5

Ecclesiastes 12:7 (ESV):

7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

What does Ecclesiastes 12:7 exactly mean by "the spirit returns to God"? Does it mean that the spirit returns to some specific location in the spirit realm where God "stores" spirits (e.g. see intermediate state, Sheol and Hades), and if so, is that place described anywhere in the Bible? Does it mean something else?


Related BHSE questions:


Related CSE questions:

1
  • John 3:6 "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Feb 4 at 3:21

8 Answers 8

3

I propose 4 possibilities for consideration; they are not mutually exclusive:


1. The presence of God


The Old Testament is replete with passages indicating that Sheol is the place of the dead. A literal interpretation of Ecclesiastes 12:7 would suggest, then, that while in Sheol the spirit is in the presence of God.

Is it possible for God to be in Sheol? Or to visit? Hades is the Greek word (in LXX & NT) used for Sheol, and multiple early writers understood 1 Peter 3:18-20 to indicate that Jesus visited Hades:

18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

For example, Clement of Alexandria stated quite unambiguously:

The Lord preached the gospel to those in hades (Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:490)

If this is true, then it is possible for Deity to visit Sheol/Hades. Whether or not that is true just for the time period between the crucifixion & the resurrection, or true at other times as well, is not stated.

Polycarp appears to substantiate the possibility of the spirits of the dead being in the presence of God:

I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord (Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 9)


2. The realm of God


If I return something to a king, I could give it to him personally, or I could return it to his court without seeing him. As such, it is possible to return something to someone without seeing that someone.

That we will stand before God at the time of judgement (post-resurrection) is clear from Revelation 20:12, but the possibility of doing so prior is not clear from the Biblical text.

It is possible, however, that a viable explanation is found in the Psalms:

The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men. (Psalm 115:16)

The plural "heavens" (common in Hebrew) suggests that this may not be a reference to just one discrete place. If the heavens (or spiritual realm) are the Lord's realm and the earth is man's realm, then leaving earth and returning to some portion of that spiritual realm can be described as leaving man and returning to God (even if one is temporarily in an intermediate state and will go somewhere else later).


3. Back to Where it was Before


That the dust (physical body) is returning to where it was before is clear--our bodies are made principally of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (see here)--and these materials return to the earth when a dead body decays.

The poetic parallelism in verse 7 for the spirit is not identical, but quite similar--on this interpretation, the spirit returns to where it was before birth. For those who believe in a pre-mortal existence, then, this would be a reference to a place in the heavens (again note the plural) such as was occupied before this life.


4. Taken by God


This option is more idiomatic, but contextually it's not entirely inappropriate. As poetically expressed by Job:

the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away (Job 1:21)

In this sense, then, the message would be that God gave life by uniting spirit & body (see Genesis 2:7), and it is God who takes life, by separating spirit & body. The focus here would be more on whose purview giving & taking life is (God's) than it is on the latitude and longitude of the destination.

4
  • Hi, HTTR, 4. Taken by God. What you are saying, is your reasoning also in this text?... biblegateway.com/passage/…
    – Bagpipes
    Feb 4 at 19:30
  • @Bagpipes the phrase This very night your life will be demanded from you does appear to convey a similar concept to what I have in mind in #4. God is doing the taking--when life ends is (or is supposed to be) at His discretion. Not sure if I answered what you were asking though =) Feb 4 at 20:05
  • When i read #4 in your answer, that was the scripture that came into my mind. Excuse me for my misinterpretation.
    – Bagpipes
    Feb 4 at 20:16
  • 1
    @Bagpipes no worries; it's great to know what connections people make when they come across my musings =) - 1 Samuel 2:6 is another passage that comes to mind conveying something comparable. Feb 4 at 21:15
4
+100

NOTE: I am going to give an answer purely based on inspired scripture. The writings of the apostolic fathers or of any ante-Nicene fathers or early church fathers are NOT inspired; one cannot use them to "prove" their theologies. If one wants to prove whatever doctrine or theology they adhere to, they must do so using scripture alone. That's not to say they cannot mention the writings of the fathers; only that they can't take their writings as proof of their doctrine. So, if you notice in my answer a total absence of the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers and a very high presence of God-inspired scripture, you'll know why. ^_^

What Is A Spirit?

