Qohelet קֹהֶלֶת, the Hebrew name the author of Ecclesiastes gives himself, wrote that life was meaningless, that so much that goes on in the world doesn’t make sense, and that our existence seems so fleeting as to make us wonder why we even bother. Depressing stuff! And yet, plenty of Christians have managed to find in the book of Ecclesiastes the promise of heaven when our bodies die. In chapter 12 verse 7 we find these words: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
Is this meant to offer us relief from the grim picture of life that the author offers? Is this the silver lining that makes it all worthwhile? Does it show us that in spite of the brevity of life in this world, we will escape it through death to live on in the next? There have certainly been those who thought so, but I am not one of them.
Traditional mishandling of Ecclesiastes and “spirit shall return to God”
Beloved Baptist commentator John Gill managed to get thoroughly tangled up in Ecclesiastes 12:7, and it’s not hard to see why. Before even mentioning the spirit he appeared to be on a mission to deny the view that human beings perish in death, while at the same time wanting to retain the essential portrait found in this book of human beings as frail and temporary:
The body, which is made of dust, and is no other in its present state than dust refined and enlivened; and when the above things take place, mentioned in (Ecclesiastes 12:6) , or at death, it returns to its original earth; it becomes immediately a clod of earth, a lifeless lump of clay, and is then buried in the earth, where it rots, corrupts, and turns into it; which shows the frailty of man, and may serve to humble his pride, as well as proves that death is not an annihilation even of the body; see (Genesis 3:19) (Job 1:21) ;1
Of course, if by “annihilation” we mean the metaphysical elimination of every smallest constituent part that was a part of something so that the total amount of stuff in all of existence decreases, then Gill is correct. But that would be a fairly hollow victory over an imaginary opponent. Those who claim that human beings truly die when the body dies (the sorts of people against whom this comment was directed) do not speak of annihilation in this sense – if they speak of it at all. Becoming “lifeless” and turning back into earth is more than enough to fit the bill of what someone probably means when they say that a person does not survive their death. The comment betrays an effort to pick a fight. This is a case of someone needing to prompt Mr. Gill: “Easy there, tiger, just tell us what the text is saying and stop looking for targets.”
With this course set, Gill presses on:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it; from whom it is, by whom it is created, who puts it into the bodies of men, as a deposit urn they are entrusted with, and are accountable for, and should be concerned for the safety and salvation of it; this was originally breathed into man at his first creation, and is now formed within him by the Lord; hence he is called the God of the spirits of all flesh; see (Genesis 2:4) (Zechariah 12:1) (Numbers 16:22). Now at death the soul, or spirit of man, returns to God; which if understood of the souls of men in general, it means that at death they return to God the Judge of all, who passes sentence on them, and orders those that are good to the mansions of bliss and happiness, and those that are evil to hell and destruction.
Gill adds that “this shows that the soul is immortal, and dies not with the body, nor sleeps in the grave with it, but is immediately with God.”
One moment Gill is quite correctly noting that death highlights the “frailty of man,” and with the next stroke of a pen he leaves us wondering exactly how death highlights the frailty of man, given that they return to the judge of all and, if they are good, they enter the mansions of bliss and happiness. Where is the frailty in being immortal? To make things more difficult for himself, he drags in reference to the “soul” (although the writer of Ecclesiastes did not), making it identical with the spirit that departs, is judged, and moves on to bliss or hell. As an aside, although it is promising to see Gill using the biblical language of hell as “destruction,” don’t get your hopes up. When commenting elsewhere on Matthew 10:28, he explains the meaning of God’s ability to “destroy body and soul in hell” like this: “He is able to “destroy”, that is, to torment and punish both body and soul “in hell”, in everlasting burnings.” It is truly easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for some people to allow the Scripture to speak!
As a reader of the King James Bible (living his life mostly in the 18th Century), it would have been easy for him to compare Genesis 2:7, which he refers to in noting that God breathed the spirit into man, with Ecclesiastes 12:7, and note that he was mistaken about the soul. After all, Gill thought the soul was the spirit that was breathed into that first man. Genesis 2:7, however, says that God breathed the breath of life into Adam, and then Adam became a living soul.
In the early 19th century Adam Clarke took a similar line of thought on Ecclesiastes 12:7:
Putrefaction and solution take place; the whole mass becomes decomposed, and in process of time is reduced to dust, from which it was originally made; while the spirit, haruach, that spirit, which God at first breathed into the nostrils of man, when he in consequence became a Living Soul, an intelligent, rational, discoursing animal, returns to God who gave it. Here the wise man makes a most evident distinction between the body and the soul: they are not the same; they are not both matter. The body, which is matter, returns to dust, its original; but the spirit, which is immaterial, returns to God.2
Like Gill, Clarke knew where the first reference to the spirit of man was found – in the creation of Adam when God breathed life into him. He even points out that when the spirit was breathed into Adam, he “became a living soul.” Well said! Yet, like Gill, Clarke then immediately presses on to equate the distinction between body and spirit with the distinction between body and soul.
