No wisdom in Sheol: A theology of death

Christianity has too often been a death-denying religion. Christian theology moves quickly beyond death to a life after (or an afterlife). The funeral service is titled “Witness to the Resurrection,” avoiding even the word “death.”

For Johanna

“I’m sorry for your loss,” we say to the grieving. “She’s in a better place.” “He went home to be with God.”

Preachers and theologians have been much more interested in considering the possibility of resurrection and the meaning of the Kingdom of God than in making sense of death. This priority has been the case especially with Christians in the United States throughout its history.

The 18th-century preachers of the so-called Great Awakening invited individuals to consider where their souls would spend eternity. Heaven and hell were depicted in literal terms, and each person had to decide which they would choose.

In the 19th century, an obsession with eschatology emerged on American soil. Preachers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries invented the “rapture” and predicted when Christ would return to snatch up the faithful into heaven. The fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals of the 20th century only heightened this fever and began to market the rapture to the masses through television, movies, books and music.

Much of the language of this portion of the Christian tradition makes death denial explicit. Death is merely a brief passage to a better place. Unlike the picture painted in much of the New Testament, wherein the dead rest until the day of resurrection, many Christians now believe that death is only the moment in which their souls pass from earthly bodies to heavenly existence.

What Christian faith may need, then, is a theology not of the afterlife but of death itself. If we can attend to her on her own terms, Qohelet, the teacher of Ecclesiastes, may offer us just that.

A different kind of wisdom

The first thing we must realize when we read Qohelet is that Ecclesiastes is a different kind of wisdom writing. Over its 13 chapters, the author writes, “I reflected … I observed … I mused … I saw … I accounted … I noted … I tested … I studied … I explored … I sought … I learned … I found no wisdom.”

In a paper presented at the 2011 International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Hebrew Bible scholar Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos suggested, “Qohelet sets up the search for wisdom to come up with nothing.” (Bos also makes a convincing argument for the possibility that Qohelet was in fact a woman, so I refer to Qohelet with female pronouns here.)

Qohelet states early in Ecclesiastes: “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; To increase learning is to increase heartache” (1:18, JPS TANAKH*). And she states repeatedly that the righteous and the wicked, the fool and the wise all meet the same ultimate fate. Perhaps one can find a wise person now and again, or at least a mostly wise person — but divine wisdom does not walk among us, plainly calling out on the street. Things do not add up. Even to try to make sense of things is “an unhappy business,” for “all is futile and pursuit of wind” (1:13-14).

In the end all is hevel, fleeting breath, vanity, absurdity. This is not to say that no beauty or goodness can be found in the world; but the good and bad come in their cycles, and no end justifies any of it. There’s a time for birth and death, weeping and laughing, war and peace (3:1-8), but there is nothing new under the sun (1:9). Qohelet’s wisdom counters traditional wisdom. The wise do not necessarily prosper and live long lives. Fools may well have good fortune from generation to generation. And the wise and the foolish meet the same end.

This is not to say that no beauty or goodness can be found in the world; but the good and bad come in their cycles, and no end justifies any of it.

Not only do the wise and the foolish meet the same fate, but so do the righteous and the wicked. In fact, Qohelet says, “sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness” (7:15). In her 2006 book When the Horizons Close, liberationist interpreter Elsa Tamez called the reality to which Ecclesiastes points “inverted society, where wickedness is handed down instead of justice (3:16); where it is better not to be born, so as not to see the oppression of the poor (4:3).” Tamez reminded us that the author’s context is Hellenistic occupation. The “toil” to which Qohelet often refers is hard labor whose laborer has no access to the fruits.

And the oppression is violent, so violent that Qohelet wonders whether the oppressed would be better off dead.

“I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun; the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors … Then I accounted those who died long since more fortunate than those who are still living” (4:1-2). The inverted society is truly absurd, frustratingly unfair, arbitrary, hevel.

Although no human could possibly make sense of all of this, God may know the meaning. Qohelet even suggests that God “brings everything to pass precisely at its time” (3:11). Not that this wisdom does much for us humans, since even a wise person cannot make a good guess at what will come next (8:17). As Paul Simon sang in “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “God only knows. God makes his plan. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.” In fact, the best course for us might just be to keep our fool mouths shut. “For God is in heaven and you are on earth; that is why your words should be few,” Qohelet explains (5:1). We get it twisted and we will not be able to straighten it out, so what is Qohelet’s advice? “In a time of good fortune enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect” (7:14).

All of this may sound quite Calvinistic. Alternately, John Calvin sounded a little like Qohelet in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “When dense clouds darken the sky, and a violent tempest arises, because a gloomy mist is cast over our eyes, thunder strikes our ears and all our senses are benumbed with fright, everything seems to us to be confused and mixed up; but all the while a constant quiet and serenity ever remain in heaven” (translated by Ford Lewis Battles). But while this quiet serenity reflects God’s remove, for Calvin it also speaks to God’s providential care.

