A long discussion has taken place on James McGrath’s blog regarding the words of Ecclesiastes 9.2-6 as relates to the doctrine of inerrancy (here). In my opinion it has reached a stalemate with some denying its compatibility with the rest of the references to eternal life and death, eschatological judgement, and resurrection. Other, like myself, have suggested there are various approaches that can be taken to Ecclesiastes that allow for the claims to stand while being interpreted in a canonical context that frames these claims differently. For those unfamiliar with the passage it reads:
All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun. (NIV)
It seems apparent to me that the context is “life under the sun”. This is not a declaration against later doctrines concerning the after life, per se, but rather a truthful examination of our destiny from this side of the grave. In addition, we must read Ecclesiastes from several various perspectives: (1) to reiterate, a commentary on existence “under the sun”; (2) poetry from a pessimistic person who truthfully presents the view of someone in this life; (3) in the context of the words of the “Preacher” being quoted by a commentator in 12.13-14 where there is some disagreement with the Preacher who clarifies “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil”;(4) canonically (see John Hobbins comment here); and (5) before the resurrection of Christ which is the only things that changes once-dead-always-dead into resurrection to eternal life or judgement.
That being said, while reading Augustine in search of something else, I noticed his statements on Ecclesiastes which I will share though I am unsure of their worth:
Solomon, the wisest king of Israel, who reigned in Jerusalem, this commences the book called Ecclesiastes, which the Jews number among their canonical Scriptures: “Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he hath taken under the sun?” (1.2-3). And after going on the enumerate with this as his text, the calamities and delusions of this life, and the shifting nature of the present time, in which there is nothing substantial, nothing lasting, he bewails, among the other vanities that are under the sun, this also, that though wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness (2.13-14), and though the eyes of the wise man are in his head, while the fool walks in darkness, yet one events happens to them all, that is to say, in this life under the sun, unquestionably alluding to those evils which we see befall good and bad men alike.He says, further, that the good suffer the ills as if they were evil-doers, and the bad enjoy the good of life as if they were good. “There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men unto whom it happens according to the work of the wicked: again there are wicked men, to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said, that this also is vanity.” (8.14) This wisest man devoted this whole book to a full exposure of this vanity, evidently with no other object than that we might long for that life in which there is no vanity under the sun, but verity under Him who made the sun. In this vanity, then, was it not by the just and righteous judgment of God that man made like to vanity, was destined to pass away?
But in these days of vanity it makes an important difference whether he resists of yields to the truth, and whether he is destitute of true piety or a partaker of it, –important not so far as regards the acquirement of the blessings of the evasion of the calamities of this transitory and vain life, but in connection with the future judgment which shall make over to good men good things and to bad men bad things in permanent, inalienable possession. In fine, this wise man concludes this book of his by saying, “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is every man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every despised person, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (12.13-14)
What truer, terser, more salutary announcement could be made? “Fear God”, he says, “and keep His commandments: for this is every man.” For whosoever has real existence, is this, is a keeper of God’s commandments; and he who is not this, is nothing. For so long as he remains in the likeness of vanity, he is not renewed in the image of truth. “For God shall bring into judgment every work.” –that is, whatever a man does in this life–”whether is be good or whether it be evil, with every despised person,”–that is, with every man who here seems despicable, and is therefore not considered; for God sees even him, and does not despise him nor pass him over in His judgment.
The proofs, then, of this last judgment of God which I propose to adduce shall be drawn first from the New Testament and then from the Old. For although the Old Testament is prior in point of time, the New has the precedence in intrinsic value; for the Old acts the part of herald to the New. (City of God, 20.4-5a)
It seems Augustine understand the place of Ecclesiastes through two lens (1) it is in the context of this life and (2) it is secondary as concerns progressive revelation. Therefore, we can adduce from Augustine that the place Ecclesiastes has in the Scriptures must be that of a short-sided commentary on this life. There is no different ending for the good and the wicked. Neither come back as far as this life is concerned.
Those who want to pit Ecclesiastes against the rest of Scripture ignore that Ecclesiastes seems to lack, altogether, an eschatological perspective. Those passages of Scripture that move beyond the message of Ecclesiastes likely do incorporate an eschatological perspective that supersedes the “under the sun” vantage point of the Preacher.