Ecclesiastes 9

For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied Ecclesiastes 9. Its message is the usual Qoheleth spiel: work hard and enjoy life while you’re still alive to do so, for one day you’ll die, and you won’t be able to enjoy anything then. Qoheleth also appears to argue that, while wisdom is valuable because it can bring about good results, that’s not an absolute. A wise man can save a city through his wisdom, for example, but all it takes is one bad apple to botch everything up. Moreover, for Qoheleth, the world doesn’t run on absolutes. The wicked aren’t always punished, the righteous aren’t always rewarded, and the prize does not always go to the most talented individual. All we can do in response to the unfairness of life is to enjoy our work and whatever fruits we derive from that, as well as the wife of our youth. (Qoheleth was most likely written for a male audience.)

That’s my summary of Ecclesiastes 9. Now, I want to discuss the interpretation of two passages: Ecclesiastes 9:5 and vv 14-15:

1. In my reading, I was interested in interpretations of Ecclesiastes 9:5, in which Qoheleth says that the dead know nothing. My religious background (Armstrongism and Seventh-Day Adventism) cited that passage to defend the doctrine of “soul sleep,” which affirms that human beings are unconscious during their death, meaning that they don’t have a conscious soul that goes to heaven or hell when they die; rather, they are unconscious until the resurrection at the last day.

In the rabbinic document, Ecclesiastes Rabbah, the rabbis are troubled by Ecclesiastes’ apparent denial of an afterlife. They believed that the soul existed apart from the body after death, and that a resurrection would occur in the latter days. Ecclesiastes, however, appeared to dispute the notion that the dead knew anything in a state of consciousness, as well as the afterlife in general. Consequently, there were rabbis who tried to reconcile the Book of Ecclesiastes with their belief in an afterlife.

The rabbis in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:4 argue that the “living” in Ecclesiastes 9:5 refers to the righteous, whereas the “dead” in that verse means the wicked. A rabbi points out that a righteous person is alive even while he’s dead, using a similar argument to that of Jesus in Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, and Luke 20:38: God in Exodus 33:18 talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as if they are still alive. Conversely, a rabbi contends that a wicked person is dead even while he’s alive, for Ezekiel 18:32 says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the dead. Since the dead cannot die, being already dead, the rabbi concludes that “dead” in Ezekiel 18:32 means a living wicked person, and he applies that definition of “dead” to the “dead” in Ecclesiastes 9:5: for him, the passage is saying that the wicked know nothing and will receive no reward after death. (Actually, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:4 doesn’t explicitly make that point after it applies the “dead” in Ecclesiastes 9:4 to the wicked, but we do find that sort of interpretation in the targum; also, see my old post, Ecclesiastes 9:4-10 and the Afterlife.)

The Nelson Study Bible offers the following comments on Ecclesiastes 9:4-5:

“9:4 In this verse, Solomon uses a proverb that says a living lowly creature is preferable to a dead exalted creature. The point is not that death is the absolute end of all things; instead, the point is that while there is life, there is hope of doing something to the glory of God.

“9:5 This, again, is not a flat denial of any hope beyond the grave. The point of view is limited to what can be known strictly from a human point of view, ‘under the sun.’ they have no more reward: The Preacher’s point appears to be the same as that in the Gospel of John: One must work while it is still day (that is, while one is still alive), for the night will come when no one can work (John 9:4).”

I heard and read preachers who made a similar interpretive move to that of the Nelson Study Bible: Qoheleth is saying that we should repent and serve God while we’re still alive, for there will be no more opportunities for repentance once we die! At that point, God will judge us, and we’ll go to heaven or hell! And so repent and start serving God…today!

Regarding the “human point of view,” I thought that Calvary Chapel preacher Chuck Smith explained that rather well in his own attempt to dismiss the doctrine of “soul sleep.” After discussing the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in which the two characters go to a location after their deaths (Luke 16:19-31), Smith states the following:

“Now you have to either accept the word of Jesus or the word of Solomon in a backslidden state as he is trying to find the reason and purpose of life apart from God, life under the sun. It is wrong to take the book of Ecclesiastes for biblical doctrine. Better to turn to the words of Christ. He surely knew much better than did Solomon in his backslidden state.” See here.

The rabbis at least accepted Ecclesiastes as the word of God and tried to reconcile it with their view of what God had revealed (e.g., the afterlife). But Smith treats Ecclesiastes 9:5 as one of Solomon’s backslidden musings, meaning that Smith does not consider it to be an authoritative source for doctrine.

If you want to find a way to respect Qoheleth’s lack of belief in an afterlife—within the context of a Christian religion that affirms an afterlife—Tremper Logman III, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, may show you how to do so: Jesus redeemed us from the hopelessness and fear of death that perplexed Qoheleth, by himself experiencing meaninglessness and death as a human being, on our behalf.

2. I enjoyed Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:16-24, which features different applications of Ecclesiastes 9:14-15. In that passage of Qoheleth, a poor wise man saves a besieged city from an attacker, yet he gets no credit for doing so. The rabbis applied this story to Joseph saving Egypt from famine, to Judah saving Benjamin in the Joseph story, to Moses saving Israel from Egypt and the wrath of God, to the good inclination saving a human being from the death that results from following the evil inclination, and to other scenarios. Ecclesiastes Rabbah repeatedly makes the point that, though human beings may have forgotten these poor wise individuals, God has not forgotten them, for God recorded their names in Scripture. Christians have interpreted the poor wise man in light of Jesus. Overall, I like the idea that God remembers us and whatever good that we do, even if nobody else on the face of the earth cares.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Ecclesiastes 9

  1. ron abbass says:

    Hiya James! I’m a Sabbath and Torah keeper myself. I was surprised to see your post listed.

    Here’s your quote>>All we can do in response to the unfairness of life is to enjoy our work and whatever fruits we derive from that, as well as the wife of our youth.

    James, if you’ll notice the last sentence in the book of Ecceles, Solomon notes that when all is said and done, that is, the conclusion of the matter, is to “Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the WHOLE DUTY OF MAN.

    Sound advice. James, I’m sure you’d agree.
    Take care. Peace and blessings.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ron!


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