4

In my opinion, one of the passages that most clearly support the belief that the dead are unconscious is Psalm 146:3-4:

3 Trust not in princes -- in a son of man, For he hath no deliverance. 4 His spirit goeth forth, he returneth to his earth, In that day have his thoughts perished. [YLT]

3 Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. 4 His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. [KJV]

This is one of several passages that are commonly cited by adherents of the doctrine of Christian Mortalism (also more colloquially known as the doctrine of "Soul Sleep"). Other similar passages (courtesy of this answer) are Genesis 3:19, Ecclesiastes 9:5, Ecclesiastes 9:10, Ecclesiastes 12:7, Psalm 6:5, Psalm 88:10-12, Psalm 115:17 and Isaiah 38:18-19.

The same aforementioned answer concludes:

Do these scriptures make it seem as though the dead are capable of speaking, thinking, or being aware? Death is said to be silent and as the darkness. It's called the land of forgetfulness. The dead cannot thank, cannot praise, cannot hope; all feats that require mental faculties to be accomplished. In Sheol, there is absolutely no declaration of God, or of His faithfulness/graciousness, or of anything He performs. When we die, our spirits depart to God who gave it, and we return to the dust from which we were taken; consequently, our thoughts perish altogether. And most of all, the dead know naught; they have no knowledge, wisdom, thinking, or work in the place where they are.

Question: Does Psalm 146:3-4 affirm that the dead are unconscious? To what extent is a different interpretation warranted?


Related questions:

Does Ecclesiastes 9:10 affirm that the dead are unconscious?

Are the souls of Revelation 6:9-11 awake and, yet, still awaiting the resurrection?

Does "asleep" in 1 Corinthians 15 mean that the dead are unconscious prior to the resurrection?

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

Sleeping in the grave until Christ's second coming?

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  • I think Ecclesiastes 9:10 does a better job at that than Psalm 146:3-4.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 11, 2022 at 16:54
  • @Rajesh - question asked.
    – user38524
    Jan 11, 2022 at 17:01

4 Answers 4

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I propose that post-mortal consciousness does not enter the consciousness of this verse--the author does not intend to give a discourse on the state of the soul in the afterlife. The context of Psalm 146 is a praise of the Lord and a contrast between His everlasting power and the temporary power of earthly rulers.

The Best Laid Plans...

As noted in other posts, the NIV and numerous other translations indicate that the person's "plans" will perish.

This is not to take a dogmatic position on whether "plans" or "thoughts" is a better rendering, but to draw attention to the overlap in meaning between these viable translations. The text isn't a discussion about the process of firing neurons, but rather it has in mind (see what I did there?) the intentions a person has--what will they do if not prevented by death from doing so?

If this were a Psalm about Sheol, further inquiry about the implications for the afterlife may be warranted, but this isn't a Psalm about Sheol.

I propose a plausible (and simpler) meaning is this: whatever plans you make, once you're dead you will have no power to carry them out (contrasted with the Lord, who is under no such limitations).

Dorotheus of Gaza offered the following explanation:

As the Fathers tell us, the souls of the dead remember everything that happened here - thoughts, words, desires - and nothing can be forgotten. But, as it says in the Psalm, In that day all their thoughts shall be brought to nothing. The thoughts he speaks of are those of the world, about houses and possessions, parents and children, and business transactions. All these things are destroyed immediately when the soul passes out of the body, none of this is remembered or considered. But what he did against virtue or against his evil passions, he remembers, and nothing of this is lost. (see here p. 285)

I suggest that the cognitive processes (or lack thereof) of the dead are not the focus here at all.

Using our time well

This also serves as a poignant reminder of the need to make good on the time we have and not to procrastinate. Jesus offered a comparable reminder in John 9:4:

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

Paul appears to sense a similar urgency in his appeal "now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2)

Those engaged in agrarian work would have understood well the metaphor--the hours in which they could earn a living were dictated by the sun, and once it was gone from the sky, there was nothing they could do about it. This is a call to action, to act in the certainty of the present, not to build one's foundation somewhere in the nebulous uncertainty of the future.