The only word translated as "spirit" in Hebrew is רוּחַ, pronounced ruach; it's the same word found in Ecclesiastes 12:7. It has many meanings; it does not exclusively refer to a "sentient, immaterial entity", e.g. God(John 4:24), angels(Hebrews 1:14), demons(Luke 4:33), etc.

Let's see some places where רוּחַ does NOT refer to a conscious spirit being.

  • Genesis 3:8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool[רוּחַ] of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

  • Genesis 6:17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath[רוּחַ] of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.

  • Genesis 7:15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath[רוּחַ] of life.

  • Genesis 7:22 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath[רוּחַ] of life.

  • Genesis 8:1 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind[רוּחַ] blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.

  • Exodus 10:19 And the Lord turned the wind into a very strong west wind[רוּחַ], which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea. Not a single locust was left in all the country of Egypt.

  • Exodus 15:8 At the blast[רוּחַ] of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.

  • Numbers 5:14 and if the spirit[רוּחַ] of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself,

  • 1 Kings 10:5 the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath[רוּחַ] in her.

  • 2 Chronicles 9:4 the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, and their clothing, his cupbearers, and their clothing, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath[רוּחַ] in her.

  • 2 Chronicles 21:16 And the Lord stirred up against Jehoram the anger[רוּחַ] of the Philistines and of the Arabians who are near the Ethiopians.

  • Job 7:7 “Remember that my life is a breath[רוּחַ]; my eye will never again see good.

  • Job 41:16 One is so near to another that no air[רוּחַ] can come between them.

  • Psalm 33:6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath[רוּחַ] of His mouth all their host.

  • Proverbs 16:32 He who is slow to anger is better than a warrior, and he who controls his temper[רוּחַ] is greater than one who captures a city.

  • Proverbs 25:28 A man without self-control[רוּחַ] is like a city broken into and left without walls.

  • Isaiah 33:11 You conceive chaff; you give birth to stubble; your breath[רוּחַ] is a fire that will consume you.

  • Jeremiah 14:6 The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights; they pant for air[רוּחַ] like jackals; their eyes fail because there is no vegetation.

As you can see, רוּחַ can take on various meanings; it would be erroneous to say that because Ecclesiastes says the רוּחַ returns to God, the author must be talking about an immaterial, conscious entity returning to God; "spirit", or רוּחַ, does not necessarily refer to a (sentient) spirit being. But how about the Greek equivalent of רוּחַ, which is πνεῦμα(pronounced pneuma)? Does πνεῦμα refer solely to conscious spirit entities? No, just as its Hebrew counterpart does not.

  • Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit[πνεῦμα], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  • Luke 1:80 And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit[πνεῦμα], and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

  • John 3:8 “The wind[πνεῦμα] blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

  • John 11:33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit[πνεῦμα] and was troubled,

  • Romans 11:8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit[πνεῦμα] of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”

  • Rom 12:11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit[πνεῦμα], serve the Lord.

  • 1 Corinthians 4:21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit[πνεῦμα] of gentleness?

  • 2 Corinthians 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit[πνεῦμα] has been refreshed by you all.

  • Galatians 6:1 Brothers if anyone is caught in any transgression you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit[πνεῦμα] of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

  • Hebrews 1:7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds[πνεῦμα], and his ministers a flame of fire.”

  • James 2:26 For just as the body without the spirit[πνεῦμα] is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

  • 1 Peter 3:4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit[πνεῦμα], which in God’s sight is very precious.

  • 1 John 4:1-3; 6 Beloved do not believe every spirit[πνεῦμα], but test the spirits[πνεῦμα] to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit[πνεῦμα] that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit[πνεῦμα] that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit[πνεῦμα] of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.; We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit[πνεῦμα] of error.

  • Revelation 11:11 But after the three and a half days a breath[πνεῦμα] of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.

  • Revelation 13:15 And it was allowed to give breath[πνεῦμα] to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.

