(Eccl. 3:18-22) Are humans worthless animals?

CLAIM: Solomon writes, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men, ‘God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.’ 19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. 21 Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? 22 I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?” (Eccl. 3:18-22). What does Solomon mean by these comments? Are human beings mere animals in his view?

RESPONSE: Human are distinct from animals in value, because we bear the image of God (Gen. 1:27; Jas. 3:9) and because Jesus died for every single human being (1 Jn. 2:2; Gal. 2:20). In order to understand this passage, we need to remember Solomon’s reason for writing this book. He was trying to outline the meaning of life and human existence apart from God (see “Introduction to Ecclesiastes”). This is why Solomon’s statements are so difficult to interpret at first glance. In this section, Solomon is stating that human beings are no different from animals apart from God. If naturalism is true, then humans are just a bag of chemicals and juices that are doomed to die like all the rest of the animal kingdom.

Solomon’s point is to show that all animal species (including humans) are mortal and will die.[1] He is trying to “force the reader to take death seriously.”[2] In the words of Moses, we should “number our days” (Ps. 90:12), knowing that our afterlife is utterly dependent on God (Eccl 12:7, 13-14). Eaton translates the Hebrew in this way: “God is making it clear to them so that they may see that they—they by themselves—are animals.”[3]

However, at the end of this book, Solomon concludes, “For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street” (Eccl. 12:5). He writes, “The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7). Solomon warns of a future judgment for people as well (Eccl. 11:9). But at this point in the book, Solomon is challenging those who are living apart from God to reconsider their meaning and purpose in life.

[1] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 304.

[2] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 305.

[3] Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 99.