Solomon’s Reflections on Death
In spite of some claims to the contrary, the best evidence still supports
the conclusion that Solomon, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, authored
the book of Ecclesiastes (see 1:1,12). The basic proposition of this
thrilling — though difficult — Old Testament narrative is the affirmation that earthly goals, pursued as ends, lead only to disappointment. A person cannot find happiness in mere wisdom or wealth, power or pleasure. All such attempts are a striving after the wind — an exercise in futility. The prudent individual will, therefore, reverence God, and obey His commandments (12:12,13).
In chapter 9, the wise man has a brief discussion concerning death. In
this discussion, we will consider two of his statements, and note some truths that are highly significant for our own spiritual instruction. The text reads as follows:
“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is perished long ago; neither have they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun” (9:5,6 – ASV).
First, the writer acknowledges the universal truth that everyone is
destined to die. With the exception of the generation that witnesses Christ’s
return (1 Corinthians 15:51), death is an appointment that each person must keep (Hebrews 9:27). From both experience and scripture, the living know they shall die! Though some medical authorities arrogantly promise virtual immortality in the future, death is still a certainty. Were it not for the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15), humanity would be even more wicked than it now is. The knowledge of eventual death is, therefore, an incentive to godly living.
Second, Solomon stated that “the dead know not anything.” Religious
materialists have long misapplied this passage by asserting that the dead are
unconscious. Such a view makes this passage conflict with numerous other texts which clearly indicate that the dead are aware of the environment in which they exist (cf. Isaiah 14:9; Luke 16:19ff). The fact is, Solomon’s declaration merely affirms that the dead are not cognizant of events transpiring “under the sun” (9:6b), i.e., on earth. The dead are not privy to anything that is happening upon this planet. This truth contains implications that are devastating to some religious practices. For example:
- It suggests that worship of the dead is futile. Some religionists offer food and drink to their ancestors; this practice is very foolish (to say nothing of idolatrous), for deceased relatives can know nothing of such adoration.
- The Roman Catholic doctrine of praying to the saints is also condemned in light of this information.
- The “spiritualist” concept of attempting to communicate with the dead (and alleging responses) is plainly at variance with the import of this inspired verse.
- Some appear to take comfort in the belief that their deceased loved ones are observing their earthly activities. There is no biblical basis for this emotionally-based opinion.
Third, the dead have no more a reward for deeds which are done upon the
earth. While the deceased were alive, earthly rewards were theirs; now, such
are forever beyond their grasp. What does this suggest? It suggests that the
dead cannot borrow rewards from the living. This contradicts the vain hopes
attached to certain religious practices. For instance:
- Mormons teach “proxy baptism,” i.e., the notion that the living can be immersed, and have the attendant blessing transferred to the dead. This cannot be; neither righteousness nor iniquity are transferable (see Ezekiel 18:20).
- Roman Catholic theology alleges that earthly ritualism (e.g., masses) can be effective on behalf of the dead, thus securing their early release from purgatory. Again, this is not consistent with biblical truth. Once a person leaves this earth, opportunities for salvation are gone forever.
Fourth, Solomon avers that one’s ministry, as a general rule, will be
short-lived. While it is true that a few notables leave their historical
impressions for several generations, usually that is not the case. One can walk through the cemeteries of our great cities and observe row after row of headstones which mark the graves of those of whom the world now knows virtually nothing. The epitaph on many a tombstone, “Gone, but not forgotten,” unfortunately is not true. The point is, one needs to exert his influence now; he should use his talents, energy, money, personality, etc., to do good while he is living, for the day is coming when his earthly opportunities will be over.
Fifth, the wise king observes that the dead have no more a portion
forever in earthly activities. This statement has some very clear implications:
- It contradicts the mystical notion of reincarnation. With the influx of Eastern religious philosophies, more and more people in the United States — even those who give nodding tribute to Christianity — are enthralled with the possibility of “coming back” in some reincarnated form. The concept of reincarnation is at variance with Ecclesiastes 9:6, as well as a host of other passages (cf. Hebrews 9:27).
- More in vogue than reincarnation is the popular idea of premillennialism. This is the sectarian doctrine that alleges that Christ will someday return to this earth, raise the righteous dead, and then, with them, reign for 1,000 years from Jerusalem. There is absolutely no evidence that the righteous dead will ever live upon this earth again. The dead have no more a portion forever in earthly events.
- This declaration further excludes the theory, stylish with many denominationalists, that heaven will exist right here on earth. Surely it should be unnecessary to point out that the Scriptures clearly acknowledge the difference between heaven and earth (see Matthew 6:19-20). Heaven is not on earth.
Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 is rich in meaning. It implies several propositions that stand in vivid contrast to a number of erroneous religious ideas.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.