Clearly, πνεῦμα does not refer only to immaterial sentient entities; many times it refers to a state of mind, i.e. the mental disposition or mood/attitude of a person(or even of a thing, such as a statement[e.g. 1 John 4:1-3; 6]). Sometimes it refers to wind. And yet other times it refers to the breath that gives life to something, e.g. James 2:26 says that without the πνεῦμα, the body cannot live, in other words, the πνεῦμα gives life to the body(Revelation 11:11 is another example of πνεῦμα referring to the life-giving breath). Essentially, πνεῦμα can be used in reference to an animating force(of both living beings[e.g. James 2:26, Revelation 11:11] and things[such as the image of the beast in Revelation 13:15]). This is not unlike its Hebrew counterpart, רוּחַ, which refers to the vital life-breath of a living entity numerous times in the Tanakh. The main point is that neither the Hebrew(רוּחַ) nor Greek(πνεῦμα) words for "spirit" refer only to a conscious spirit entity; a reading of Ecclesiastes 12:7 that says that the conscious spirit being of a person lives on after death is not by any means necessitated.

Where Does The Spirit Go?

Unfortunately, not much is said about where the spirit(רוּחַ, πνεῦμα) goes after death in the Bible. But there is some that is said. I can think of four major passages. Let us analyze them...

Ecclesiastes 3:21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

From the perspective of the author, "upwards" refers to only one place; Heaven. The Israelites thought Heaven was above the earth. This is incontrovertible.

  • Genesis 28:12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! (The ladder was ON the earth, and its TOP reached to Heaven, i.e. Heaven is above the earth.)

  • Genesis 49:25 by the God of your father who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. (Heaven above, not Heaven below. Heaven is what is upwards.)

  • Deuteronomy 4:39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. (Indeed, God is the Sovereign over the entire universe, over Heaven ABOVE and the earth below.)

  • Deuteronomy 30:12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (Who will ascend to Heaven, not who will descend to Heaven. Once again, Heaven is depicted as upwards, not downwards.)

  • Psalm 14:2 The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. (God looks down from Heaven to see the children of man[who live on the earth], meaning that He is above the earth. Once again, Heaven is depicted as above the earth, not below it.)

  • Luke 24:51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. (Jesus was carried UP into Heaven.)

  • John 20:17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (Jesus had not yet gone UP to Heaven to be with God the Father. Once again, Heaven is above the earth.)

  • Acts 1:9-11 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Jesus ascended, not descended, into Heaven. Once more, Heaven is depicted as upwards in relation to the earth.)

This should be enough to convince you that, from an Israelite's perspective(and thus the perspective of the author of Ecclesiastes), "upwards"(in reference to location) refers to Heaven. When Ecclesiastes asks whether the spirit of man goes upwards, from his standpoint, "upwards" refers to Heaven, not Sheol. But perhaps there is a chance it refers to Sheol? After all, Sheol is also depicted as upwards, is it not? No, not at all. The exact opposite is true. Sheol is never once depicted as upwards, but countless times depicted as downward.

  • Genesis 37:35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

  • Genesis 44:29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

  • Num 16:30; 33 But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”; So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.

  • 1 Kings 2:6 Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace.

  • Job 11:8 It is higher than heaven —what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?

  • Job 21:13 They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.

  • Isaiah 14:11 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers.

I cannot stress how beyond inconceivable it is that when Ecclesiastes was questioning whether the spirit of man goes upwards, he was actually questioning whether the spirit of man goes to Sheol, which is explicitly depicted as being downwards! Now we move on to the next passage.


