Tuesday, September 14, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part V

"The dead know nothing.”  We have probably all heard that phrase dozens of times and most of us believed that was the definitive statement on the state of the dead.  Most of us believed that phrase proved those who died were unconscious or non-existent.  But what does this partial quote from Ecclesiastes 9:5 really mean when examined in context?

Let’s start by talking about the concept of context.  In biblical hermeneutics, context can be seen as a series of ever expanding concentric circles.  So to really examine the context of a text we must first consider the context of the immediate passage it is found in, then consider the context of the book it is within, then consider the contextual implication of the type of literature it is, then consider its context within its testament, and lastly consider its context within the whole Bible.  Then and only then can we say that we have examined the context of a text.  So let’s trace the context of Ecclesiastes 9:5 through each ring of the contextual spiral.


Ecclesiastes 9:1-9 (NASB)
1 For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.
2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear.
3 This is an evil in all that is done
under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.
4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion.
5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.
6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done
under the sun.
7 Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.
8 Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head.
9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you
under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.
When we examine the book context I will deal more fully with the perspective that the author of Ecclesiastes is presenting and the inspired purpose of the book.  However, it can readily be seen from this passage that from the author’s perspective there is no difference in the fate of the righteous and the wicked.  Death is seen as an evil fate that separates us from the things of this world which the author views as being all there really is to hope for. The context of the passage is that the dead have no more part in anything “under the sun” (i.e. anything that is done in this world). 

The author presents this view because he is showing how futile life and death appear apart from a relationship with God.  However, there is a sense in which this is also true from a believer’s perspective as well. Christians do not believe that the dead are roaming the earth as spirits or poltergeist.  Christians do not believe in communicating with the dead or that the dead are communicating with us. Christians do not believe in ghosts or séances or any other form of spiritualism.  The dead are either with the Lord or in Sheol awaiting final judgment.  They are not here on earth “under the sun” and they are no longer directly involved with the activities of life here “under the sun”.  As we work through the next section, it will become even clearer why we need to consider the inspired purpose of the book before using this passage as a primary place to formulate doctrine on the consciousness or knowledge level of believers who have died in Christ.


Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 (HCSB)
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 “Absolute
futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
3 What does a man gain for all his efforts he labors at under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 (HCSB)
1 Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them.
2 So I admired the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive.
3 But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 6:1-5 (HCSB)
1 Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity:
2 God gives a man riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy.
3 A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
4 For he comes in
futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness.
5 Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.
Ecclesiastes 12:8 (HCSB)
8 “Absolute
futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.”
Whenever I hear someone quote Ecclesiastes 9:5 in a state of the dead discussion, I always think, “Have they ever read Ecclesiastes?” Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon (or in the voice of Solomon) during his apostasy.  The context of the entire book is the futility of life apart from God.  Depending on the translation you use the Hebrew word, hebel, might be translated as “futile”, “meaningless”, or “vanity”.  Whichever English word is used, they all convey the truth that whatever is done apart from God is worthless and fleeting.  This is a predominant theme of the book as demonstrated by the fact that hebel is used 33 times in Ecclesiastes. 
There are several passages that recommend that the reader live it up.  Eat, drink, and be merry because this is all there is.  Several passages suggest that there’s no difference between where the righteous and unrighteous dead end up.  This is certainly not the world view of one who is in relationship with God.  Christians don’t believe that life is meaningless and they certainly don’t believe that there is no difference between the righteous and the unrighteous. 
So is Ecclesiastes teaching falsehood?  Absolutely not!  It’s graphically demonstrating an absolute truth.  Life without God is futile, meaningless, and without any positive hope for the future.  Ecclesiastes is truly and accurately portraying the bleak outlook of someone apart from God.  It’s a depressing picture, but a true picture of what such a life looks like.  Without God we might as well live it up because this is all there is, life is meaningless.  Fortunately, Christians have more hope than this.  Christians have a hope that goes beyond this life.
So this raises the question, “Is this really the primary book from which we should formulate our doctrine on the state of the dead?”  Of course not!  This book is written to show how depressing and meaningless life apart from God is.  The view of death the author presents is just as morbid, depressing, and meaningless as the view of life that is presented.  It is a truthful and accurate view if you are separated from God, but it does not describe the view of those who are in Christ. 
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has ever read this book through even once would want to make a phrase from this book the foundation of their doctrine on the state of the dead.   That’s just not why this book was written.  It’s not that I don’t think the book has anything of value to say to us on death, I think it does especially as it turns the reader back towards God in the last chapter, but this isn’t the primary place where we want to formulate a key Christian doctrine on the state of the dead.  I also want to strongly affirm that I believe all scripture is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and useful for teaching and training.  However, we need to be careful to rightly use scripture for its intended purpose and make sure we are teaching what is intended.  Ecclesiastes is intended to teach us about the futility of life apart from God, not about the state of those who have died in Christ.