We endure the ups and downs knowing that God has a plan and that the plan works out well for those who love God and accept the plan. At the very least, in the end, God brings those who love God into that heavenly serenity.

But Qohelet offers no such comfort. The fate of all is simply death. The wise and the foolish, the righteous and wicked, the oppressed and the oppressor, the God fearer and the God denier all simply end in death. What good does God do us then? Not only do we not know the plan, but the plan is only that of recurrence (3:14). And each of our ends is just, among the many ends that happen as nothing new emerges under the sun.

Perhaps the only good God does for us is to open the possibility of accepting what is as a gift. “Wisdom and shrewdness” lie in the ability to be thankful for and enjoy what we have. Fools forget to be thankful and keep striving, gathering, amassing (2:26). Qohelet affirms life and the enjoyment of it and suggests that material gain is especially fleeting. Tamez summarized: “We should accept God’s gift of enjoying whatever in the present makes us feel like living beings, not like objects: eating, drinking, and feeling joy.” Even this wisdom, or especially this wisdom, does not shield us from misfortune and pain, but it does allow us to enjoy the good while it lasts and anticipate the good when it seems absent.

What is death?

For Qohelet, death is final. Death is the fate that awaits us all. And in this regard human beings are no different from any other living thing: “For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust” (3:19-21).

Qohelet’s words are stark. We are dust in the wind. We amount to nothing. Writing in a time when eschatological hopes and even ideas of resurrection were part of the Jewish imagination, Qohelet eschews any notion of life after death. We come into the world naked and leave the same way. All that we may achieve or obtain cannot go with us (5:14). We are stripped clean in the end.

Qohelet’s words are stark. We are dust in the wind. We amount to nothing.

Qohelet insists that anything we gain in this life – whether material, experiential, spiritual or intellectual gain – cannot endure beyond our death. “For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going” (9:10). Interestingly, this passage is the only one in which Qohelet uses the term Sheol. She usually just speaks of death or talks about our shared fate. The TANAKH translation transliterates and capitalizes the word, suggesting a proper noun. Other translations render it “the realm of the dead” (NIV) or “the grave” (CEB, KJV). In a 2015 Jewish Biblical Quarterly article titled “Grave Matters,” Shaul Bar suggested that the term is “associated with the grave” (Bar’s emphasis) but that it also takes on the valence of a netherworld, or realm of the dead.

A netherworld or underworld was a prominent part of ancient Middle Eastern cosmology, and usually nothing much happens there. Gilgamesh’s beloved Enkidu imagines his own fate in Stephen Mitchell’s 2006 translation:

“The creature touched me and suddenly feathers covered my arms, he bound them behind me and forced me down to the underworld, the house of darkness, the home of the dead, where all who enter never return to the sweet earth again. Those who dwell there squat in darkness, dirt is their food, their drink is clay, they are dressed in feathered garments like birds, they never see light, and on the door and bolt the dust lies thick.

Bar explained that in the book of Job, “both good and wicked lie down in the dust and are covered by maggots.” Isaiah likewise refers to maggots and worms in Sheol (14:9-11). And Psalm 88 refers to those who reside in Sheol as shades and suggests that they have lost the ability to praise God. With few exceptions, Sheol is usually seen as the place where the wicked go — or at least those go who have met an “unnatural and premature death,” Bar said, which is usually associated with divine punishment. Bar concluded, “Sheol generally has a negative connotation” and mostly refers to “a place of ‘bad death.’”

But Qohelet does not seem to make a distinction between good death and bad death. She clarifies that the swift, valiant, intelligent and wise have no advantage in these matters, “for the time of mischance comes to all” (9:11). And she repeats throughout, as I have mentioned, that the wise and foolish, righteous and wicked, oppressed and oppressor all meet the same fate. Qohelet does not see Sheol as a hellish punishment for the sinful, but the question remains as to whether the place is bad or whether all death might be seen as “bad death.”

On one hand, Qohelet positions death as part of a natural cycle. There is “a time for being born and a time for dying” (3:2). And death can be seen as a release from the suffering of life. In the face of oppression, Qohelet accounts “those who died long since more fortunate than those who are still living” (4:2). On the other hand, to come to death is to come to nothing; it is a return to dust, an abrupt end to all that we are. “The dead know nothing; they have no more recompense, for even the memory of them has died” (9:5). Perhaps for Qohelet death just is, or at least is as ambivalent as any other part of life. Sometimes death is bad death, and sometimes death can be a mercy. Sometimes death seems to come at the right time, and sometimes it can be a cruel interruption. We can search, but we are likely to find no wisdom regarding death.

Sometimes death seems to come at the right time, and sometimes it can be a cruel interruption

Whether good or bad, death for Qohelet is final, and death gets the final word in Ecclesiastes. Qohelet begins Ecclesiastes with a poem and ends with a poem in chapter 12. The final poem has proven to be open to many interpretations. Some have taken the poem as allegory for the death of an individual. The poem’s decaying images are metaphors for old age, decline and death. Others think the poem in chapter 12 depicts a funeral scene, a village gripped by mourning. Still others argue that the decay of society is suggested.

