How did the author of Ecclesiastes understand life after death and man's relationship to eternity? What passages in the book address or allude to this topic?
Inspired by a reading of Ecclesiastes 3:19-22.
To answer this you need to first look at the question the author was seeking to answer, "What do you gain from all your hard work under the sun?" Ecclesiastes is first and foremost a theology of work and thus the majority of his reflections speak to that question first. When he says to put your best effort into whatever your hand finds to do it is on the basis that you will eventually die and will not have the opportunity to participate again in activity on this side of the grave. As he looks at various aspects of our life and work under the sun he does note, however, in various places that this is not the end of the matter. In regards to oppression and evil he says that God will one day judge both the righteous and the wicked for there will also be a time to evaluate every activity and a time to judge every deed (this is actually the end of the time poem that we often think just ends with a time for war). At the end of the book he affirms that our bodies will return to the dust but our spirit will return to God who gave it. Although his theme question is what do we gain on this earth for our heard work, he does not leave the afterlife completely out of the discussion.
One of the themes of Ecclesiastes is the ignorance of the 'Preacher' and his intended audience, especially when it comes to the future, eg in chapter 2:
and chapter 11:
And it seems clear that while the author understands that we have an eternal home (at least by chapter 12), the nature of that home is something he knows very little about:
He does, however, understand that God will judge all, and concludes God is to be feared regardless. In the context of the rest of the book, which refers overwhelmingly to a lack of justice in this life, he must be referring to justice after death:
Quotations are Copyright The Lockman Foundation
There does seem to be some confusion early on:
Later, though, we see that the author of Ecclesiastes believes in the place called "Sheol"
He describes this in 9:5-6:
Sheol is often translated as "the grave", but that translation is questionable.
Professors James Tabor believe that Sheol is a place of nothingness that occurs after death, where both the righteous and unrighteous go.