For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NIV).
Ecclesiastes 9:5 has been used as a proof-text by conditionalists from the very beginning of the debate on the afterlife. With texts like this, believers who hold to an unconscious intermediate state have suggested that one does not have to borrow a pagan cosmology to explain what happens at death. It implies that the dead are not aware of what passes, and that a resurrection will be necessary before anyone lives forever.
Barton calls the verse a “classic statement” indicating that the state of the dead is one of “a state of unconsciousness” although he warns that it is “by no means alone decisive.”1 One has to look at what the whole of Scripture teaches in order to find answers. The problem with much of modern Christendom is that they are willing to negate the clear implications of such texts as Ecclesiastes 9:5 because they are presupposed to accept Greek anthropology, which rejected the reality of death, and redefined it as the soul going somewhere. If this “classic statement” from the Hebrew Bible is taken at face value, it suggests that death is not about going someplace. It is more about the life shutting down until God has use of it again.
Nichols listed the verse among eight Old Testament texts which uphold “the conclusion that death is a condition best described as sleep.”2 Here are those eight texts in modern versions:
- “If (the dead person’s) sons are honored, he does not know it; if they are brought low, he does not see it” (Job 14:21 NET).
- “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10 NIV).
- “For the dead do not remember you. Who can praise you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:5 NLT).
- “For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything. They no longer have a reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 LEB).
- “For Sheol cannot thank you; Death cannot praise you. Those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18 HCSB).
- “The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD, for they have gone into the silence of the grave” (Psalm 115:17 NLT).
- “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4 NASB).
- “Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you? … Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love? Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?” (Psalm 88:10-12 NLT).
The point of all these Old Testament saints is that they are seeking a resurrection because death is not the answer to their problems. It may not be the end of all existence, but it is not the eternal life which we all seek. There is hope beyond death, but not in it.
But many modern Christians stare that evidence in the face and then choose to walk away from it. They choose the doctrine of humanity that some in the early church borrowed from their teachers of Greek philosophy. That doctrine taught that death really is the answer to our problems – that we don’t need a resurrection because some part of us will continue to think and praise God in the intermediate state. Popular theology seems content with a combination of the resurrection to eternal life that the Bible teaches, and the continued conscious life that Plato taught.
Fudge has pointed out that this marriage of doctrines has not produced an altogether unified Christianity. He states that “some orthodox writers have continued to affirm the immortality of the soul, though often with a look over their shoulder, (because) many others have charged that the doctrine has serious deficiencies.”3 He argues that this “uneasiness within the orthodox ranks” cannot be solved by affirming or denying a doctrine. In the end, “the issue really becomes a matter of exegesis.”4
Such will be the case only if theologians on both sides of the divide are willing to carefully examine the texts of Scripture about which we disagree. Ecclesiastes 9:5 can serve as an example. Rather than simply offering this text as a proof of our view, conditionalists need to present a careful analysis of the text, offering evidence that it does support the concept of an unconscious intermediate state for all prior to a resurrection.
The Hebrew Text with transliteration
Ki hachayyim yodeim sheyyamutu
Vehammetim ‘eynam yodeim me’umah
Ve’eyn—‘od lahem sachar
Ki nishchach zichram.
The text of Ecclesiastes 9:5 is not in dispute. There are no major differences within the various extant versions of the Hebrew Bible that would suggest another wording, or a change in grammar. An observer can look, for example, at the Westminster Leningrad Codex version, and see that there are no appreciable differences between it and the BHS version cited above, even if that observer could not read the Hebrew text.
Having established that the differences in understanding the import of this text are not caused by differing versions of the text itself, readers can then address other avenues of exegesis.
