A reader writes:
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, one passage says that the "dead know nothing" or the "dead know nothing of the living". How is this reconciled with intercessory prayer to the saints and to apcryphal passages stating the contrary?
There are a number of possibilities here, but let me try to articulate the central problem with opposing something Ecclesiastes says with things elsewhere shown in Scripture: Ecclesiastes is not your typical book of Scripture. It is written in a very distinct genre that is unlike anything else in the Bible. While it may broadly be classed as a piece of wisdom literature, the wisdom in question is of a wholly remarkable sort.
Rather than affirming the commonsense wisdom of ancient Israel (like the book of Proverbs) it calls this wisdom into question and subjects it to cross-examination. The book assumes a what might be termed a perspective of theistic existentialism in which the weight of the human condition is given full voice and allowed to express all the doubt and questioning that a soul in anguish and despair at the apparent absurdity in the world is wont to express.
The questioning process that the book subjects conventional religious piety to is so thorough that many in the ancient world were scandalized by the book and questioned whether it should even be included in Scripture.
It's not hard to understand why when you look at a book and its opening line is "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity" or, in a more modern idiom, ""Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (Eccles. 1:2).
After an opening line like that, you know that you're in for a wild ride. This is not going to be a book that easily affirms a simple and pious worldview that concludes that meaning in life is easy to find.
Instead, the book's author assumes a perspective of natural philosophy. Rather than turning to the declarations of the prophets to find meaning and the revelation of God's will, the author tries to apply human reason to the workings of the world to see what it can determine. He accepts the existence of God, but his methodology prevents him from simply trusting in the words of the prophets and concluding that his task is done.
In a way, the author of Ecclesiastes is like the philosopher Descartes. Descartes was a Christian (and a Catholic) who knew that at the end of his meditations he would affirm the Christian worldview, but he refused to take any shortcuts in arriving at that affirmation. In the same way the author of Ecclesiastes ends up affirming "Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Eccles. 12:13-14), but only after travelling a torturous path of philosophical reasonings.
Thus one cannot read Ecclesiastes as if it is a theological treatise of St. Paul. It is more like the book of Job, where different viewpoints are allowed to exist in dialogue and tension with each other. As Eccleiastes progresses, the author tries out various different viewpoints without fully endorsing any of them. One thus cannot lift a specific verse out of Eccleaistes and treat it like one of St. Paul's theological deliverances. The book is far too paradoxical and tentative for that.
A special characteristic of the book is that it tends to assume a non-revelatory methodology. In other words, it tends not to rely on divine revelation to answer the questions it poses. It instead tries to use human reason. As a result, it finds some questions unanswerable from a human frame of reference. Thus early in the book we read:
Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth? (Eccles. 3:21).
The implied answer is: No one knows--at least no one assuming the non-revelatory perspective the author is assuming.
The author thus confesses that from the perspective of human reason, one can't say that the fate of man is any different from the fate of animals. One can't even say that that fate is beyond the fact that both die (3:19).
It is this non-revelatory perspective that informs the book's later statements that:
1: But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate man does not know. Everything before them is vanity,
2: since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good man, so is the sinner; and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.
3: This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
4: But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
5: For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost.
6: Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun.
7: Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.
8: Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head.
9: Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
10: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
11: Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all [Ecclesiastes 9].
The perspective of this passage (particularly in vv. 7-10) comes close to "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die"--a viewpoint expressly repudiated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32. St. Paul, though, was repudiating a more hardened version of this viewpoint than what the author of Ecclesiastes is advocating.
The author is articulating a view based on the human perspective that death seems to end everything, and consequently that life is vain and meaningless. We know that he doesn't ultimately conclude that if we read through to the end of the book, but that is the viewpoint he is trying out at the moment.
And it is a view with some elements of truth in it: One may as well live life with gusto, or carpe diem, because death is coming and one will no longer be able to act (on earth). (This being a viewpoint that St. Paul could endorse, it being quite close to something Jesus said; see John 9:4).
Because the author is exploring matters from a human perspective, according to which death seems to end everything and makes life meaningless, one cannot seize upon statements like Ecclesiastes 9:5 ("the dead know nothing") or 9:10 ("there is no . . . thought or knowledge or wisdom in sh'ol") and make them doctrinal pronouncements.
They are what a person assuming a non-revelatory human perspective could conclude. If you look at a dead person, he doesn't seem to know anything anymore or think anything or possess any wisdom. His body is inert. It is as if everything ended for him. Confined to a purely human perspective, that is what you might conclude. You might then conclude that his life was meaningless as it all came to an end.
But you can't glom onto the "no knowledge" statements without recognizing the context in which they occur. If you want to make them absolutes then you're going to have to make absolute also the idea that death ends everything and life is meaningless.
That, of course, you shouldn't conclude. The author of Ecclesiastes doesn't (see the last two verses of the book), and the other authors of Scripture certainly don't.
In fact, other books of the Old and the New Testament both indicate that the dead do know things (see Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man and Revelation's depictions of the saints in heaven knowing things on earth) and that they do pray for us (see 2 Macc. 15:14; Rev. 5:8).
The passages in Ecclesiastes (and a few other places) that speak of the dead as if they have no consciousness thus must be understood as what they are: Passages written from a this-worldly perspective addressing a point that further divine revelation has clarified.
They do not constitute disproof of what is said elsewhere in Scripture.