What does it mean in Ecclesiastes 9:5 that 'the dead know nothing'?
"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" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Some argue that this verse supports annihilationism, which contends those who are not saved through Jesus simply cease to exist. However, other passages from the Bible refute this thinking, such as Matthew 25:46: "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Here, Jesus says that there are two options for eternity for everyone, either eternal punishment or eternal life with Him. Both are eternal.
In Luke 16:19–31, Jesus tells of a rich man who goes to hell, or Hades. There, he has feelings, can communicate, think, reason, and remembers life on earth.
Even another passage in Ecclesiastes disputes annihilationism, Ecclesiastes 4:2–3, where Solomon delineates three different states of consciousness. He compares the suffering of those who are alive with those who are dead and with those who are not yet in existence.
So if this phrase that the dead know nothing does not lead to annihilationism, what does it mean? The theme of the book of Ecclesiastes is a view of life from an earthly perspective as referenced by the phrase "under the sun," repeated about 30 times. Solomon explores life on earth without God, concluding that all endeavors are "vanity" or emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:2 and others).
Therefore, in an earthly perspective without God, when someone dies they no longer exist—they have no knowledge or consciousness. Eventually even their identity disappears (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
This verse in question is chiastic, formulated in an ABBA style.
A: "For the living know that they will die,
B "but the dead know nothing,
B "and they have no more reward,
A "for the memory of them is forgotten."
The two A lines are parallel, as are the two B lines. The two A lines contemplate the emptiness of life without God, the B lines describe the finality of emptiness of death without God.
Of course, God does exist and life on earth makes sense only with His involvement. Solomon concludes that the life of consequence is one that honors God (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
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