The Dead Know Nothing

It is written:

“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)

Throughout the Word of God, we are consistently taught that the spirit of a person remains conscious after death.

For example:

Genesis 49:33-And when Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.

Luke 23:43-And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

2 Corinthians 5:6-8-So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7  For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8  We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4-I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3  And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4  how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

Philippians 1:23-For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

Revelation 6:9-11-When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10  And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11  Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.

What, then, is the meaning of Solomon’s statement that the dead know nothing?

Does this passage teach that the dead are unconscious?

Not at all.

To understand the meaning of this statement, we need to realize that Solomon is writing Ecclesiastes from a very unique point of view. The Book of Ecclesiastes, is in essence, a great science experiment. Solomon is writing and testing the world to determine something: is there any lasting joy or purpose in life, apart from God?

To test this question, Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” 29 times in his Book. It is when we understand the meaning of this phrase that we will begin to understand what the phrase “the dead know nothing” actually means:

“Under the sun. You will find this important phrase twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes, and with it the phrase “under heaven” (1: 13; 2: 3; 3: 1). It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view. He applies his own wisdom and experience to the complex human situation and tries to make some sense out of life. Solomon wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (12: 10–11; 2 Tim. 3: 16), so what he wrote was what God wanted His people to have. But as we study, we must keep Solomon’s viewpoint in mind: he is examining life “under the sun.” In his Unfolding Message of the Bible, G. Campbell Morgan perfectly summarized Solomon’s outlook: “This man had been living through all these experiences under the sun, concerned with nothing above the sun … until there came a moment in which he had seen the whole of life. And there was something over the sun. It is only as a man takes account of that which is over the sun as well as that which is under the sun that things under the sun are seen in their true light” (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1961, p. 229).” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied (Ecclesiastes): Looking for the Answer to the Meaning of Life, 19 (Kindle Edition); Colorado Springs, CO; David C. Cook)

When Solomon looks at life apart from God and His Word, it seems that everything is simply vanity of vanities; everything is empty, without meaning, and devoid of lasting joy. It seems that the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor, injustice will continue without remedy….and it seems like when a person dies, they cease to exist.

But when we plug God and His Word back into the equation…all of that changes!

Do you see the idea?

When you are looking at life apart from God, it would appear that a person who dies simply ceases to exist. But when you put God and His Word back into the picture, the exact opposite is true!

So “the dead know nothing” only if you are looking at the dead apart from the Word of God. But when God’s Word is reintroduced, you see the exact opposite is true: the dead are conscious! Indeed, the spirit returns to God at the point of death (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

One scholar has explained:

“In this verse we read that “the dead know nothing.” There are two interpretive possibilities regarding what this verse means: Ecclesiastes presents two contrasting ways of looking at man’s plight in the world. One is the secular, humanistic, materialistic viewpoint that interprets all things from a limited earthly perspective. The other is a godly, spiritual perspective that interprets life and its problems from a God-honoring viewpoint. Many scholars believe Ecclesiastes 9: 1-10 reflects the earthly perspective that is unaided by divine revelation. That is, a strictly human perspective is that the dead are conscious of nothing at all. Since this is only a human perspective, the verse certainly does not teach God’s truth. This being so, the verse cannot be used to support the contention that there is no conscious existence after death.” (Ron Rhodes, Commonly Misunderstood Bible Verses: Clear Explanations For The Difficult Passages, 92-93 (Kindle Edition); Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)

The “dead know nothing” only when you look at life and death apart from what God’s Word teaches.

This passage also reminds us of the need to look at Scripture through the context in which it is written. If we fail to do this, it can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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