There's a humorous (and non-historical) story of a man who lived in the days of Noah. He had drifted away from God and knew he needed to go talk with Noah, sort some things out, and get his life right with God. On the day he finally got up the courage to go talk to Noah, it was pouring rain. So he decided he would go talk to Noah after it stopped raining....

Conclusion

The weakness of man is contrasted with the power of God. We can rely on God's promises--He will always fulfil them; He cannot be prevented from doing so (see also verses 6 & 10 of the same Psalm).

Man, on the other hand, may have the absolute best of intentions, but we can never put the same degree of trust in man--if a man dies on day "n", it will be entirely irrelevant what plans he had made for day n+1.


I didn't delve too far into the soul-sleep debate in this post, because I don't believe that is the focus of this verse. My thoughts on soul-sleep are presented here.

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  • @Rajesh thanks for considering my post! I'll have to disagree on this one though--the Bible frequently discusses death without discussing the afterlife. 1 Samuel 4, for example, is particularly morbid and thousands of people die, but it doesn't discuss the human state in the afterlife. Jan 11, 2022 at 18:30
  • @Rajesh - I can see why, on your view, your questions follow by implication. I do not conclude that the afterlife is the focus of this Psalm -- as a result, we come to different conclusions. Jan 11, 2022 at 19:21
  • @Rajesh I did read your comments - on this and the related post. I propose that it would be more effective to amend existing posts to cover points of disagreement than to engage in an extended debate in the comments. Jan 11, 2022 at 19:33
  • Ok, see how I presented my inductive argument. I edited my answer. Tell me what you think of it. Have a great day! :D
    – Rajesh
    Jan 11, 2022 at 20:23
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The answer to this question about Ps 146:4 depends on the meaning of the hapex legomenon עֶשְׁתֹּנָה (eshtonah). We have the following lexicon results:

Strongs:

thought. From ashath; thinking -- thought. see HEBREW ashath

[Strongs for ashath: shine, think. A primitive root; probably to be sleek, i.e. Glossy; hence (through the idea of polishing) to excogitate (as if forming in the mind) -- shine, think.]

Brown-Driver-Briggs

[עֶשְׁתֹּנָה] noun feminine id. (Aramaic: ᵑ6 עֶשְׁתּוֺנִין; construct עשׁתוני Ecclus 3:24); **< [עֶשְׁתּוֺן] Margolis (privately). — plural suffix אָֽבְדוּ עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָיו Psalm 146:4.

Note that BDB does not even give a lexical meaning for this noun! However, the root of the noun is עָשַׁת (ashath) for which the BDB entry is given below.

I. [עָשַׁת] verb smooth or shiny (?), si vera lectio (compare עֶשֶׁת); — only Qal Perfect3plural שָֽׁמְנוּ עָֽשְׁתוּ Jeremiah 5:28 (figurative) they have grown fat, they are smooth (or shine, from fat); doubtful word, Thes conjecture עָֽשְׁרוּ have grown rich (compare ᵐ5 ᵑ6 ᵑ7), so Gie (but וַיַּעֲשִׁירוּ precedes, Jeremiah 5:27).

II. [עָשַׁת] verb Hithpa`el think (Aramaism: Biblical Aramaic Participleעֲשִׁית, ᵑ7 אִתְעַשַּׁת); —

Hithpa`el Imperfect3masculine singular לָנוּ ׳יִתְעַשֵּׁת א Jonah 1:6 perhaps God will give a thought to us (compare חשׁב Psalm 40:18).

Complete Word Study Dictionary of the OT, Baker and Carpenter

6250 עֶשְׁתֹּנָה eshtonah a feminine noun indicating a though, a plan. It refers to the ideas imaginations, desires produced by a person while alive. (Ps 146:4)

The verbal root os given below.