Ecclesiastes 12:7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

What does the word return mean? Return - to go back or come back again. (Merriam-Webster) So, Ecclesiastes is saying that the spirit goes back to God. Perhaps it means that the spirit goes back to Sheol, which is in the realm of God? But wait, there are several problems with that. The first one is that in order to return to Sheol, we would've had to be there in the first place. Whenever the Bible talks about Sheol, it talks about it like a place where the dead go; but under our interpretation, it would have to be a place where the unborn are? Remember, you can't return to a place you've never been to; that's nonsensical. Therefore, we must've been to Sheol before we died. Certainly, we haven't been to Sheol while alive, thus the only other period of time would be the time before we were born; in conclusion, Sheol is both the place of the unborn and the dead. It's already a huge problem that the Bible never once talks about Sheol being a place other than the place of the dead, but it becomes even more of a problem when we realize that Sheol is divided into two compartments, one for the bliss of the righteous and another for the torment of the unrighteous! But wait. How does God decide which compartment to put an unborn person in? The person is neither righteous nor unrighteous, as the person has not even been born yet! Well, maybe there's a third compartment in Sheol, one for the unborn!

I hope you think that this is all completely ridiculous. I'm running the interpretation that "the spirit returns to God" means "the spirit goes to Sheol" through a reductio ad absurdum. But as if that wasn't enough, there is yet another problem! It's that Sheol is never said to be "in the realm of God". If you want to check all 63 occurrences of שְׁאוֹל(Sheol) in the Tanakh to affirm that, be my guest. You won't find any that say that Sheol is "in the realm of God".

But if "the spirit returns to God" doesn't mean "the spirit goes to Sheol", whatever could it possibly mean? I have a suggestion; I think it means that the spirit returns to God(crazy, right?). Who would've ever thought of that? Hear me out though, please. My interpretation is that the רוּחַ goes back to the place it was in before God breathed it into us. What am I referring to?

Genesis 2:7 Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.

Notice how God "breathed the breath of life"; our breath(our vital life-sustaining spirit) comes from God. Hence, when Ecclesiastes says that the spirit of man returns to God, it means that it goes back to being with Him, just as how it was with Him before He breathed it into us. It's the reverse process of God giving it to us; He takes it back! Wait, God takes our spirit? Is God ever said to take our spirit? Yes. The remaining two verses will affirm this.


Luke 23:46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

Acts 7:55-59 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Jesus expected God to take His spirit; Stephen expected Jesus to take his spirit. That's why both Jesus and Stephen gave their spirits up; they expected someone to receive them! Now, when Jesus gave up His spirit into the hands of His Father, where was He expecting His spirit to go? Into the hands of His Father! And where does God reside?

  • Psalm 11:4 The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

  • Psalm 14:2 The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.

  • 1 Kings 8:30 And listen to the plea of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear in heaven Your dwelling place; hear and forgive!

  • 1 Kings 22:19 Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left.

  • 2 Chronicles 30:27 Then the priests and the Levites stood to bless the people, and God heard their voice, and their prayer came into His holy dwelling place in heaven.

  • Isaiah 63:15 Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.

  • Lamentations 3:41 We raise our heart and hands toward God in heaven;

Indisputably, God resides in Heaven. Thus, Jesus, committing His spirit to God, expected His spirit to go to Heaven with God(who unquestionably dwells there). Now, when Stephen gazed into Heaven and saw Jesus(Acts 7:55-56), and asked Him to receive His spirit(Acts 7:59), what did Stephen think was going to happen to his spirit? Well, that Jesus would receive it! And where was Jesus? Unequivocally in Heaven. So where did Stephen think his spirit was going? To be with Jesus in Heaven, not to Sheol.

Those are the four passages(i.e. Ecclesiastes 3:21, Ecclesiastes 12:7, Luke 23:46, Acts 7:55-59) that speak about where the spirit goes after the death of a person. NONE of them suggest Sheol; ALL of them suggest with God in Heaven. I hope that's apparent by now.


But hold your horses! Don't Isaiah 14:9 and 1 Peter 3:19 talk about the spirits of the dead being in Sheol/Hades? Let's read them;

Isaiah 14:9 Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades[רְפָאִים] to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.

The word used there, רְפָאִים(Repha’im), is not the same word used for "spirit", which is רוּחַ(ruach). The word used in Ecclesiastes 12:7 is רוּחַ, which is an entirely different word than רְפָאִים. Never in the entire Bible is רוּחַ or πνεῦμα said to be in Sheol/Hades; Isaiah 14:9 is not an exception... Check out this answer here for an understanding of Isaiah 14:9.

