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Ecclesiastes 9:5 has been used to suggest that the dead have no memory or the suggest that the dead are forgotten by others, and a variety of interpretations in between. A sampling of translations shows some of the nuance that it applied to the last clause (in English) of the verse:

For the living know that they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor do they have a reward any longer, for their memory is forgotten. (NASB)

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. (KJV)

The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered.(NLT)

For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything; they have no further reward—and even the memory of them disappears (NET)

Whose memory? The critical word is זִכְרָֽם׃; by comparison to Deuteronomy 32:36 (same word is used) it appears that the focus here is that those who are living will forget those who have died.

But I have seen this verse used to suggest that the dead do not remember.

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In colloquial terms, is the verse saying:

A. After you die your memory of life will be lost

B. Your fame in life is unimportant because it will be forgotten by others after you are gone

C. Something else

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Question: Do the dead forget or will the dead be forgotten?


*I found several posts addressing the meaning of Ecclesiastes 9:5, but none (that remain open) addressing the question about memory cited here.

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  • Even the New World Translation says "neither do they [the dead] anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten".
    – Lesley
    Apr 3, 2021 at 9:06

6 Answers 6

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Answer: You are right: the dead will be forgotten. The people who still live no longer remember them; it's the people's memory. All translations you quoted have this sense, plus NIV ("even their name is forgotten") and ESV (same as KJV).

Two commentaries I consulted (by Tremper Longman and by Douglas Miller) confirm this. Both highlights two issues of vv 4-5 that are more difficult than the straightforward (i.e. not controversial) meaning of the memory clause:

  • Whether Qohelet is being serious or sarcastic in giving the advice
  • There seems to be no eternal reward for the righteous

Here's an excerpt from Douglas Miller's Explanatory Notes on Ecc 9:1-6 on the memory clause of v5 where he opted for irony (emphasis mine):

... The dead have lost their consciousness. They also have no reward, a term used of something accomplished through effort; there is no more effort (cf. 4:9). Qohelet also insists that the dead are no longer remembered (cf. 1:11; 2:16; 8:10; 9:15); he challenges an important aspect of the sage’s creed, that the wise and righteous remain through their memory (Prov 10:7; Ps 112:6), though the wicked are forgotten (Job 18:17; Ps 34:16).

In the midst of his lament on the limitations of human knowledge, the Teacher has consistently affirmed certain things that humans do know, such as the value of enjoyment (3:12), certain factors related to God (3:14), the reality of human weakness (6:10), self-awareness (7:22), that there is a judgment (3:17; 11:9), and that there is a reward for those who fear God (8:12). In addition, the book’s epilogue affirms that Qohelet has taught people knowledge (12:9). Here in verse 5 there appears to be deliberate irony: the living know that they will die (NRSV, T/NIV). Yet this is important knowledge: it enables humans to make the most of their time among the living, as the advice that follows indicates (9:7–10; cf. 7:2; 11:8).

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The sense of Eccl 9:5 is two-fold as explicitly stated in the verse:

For the living know that they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor do they have a reward any longer, for their memory is forgotten.

Note the two halves of this verse:

  1. The dead know nothing (are unconscious)
  2. Their memory/memorial is forgotten (by those still living)

The rest of the verse and the subsequent verse expands on this point:

V6: Their love, their hate, and their envy have already vanished, and they will never again have a share in all that is done under the sun.

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The dead forget OR the dead will be forgotten? Ecclesiastes 9:5

Correct: For their memory is forgotten.

This is true, how many people, musicians, actors, artists, politicians, prominent people of the years 1800 do you remember? possibly none, a generation goes and another comes on the scene but all are forgotten.

Solomon correctly assessed saying:

Ecclesiastes 9:4-5 (NASB)

4 For whoever is joined to all the living, there is hope; for better a live dog, than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor do they have a reward any longer, for their memory is forgotten.

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When a body dies the human spirit disapates over a 3 day period (earth time) and is no more but in those 3 days still experience "forever" so to speak. Jonah was in the belly of the fish forever the king James bible references and Jesus went to the belly of the earth for 3 days. A human spirit by itself has no consciousness which is connected to the faculty of the memory otherwise all of the living would remember things before you were ever born in the physical earth. Beat that one folks.

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Choice A is correct regarding the first half of the verse, but the second part means that the dead are forgotten (choice B).

The living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything.

The dead are clearly described as oblivious. If they know nothing, they have no memory. The second part of the verse can indeed mean that the dead are forgotten, but the first part already established that they also have no memory.

But again, this scripture describes the situation of the dead in the time it was written. It is speaking of those whose souls resided in Sheol not those who dwell in what the NT calls Paradise or Heaven. And according to other scriptures, there were a few exceptions even in Sheol. To quote the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The dead merely exist without knowledge or feeling (Job xiv. 13; Eccl. ix. 5). Silence reigns supreme; and oblivion is the lot of them that enter therein (Ps. lxxxviii. 13, xciv. 17; Eccl. ix. 10). Hence it is known also as "Dumah," the abode of silence (Ps. vi. 6, xxx. 10, xciv. 17, cxv. 17); and there God is not praised (ib. cxv. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 15). Still, on certain extraordinary occasions the dwellers in Sheol are credited with the gift of making known their feelings of rejoicing at the downfall of the enemy (Isa. xiv. 9, 10). Sleep is their usual lot (Jer. li. 39; Isa. xxvi. 14; Job xiv. 12). Sheol is a horrible, dreary, dark, disorderly land (Job x. 21, 22); yet it is the appointed house for all the living (ib. xxx. 23).

