Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

Ecclesiastes begins with the rather disconcerting exclamation, “Vanity of vanities, … vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The exclamation is made more disconcerting by the place of Ecclesiastes in the canon. In the canons of both Jews and all major Christian groups, Ecclesiastes follows immediately after the Book of Proverbs. Tradition, in fact, claims the selfsame author, Solomon, for both books. While Solomon extols the virtues of wisdom in the Proverbs, however, he seems actively to disparage it in Ecclesiastes. The word commonly translated “vanity” in English translations of Ecclesiastes is rendered as ματαιότης in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, a translation used by most of the Greek-speaking early Christian communities. As the New Revelation of Christ sheds light on the Old Covenant, the use of this word in the writings contained in the New Testament necessarily holds value for any attempt to interpret Ecclesiastes.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word ματαιότης refers to “what is devoid of truth and appropriateness,” with secondary and tertiary meanings indicating “perverseness” and “depravity” as well as “frailty” and “want of vigour.” The word’s stem, μάτη, refers to folly. The word occurs three times in the New Testament. In Romans 8:20, ματαιότης is translated by the ESV as “futility” in the course of St. Paul’s discourse on the hope and eager anticipation experienced by creation as it awaits salvation. Until the fulfillment of this salvation, says Paul, the creation is subject to ματαιότης. In Ephesians 4:17, the ESV again translates ματαιότης as “futility” in Paul’s admonishment to the Christians, “that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” This thought continues in the following verse (4:18), where Paul states, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” Finally, in 2 Peter 2:18, the ESV translates ματαιότης as “folly” in St. Peter’s warning against false teachers “speaking loud boasts of folly.” In each instance, the apostles use the word ματαιότης in a condemnation of false or worldly wisdom which cannot bring salvation. In Paul’s uses, the wisdom referred to is the wisdom of the pagans. In Peter’s, it is the wisdom of Christian heretics.

An examination of these New Testament uses of ματαιότης sheds some light upon the message of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. It is not wisdom itself which is vain. On the contrary, both the biblical and post-biblical Christian traditions have identified wisdom, σοφία, with the divine. Solomon himself did so in Proverbs 8:22-31. It is, rather, the wisdom of the world, the wisdom which leads from God rather than to God, that is referred to. This “wisdom” is perhaps more properly referred to as wisdom falsely so-called, about which Paul warns in Colossians 2:8. True wisdom, as Solomon makes clear at the close of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is that which leads man to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Far from vanity, this is the very reason for which man was created.

Review: St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Divine Liturgy

This book serves as an interesting introduction to the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Church (most typically, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) as well as a sound introduction to liturgical commentaries more generally. The introduction provides an excellent overview of commentaries on the Eastern liturgy both before and after St. Germanus. Through this overview, Meyendorff is able to demonstrate the important place which the commentary of St. Germanus takes among such liturgical commentaries.

The commentary itself is interesting, even when not especially insightful. St. Germanus treats each of the externals of the liturgy as a symbol for some other truth of Christianity, pointing especially to the life of Christ. While most of these references and correspondences seem rather forced, they do nonetheless provide an interesting example for the common Medieval Christian practice of deriving meaning from even the most seemingly insignificant elements of Church practice.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the historical developments and theological content of the liturgies of the Eastern Churches.

Primary Source: Xenophon’s “Memorabilia,” Book IV (ca. 370 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Socrates was so useful in all circumstances and in all ways, that any observer gifted with ordinary perception can see that nothing was more useful than the companionship of Socrates, and time spent with him in any place and in any circumstances. The very recollection of him in absence brought no small good to his constant companions and followers; for even in his light moods they gained no less from his society than when he was serious.

Thus he would often say he was “in love”; but clearly his heart was set not on those who were fair to outward view, but on those whose souls excelled in goodness. These excellent beings he recognized by their quickness to learn whatever subject they studied, ability to remember what they learned, and desire for every kind of knowledge on which depend good management of a household and estate and tactful dealing with men and the affairs of men. For education would make such beings not only happy in themselves, and successful in the management of their households, but capable of conferring happiness on their fellow-men and on states alike. His method of approach varied. To those who thought themselves possessed of natural endowments and despised learning, he explained that the greater the natural gifts, the greater is the need of education; pointing out that thoroughbreds by their spirit and mettle develop into serviceable and splendid creatures, if they are broken in as colts, but if unbroken, prove intractable and sorry jades; and high-bred puppies, keen workers and good tacklers of game, make first-rate hounds and useful dogs, if well trained, but, if untrained, turn out stupid, crazy, disobedient brutes. It is the same with human beings. The most highly gifted, the youths of ardent soul, capable of doing whatever they attempt, if educated and taught their duty grow into excellent and useful men; for manifold and great are their good deeds. But untrained and untaught, these same become utterly evil and mischievous; for without knowledge to discern their duty, they often put their hand to vile deeds, and through the very grandeur and vehemence of their nature, they are uncontrollable and intractable: therefore manifold and great are their evil deeds.

Those who prided themselves on riches and thought they had no need of education, supposing that their wealth would suffice them for gaining the objects of their wishes and winning honor among men, he admonished thus. “Only a fool” he said, “can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning: only a fool can think that without distinguishing these he will get all he wants by means of his wealth and be able to do what is expedient: only a simpleton can think that without the power to do what is expedient he is doing well and has made good or sufficient provision for his life: only a simpleton can think that by his wealth alone without knowledge he will be reputed good at something, or will enjoy a good reputation without being reputed good at anything in particular.”


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