The Hebrew word hebel (הֶבֶל), which is translated “vanity” in this passage, means literally “vapor” or “breath.” The word habal (הָבַל), “to become vain,” also means “to act emptily” or “behave foolishly.”
Here’s how a few other translations of the Bible render this statement in English:
- “They went after nothing and they gained nothing” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English)
- “They pursued meaninglessness—and became meaningless themselves” (International Standard Version).
- “They followed emptiness and became empty” (New American Bible)
(See 2 Kings 17:15 on biblehub.com.)
The sentence rings true to me. What we choose to focus on affects what we become. Dedicate time and energy to valuable things, and your life will be enriched. Focus on foolish things, and you will be emotionally and spiritually impoverished.
I think the tricky part of this equation is that the process of becoming is so slow that it’s almost imperceptible. So we have a hard time connecting small daily decisions—what we watch, what we read, how we spend unscheduled time—with our growth and development. We understand that they are related, but it doesn’t always feel like it at the moment.
During a time of prosperity, the Nephites gradually became complacent and arrogant. Mormon tells that this pride was a direct result of their prosperity, “and it did grow upon them from day to day” (Helaman 3:36). Like the northern ten tribes, they were on the verge of being conquered, but they apparently didn’t realize how hollow and weak they were becoming as they pursued foolishness.
President Dallin H. Oaks has given the following counsel:
Because of modern technology, the contents of huge libraries and other data resources are at the fingertips of many of us. Some choose to spend countless hours in unfocused surfing the Internet, watching trivial television, or scanning other avalanches of information. But to what purpose?…
Available information wisely used is far more valuable than multiplied information allowed to lie fallow.“Focus and Priorities,” General Conference, April 2001
Today, I will remember that the way I spend my time matters. I will focus my time and attention on high-value activities, knowing that those activities will have a positive impact on who I am becoming.