By Clarence W. Fell
If you have tried to discuss the state of the dead with a Jehovah’s Witness then no doubt you have had to deal with Ecclesiastes 9:5-10. They smoothly focus on a couple of phrases from the passage and ignore the rest. The phrases that they focus on – out of context – would seem to support their position that the dead are currently in a state of absolute unconsciousness. However, when considered in context the passage says nothing supportive of the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine.
The key to understanding this passage is to keep in mind that it looks at death from the perspective of men still living on earth. Its purpose is to encourage man to live and enjoy life now, not some elusive tomorrow (vv. 7-9). This passage does not attempt to explain the spiritual state of the dead. Let’s look at Ecclesiastes 9:5-10 in context.
“But the dead know nothing” (v. 5). Let’s first consider a parallel passage to illustrate the importance of context. I Samuel 21:39, “the lad knew not anything.” This verse is from a passage in which Jonathan gives David a secret signal concerning Saul. To take the phrase out of context and say that the lad was in a state of total unconsciousness would be the ultimate display of ignorance. We realize immediately that the statement about the lad is limited by the context. Likewise, the statement is Ecclesiastes 9 is limited by the context. If “the dead know nothing” is an unconditional absolute truth, then why not also the other two thoughts presented in the same sentence? Let’s consider the context of Ecclesiastes 9:5 and see what Solomon was really trying to teach us.
“The dead . . . have no more reward” (v. 5). Not even the J.W.’s would say that this is an absolutely true, unconditional statement. Even in their twisted system the faithful dead have a future reward. Clearly Solomon was not looking into the spiritual realm, but rather into physical life on earth in which the dead no longer have a part. Their opportunity to acquire and enjoy material rewards is past.
“The dead . . . the memory of them is forgotten” (v. 5). Again, no one would claim that this is an absolutely true, unconditional statement. Though the majority of the dead are eventually forgotten, there are some famous people who will never be forgotten by the living, and certainly God does not forget anyone. Solomon was not looking at the spiritual state of the dead, but rather at what happens to the majority of mankind: they are forgotten by the living. This passage views death from the perspective of the living.
“The dead . . . nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (v. 6). This phrase is one that the J.W.’s will most certainly reject if interpreted as an unconditional, absolute truth. In their system of belief all the faithful (except the 144,000 who actually get to go to heaven) will enjoy eternity of earth under the sun. They absolutely .must accept this part of the passage as a limited statement or deny a major portion of their own teachings. This should help make clear to the J.W.’s that Solomon was not trying to explain the spiritual state of the dead. He is simply saying that after death man has nothing more to do with this physical realm. Solomon is encouraging us to live life now and do the things we desire now because after death it is too late. Now is the time to enjoy life (vv. 7-10).
“There is no work, or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (v. 10). Various people have looked into graves at one time or another and can testify to the truth of this statement. There is nothing in the grave but the inactive human remains. From the perspective of the living, the grave is the end of all activity. If God had not told us about life beyond the grave then we would have been powerless to learn anything about the spiritual realm. We would have looked into the grave and, with our limited five senses, concluded that death is the absolute end because we are powerless to see the spiritual realm.
In this passage Solomon is not explaining the spiritual state of the dead. If he was we must deny future reward because he said the dead “have no more reward.” Who would believe such a thing? Solomon is saying that now is the time to live and enjoy life. Now is the time to work, devise, think, act wisely and enjoy a successful life because after death the opportunities to acquire success are gone.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 12, p. 357
June 18, 1992