Ok, but what about 1 Peter 3:19? Surely there the spirits of the dead are said to be in Sheol/Hades.

1 Peter 3:19 in which He also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison,

The words "Hades" and "dead" seem to be missing from the text. Notice that the verse does not say, "in which He also went and made proclamation to the spirits of the dead imprisoned in Hades". If you want to interpret it as such, fine by me; but that is nothing more than unsubstantiated conjecture. Thus, 1 Peter 3:19 does NOT affirm that the spirits of the dead are in Sheol/Hades.

In conclusion, Ecclesiastes 12:7 is saying that the spirit(i.e. the vital breath that sustains a living person) of a human entity returns(i.e. goes back) to where it was before it was breathed into us(Genesis 2:7), i.e. with God(who dwells in Heaven). It is not saying that our spirits return to Sheol.

I hope this was of help. Have a wonderful day! :)

2
2

A difficult question, indeed. My first thought went to Genesis 3:19 and the simplicity of aligning the spirit returning to where it came from. And, while this may indeed be true, it doesn't exactly explain very much, nor stir the pot of curiosity. So, after further ponderance... maybe there's another way to approach this to see whether or not a few more layers of the onion can be peeled back.

Rather than heading straight into what "the spirit" is or might be, let's try giving some consideration to where (or what direction) it (whatever it is) might be "returning" to. In other words, where God is.

I think the best clue and indication we have for this is found in Isaiah 57:15.

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

It actually appears there may be a bit of a conundrum in this verse, as it describes several distinct things that we don't (maybe can't) think of being together. Clearly "eternity" is not, and does not have, a certain or particular distance from anything (not even time itself.) Yet, "high and holy" does seem to indicate that it is a particular direction from us. Most intriguing, however, is the declaration that "the high and lofty One" (aka, God) dwells "with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit..."

Hmmm... now that there is a rather clear possibility of spirit (at least, that of a "contrite and humble" sort) being with God, there appears to be a need to review and address what "the spirit" is or might be in Ecclesiastes 12:7. At the very least, I do not see that a contrite and humble spirit should be (nor can be) excluded from whatever is meant by "the spirit" in Ecclesiastes. In light of Isaiah 57:15 telling us that a contrite and humble spirit (while still live) is already with God (the explicit context of the verse being the habitation and dwelling place of God), it seems reasonable to suppose or conclude that there remains no other location or distance for spirit to "go to" when "the dust returns to the earth as it was."

While it might remain debatable whether or not (or how) a contrite and humble spirit (being descriptive of a living, breathing man) dwells with God in a "high and holy place" (which does not appear to be descriptive of a physical location of any sort), it surely must be realized that said spirit (whether created or made) is not eternal (defined as being without beginning and without end), nor does it inhabit eternity.

Psalms 104:30a

Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created...

Isaiah 42:

Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:

Therefore, it seems reasonable to say and conclude that "returns to God" is the affirmation of the complete dissolution of life - רוּחַ ruach (spirit, breath, wind, etc.), however it (ruach) is described or by whatever definition is used for it.

John 3:8

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Appendix 1

Perhaps a bit more explanation here of "the complete dissolution of life" (as stated above) would be helpful. If the spirit (or breath, if perchance that is a better way to think of it) is "created" - in the purest sense of the word - from absolutely nothing that ever existed (which only God can do)... then like as dust returns to the earth as it was, so also does the spirit returns to the nothingness from which it came (i.e, was created, brought into existence... which, perhaps from an another point of view, might be said or thought of as, a creation in... time.)

Psalms 78:39

For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind [ruach] that passeth away, and cometh not again.

Furthermore, after considering the overall context and the 24 usages of ruach in the book of Ecclesiastes, I am not inclined to think that it's appearance here in 12:7 refers to some pre-existing spirit, or "holy spirit" of any sort that was "added" or co-joined to man at any time or point in his life. For instance, see 3:19 "they all have one breath [ruach]", 3:21, 7:8, 8:8, 10:4, and 11:5.

1

The simplest way to understand this as the opposite process of what happened when God created man.

