Paul and Ecclesiastes

“For the creation was subjected to futility…” (Romans 8:20)

The Greek word, mataioteti, translated futility in the ESV of Romans 8:20, has been much discussed by commentators. The noun only occurs in two other places in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:17, 2 Peter 2:18) though the adjective occurs another half a dozen or so times including Romans 1:21 (‘they became futile’). Most agree that Paul here is casting back to the curse that the creation is under since the fall and the judgement pronounced in Genesis 3:17-18. That is certainly my own understanding. But I was interested to see that the word ‘futility’ does also seem to cast us back to the book of Ecclesiastes. It is the same Greek word in the LXX which ESV translates ‘vanity’ throughout Ecclesiastes (eg 1:2 ‘Vanity of vanities’). The book of Ecclesiastes has 32 of the 47 LXX uses of the word which translates that elusive Hebrew word ‘hebel’ (vapor, mist, meaningless). Ecclesiastes does not feature much in allusion or quotations in the New Testament and so it is intriguing to consider this possible connection. 

Cranfield lists five of the interpretations for this word ‘futility’ (or ‘frustration’): 

1 It is the same as ‘decay’ in v 21 and expresses the transient nature 2 ‘vain men’ 3 man’s idolatry’ 4 refers to celestial powers (see Galatians 4:9 – translated ‘elementary principles’ in ESV) 5 ‘futility’ as used in Ecclesiastes. 

Cranfield concludes that the word captures the inability of creation ‘to fulfil the purpose of its existence’. But this does seem to me to be an implicit message of the book of Ecclesiastes which portrays the ‘futility of life under the sun’.

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