What Does Ecclesiastes Mean?

Dear Catholic Exchange,

I have been in communication with non-Catholics regarding religious matters, and, as is habitual for Protestants to do, they have pointed out a Bible verse to explain a belief that they held. For the majority of the objections they have, I have been able to find answers that I feel are conclusive evidence for the beliefs of the Catholic Church to be correct. However, there is still one passage that I have not been able to find articles that explain what the bible verse is actually trying to state. Some articles, like many Protestants, do jump around to other verses of the Bible to show the scriptural support of the Catholic idea on this issue, but I have yet to find an article that explains why the verses being analyzed are being incorrectly interpreted by these Protestants, and how these verses are supposed to be understood. The hesitancy of the Catholic Church in having an official interpretation of Bible verses does not exactly help my research either. I was wondering if one of you could help me with my predicament.

The verses in question are Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6 and 10. The entire Book of Ecclesiastes to me is difficult to understand, since sometimes it appears that individual verses contradict each other. The understanding of those Bible verses for my friends is that they show that the dead are in a state of sleep, they do not interact with the rest of the world, and they are simply awaiting the second coming before they can go to Heaven for ever or suffer punishment until their soul is consumed and dies again.

I realize that the verses that they point, if we take them to mean that the dead are asleep, feel out of place from the rest of the topic being discussed in chapter 9, but I cannot think of what else they are indicating. I have read that the writer was writing before Jesus' time so did not have the full understanding of what happens after death, but it is difficult for me to tell the Protestants that the writer of Ecclesiastes was simply wrong in his understanding of death, since they view the Scriptures as being all 100% true. Thank you very much for your time into this matter. I have been searching for a satisfactory and clear answer for quite some time, and feel frustrated with the lack of solid arguments regarding this specific verse.

Sincerely,

Alma

Dear Alma,

Peace in Christ!

God speaks in Scripture to reveal Himself and His plan of salvation. He writes using human authors and their abilities as writers who write precisely what God inspires them to write. This is why in the Catholic Church biblical interpretation begins with discovering what the human writer wished to express in his words (Catechism 110). This is because whatever the human writer wanted to say, we can be sure that God Himself is speaking to us.

The writer of Ecclesiastes was not attempting to answer our questions about the afterlife. Too put it perhaps too simply, the author was giving wisdom about how to live life well on earth ("under the sun"). The following commentary regards verses 8:16-9:10:

"The righteous and the wise and their works are in God's hands for him to deal with at his sole discretion. But no one knows whether God loves him or hates him, because happiness and adversity, coming as they do to the righteous and the wicked alike, are no indication of how a man stands with God. Everything (whether adversity or prosperity) in front of man (i.e. which man will experience) is vanity. That things happen alike to both good and bad has the effect of favoring the development of evil and misconduct in men while they live, and afterwards they go to Sheol, where they will no more participate in the activities that make up life on earth. Man is here and now to take enjoyment in and by his labor and to manifest exteriorly his interior contentment, for such is God's will. Moreover he is to engage in physical and mental activities while life lasts, for the activities of earth are absent from the abode of the dead."

(A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Dom Bernard Orchard et al, New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953, p. 494)

It is the opinion of at least this commentary that the human writer of Ecclesiastes is not attempting to answer our questions about the afterlife.  Sound interpretation of the Bible seeks above all to draw the true meaning out of the text (exegesis) and never to funnel meaning into it (eisegesis). The literary context of the ancient inspired author and the historical circumstances in which he wrote must be respected if his words are to be correctly understood (see Catechism 110).

For more information on interpretation of Scripture, please see our Faith Fact Making Sense out of Scripture: The Four Best Kept Secrets in Biblical Studies Today.

United in the Faith,

Eric Stoutz
Director of Catholic Responses
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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  • Guest

    I've understood Ecclesiastes as a picture of how badly we need Jesus's sacrifice. How little we truly would have (even the best and/or most successful) and how futile it would be without the Grace of God, the undeserved but freely given gift of God's Life.

    Your friends' reading of Ecclesiastes is not necessarily incorrect. Remember that Jesus had yet to descend to the Hell (Sheol) where the faithful souls resided "in Abraham's bosom" in order to bring them into God's presence. (see CCC 631-637). So the faithful departed can indeed be described as waiting during the time that Ecclesiastes was written.

    However we believe that when Jesus died he descended to Hell (Hades, Sheol) where the faithful departed were waiting and then he "led a host of captives'" (Eph 4:8) to the promised Paradise (as promised to the Good Thief).

     

    References:

    The Apostle's Creed "He Descended into Hell. On the Third Day He Rose Again"

    Jesus's promise to the Good Thief "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23:43

    Eph 4:8-10

    [8] Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men."
    [9] (In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?
    [10] He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

     

  • Jr Leon

    I read this chapter many times now. What I still get from this chapter is this. Live your life to its fullest. Because once you are gone from this world you can no longer take part in it.
    I would like to know where in the Bible it tells me that my soul, if it goes to heaven will have or can have an active role still on earth? Or most importantly why the Catholic Church received the authority to name Saints who we can pray to for help.
    Also if anyone replies. I would like the Bible verse for an answer. Since the Bible is the sole authority of how my spirit should be managed.

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