  • Gen 2:7 - Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being [literally, "soul"]
  • Zech 12:1 - This is a message from the LORD about Israel: I am the LORD! I stretched out the heavens; I put the earth on its foundations and gave breath to humans.
  • Job 27:3 - as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils,
  • Isa 42:5 - This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:
  • Ps 104:30 - When you give them your breath, life is created, and you renew the face of the earth.

Note that the first human did not exist without the breath of life. At death the reverse occurs:

  • Eccl 12:7 - and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit/breath returns to God who gave it.
  • Ps 146:4 - His breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.
  • Ps 104:29 - When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

APPENDIX 1 - רוּחַ (ruach)

Note that the meaning of the word רוּחַ (ruach) is breath and sometimes spirit as shown by the meaning listed in BDB.

APPENDIX 2 - Some explanatory notes

This addition material and update is at the implied request of SRI and Bagpipes.

According to Gen 2:7 a person or human (like all the animals) consist of the physical body and the breath of life. We are never told (in the Bible) what this is but without it, a soul cannot exist as documented above. When a person/soul dies, the soul/person ceases to exist - the body goes into a grave and never returns and the breath of life returns to God who gave it.

At the resurrection, God gives everyone a new "heavenly" body (whatever that means) according to 1 Cor 15:32-49, at least this is true of the righteous. How the wicked are resurrected is never really stated.

This is as far as we can go because that is all this is revealed.

3
  • 1
    @ spirit Realm investigator, please give me a short summary/explanation, as to why you chose this as the accepted answer in relation to your question. What is the strong points that Dottard has explained that shows, "What does Ecclesiastes 12:7 exactly mean by "the spirit returns to God"? Thanks.
    – Bagpipes
    Jan 19 at 22:08
  • 1
    @Bagpipes - it was the answer that made least amount of unsubstantiated assumptions, although I agree that I wished it had more details on what exactly happens during the process of death. But I'm willing to accept a different answer. Hopefully your bounty will attract better ones. Jan 30 at 20:16
  • @snoopy "when Jesus said today He would be with Him in paradise? (please no 'there is a comma' argument)." Check out this answer here. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/72985/… "God heard the voice of Elijah and the soul of the boy returned to him and he lived, what exactly does that mean" Check out this answer here. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/73816/… Hope they help! :)
    – Rajesh
    Feb 4 at 19:15
0

The Human Soul is an immortal particle of Elohim which exists both before its descent into its mother's womb [Jeremiah 1:5] and after its departure from its earthly body.

The "odor" of sinful נְשָׁמוֹת Neshamot (Souls) represented by Burnt-Offerings in [Leviticus 1] is removed from Elohim's נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים "Soul of Life" residing in humans.

Cells are removed which no longer function to serve the body, as Souls are removed which no longer function to serve YHVH. [Ezekiel 18:20] - "The soul that sins, it shall die; a son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, and a father shall not bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." ( הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַֽחֹטֵאת הִ֣יא תָמוּת בֵּן לֹֽא־יִשָּׂא | בַּֽעֲו‍ֹן הָאָ֗ב וְאָב לֹא יִשָּׂא בַּֽעֲו‍ֹן הַבֵּ֔ן צִדְקַת הַצַּדִּיק֙ עָלָ֣יו תִּֽהְיֶה וְרִשְׁעַ֥ת הָֽרָשָׁע (כתיב רָשָׁ֖ע) עָלָיו תִּֽהְיֶֽה )

[Proverbs 20:27] - "The Lamp of YHVH is a Human Soul" ( נֵר יְהֹוָה נִשְׁמַת אָדָם )

As the human body inhales what it once exhaled, so Elohim receives the soul it remembers giving.

[Ecclesiastes 12:7] - "And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to [Ha-Elohim], Who gave it." (וְיָשֹׁ֧ב הֶֽעָפָ֛ר עַל־הָאָרֶץ כְּשֶֽׁהָיָה וְהָר֣וּחַ תָּשׁ֔וּב אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נְתָנָֽהּ)

1
0

What does Ecclesiastes 12:7 exactly mean by "the spirit returns to God"?

We must be careful to correctly understand 'spirit' here.

