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If ever there were a hard saying in the Scriptures, this would surely be among the most difficult! It is bad enough that death seems to unfairly level all humans--young or old, good or bad. But this saying casts a grim shadow that appears to say that all hope is lost after death as well--a startling statement indeed! Is it true that men and beasts have about the same hope for any kind of life after death? Is it really only a matter of "fate"? These are some of the questions this text raises.
First, the word fate is an overtranslation. The word that appears here is merely the word happening. Thus, no references are made to chance, luck or ill fortune. It is solely the fact that one happening, one event--namely, death--overtakes all things that share mortality.
The text then affirms that "all go to the same place." But the place that is intended here is not oblivion or nonexistence; it is the grave. Both men and beasts are made out of dust, and therefore it is to the dust that they will return. In that sense, as one dies, so dies the other. Death is no respecter of persons or animals!
But most disturbing about those who insist on this hopeless view of death in the Old Testament is the way they translate some texts in order to substantiate their own views. In the clearest tones possible in the Hebrew, Ecclesiastes 3:21 states that "the spirit of man rises upward, and the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth." The verbs to go upward and to go downward are active participles with the sign of the article. There is no need to say that Hebrew has confused the article with a slightly different reading for the interrogative.
Furthermore, had not Solomon already argued in this very context that the unjust judges would face the living God at the last judgment (Eccles 3:17)? How could they do this if it was all over when they died? And did not Solomon warn just as forcibly that the final judgment of God would bring every earthly deed into the light of his justice (Eccles 12:7, 14)? But if it were the end of existence, who would care about such idle threats that warned about a later judgment?
The concept that people could and did live after death is as old as Enoch himself. That man, it is recorded in Genesis 5:24, entered into the eternal state with his body! Likewise, the patriarch Job knew that a person would live again if he died, just as a tree would sprout shoots after it had been cut down (Job 14:7, 14).
Nor should we stress too much the words "Who knows," as if the text gives us a question for which there is no answer. In the nine places where this expression occurs in Scripture, only three are actually questions (Esther 4:14; Eccles 2:19; 6:12). In the two passages that are similar to this text, it is followed by a direct object. The statement is a rhetorical remark that calls for us to remember that it is God who knows the difference between persons and beasts, and that the spirit or soulish nature of one is immortal (and hence "goes up" to God) while the spirit of the other is not immortal (and hence "goes down" to the grave just as the flesh disintegrates into dust).
The final verse of the chapter reiterates this same rhetorical question. "Who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" From the context the answer is abundantly clear, even if the answer is not immediately verbalized: it is God who will make the final evaluation on life in its totality. Men and women should not live as if God were not to be faced in eternity and as if there were nothing more to mortal humans than their flesh, which will turn to dust in the grave just as the flesh of animals will. There is more. The undertaker cannot and does not get everything when he calls for the remains. The spirit has gone already to be with God in the case of those men and women who fear him and who wish to please him.
Therefore, I would translate Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 as follows:
For what happens to humanity also happens to the beast; one and the same thing happens to both of them; as the one dies, so the other dies: the same breath is in both of them; there is no advantage [based on this one event of death] of the man over the beast. Both go to one place, that is, the grave. Both are [made out] of the dust and both return to the dust. Who knows the spirit of an individual? He [or she] is the one that goes upward [to God], but the spirit of the beast is the one that goes downward to the earth.