Ecclesiastes is part of what is known as “wisdom literature”.  Wisdom literature is not usually intended to be didactic doctrinal literature.  Wisdom literature teaches us certain truths, but it often uses highly poetic language forms and other literary devices to do so.  Because wisdom literature is designed to portray certain truths about life in very memorable ways, we need to be very careful in drawing our doctrine primarily from wisdom literature.  Rather we should use didactic passages to interpret the wisdom literature.
Let me give you a graphic example from the wisdom literature of Psalms.
Psalms 137:7-9 (NASB)
7 Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, "Raze it, raze it To its very foundation."
8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us.
9 How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.
Now if we weren’t careful in our hermeneutical methods, we might formulate a doctrine that says that those who kill the children of their enemies will be blessed by God!  Now we know that this can’t be because we have didactic passages that teach something very different.
Matthew 5:43-44 (NASB)
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.'
44 "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
So what do we make of Psalms 137?  The Psalms show the full range of human emotion.  They often show people crying out to God in their anguish and pain.  They show the rawness and pain of the human experience.  They encourage us to open our hearts to God, pour out our thoughts to Him, allow Him to comfort us, and ultimately allow Him to conform us to his way of thinking.  The Psalms are not primarily intended for the formulation of doctrine.  They tell us much about worship, the relationship between God and man, and the woes and joys of life.  We can learn much from the Psalms, but they must be interpreted based upon didactic teaching literature or we could easily formulate wrong doctrine. 
Wisdom literature also frequently advances truisms that are USUALLY true in most cases, but not ALWAYS true in every individual case. We could give many examples of these types of truisms in Proverbs, but one should suffice.
Proverbs 22:6 (NASB)
6 Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.
While this is usually true, we could probably all cite cases where things did not turn out this way.  We should not then formulate a doctrine claiming that any parent with a rebellious child must have failed to train them in the way they should go.  This is not always the case. Some parents have worked very hard to train their children only to have them go astray.  The proverbs are not meant to be absolutes in all cases, but general truisms about life.  This is often the nature of wisdom literature. 
Much more could be said on this, but hopefully these two examples make the point as to why we want to be very careful about using wisdom literature as our primary source for a doctrine. To formulate strong doctrine we start with didactic passages and then rightly interpret and apply the truths contained in wisdom literature in light of the teaching passages.

The entire Bible is inspired, the entire Bible is true, but Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.  The teachings of Jesus and his apostles made things plain that were mysteries in the Old Testament or that were only partially known.  This does not mean that the New Testament corrects the Old Testament, only that it provides more information that expands and clarifies many things that were not fully known in the Old Testament.  Some examples of things that were either mysteries or partial mysteries in the Old Testament, but were more fully revealed in the New Testament, would include; the nature of God’s Messiah, the Trinity, the Church, resurrection, and death.
In the Old Testament death is a rather vague shadowy concept not fully understood by the Jews or fully revealed by the Old Testament writers.  The New Testament gives us much more information about what we can expect and why we have such hope.  That’s why we need to allow the New Testament to shed light on the Old Testament.  If our doctrine is primarily formulated on Old Testament passages it is not nearly as strong as if we start with the New Testament and then interpret the Old Testament in the full light of scripture.  This is true of the topic at hand. We have a much clearer picture of death revealed in the New Testament.

The analogy of faith dictates that we may never interpret any passage in such a way that it contradicts something that is taught elsewhere in scripture.  The Bible is remarkably internally consistent.  We know that if we ever interpret anything in such a way that in contradicts something else in the Bible, it is not the Bible that is in error, but us.  So this means we CANNOT interpret Ecclesiastes 9:5 in such a way as to contradict other parts of the Bible.  We cannot use Ecclesiastes 9:5 to contradict Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1.  If we do so, it is we who are in error not the Bible.  The SDA interpretation of Ecclesiastes 9:5 puts it in conflict with other parts of the Bible. That means the SDA interpretation must, of necessity, be wrong.
In conclusion, it should be apparent that the understanding we grew up with of Ecclesiastes 9:5 is not supported by the context.  It’s not supported within the context of the passage, the book, the literature form, the testament, or the Bible as a whole.  Overall, this is a very weak “proof text” indeed.  It rather surprises me that some still use it.
At this point I am done with laying the foundation for our discussion.  In parts six and seven, I’ll tackle the specific questions that were originally asked about Moses and about Luke 16.

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