This is not "holy spirit'. The spirit in man that returns to God at death is not Holy spirit - it is not "God'. It is a function of God that He shares to impart intellect, emotion, desire, will etc - what makes a human a human.

When Adam received the 'breath of life' he became a living soul. When he surrendered his spirit at death he ceased being a 'living soul'.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. James 2:26

When we die, just as Stephen did, we send our spirit back to the heavens - to God's original source. Jesus received Stephen's spirit because he is Stephen's Lord and functions perfectly as God's 'right hand man'.

When we are baptised and in the stages leading to that action, we are being guided by, and given the gift of, holy spirit. This is in addition to our spirit - which is essentially a spirit 'of the world' being influenced by the devil more than anything else.

Our human spirit that God provides is not holy - it can be corrupted and wickedly oriented - this is not corrupting 'God'! It is a life force for this age only - just as Jesus had when he walked the earth prior to his death. When God raised Jesus, He provided a different life force to make him immortal, imperishable.

The other questions are essentially rhetorical as we are given no information about, ‘where spirits are stored’.

-1

Does it mean that the spirit returns to some specific location in the spirit realm where God "stores" spirits.?

No, but God does store "souls," under the alter. (Rev 6:9-11).There is a difference between a soul and a spirit.

Luke 23:46 (niv), reads,

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

The words of Jesus indicate that when all humans die, all the spirits (breath of life), return to Gods' hands. After this, we are not told where God "stores" spirits, but we are told that God is spirit.

God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24).

A spirit does not have a body, and Luke 24:38-49 explains this.

He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

So, if a spirit does not have flesh and bones, and God is spirit, How can God hold in his hands, the spirit that Jesus has committed to him, that is the "breath of life".

Acts 7:55 gives a slight explanation.

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Stephen did not actually see God, but he did see the "Glory of God", which alludes to Isaiah 43:6-7,

I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth— 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

So, if God is glory, this glory must part of the "spirit of God", which is said to give the "breath of life to humans."

Matthew 1:18,

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus said," “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he was returning the "Glory of God", which is also the "breath of life", which was given to Jesus, when he was conceived by the spirit.

Conclusion:

The breath of life, which is also, the "Glory of God", at death, returns to God and becomes part of the whole spirit of God. This is why Jesus said,

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” which could also be read as,

“Father, into your hands I commit my Glory".

John1:14,

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

6
  • [...] and the spirit is God - did you mean the spirit belongs to God? Are you suggesting that each human has God inside of them? Jan 17 at 18:03
  • No i am not suggesting that.
    – Bagpipes
    Jan 17 at 18:11
  • But you said "The breath of life is the spirit and the spirit is God", i.e. breath of life = God? So humans are made of body + breath of life = body + God? Jan 17 at 18:12
  • Gen:2 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being: Note: The Lord God Breathed into his nostrils. This suggests that the breath came from the Lords mouth. Yes??
    – Bagpipes
    Jan 17 at 20:03
  • Sure, as long as you interpret it literally. It could also just be a figurative description. By the way, if a person already has God inside, then what happens when a born again believer receives the Holy Spirit for the first time? Do they have God inside twice? Jan 17 at 20:14
-1

Below is provided, a bit of longish and belletristic, but entirely Biblical and philosophical insight with helpful examples to prove and demonstrate that soul, that is to say, the inner core of our personality, survives the death of body and is alive and conscious in the afterlife, or better, afterdeath state, moreover that both Biblically and philosophically the claim that a person and his soul co-perish with his body cannot stand.

Closest to God in us are not bodily perceptions, pleasures and pains, neither sense of beauty, i.e. aesthetic perceptions, but understanding of what is good and what is evil. We do not do that by body, but by something else in us, which we can call alternatively, "soul", "spirit", "mind", "intellect", "the inner core our our personality", "the inner man", "the conscience". And it is invisible, not visible or tangible. One can ask, can it or does it feel pain? Yes, of course, but not a bodily one, but incomparably, other-dimensionally more painful pain.

