Spirits in prison
See the article on this topic on the note page for 1 Peter 3.
The spirit that returns to God
"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." (Eccl. 12:7). For the context see ec12.
This interesting verse is
generally read to show that, at death, the individual (without his or her
body), ascends to God. You already know that this is not in harmony with
what we have been learning about what happens when a person dies, but it's
fair to ask why this text doesn't say what it seems to say, and to explore
what it really does mean.
Ruach, the Hebrew word for spirit here, means "breath" or "wind" as well as "spirit" and a number of other things. How should we understand it in this verse? We will:
1. Interpret the meaning of the verse,
recognizing it as an allusion.
2. Consider implications of the traditional interpretation.
3. Clarify the context.
4. Ask whether more than the breath returns to God.
1. Let's examine
the meaning of the verse.
To understand, we first look at a verse explaining his creation, then another passage about his death because of sin, and finally we will see how our verse fits into the process.
"And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshwamaw] of life; and man became a living soul." (Gen. 2:7).
In your margin, you may find a cross-reference to Gen. 3:19. This is part of God's explanation of how sin, in the Garden of Eden, would, in a sense, undo or damage God's work of creation. "And unto Adam he [the Lord God] said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. . . . In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (Gen. 3:17-19).
Now look at our passage. "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [ruach] shall return unto God who gave it." (Eccl. 12:7). To see that ruach, used here for "spirit," and neshwamaw, describing God's breath in human creation, are synonyms and to better understand the whole concept, we look at a statement by Job.
"All the while my breath [neshwamaw] is in me, and the spirit [ruach] of God is in my nostrils; My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit. God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me." (Job 27:3-5). The connection between our scene of the spirit returning to God and creation is strengthened in noticing the theme of the chapter: "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them." (Eccl. 12:1)
So our verse simply describes death as God had explained it in the curse after the fall of our first parents. It is a result of sin. The body decays to the dust it came from and the breath (or spirit) that had been given by God at creation, is simply withdrawn.
implications of the traditional interpretation.
The passage is about all people, not just the righteous. If the spirit going to heaven meant the ascension of conscious souls, both righteous and wicked would go to heaven leaving no reason for redemption.
The chapter ends with this: "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." (Eccl. 12:13, 14). Judgment was future for Solomon's readers (as it is for us). Even if only the righteous were to go to heaven at death, the action would make the judgment useless. There would be no significance for obedience as the "whole duty of man."
Let's scan from the beginning of the chapter, then begin to read. In neglecting to consider the creator during youth (Eccl. 12:1), the evil days come and a man ". . . shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." (Eccl. 12:5-7).
The word for "long" describing the "home" we all go to is olawm, and is usually translated "everlasting." The term, "long home," is also a correct translation. We may think of that place as a "long-time home." This is the grave or dust of the earth where those who die lie unconscious until the resurrection. Notice a similar passage in Job.
"If I wait, the grave is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou art my mother, and my sister. And where is now my hope? as for my hope, who shall see it? They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust." (Job 17:13-16)
more than the breath return to God?
We know that our characters will be preserved for heaven after human probation closes or after death (Rev. 22:11-15; Ps. 24:3, 4). Also we will recognize each other (1 Cor. 13:12). And Jesus also told us ". . . fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt. 10:28). Here is a verse that shows that the body and the soul are different — that the soul may survive without the body.
At first glance, this conclusion seems radically different from what I have been telling you. It demands an explanation. We may think of the soul as something we have to be saved or lost, or something we are. These two are actually the same thing in the sense that we have our selves.
Do you remember the verse we saw that tells us where we came from? "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Gen. 2:7). Here dust + breath from God = a living soul. When the breath is withdrawn we simply have a dead (or sleeping) soul — not an entity that is conscious anywhere. Jesus implies that, for the wicked, God will destroy both body and soul in hell (gehenna). Then nothing will be left but the original matter — ashes, as described in Mal. 4:1. That will be the second death after the millennium (Rev. 20:5, 6, 14). We will study the topic later.
At Jesus' coming, the righteous will be raised, incorruptible, not subject to decay (1 Cor. 15:51-54). They (we) will not die in the second death. Our bodies will be like Christ's glorified body (Phil. 3:21; Luke 24:36-43).
What does God keep after we go to the grave? Certainly the record of who we are. We remember that the names of overcomers will be retained in the book of life (Rev. 3:5). Seeing our names as who we are — our character — we can understand how they would be retained whether in the book of life or elsewhere after we die.
What returns to God when the body decays? The entity that Jesus remembers, the soul that is awakened at the resurrection. In this sense we can say it is the spirit which God keeps. It is retained for righteous and wicked alike until the final judgment at the end of the millennium. Then, for the wicked, even the soul is destroyed. Nothing will be left to be called to life. It is the second and eternal death.
This spirit is also breath in the sense that it represents the life we have lived — what we have done with the breath God gave each of us at birth.
The "spirit" that returns to God is simply the breath like He gave to Adam at creation where the dust of the earth plus the breath of life became a living soul. At the same time, God keeps track of our character for the judgment and for restoration at the resurrection. This, too, may be said to return to God. The text does not describe a conscious being, separated from the body, going to heaven. In fact, only God is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16; Ezek 18:4). Satan lied to Eve in the garden when he told her, "Ye shall not surely die." (Gen. 3:4).
God has a marvelous plan of fairness for our eternal happiness.