Romans’5, Edinburgh, 1902, in loc. ) is equally harmonious with the context as indicating the opposite of τέλειος, that is, the disappointing character of the present existence with its unfulfilled aims and its pursuit of ends never realized. The word is found in Barn . iv. 10; Polyc. ad Phil . vii. 2; Ignatius, ad Trall . viii. 2. On the whole, an examination of the passages where ματαιότης and μάταιος are found as well as compound words like ματαιολογία and ματαιοπνία tends to support the theory that ‘vanity,’ or ματαιότης (Heb. הֶבֶל, though in Septuagintthe word is also a rendering of שָׁוְא), denotes ‘either absence of purpose or failure to attain any true purpose’ (J. Armitage Robinson, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians 2 , London, 1909, on 4:17).

R. Martin Pope.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [3]

In common parlance "vanity" and "vain" apply to conceited persons with exaggerated self-opinions. While the biblical usage includes this nuance, it describes the world as having as no ultimate meaning, a concept shared with some philosophies. The meanings of emptiness and lacking in reality are already present in the Latin vanitas, from which the English word "vanity" is derived. This approaches the chief Old Testament understanding that human life apart from God, even at its best, has no ultimate significance and consequently is valueless. This theme characterizes the Book of Ecclesiastes, which begins with "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (1:2 NRSV), words that have become classical in the languages into which the Bible has been translated. In viewing life without God the believer is on the same level as the unbeliever in recognizing the desperateness of life. Hebel [   Psalm 39:5 ). The development of vanity as reflecting the despair of human life in Ecclesiastes shows to some commentators that its author was a skeptic, an agnostic, or a rationalist, as its message seemed to contradict the prophetic message that Israel place its hope in God. The tension between hope and hopelessness can be resolved in realizing that the inspired writer is expressing his emotions apart from his life as a believer. It does not suggest that he has gone after other gods, but rather he views life apart from God. Searching for wisdom is no more productive than striving after the wind (1:14,17). All work (4:8), wealth (2:1-17), and varied experiences (4:7) add nothing to life's meaning. Human life is of equal value with that of animals (3:19-20). Though vanity is the theme of Ecclesiastes, the idea is found elsewhere. It is the despair and frustration in seeing that projected goals are unrealized as with Job (7:3), David ( 2 Samuel 18:31-33 ), and Elijah ( 1 Kings 19:4 ). Despair is lacking in Jesus, who in the forsakenness of death places his confidence in God ( Matthew 27:46 ). In the Sermon on the Mount he uses the transience of life to engender in Christians confidence as God's children ( Matthew 6:25-33 ). The other biblical usage of vanity condemns idolatrous religions and philosophies as useless. Gentiles or pagans failing to recognize the true God live in the vanity of their minds. Their unbelief is caused by ignorance and hardness of heart ( Ephesians 4:17-24 ). The vanity of false worship is of no value, as it fails to see that other religions and philosophies lead only to damnation. Vanity as a despair of value of human life thus destroying confidence in self, abilities, and possessions can be of value if faith is allowed to focus on him with whom true joys are to be found.

David P. Scaer

See also Theology Of Ecclesiastes

Bibliography . M. V. Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions .

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [4]

Does not usually denote, in Scripture, self-conceit or personal pride,  2 Peter 2:18 , but sometimes emptiness and fruitlessness,  Job 7:3   Psalm 144:4   Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 . It often denotes wickedness, particularly falsehood,  Deuteronomy 32:21   Psalm 4:2   24:4   119:37 , and sometimes idols and idol-worship,  2 Kings 17:15   Jeremiah 2:5   18:15   Jonah 2:8 . Compare Paul's expression, "they turned the truth of God into a lie,"  Romans 1:25 . "In vain," in the second commandment,  Exodus 20:7 , is unnecessarily and irreverently. "Vain men,"  2 Samuel 6:20   2 Chronicles 13:7 , are dissolute and worthless fellows.

Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [5]

1: Ματαιότης (Strong'S #3153 — Noun Feminine — mataiotes — mat-ah-yot'-ace )

"emptiness as to results," akin to mataios (see Empty , VAIN), is used (a) of the creation,  Romans 8:20 , as failing of the results designed, owing to sin; (b) of the mind which governs the manner of life of the Gentiles,  Ephesians 4:17; (c) of the "great swelling words" of false teachers,  2—Peter 2:18 .

 Acts 14:15Vain

King James Dictionary [6]

VAN'ITY, n. L. vanitas, from vanus, vain.

1. Emptiness want of substance to satisfy desire uncertainty inanity.

Vanity of vanities, said the preacher all is vanity.  Ecclesiastes 1 .

2. Fruitless desire or endeavor.

Vanity possesseth many who are desirous to know the certainty of things to come.

3. Trifling labor that produces no good. 4. Emptiness untruth

Here I may well show the vanity of what is reported in the story of Walsingham.

5. Empty pleasure vain pursuit idle show unsubstantial enjoyment.

Sin with vanity had fill'd the works of men.

Think not when woman's transient breath is fled, that all her vanities at once are dead succeeding vanities she still regards.

6. Ostentation arrogance. 7. Inflation of mind upon slight grounds empty pride, inspired by an overweening conceit of one's personal attainments or decorations. Fops cannot be cured of their vanity.

Vanity is the food of fools.

No man sympathizes with the sorrows of vanity.

Webster's Dictionary [7]

(1): ( n.) An inflation of mind upon slight grounds; empty pride inspired by an overweening conceit of one's personal attainments or decorations; an excessive desire for notice or approval; pride; ostentation; conceit.

(2): ( n.) One of the established characters in the old moralities and puppet shows. See Morality, n., 5.

(3): ( n.) That which is vain; anything empty, visionary, unreal, or unsubstantial; fruitless desire or effort; trifling labor productive of no good; empty pleasure; vain pursuit; idle show; unsubstantial enjoyment.

(4): ( n.) The quality or state of being vain; want of substance to satisfy desire; emptiness; unsubstantialness; unrealness; falsity.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [8]

Emptiness. It is often applied to the man who wishes you to think more highly of him than what he really deserves; hence the vain man flatters in order to be flattered; is always fond of praise, endeavours to bribe others into a good opinion of himself by his complaisance, and sometimes even by good offices, though often displayed with unnecessary ostentation. The term is likewise applied to this world, as unsatisfactory,  Ecclesiastes 1:2; to lying,  Psalms 4:2; to idols,  Deuteronomy 32:21; to whatever disappoints our hopes,  Psalms 60:11 .

See Pride

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [9]

(as a rendering of several Heb. words, Gr. Ματαιότης ) occurs in Scripture only in the Latin sense Of Emptiness, and is often applied to this world, as unsatisfactory ( Ecclesiastes 1:2); to lying ( Psalms 4:2); to idols ( Deuteronomy 32:21); to whatever disappoints our hopes ( Psalms 60:11). In ordinary language the term is applied to the man who wishes you to think more highly of him than what he really deserves. Hence the vain' man flatters in order to be flattered; is always fond of praise; endeavors to bribe others into a good opinion of himself by his complaisance, and sometimes even by good offices, though often displayed with unnecessary ostentation. (See Pride).