Ecclesiastes 9:5 and “Soul Sleep”

One of the courses I took with Moody Bible Institute spent a good deal of time talking about misinterpretations of scripture caused by taking texts out of context. I could probably go on all night about that. I was a Jehovah’s Witness for nearly 30 years, and their use of scripture is often like a textbook case for taking the text out of its context.

One prime example that springs to mind is Ecclesiastes 9:5,6, which the Witnesses take out of context to teach their doctrines of “soul sleep” (they don’t call it that) and annihilation of the wicked. These verses read: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”

(Incidentally, I don’t mean to pick on just the Witnesses here; there are a number of groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, Christadelphians, offshoots of the Herbert W. Armstrong Churches of God, etc. who teach the same doctrine. I use the JW’s as an example because it is the most familiar to me.)

The Witnesses refer to the first part of the verse, which says “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” They insist that this scripture proves that the dead are unconscious, awaiting a future resurrection by God. However, even a brief consideration of the context quickly reveals that the text is speaking of appearances from a human point of view. No Witness would ever agree that one who dies will “have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten.” They would quickly be forced to agree that this part of the text is speaking from man’s viewpoint, not God’s. They do believe that faithful Witnesses will receive a resurrection and reward from God in the future. They insist that those who die continue to exist in God’s memory and that he will restore them to life in the “new world.”

For the same reason, the Witness would be forced to admit that it is not true in the absolute sense, but only as it appears to man, that “never again will they [the dead] have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” They firmly believe that the vast majority of mankind will be resurrected to earthly life again and given a chance to obey God (i.e., “qualify for” their salvation).

So the immediate context refutes the official position of Jehovah’s Witnesses on that verse. In a similar way, the context of the whole book also demonstrates at many points that the book is written from a human viewpoint. The writer is not revealing ultimate spiritual truths so much as he is describing how man sees things and describing the nature of life apart from God. From a human point of view, separated from God, it may well be true that “everything is meaningless,” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) but that is certainly not how God intended human life to be. Life is meaningless only apart from God – from the human, material point of view.

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After posting the above material on a blog in another venue, a Jehovah’s Witness wrote to me to ask, “how do you get around ‘the soul that is sinning will die’?” The following was my response:

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I guess I have to “get around” it by reading it in context and considering what the text is really talking about rather than extracting a few words from a single verse and building a doctrine around them or using them as a proof-text for what I already believe.

It’s no secret even in English that we use the word “soul” in different ways. We can at times refer to a soul as a whole person, as with the classic example of a ship going down with “all souls lost.” Or, a soul can mean the spiritual part of the person as opposed to the body, as it is more often used in common English. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that both usages also appear in the Bible. It appears that the text you are referring to is Ezekiel 18:1-4, which reads:

The word of the LORD came to me:What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD , you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son-both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.”

Now, what is the point of this passage? Is it trying to explain the meaning of the term “soul” from a theological perspective? Or is it talking about something completely different? When we read the verses in context, we find that there was a teaching among the Israelites of a sort of “inherited guilt” – that sons would be punished for the sins of their fathers. God, through Ezekiel, is making the point that such would not be the case – each person – each “soul” – would face the penalty for his own sins, not those of someone else.

An assumption you are making with regard to these verses is that the word “die” means an absence of consciousness. That isn’t necessarily the case. Adam was told that in the day he ate of the forbidden fruit, he would die. He didn’t lose consciousness on that day, but he was separated from God by his sin. Death in the Bible often refers to a separation of one sort or another, and one such usage is in reference to the separation of the soul from the body. For example, refer to Genesis 35:17-19:

When she was in severe labor the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for now you have another son.” It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).

Another example is 1 Kings 17:21-23:

And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” Then the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives!”

Even Jesus spoke of soul and body as two separate things at Matthew 10:28:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

At Philippians 1:21-24, Paul spoke of “€˜departing from the flesh”€™ and being with Christ:

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.

Notice that “€œdeparting”€ is contrasted with “€œremaining in the flesh”€ -€“ obviously Paul expected to be with Christ in a state that was not “€œin the flesh€.”

At 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, Paul also wrote:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.

And at Revelation 6:9, 10 we read about souls in heaven:

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony that they held, and they were crying with a great voice, saying, `Till when, O Master, the Holy and the True, dost Thou not judge and take vengeance of our blood from those dwelling upon the land?’

Now, it’€™s easy to understand the usage of “€œsoul”€ in Ezekiel 18:4 with reference to all these other verses. What I have to ask is how you “get around”€ all these plain statements that plainly show the soul to be distinct from the body?