by George Sidney Hurd
How are we to understand Salomon’s statement that the dead know nothing? In this excerpt from my book, Extermination or Restoration, I consider this question.
“This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that one thing happens to all. Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” (Eccl 9:3-6)
Of all of Scripture, perhaps in no other book is the context more important to consider than the book of Ecclesiastes. While all Scripture is inspired by God, not everything recorded in Scripture is true. The book of Job is a good example. It is an inspired writing, yet it contains many statements made by Job’s counselors that were not according to the truth.
The book of Ecclesiastes falls into the same category as the book of Job. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon is writing after having been drawn away from the Lord through the combined influence of his unlimited power and wealth and his 700 pagan wives and 300 concubines. At the time of writing, he had returned to the Lord after living a life of wanton pleasure, having done everything under the sun and experienced firsthand the emptiness and vanity of that lifestyle.
Ecclesiastes means “preacher” and his objective is to make his readers see the vanity of living a life without God. He begins and closes his discourse describing the emptiness, futility and self-despair of one living “under the sun” without a heavenly perspective. The phrase “under the sun” is repeated 29 times and the word “vanity” also appears in 29 of its 31 occurrences throughout Scripture. He opens and closes his discourse with the saying: “Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2; 12:8). Then, in closing he gives his conclusion or alter call:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. 14 For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Eccl 12:13-14)
There are many sayings in his discourse that those who walk with God know are not true because he is speaking from man’s perspective, “under the sun,” and alienated from God. For example, he says that the dead know nothing and “they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love…” That may seem to be true from the perspective of a man “under the sun” who does not know God and His promises, but the author of Hebrews tells us: “God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love.” (Heb 6:10). We see throughout Scripture that the Lord remembers us and we will be rewarded for our labor of love. Salomon is simply voicing the vain reasoning of a man in defiance of God.
Also, he says: “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself?” (Eccl 7:16). Yet throughout Scripture we are exhorted to be holy even as He is holy, in all our conduct (1Peter 1:15; Matt 5:48, etc.).
One other example needs mentioning which shows how the Preacher depicts himself as one even questioning God’s promises of life after death. I quote from the New International Version since I believe that it more accurately expresses what Solomon wished to say:
“I also thought, ‘As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Eccl 3:18-21 NIV)
Here he depicts himself as a defiant pessimist, questioning the revelation concerning man, as revealed in Genesis. He begins by saying “I thought.” He reasoned that man was no different from an animal. Such reasoning flies in the face of God’s revelation of man as having been created in His own image. Then, observing that both the bodies of men and animals return to dust, he questions the belief concerning our conscious existence after death. He defiantly reasons: “All I see is dust. Who really knows that the spirits of men and animals continue after death as God’s people claim?” Far from teaching us what to believe concerning the afterlife, he is describing the empty reasoning of those who exclude God.
Therefore, the saying “the dead know nothing,” taken in context, is actually telling us what not to believe. It describes the vain reasoning of man “under the sun,” who ignores God’s revelation and only perceives with his natural senses that which is physical and temporal, and questions or denies the afterlife, just as the atheists and secular materialists do today.