6245. עָשַׁת ashath A verb meaning to shine, to excel. The word means to become slick in actions in excelling at something (Jer 5:28)

II A verb meaning to think about, to be concerned about. It means to care for someone or something, especially regarding God in response to prayer. (Jonah 1:6)

Thus, the idea of "Thought" is clear.

The Cambridge commentary on Ps 146:4 is interesting:

  1. Cp. Psalm 104:29; Isaiah 2:22.

to his earth] The ‘ground’ (ădâmâh) from which he was taken and ‘of which his name (âdâm = ‘man’) reminds him.

his thoughts] Or, purposes. The word is common in Aramaic, but occurs here only in the Heb. of the O.T.

The author of 1 Macc, appears to have had both this passage and Psalm 104:29 in his mind when he wrote (1Ma 2:63), “To-day he will be exalted, and to-morrow he will not be found, because he is returned to his dust, and his thought is perished.”

I do not believe that it is necessary to completely choose between the idea of "thoughts" vs "plans" because, as the meaning of the word makes plain, both perish at death. Thus, the sense of the verse appears two-fold:

  • when a person dies, all their arrogance and plans for greatness come to an end. This is a "leveling statement" about the effect of death as the context of Ps 146:4 makes plain. From V3 we are reminded that even princes are mortal and die and cannot save.
  • Even a persons thoughts cease; thus even a great prince (V3) cannot save because such a person has no will or capacity to think after death.

The lexical support for "thoughts" appears stronger than for "plans" without excluding the latter at all.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 13, 2022 at 23:51
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Psalm 146:4 is usually translated in one of two ways.

(1) "When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish." (NIV, NLT, ESV, BSB, NASB, CSB, HCSB, CEV, Good News Translation, ISV, NET Bible)

(2) "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." (ASV, KJV, YLT, WEB, NHEB, LSV, JPS, ERV, DRB, BST, NASB 1977 and 1995)

So which is correct? They are two very different translations of the same word[עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָֽיו] that imply entirely different things... or do they?

A plan is defined as "an intention or decision about what one is going to do." In order to intend to make decisions in the first place, you need a mind in which to produce said intentions; you can't conjure up a plan without a conscious mind to do so. Rocks don't plan; neither do houses, or rivers, or trees(or even most animals. Some can, but nowhere near on par with the ability of human beings to do so). Why? Because they don't have a conscious mind. If the plans perished, it's because the conscious mind that created the plans in the first place perished; if the conscious mind perishes, subsequently so do the thoughts.

But either way, it's all the same to me. Whether plans or thoughts, both are technically correct, though "thoughts" is a much better translation. Why? Well, because "plans" is implied. Your plans perish because your thoughts perish, not the other way around. They are causally related. Though your plans perish, it is not certain that your thoughts perish, as plans and thoughts are not synonymous. If your thoughts perish, however, then it is certain that your plans perish, because plans themselves are thoughts. So, "thoughts" is a better translation for עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָֽיו than "plans" is. In the event that the thoughts are destroyed, so too would the plans, and thus they are causally linked; there is no need for it to be translated as "plans", as thoughts and plans are not mutually exclusive, and plans are a subset of the set of all thoughts, thus it is much more practical to translate עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָֽיו as thoughts. (And, as shown in Dottard's insightful answer, the translation of "thoughts" is much better supported than the translation of "plans")

Now, while Psalm 146:4 doesn't explicitly note the state of the dead, as the state of the dead is not the purpose/focus of the Psalm, it implicitly reveals details about the state of the dead. How so?

If, at the moment of death, your thoughts perish(as per the Psalm), what does that imply about the afterlife? Do you somehow regain your thoughts later on? What is there to suggest that your thoughts(and subsequently your consciousness) don't remain in a perished state after they perish at the moment of death?

Here is my inductive argument:

P1: The thoughts of humans perish at the moment of death(confirmed by Psalm 146:4).