Careful exegesis involves seeking answers to certain questions within the text itself, rather than trying to read into the text what one wants it to say. Without those questions, anyone might be tempted to simply use a text for his own purposes. But exegesis requires that the reader step back from his or her own agenda, and actually seek the purpose of the original author of the text.
the book as a whole
The author of Ecclesiastes was seeking to show that life apart from God was futile, vain, meaningless. If, as tradition asserts, the author was Solomon, that argument would make sense. Who else but Solomon would be in the particular position to try out all that life has to offer, and then conclude that it all was essentially unsatisfying? Who else but Solomon would qualify as a person who had it all, yet in the end of his life would be listened to as a speaker for the congregation who urged people to seek God above all?
the passage in particular
The FaithLife Study Bible outlines Ecclesiastes 9:1-10 this way:
- 1-3 The same fate – death – awaits everyone.
- 4-6 Death deprives humans of everything in life.
- 7-10 Enjoy life while it lasts.
The phrase “I looked again…” in verse 11 shows that it begins a new line of thought. So, the passage in particular that is the immediate literary context of verse 5 is verses 1-10.
The author’s purpose of the verse is to establish that death does indeed deprive all humans of everything in life. There is no hint that this is the language of mere appearance. The author is not saying that death only appears to rob us of conscious existence. In fact, if death ushers all human into a new state of conscious existence and awareness, the author of Ecclesiastes has lost his argument all together.
Solomon argued that it is best for the godly not to focus on any hopes of an afterlife in the intermediate state, but to make the best of life now. He was not addressing the question of whether there would ever be life after the grave. Instead, he was arguing that one’s objective should be making the best of life now. That explains why he later instructs his readers not to “let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 NLT). If one is caught up in the hopes and dreams of the future, one is liable to forget that his or her present relationship with God is what really matters.
In Ecclesiastes 9:5, Solomon uses a description of what happens at death to show that dying should not be a person’s goal. It is not the solution to humanity’s problem, God is. Death ends the pursuit. death ends the race. Solomon begins the verse with the Hebrew conjunction Ki, which establishes the grounds for the statement in the verse before: “But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (verse 4, ESV).
Solomon compares two groups: those who are presently alive (hachayyim) and those who are presently dead (hammetim). He does not distinguish between different groups within these groups. All people who are presently alive have hope, but all those presently dead do not.
Solomon compares these two groups in three texts. Before comparing them in 9:4 and 9:5, he begins the comparison in chapter 4:
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead (hammetim) who are already dead more fortunate than the living (hachayyim) who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 ESV).
His first conclusion is that it is better to be dead than alive because of all the injustice, oppression and suffering that the living face. Even better than being dead is not having been born at all. Solomon looks at all there is “under the sun”5 and his first conclusion (“I thought” [vs.2]) is that life is just not worth it. In spite of all the great things that a person can do (most of which Solomon did) and the joys of life that a person can experience (which Solomon experienced) his first judgment is a negative one.
His explanations for this cynical attitude include the following:
- “for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (2:17).
- “because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it” (2:21).
- “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (5:10).
- “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (5:15).
- “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (7:15).
Observations like these lead Solomon to conclude at first that the struggle of life for enjoyment and accomplishment is just not worth it. But then he changes his mind. His final conclusion is that it is better to be alive (and to have been alive) than to be dead. He prefers to be among the living (hachayyim) and not the dead (hammetim). His reasons have nothing to do with what one might experience or accomplish. He has already concluded that such things are meaningless. They are meaningless because of the reality of death.
His reasons for reversing his previous judgment are also tied to the reality of death. It is better to be alive than dead because of three things all dead people lack: awareness, reward, and something he calls memory.
It is better to be alive than dead because living people have awareness of life. They are conscious of what they are doing, while the dead are not. In contrast to the living, who know that they will eventually die, the dead do not know anything.
Supporters of a conscious intermediate state exert a great deal of effort to negate the import of such a statement. Barnes says “Solomon here describes what he sees, not what he believes; there is no reference here to the fact or the mode of the existence of the soul in another world, which are matters of faith.”6 There is no reference to such things because Solomon is not privy to the teaching of Plato and Socrates. Those teachings are indeed “matters of faith” but that faith does not have its basis in the Word of God. Solomon must speak of death and the afterlife from within the limits of Scriptural revelation.
