The nursery rhyme asks “What are little boys made of?” — and answers “Snips & snails & puppy dogs tails and such are little boys made of.”1 Little girls fare slightly better. They are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” No one believes that these statements reflect the actual chemical makeup of boys and girls. But anyone who watches these little darlings play can understand what the original author was getting at.
formed from the dust
The Bible gives us a much more scientifically accurate description of what little boys and girls are made of – and their parents too. Moses, describing the creation of Adam, says that God formed him “from the dust of the ground”2 or “of dust from the ground.”3 Our bodies are composed of the same elements found elsewhere in nature. Paul tells us that our ancestor Adam was “a man of dust”4 and we share his nature.
returning to the dust
After sin entered this world, human beings were punished for their rebellion by the LORD commanding a reversal of the creation process – which is called death. This is the pronouncement that God made: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”5 The breath of life which animates the dust is taken away, and the sinner returns to dust alone.
This description of death lacks the colour added to it by time and tradition. There are no halos, no pearly gates, no bright light. Death is simply losing life. It is lying down in the dust.6 It is going down to the dust.7 It is dwelling in the dust.8 It is sleeping in the dust.9 It is returning to the dust.10 It is being laid in the dust of death.11
Faithful men of God prayed to be protected from this fate. They did not imagine that death would give them an opportunity to worship. They prayed “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?”12 The answer was “no.” Worship is something that living people do.
I am but dust
When Abraham dared to address the angel of the LORD, appealing for him to save the righteous in Sodom, he understood what he was made of. He said “”Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”13 The LORD was the one with the immortal Spirit, not Abraham. Humans may devise all kinds of philosophical speculations about being imperishable and immortal, but the LORD “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”14
dust on the head
From ancient times, putting dust on one’s head was a sign of great shame, humility and mourning.15 It was a reminder that we are mortal, made of the dust of the earth, and not like our creator. Leaders were reminded that God had exalted them “out of the dust”16 and if they became unfaithful, he could humble them. Apart from his grace they are nothing.
Jesus standing on the dust
The good news of the resurrection is described in the Bible using the same term that details what we are made of. Job proclaims “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”17 But that word “earth” is not the word used in Genesis 1:1.18 It is the same word translated dust in Genesis 2:7.19 The dust that the Messiah will stand on at the last day will be the dust of Job’s body. But then something amazing happens. Job continues “Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes shall see and not another.”20 The Messiah stands over the dust of Job’s dead body and brings it back to life!
This is the hope that the Bible gives humanity. It is not survival after death but rescue from death. It is not being “found naked” (without a body) in the intermediate state but being “further clothed” with a resurrection body.21 The Bible says that when Jesus Christ returns “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”22 The nature of that change is made clear as well: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”23 We are dust: that is what we are made of, but our destiny is to be more
- from an original poem by Robert Southey (1774-1843).
- Genesis 2:7 (KJV, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV).
- Genesis 2:7 (ESV, NASB, NASBu).
- 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.
- Genesis 3:19 (ESV) see also Job 10:9.
- Job 20:11; 21:26.
- Psalm 22:29.
- Isaiah 26:19.
- Daniel 12:2.
- Job 34:15; Psalm 104:29; Ecclesiastes 3:20.
- Psalm 22:16.
- Psalm 30:9 ESV.
- Genesis 18:27 ESV.
- Psalm 103:14.
- Joshua 7:6, Job 2:12; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 27:30; Revelation 18:19.
- 1 Kings 16:2 (see also Psalm 113:7).
- Job 19:25 ESV.
- Hebrew ‘erets
- Hebrew ‘afar
- Job 19:26-27 NASB.
- 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.
- 1 Corinthians 15:52.
- 1 Corinthians 15:49.