P2: There is nothing to suggest that humans regain thoughts at any later moment in their state of death.

P3: A conscious mind necessarily constructs thoughts about itself and its surroundings.

C1: Those in a state of death do not have thoughts(this follows inductively from premises 1 and 2)

C2: Those in a state of death do not have a conscious mind, i.e. they are unconscious(this follows deductively from premise 3 and conclusion 1)

So, to answer your question. Yes, Psalm 146:4 does affirm that those in a state of death do not possess a conscious mind, i.e. that they are in an unconscious state.

Hope this helps. Have a good day! :)

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  • Here is my inductive argument - did you mean to say deductive?
    – user38524
    Jan 11, 2022 at 21:06
  • No, I mean inductive. The conclusions do not necessarily follow from the premises. Perhaps those in a state of death do actually regain thoughts, but God just doesn't want us to know that so He left it out. What do you think of my answer though? I'd love any and all feedback! :)
    – Rajesh
    Jan 11, 2022 at 21:09
-2

In Psalm 146:3-4 is said that thoughts of the strong of this world, the princes will perish with their death, but what kind of thoughts? Of course the earthly and this-worldly, or even sinful and unrighteous thoughts and plannings. But does the Psalm say that one should not put trust in prophets who confer the word of God, and who think about not earthly but heavenly things? Will those prophets and their divinely inspired thoughts and plannings also perish? How extremely wrong is to think so! Or some would say that the in-Spir(it)-ation of those prophets will remain forever, while their own inspired thoughts will perish (for Holy Spirit does not hypnotize a prophet as to use his unconscious body for expressing Himself, but collaborates with the created person and created thoughts of the prophet, so prophet's created thinking participates in Holy Spirit's uncreated Thinking), but again, this does not really make sense and is never said in Bible! Yes, earthly thoughts will perish, just like, if a pro-sportsman thinks about winning Olympics and then this sport, say, weightlifting, is taken out of the list of the Olympic sports, then all his dreams and thoughts about winning the Olympics will perish. Similarly, when Alexander the Great's soul will depart his body, all his dreams and thoughts about conquering the world will perish and his soul tormented for not accustoming himself thinking about worthier things.

"Dust goes to earth and spirit departs to God" (Eccl. 12:7), - thus even the most pessimistic of the Biblical books affirms that human spirit departs to God who gave it. What is this spirit? Individual soul of a man, or Holy Spirit? Of course individual spirit, which can be identified with and termed as "soul" also (not its vegetative part, that accounts for, say digestion or growth of beard), just like in Psalm 31:5 which verse is repeated by the Lord, and also Stephen saying to the Lord "into your hands I commend my spirit" (Acts 7:59) - all these show that it is individual spirit/soul of a departed person that goes to God, and if it goes or returns to God, then it is not annulled to be sure, analytically even, to use a philosophical jargon.

Now, this departed soul/spirit goes in what condition? The same condition all souls/spirits? Surely wrong to think so, for our sins can damage our soul (Mark 8:36), and we shall not be afraid of death of body, but what happens after this physical/biological death: that what remains after the physical/biological death (and that is not body to be sure, but spirit/soul, the core of our personality) may not be cast into fire of hell (Matthew 10:28). Now, unless soul/spirit, or in short, the passed away person, is alive and conscious it is impossible for this person to be in hell, for hell implies torment and for 0 consciousness there is 0 torment also. Now, the Lord definitely did not warn that we should be afraid of 0 after death of our bodies. We should be afraid of "Him who can cast us to hell after death", and this "Him" is Himself, the Lord Himself, for the fire of His love to the presence of which the sinful and unrepented souls will be exposed, will be felt by the latter as a hellfire of torment because of painful pangs of conscience and shame. Thus, yes, all souls/spirits/personalities go to God, but not all in the same condition, pending on whether in this life we gathered in Christ for eternity, or scattered in pursuit of earthly and transient things (Matthew 12:30), and, thus, not for all this coming to God is perceived as bliss.