So, Solomon says, “The dead know nothing.” Gill responds,
“this is not to be understood of their separate spirits, and of the things of the other world; for the righteous dead know much, their knowledge is greatly increased; they know, as they are known; they know much of God in Christ, of his perfections, purposes, covenant, grace, and love; they know much of Christ, of his person, offices, and glory, and see him as he is; they know much of the Gospel, and the mysteries of it; and of angels, and the spirits of just men, they now converse with; and of the glories and happiness of the heavenly state; even they know abundantly more than they did in this life: and the wicked dead, in their separate spirits, know there is a God that judgeth; that their souls are immortal; that there is a future state; indeed they know and feel the torments of hell, the worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched.”7
What an amazing amount of information the dead are aware of! Gil asserts that the lack of awareness Solomon speaks of only has to do with what is happening on earth. The awareness Gil speaks of is taking place either in heaven or hell. Solomon mentions heaven four times in Ecclesiastes, and never once mentions that people’s souls go there at death.8 Like the rest of the Old Testament authors, he never mentions the word hell at all.9 Yet Gill would insist that Solomon’s argument simply excludes any awareness of anything that happens one second after death.
But Solomon’s argument demands that his readers take into account the present state of the dead, and requires that they understand that the dead are presently aware of nothing. If (as Gill supposes) the actual awareness of the dead increases, then Solomon’s argument is a wash. If one’s awareness at death actually increases, then Solomon was right in his first assessment, and he should not have changed his mind. He had previously argued that being dead was better than being alive. He changed his mind and is now arguing that being alive is better. He based that correction on the fact that death ends one’s awareness of everything.
The second reason Solomon asserts that being alive is better is that a living person can expect a reward for what he has done. The dead get no reward.
Solomon has a great deal to say about rewards elsewhere:
- “The wicked person earns deceitful wages, but the one who sows righteousness reaps a genuine reward” (Proverbs 11:18 NET).
- “The reward of humility and the fear of the LORD Are riches, honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4 NASB).
- “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22 NIV).
- “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:10 ESV).
- “Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor” (Ecclesiastes 4:9 NKJV).
His writings were part of that genre known as biblical wisdom literature, which encouraged people to be faithful to God now and expect him to bless you for it now. There was no mention of rewards after death because that was not the point.
But in Ecclesiastes 9:5, Solomon goes beyond that simple assertion. He talks about why it is better to be alive, and he asserts that the reason is that if one is alive, he can continue to receive rewards for living righteously. But he also asserts that at death, that process ends. After death, rewards and punishment have come to an end.
According to the New Testament, that system where the sovereign God rewards people for their faithfulness and genuine good deeds in this life is still in effect.
- “Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4 NLT).
- “But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6 NET).
- “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong”” (Luke 23:40-41 NKJV).
But the New Testament also speaks of rewards that believers will receive at the return of Christ:
- “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35 ESV).
- “If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward.” (1 Corinthians 3:14 NLT).
- “because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24 NET).
- “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward” (2 John 1:8 ESV).
- “But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14 NASB).
- “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12 KJV).
So, the Bible teaches that there are two different kinds of reward. there are rewards in this life that a gracious God gives those who live as they should, and there is the reward at Christ’s return that believers will receive from him. Solomon’s statement agrees with this cosmology. That is why he affirms that being among the living is better than being among the dead.