Albert Barnes similarly claimed:
The spirit – i. e., The spirit separated unto God from the body at death. No more is said here of its future destiny. To return to God, who is the fountain Psalm 36:9 of Life, certainly means to continue to live.3
Holes in the traditional interpretation
From pulpits to popular books, this way of reading Ecclesiastes 12:7 is still fairly widespread today: When the body dies, the body goes back to the dust, but the conscious, undying soul returns to God and moves on to heaven, hell, or something else. But the difficulties in reading Ecclesiastes this way are considerable, and they all have to do with the appearance of the word “return,” שׁוּב in Hebrew, meaning to turn back.
Firstly, those who say that “spirit” here refers to the undying soul, the centre of human consciousness, surely do not believe that this is a “return.” Certainly, they might think that the dust, the physical matter that makes up the body, existed prior to the creation of Adam. The physical materials that make up our own bodies have been around as long as the universe in one form or another. None of us have a problem admitting that. When we die, our bodies go back to where they were before – the dust of the earth. But what about my conscious soul, in the view of these commentators? Where was it before I existed, where it will return at death? And surely if it existed – I existed! We can sensibly talk about it returning to God only if it was there before I existed. But was I with God before my body existed? Not that I can recall, and as far as I know the above commentators do not affirm the pre-existence of the soul, as did Plato, for example, who believed that his soul had been around long before his body was formed. Surely what our commentators must mean is not really that the soul goes back to where it once lived, but rather that God created us and so is the one who gave us life. It makes little sense, then, for Barnes to say that to surrender this back to God means “continue to live.” One would think just the opposite is the case.
Secondly, it is impossible not to see that the writer is drawing on Genesis 2:7, which shows us exactly why the word “return” is used. The commentators I’ve quoted here all see the reference to the account of the creation of Adam, but the fact that the writer is drawing on that account seems to make no difference to their commentary. In Genesis 2:7 God takes dust, forms a man and breathes into him the breath of life (also called “spirit” in various places in our English Bibles), and the man comes to life – becomes a living creature (or “soul” in our older Bible versions). In Ecclesiastes 12:7 things go back to a former state. The dust of Genesis 2:7 returns to the earth, just “as it was,” as Ecclesiastes stresses. The breath of life of Genesis 2:7 goes back to God, who breathed it out. It is as though Genesis 2:7 had never happened. Reading these two texts side by side makes it obvious that the writer of Ecclesiastes is describing the undoing of Genesis 2:7. Man was made in creation and is unmade in death. This is not a celebration of survival. It is dismal. It is compared to a cord that severed, a shattered pitcher, its contents completely lost, or a broken wheel at the well (12:6). Something is fundamentally wrong with that way that this passage has been treated if it ends up giving hope.
Taking a fresh look at “the spirit shall return to God”
Commentaries are changing, and certainly for the better. The strongly partisan taste that the previous treatments of Ecclesiastes left in the mouth is fading. Evangelical Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman’s analysis of Ecclesiastes 12:7 is refreshing by contrast to what we saw earlier for its perceptiveness:
In conclusion to his meditation on death, Qohelet makes allusion to Genesis 2:7 and 3:19, particularly the former. God created Adam, the forefather of all human beings, by forming his body from the dust of the ground and endowing it with his spirit. Genesis 3:19, in the context of the judgment that is the result of the fall, as the return of the body to the dust to [sic] the ground. Thus, what Qohelet describes is a reversal of creation, the dissolution of human creation. This is true as well of the last part of the verse, which states that the spirit returns to God who gave it. This is not an optimistic allusion to some sort of consciousness after death, but simply a return to a prelife situation. God temporarily united body and spirit, and now the process is undone. We have in this verse no affirmation of immortality. According to Qohelet, death is the end.4
James Crenshaw likewise draws out the wholly negative picture of death in this text:
There is nothing comforting in Quohelet’s acknowledgement that life comes from God, who breathed into the human nostrils and now sucks the breath back out.5
Just one more example: Peter Enns offers yet another gloomy take:
We return to dust. That is all. That is where we came from and that is where we are going. It should be clear by this point that unlike the use of this verse at funerals, Qohelet is not submitting himself to the sovereign will of a good God who reminds us of our brief time on this earth. Rather, Qohelet remains here, as he has throughout the book, in a state of vexation and agitation over what God has done. Breath returns to God who gave it in the first place.6
Looking frankly at the text, its use of earlier material, its logical implications and the overriding context of despair, the meaning that Christian biblical scholars are now identifying seems obvious. The evidence, of course, has always been sitting under the reader’s nose, but for many, there was simply no will to find it. We can only be appreciative of this overall shift from a strongly polemical use of texts of Scripture to find ammunition against the view one wishes to attack, and towards a much more honest grappling with the biblical material, allowing the authors to say what they were trying to say, regardless of what we might wish to hear. It is precisely this encouraging sea change that has prompted many Christians to look again at the wider picture of human nature and destiny in Scripture, and for that, we can be very thankful indeed. It‘s a change that can’t come soon enough.
- wading through the “simplicity”
- Dead souls, dying souls
- Tough times and Christian identity
- Taking a Stand
- John Gill, Exposition of the Bible.
- Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible
- Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament
- Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 273.
- Ecclesiastes, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia, Westminster John Knox, 1987), 189.
- Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 109-110.