Everything is a Vapor
“For there is a fate for the sons of man and a fate for the beasts; the fate of one is amongst them. As death comes to this one, so too death comes to that one. The Spirit is one with regard to all. There is no advantage that man has over beast because everything is a vapor.”
Here I depart somewhat with conventional translations of this verse. The most significant is seeing the reference to the Spirit here as the third member of the Trinity rather than the spirit of man and animal. While I do not wish to read Thomas Aquinas’ different kinds of spirits for different kinds of things (plant, animal, man), there are certain Biblical references to the spirit in man that cannot be attributed to a spirit in animals…for example, understanding (Job 32:8). Further, the spirit in man is the focus of God’s judgment (Proverbs 16:2; 20:27). Thus, it does not seem right to say that man and beast both have the same spirit and Solomon would have known that as he is the author of Proverbs as well as Ecclesiastes. Thus, I appeal to what Arnold & Choi would call a “preposition of manner” reflecting on how an action is taken as to the object. Thus, the Spirit of God acts similarly in bringing both man and beast to death in His timing and for His purposes.
The second area wherein I depart from conventional interpretation is in translating הָבֶל (hevel) at the end of the verse as “vapor” rather than as “vanity,” which is the more commonplace rendering of the term in this book. Yet, in context, Solomon is reflecting on the brevity of life and on the permanence of death, so it seemed more appropriate to apply the term in this way for this use.
In the end, though, the interpretation is much the same. Both man and beast go to the grave — in this, man has no advantage over the beast (though he has advantages in many other ways). And in light of this reality, we must come to terms with what that means for us…this, as we might expect, Solomon will do in the verses that follow…