Moreover, if we quite unbiblically consider that departed spirits/souls that go to God are unconscious and unliving (Mark 12:27; or 1 Peter 3:19 where even the souls in hell are said to have conscience and gladdened by the arrival of the Savior), then what are those unconscious and unliving souls/spirits that God takes back to Him? Are they created or not-created? If not-created, then humans are Gods, having in themselves uncreated aspects, which is Hinduism and world of Vedas and not Christianity and the world of the Bible. Thus, those spirits/souls are created, but after bodily death they, as some wrongly suppose, are 0 (zero) and dead also. But does dead and 0 (zero) go to God? If it is 0 how can it go anywhere? Moreover, if soul dies and is, thus, left unconscious, for dead implies unconscious, then what does a resurrection mean? Will not it mean that God just re-creates this person out of His memory of this person? But if this person was unrepenting sinner, will God re-create this unrepented sinfulness together with this person? This will be absurd and calumnious blasphemy on God to even suppose such an outrage that God will create a moral depravity, which is the essence of sinfulness! In this sense Jehowah Witnesses, who claim the death of soul after physical death, have a logic in claiming that God will not resurrect, i.e. recreate sinners and non-Jehowah-Witnesses, because then God will be accused of creating sinfulness also, which is surely ontologically impossible for God to do. (Yet Jehowah Witnesses' claim that only they will inherit the eternal Kingdom and St Anthony of Egypt or St Bede the Venerable will not be resurrected and be reduced to total nonexistence now and ever and unto ages of ages, their holy lives' notwithstanding, and just for being Trinitarians, is utterly counterintuitive to say the least).

Thus, the only possibility remains the sound doctrine that there is unbroken continuity of living persons both in historical life and after death, and that praying to the departed saints is quite efficient for their ceaseless prayers are heard by God.

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  • 1
    "there is impossible for this person to be in hell" Indeed, yet you are committing the logical fallacy of begging the question. Why is it axiomatic that the hellfire doctrine is correct? "The same condition all souls/spirits." You've once again falsely equated the soul to the spirit. "recreate sinners and non-Jehowa-Witnesists, because then God will be accused of creating sinfulness also, which is surely damn stupid." You really don't like Jehovah's Witnesses, huh?
    – Rajesh
    Jan 12, 2022 at 7:07
  • 1
    "Soul and spirit is used often interchangeably in the Bible" Not by the Biblical authors it isn't. By translators yes, of course. The authors of the Bible were Jewish. Though they were somewhat influenced by the Greek culture of their time, they were much more rooted within the precepts of the Hebrew scriptures. In the Hebrew scriptures, soul and spirit are never the same, and they are never translated interchangeably. Why that changed when the Greek New Testament was being translated into English I do not know, but that doesn't make it correct.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 12, 2022 at 15:51
  • 2
    I'm saying you have to understand what the soul and spirit are within the context of the Hebrew Bible, instead of superimposing Platonistic notions of the soul and spirit, which you seem oh so fond of. The language of the Bible is not the language of Greek culture; pick one, because you can't have both.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 12, 2022 at 17:17
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    Some content is judgmental: "Is it really difficult to understand?!" That's condescending and not helpful and the "?!" adds emotion. "nonsense" ... "Absurd and utterly irrational to think so" ... these are a kind of verdict AKA judgment and they are negative. You very good ideas. If you can stick to the core of your own ideas and remain silent on any potential absurdity of a dissenting view, your answers could be more popular. Cutting your words in half would probably be your best compass.
    – Jesse
    Jan 13, 2022 at 13:31
  • 1
    This post has been downvoted heavily and was flagged for abuse, and I agree for the reasons I gave. This answer could be deleted soon. Please make edits quickly with 1. none of the opinion on opposing views and 2. if it seems difficult to sort that, then try 50% word count, which is how I improved my own writing. Then I will consider voting it up. All the best!
    – Jesse
    Jan 13, 2022 at 13:35

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