But some read a third kind of reward into the equation. They say that people are rewarded (or punished) not only during this life and after Christ’s second coming, but that people are also rewarded immediately after death and before the resurrection. The assertion is that the intermediate state (between death and the resurrection) is a time of conscious blessing or misery prior to judgment day.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus10 appears to teach that, but it actually does not. Jesus was using one of the stories of the Pharisees (who held to rewards during the intermediate state) and turning the end of the story against them. When Jesus actually taught his disciples about life after death, he always made reference to a resurrection.11 He never referred to the believer’s reward as “Abraham’s bosom”, but called it eternal life,12 and his coming kingdom.13
Somewhere between Solomon’s day and that of Jesus and the apostles, many Jews had bought into a pagan cosmology which included the belief in a conscious intermediate state. Solomon may have anticipated such a belief, because his words teach against it. He is saying not simply that the old reward system ends at death, but that during death there cannot be another. He asserts that the dead are incapable of being rewarded, good or bad.
The final reason Solomon asserts that being alive is better than being dead is that dead people do not have something called memory. At first glance, this seems to have two possible meanings. Either it refers to the capacity of the dead to remember, or it refers to the ability of others to remember them.
The Hebrew noun zecher is related to the verbal root zachar, the usual word for “to remember.” That means that Solomon could be saying that the capacity of the dead to remember stops at death. He would essentially be repeating what he said before – that the dead know nothing, they have no awareness. It would be in agreement with Psalm 146:4 which describes the dying this way: “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
Probably, however, Solomon is speaking about the capacity for others to remember someone who is dead. The other Old Testament uses of the actual word zikram (their memory) relate to this usage.14 If this is the meaning Solomon had in mind, he obviously took the long view. People actually do memorialize the dead, and often to the extreme. But eventually, given enough time, even the names of rock stars and presidents will fall into disuse.
Solomon’s point is that death makes a sudden and actual end to all those things that we call life. When all is said and done, Solomon is arguing that it is better to have lived than to have not lived at all. The reality of death ends our life, but it does not end our significance. Life is worth living because God lives forever. What we do matters not because we are immortal and live forever but because what we do matters to God.
Solomon’s initial approach to life was pessimistic. He argued that life was not worth living because death is real and it will happen to everyone. Upon further investigation, Solomon changed his outlook. He still believed that death is real, and it happens to everyone. But he adds two words to the equation: “except God.” If God lives, my living in the present can be worthwhile. If God lives, my having lived in the past can be significant.
The New Testament teaches that Jesus “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.”15 We now know far much about our future than Solomon did. We now have clear teaching of a resurrection, an eternity in God’s new creation – an immortal existence in the future!
But Solomon still has much to teach us about what is really important. He stared human mortality in the face, and chose not to deny it. Instead, he put his trust and his hope in the LORD, who is immortal. His philosophy became theocentric, not anthropocentric. He taught his listeners to “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”16 And he based that command not on the illusion of an immortal soul surviving death, but the reality of an immortal God who can never die. He is the reason life is worth living!
- Freeman Barton, Heaven, Hell, and Hades (Charlotte NC USA: Advent Christian General Conference, 1981), 58.
- James A Nichols Jr., Christian Doctrines (Nutley, NJ USA: The Craig Press, 1970), 220.
- Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Carlisle UK: The paternoster Press, 1994), 22-23.
- Fudge, 22, 26.
- Eccl. 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17ff; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5.
- Eccl. 1:13; 2:3; 3:1; 5:2.
- The Old Testament uses the word Sheol to describe where all go at death. See Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num. 16:30, 33; Deut. 32:22; 1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Sam. 22:6; 1 Kgs 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psa. 6:5; 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14f; 55:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7; Prov. 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; Eccl. 9:10; Isa. 5:14; 7:11; 14:9, 11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9; Ezek. 31:15ff; 32:21, 27; Hos. 13:14; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Hab. 2:5. It cannot refer to hell in the traditional sense, because it includes all the dead, not just the unrighteous or unbelievers.
- Luke 16:20f.
- John 6:39,40,44,54.
- Matt. 19:29; 25:46; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:15f, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2-3.
- Matt. 8:11; 16:28; Mark 14:25; Luke 13:29.
- Deut. 32:26; Psa. 9:7; 34:17; 109:15.
- 2 Timothy 1:10 NLT.
- Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV.