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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xlix. κενός, μάταιος.

These words nowhere in the N. T. occur together; but on several occasions in the Septuagint, as for instance at Job 20:18; Isai. 37:7; cf. 49:4; Hos. 12:1; in Clement of Rome, 1 Ep. § 6; and not unfrequently in classical Greek; as in Sophocles (Elec. 324); in Aristotle, Nic. Ethic. 1. 2; and in Plutarch (Adv. Colot. 17). We deal with them here solely in their ethical use; for seeing that μάταιος knows, at least in Scripture, no other use, it is only as ethically employed that κενός can be brought into comparison with it, or the words made the subject of discrimination.

The first, κενός, is ‘empty,’ ‘leer,’ ‘gehaltlose,’ ‘inanis’; the second, μάταιος, ‘vain,’ ‘eitel’ (‘idle’), ‘erfolglose,’ ‘vanus.’ In the first is characterized the hollowness, in the second the aimlessness, or, if we may use the word, the resultlessness, connected as it is with μάτην, of that to which this epithet is given. Thus κεναὶ ἐλπίδες (aeschylus, Pers. 804; cf. Job 7:6; Ecclus. 31:1, where they are joined with ψευδεῖς) are empty hopes, such as are built on no solid foundation; and in the N. T. κενοὶ λόγοι (Ephes. 5:6; cf. Deut. 32:47; Exod. 5:9) are words which have no inner substance and kernel of truth, hollow sophistries and apologies for sin; κόπος κένος, labour which yields no return (1 Cor. 15:58); so κενοφωνίαι (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:16); cf. κενολογία (Plutarch, De Com. Not. 22), and κενοδοξία (Phil. 2:3), by Suidas explained ματαία τις περὶ ἑαυτοῦ οἴησις. St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:1) that his entrance to them was not κενή, not unaccompanied with the demonstration of Spirit and of power. When used not of things but of persons, κενός predicates not merely an absence and emptiness of good, but, since the moral nature of man endures no vacuum, the presence of evil. It is thus employed only once in the N. T., namely at Jam. 2:20 where the ἄνθρωπος κενός is one in whom the higher wisdom has found no entrance, but who is puffed up with a vain conceit of his own spiritual insight, ‘aufgeblasen,’ as Luther has it. Compare the ἄνδρες κενοί of Judg. 4:4; Plutarch (Quâ quis Rat. Laud. 5): τοὺς ἐν τῷ περιπατεῖν ἐπαιρομένους καὶ ὑψαυχενοῦντας ἀνοήτους ἡγούμεθα καὶ κενούς: and compare further the Greek proverb, κενοὶ κενὰ φροντίζουσι (Gaisford, Paroem. Groeci, p. 146).

But if κενός thus expresses the emptiness of all which is not filled with God, μάταιος, as observed already, will express the aimlessness, the leading to no object or end, the vanity, of all which has not Him, who is the only true object and end of any intelligent creature, for its scope. In things natural it is μάταιον, as Gregory of Nyssa, in his first Homily on Ecclesiastes explains it, to build houses of sand on the sea-shore, to chase the wind, to shoot at the stars, to pursue one’s own shadow. Pindar (Pyth. iii. 37) exactly describes the μάταιος as one μεταμώνια θηρεύων ἀκράντοις ἐλπίσιν That toil is μάταιος which can issue in nothing (Plato, Legg. 735 b); that grief is μάταιος for which no ground exists (Ax. 369 c); that is a μάταιος εὐχή which in the very nature of things cannot obtain its fulfilment (Euripides, Iphig. in Taur. 633); the prophecies of the false prophet, which God will not bring to pass, are μαντεῖαι μάταιαι (Ezek. 13:6, 7, 8; cf. Ecclus. 31:5); so in the N. T. μάταιοι καὶ ἀνωφελεῖς ζητησεῖς (Tit. 3:9) are idle and unprofitable questions whose discussion can lead to no advancement in true godliness; cf. ματαιολογία (1 Tim. 1:6; Plutarch, De Lib. Educ. 9), ματαιολόγοι (Tit. 1:10), vain talkers, the talk of whose lips can tend only to poverty, or to worse (Isai. 32:6: LXX.); ματαιοπονία (Clement of Rome, 9), labour which in its very nature is in vain.

Ματαιότης is a word altogether strange to profane Greek; one too to which the old heathen world, had it possessed it, could never have imparted that depth of meaning which in Scripture it has obtained. For indeed that heathen world was itself too deeply and hopelessly sunken in ‘vanity’ to be fully alive to the fact that it was sunken in it at all; was committed so far as to have lost all power to pronounce that judgment upon itself which in this word is pronounced upon it. One must, in part at least, have been delivered from the ματαιότης, to be in a condition at all to esteem it for what it truly is. When the Preacher exclaimed ‘All is vanity’ (Eccles. 1:2), it is clear that something in him was not vanity, else he could never have arrived at this conclusion. Hugh of S. Victor: ‘Aliquid ergo in ipso fuit quod vanitas non fuji, et id contra vanitatem non vane loqui potnit.’ Saying this I would not for an instant deny that some echoes of this cry of his reach us from the moral waste of the old heathen world. From none perhaps are they heard so often and so distinctly as from Lucretius. How many of the most pathetic passages in his poem do but draw out at greater length that confession which he has more briefly summed up in two lines, themselves of an infinite sadness:

‘Ergo hominum genus incassum frustraque laborat
Semper, et in curis consumit inanibus aevom.’

But if these confessions are comparatively rare elsewhere, they are frequent in Scripture. It is not too much to say that of one book in Scripture, I mean of course the book of The Preacher, it is the key-word. In that book ματαιότης, or its Hebrew equivalent הֶבֶל, occurs nearly forty times; and this ‘vanity,’ after the preacher has counted and cast up the total good of man’s life and labours apart from God, constitutes the zero at which the sum of all is rated by him. The false gods of heathendom are eminently τὰ μάταια (Acts 14:15; cf. 2 Chron. 11:15; Jer. 10:15; Jon. 2:8); the ματαιοῦσθαι is ascribed to as many as become followers of these (Rom. 1:21; 2 Kin. 17:15; Jer. 2:5; 28:17, 18); inasmuch as they, following after vain things, become themselves ματαιόφρονες (3 Macc. 6:11), like the vain things which they follow (Wisd. 13:1; 14:21–31); their whole conversation vain (1 Pet. 1:18), the ματαιότης having reached to the very centre and citadel of their moral being, to the νοῦς itself (Ephes. 4:17). Nor is this all; this ματαιότης, or δουλεία τῆς φθορᾶς (Rom. 8:21), for the phrases are convertible, of which the end is death, reaches to that entire creation which was made dependant on man; and which with a certain blind consciousness of this is ever reaching out after a deliverance, such as it is never able to grasp, seeing that the restitution of all others things can only follow on the previous restitution of man. On this matter Olshausen (on Rom. 8:21, 22) has some beautiful remarks, of which I can quote but a fragment: ‘Jeder natürliche Mensch, ja jedes Thier, jede Pflanze ringt über sich hinaus zu kommen, eine Idee zu verwirklichen, in deren Verwirklichung sie ihre ἐλευθερία hat, d. h. das der göttlichen Bestimmung volkommen entsprechende Seyn; aber die ihr Wesen durchziehende Nichtigkeit (Ps. 39:6; Pred. 1:2, 14), d. h. die mangelnde Lebensfülle, die darin begründete Vergänglichkeit und deren Ende, der Tod, lässt kein geschaffenes Ding sein Ziel erreichen; jedes Individuum der Gattung fängt vielmehr den Kreislauf wieder von neuem an, und ringt trostlos wider die Unmöglichkeit, sich zu vollenden.’ There is much too excellently said on this ‘vanity of the creature’ in an article in the Zeitschrift für Luther. Theol. 1872, p. 50. sqq.; and in another by Köster in the Theol. Stud. u. Krit. 1862, p. 755 sqq.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G2756,G3152.]

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