After the Babylonian exile, Jewish thinking about the afterlife evolved a more hopeful outlook. The Slavonic Book of Enoch 8-9, for example, describes a heavenly world of great beauty prepared for the righteous.

Those men took me from there, and they brought me up to the third heaven, and set me down. Then I looked downward, and I saw Paradise. And that place is inconceivably pleasant. And I saw the trees in full flower. And their fruits were ripe and pleasant-smelling, with every food in yield and giving off profusely a pleasant fragrance... And there are 300 angels, very bright, who look after Paradise; and with never-ceasing voice and pleasant singing they worship the LORD every day and hour. And I said, “How very pleasant is this place!” And those men said to me: “This place, Enoch, has been prepared for the righteous... even for them this place has been prepared as an eternal inheritance.”

The concept of described in the NT as Abraham's bosom also seems to have evolved in this period.

Conclusion: The author of Ecclesiastes understood the afterlife as a place in which the dead have no memory. But this scripture applied only to the period in which the author lived. Other OT scriptures spoke of exceptions and later Jewish writings understood differently. The New Testament goes even further on this path, in which the righteous indeed remember and live forever in a joyous community with God and each other.

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  • I think you have misunderstood the book of Ecclesiastes. -1. Apr 16 at 6:39
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Are the dead forgotten by God? What's the point of the resurrection of the dead if they are forgotten?

Please apply some critical thinking skills when you read. Each of the words that are written right where they are are not difficult to understand.

One principle to understanding the Scriptures is that they must be understood in their context. There is always an immediate context, often a remote context, and there is also always the entire context of all the Scriptures put together.

Jesus Christ admonished in John 5:38:

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

I don't see that Jesus at any time admonished his followers to consult theologians, philosophers, scientists, or Harry Potter. If the words are abundantly clear (as they are almost all places in decent translations), and there has been no forgery (deliberate or accidental), then just read what's written.

You should, of course, be careful that the version of the Scriptures you pick up is not just mostly crap.

The KJV: "for the memory of them is forgotten" may just as well be translated "for their memory is forgotten". The beginning of the verse states the dead "know not anything". If you have no memory, exactly what would you know? Conversely, if you know not anything, exactly what then would you remember?

If your own memory is forgotten, what could you possibly remember? In one sense, the statement is a tautology. In our common English we might say "his own memories are lost", "he has no memory", or perhaps "he remembers nothing".

Moses is dead but not forgotten by others, isn't he? Among men a man may be forgotten, but no one is forgotten by God, either while they live or while they are dead, awaiting a resurrection.

When a person dies, he enters the state of death. Whatever was is his memory is no longer remembered by him, right? It has perished. What does one keep in his memory? Among other things:

Ecclesiastes 9:6

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

The dead aren't living: they aren't working, producing, loving, hating, envying. They aren't remembering that they ever did so. Have you ever seen a dead person do any of these things?

Verse 4:

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

A dead person does not even have hope! He cannot hope. To have hope you've got to keep something in your memory to believe - the promise of a better future. Since a dead person has no memory, he isn't looking to resurrection from the dead in the future, for instance. He's dead and hoping is not something dead people can do.

Psalm 6:5

For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?

Well, dead people aren't giving God thanks, either. That is one of the great tragedies of death. However, God has a wonderful plan to fix it.

Adam started the whole death thing among mankind. Jesus Christ is God's plan to sort it all out, and fix the problem. The promise of Christ followed immediately upon the heels of Adam's fall (see Genesis 3:15). The details were progressively revealed. What a kind God!

Psalm 116:15

Precious [costly] in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

It was and is never God's intent or desire that people die. It costs God something each time someone dies. He doesn't like it any more than you do, I'm sure.

Ezekiel 19:32

For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.

God's arch enemy, the Devil, is the one holding the power of death.

Hebrews 2:14

Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;

Hebrews 2:15

And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

Bondage through fear of death is the common or natural state of so much of the world, it seems. It explains why people do some of the otherwise inexplicable things they do.

In Jesus' time, religious and political people were happily working in concert with God's arch enemy.

Matthew 27:1

When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death

Consider what I say. In the present day, in the US at least, putting someone to death isn't so easy. So God's enemies employ every practical tactic they can to do as much damage to God and God's people as possible. If they did it to Jesus, what would restrain them from doing as much to his followers?

Chief among their tactics is to destroy the credibility of God's word in people's minds, I'd say. Because by it, God's word, people are saved and delivered from death.

There is much in the Bible concerning death and the state of death because, besides gravity, it is perhaps the biggest problem for all of us ;) The promise of God, though, is that in the end:

Revelation 21:4

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Verse 5

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

Along with that...

Revelation 21:1

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the *first heaven and the *first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

... there are many more promises of God. What a wonderful, kind, and loving God!

2 Peter 3:13

Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.

* "first" should "former". The reference is to the second heaven and earth, the one in which we presently live.

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  • If it is true that "he is forgotten", then the memory of him is forgotten. He is no longer in anyone's memory. Live people can and do forget, obviously, many things. Since he (the dead) is in no one's memory, he (the dead) must also have forgotten himself. So you still end up with his own memory is forgotten. Just silly things result when stuff gets made up, but in this case the silliness resolves itself.
    – posit
    Oct 8, 2023 at 5:39
  • Recommend you read A Life Worth Living by Stuart Olyott. It's a v short explanation of Ecclesiastes. -1. Apr 16 at 6:44

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