Question: "What does it mean that the dead know nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:5)?"
Answer: Ecclesiastes 9:5 reads, “For the living know that they will die, / but the dead know nothing; / they have no further reward, / and even their name is forgotten.” This verse is sometimes used as a proof text for annihilationism, but that concept is not what is being communicated here. The “dead know nothing,” but in what way?
First, it is clear from other places in the Bible that this verse cannot mean the dead have absolutely no knowledge. For example, Matthew 25:46 speaks of everlasting consciousness: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Every person will spend eternity with God in heaven or apart from Him in hell. Each person will have feelings, thoughts, and abilities that exist in eternity.
In fact, Luke 16:19–31 offers an example of human capabilities in the afterlife. Lazarus is in paradise in eternal joy, while the rich man is in torment in hell (called “Hades”). The rich man has feelings, can talk, and has the ability to remember, think, and reason.
Second, Ecclesiastes 9:5 cannot contradict Ecclesiastes 4:2. There, Solomon states that the dead are “happier than the living.” However, when a person is dead, the opportunities to enjoy things on earth no longer exist.
The key to understanding the statement “the dead know nothing” is found in the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is written specifically from an earthly perspective. The key phrase, repeated throughout the book, is under the sun, used about thirty times. Solomon is commenting on an earth-bound life, “under the sun,” without God. His conclusion, also repeated throughout the book, is that everything from that perspective is “vanity” or emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
When a person dies “under the sun,” the earthly perspective, without God, is that it’s over. He is no longer under the sun. There is no more knowledge to give or be given, just a grave to mark his remains. Those who have died have “no further reward” in this life; they no longer have the ability to enjoy life like those who are living. Eventually, “even their name is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Ecclesiastes 9:5 displays a chiastic structure (ABBA format) like this:
A “For the living know that they will die,
B but the dead know nothing;
B they have no further reward,
A and even their name is forgotten.”
Lines 1 and 4 are parallel thoughts in the sense that the living know death is coming while those who remain after a person dies quickly forget those who have died. The second and third lines lay down associated ideas in parallel: the dead know nothing, and the dead can no longer enjoy or be rewarded for their activities in this life.
The saying “the dead know nothing” seems to be a negative sentiment, but it is not without a positive message. Solomon encourages his readers to live life to its fullest, knowing life is short. In the end, the fullest life is one that honors God and keeps His ways (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).