Commentator Choon-Leong Seow, in his 1997 Ecclesiastes: A New Translation, argued that the cosmic and universal dimensions of the concluding poem cannot be denied or ignored. The evocation of “days of sorrow” when light is extinguished and the sun, moon and stars grow dark clearly has eschatological overtones (12:1). The poem may just be “about the end of life itself,” Seow said. Business, war and production all are grinding to a halt. Women peer through their windows at empty streets. The silence leads one to expect birdsong to come to the fore, but even the music of birds grows faint. Even the grasshopper walks with a heavy gait. The mourners are in the street, and soon the lamps and water bowls will be destroyed. Seow summarized, “The end is so permanent; it is so dark.” Just as God at the beginning of creation gathered dust and breathed life into it, so at the end, Qohelet says, “the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it” (12:7).

So it seems clear that Qohelet sees death as the end that comes to each and to all. Every living thing comes to death, comes to nothing. All is hevel.

A theology of life and death

What do we learn about life and death from Qohelet, then? We might notice that death is the great leveler, “for the same fate is in store for all” (9:2). Whatever our death-denying project might be – wealth, art, righteousness, wisdom – none will shelter us from death. Qohelet does not submit to despair or nihilism, though. Wisdom is better than folly. Righteousness is better than wickedness. These qualities make our way easier in this life, and therefore we should embrace them. But we should guard ourselves against any pride, even in righteousness or wisdom. “Don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded” (7:16). Wisdom and righteousness are better ways; but they bring
no guarantees in life, and they too are not lasting in an ultimate sense. To put one’s faith in any such passing feature of life will only lead to self-deception about reality.

So death inspires humility. Many commentators on the word “humility” have noted its etymological relation to the word “humus,” for earth. The word “human” is likewise related to earth. Humans are earth creatures, formed of the dust and instilled with lifebreath. But the lifebreath flees, and the dust returns to dust. Qohelet insists that even the beasts share in this nature with humans: “Both go to the same place” (3:20). Contemplating death can have a liberating, relativizing effect. We realize our meager beginnings and our meager ends, and we can put all our passing endeavors in between, in their proper perspective.

Death also tells us something about the social structures that we have built.

Death also tells us something about the social structures that we have built. Qohelet is especially concerned with the inequities that she sees around her and is eager to apply her theology of death to what she sees. At a very basic level, the rich will have to come to terms with the fact that their wealth cannot follow them. And the oppressed might take comfort that their oppression will at least end in their death (4:1-2). At the very least, then, we can say that death destroys the distinctions between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed.

Qohelet also wrestles with the seeming intractability of oppression: “If you see in a province oppression of the poor and suppression of right and justice, don’t wonder at the fact; for one high official is protected by a higher one, and both of them by still higher ones” (5:7). But she notes the futility of the oppressors’ striving: “A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income” (5:9). And she contrasts this with the simplicity of working life: “A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep” (5:11).

Paradoxically, though, Qohelet suggests that some rich people can find enjoyment in their riches, and that this enjoyment can be good. “Also, whenever a man is given riches and property by God, and is also permitted by Him to enjoy them and to take his portion and get pleasure for his gains—this is a gift of God. For [such a man] will not brood much over the days of his life, because God keeps him busy enjoying himself” (5:18-19). But perhaps understanding that these gifts are passing is what puts them in the proper perspective. If we think the gifts are enduring or meaningful, then we only want them all the more. But if we can recognize them as gifts to be enjoyed for a time but not brooded over, then we can enjoy them.

What emerges here is a philosophy of life in which any striving amounts to a kind of game. This philosophy especially holds true for Qohelet and other people in her socioeconomic position — we might call them (us) people of leisure. People of leisure are very different from those who toil, those who struggle for existence. For people of leisure, virtually all life is a game. They never put forth any actual effort for survival. Their existence is ensured, and all they do is strive for some modicum of meaning. They do best to recognize this and enjoy the game — and remember that it is just that, a fleeting game.

But people of leisure also might notice that others do still struggle for survival. In fact, if they have any wisdom at all, they will notice. They will see that it is a great evil that some toil and struggle, while others enjoy the fruits of their labors. This evil will seem intractable until we  realize that we all die. When we realize that we all die, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on the wealth that we have and do something that actually matters by attending to the suffering of the oppressed. Death then not only destroys the social strata in the moment of its realization, but our anticipation of death can liberate us from these structures and strata that keep the rich striving for more and the poor struggling to exist.

Qohelet advises that we enjoy the fleeting lives we have to live. That each day becomes a festival.

Qohelet insists, though, that any such effort should be done in a spirit of celebration. Despite the fact that “the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant; nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the intelligent, nor favor by the learned,” “for the time of mischance comes to all” (9:11), Qohelet advises that we enjoy the fleeting lives we have to live. That each day becomes a festival. That every day is filled with love. That we engage in our work with vigor and that joy should be pervasive, because when death comes we will have no more opportunity for any of these: “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun. . . . Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol” (9:7-10).