Maybe you remember a soup-opera-type masterpiece film "Once upon a time in America", with Robert de Niro as a main character of "Noodles". By the end of this movie a friend who betrayed a friend throws himself into a garbage truck that minces garbage with iron blades, killing himself in such an ugly manner. Not a good decision to be sure, but it was more unbearable for him to carry the pain of a traitor than a death-inflicting pain of the garbage-mincing mechanical blades. That is what a non-earthly pain be inflicted on our inner core. Or, one can say "no" to a boss who asks him to advertise a harmful product, and he may be fired, with a loss of a lucrative salary. Painful, but this pain is eclipsed by the serene joy of that "inner man" for not acting ignobly and doing what was aught. This pain for which a man threw himself to the mincing blades, and that joy born from the pain and discomfort of losing a well-paid job for a right cause are not bodily and even temporal things. Kant in his divinely graced vision says that such things do not even belong to a phenomenal-empirical world defined by and subject to space and time, and that this in us survives body and goes to the presence of God at our death. Moreover, it cannot not survive the body, as Plato convincingly has proven in the "Republic", for everything dies, i.e. is destroyed, according to its specific malady, like iron dies, i.e. rusts by exposure to air and water, and our body dies by its proper versatile maladies; however, the "inner invisible core" mentioned above has as its malady only injustice and sin, but we see that even a most sinful man still continues to live, with the pain in him for sins smoldering silently in him; thus, if even its own malady does not destroy the inner invisible core, the soul or spirit of a sinful man, then how on earth a malady of a body can destroy a soul/spirit of a just man? This will be illogical according to Plato, who just conveys a common sense here.

In Old Testament we have glimpses of the immortality of soul, cf. Ecclesiastes 12:7, which says that after man dies his spirit goes to God who gave it, and this is "spirit" - unless it stands not for an individual spirit but for the Holy Spirit, which is counterintuitive - must denote something created, not uncreated, and this created something is invisible, intangible, incorporeal, but still a more important thing in us than body, for the latter goes to earth, whereas the former to God. But nothing more is said here. In Psalm 103:15-17 it is said that man's life's days are like hay and flower of field, which disappear with the blow of wind, but in contrast with the hey and flowers, God's grace lasts forever on those who fulfill His commandments, which clearly means that those on whom the grace of God lasts forever must be conscious, for how otherwise will they perceive this grace to say nothing of enjoying it? To say that God's grace continues working on them who are no more is an oxymoron in the very literal sense of this word - an "acute stupidity". Or in Psalm 49:14-17 where it is said to a righteous man not to envy an unrighteous man, for the latter's blessing will last only during his life, whereas a righteous is given a promise that he will be redeemed from the realm of the dead. If life and conscience, the inner invisible core of our personality ends with the death of the body, then there will not be any redeeming either, but only a re-creation of that what is dead. But there is an abyss of difference between re-creation and redeeming, for re-creation means a creatio ex nihilo second time while redeeming implies that someone redeemed is not a nihil. In the New Testament it is clearly stated, in fact, that God of Abraham, Isaak etc. is God of living and that Abraham, Isaak et al. all are living with Him, and that Sadducees thinking they are not, are in a grave error (as is the legion of modern-day Sadducees for that matter) (Mark 12:27). Abraham and the other two deceased men are even depicted in the Lord's parable as living and conscious in their afterlife, before the General Resurrection at the Second Coming (Luke 16:19-31). While, without parable Moses and Elijah directly encounter and converse with Him on mount Tabor (Matthew 17:3) - (one can say that Elijah did not even die and he was granted a special departure, in body, on a fiery chariot, but Moses died physically and both were living in God after the end of their historical lives).

Moreover, when Paul says that he far more desires to die, or literally as he says, "depart from body" and through this departure to be with Christ than to be in body, but still to be alive and in body is beneficial for his disciples (Philippians 1:22-26) unless he means that after death his person will enjoy a greater intensity of being together with Christ, then this statement makes no sense, and who can be as preposterous as to accuse Paul of being a senseless or mislead in things like that?

A great calumny on God is to say that He allows human person to die entirely, without survival of his personal identity consciously (we can term this conscious identity traditionally as 'soul' or 'spirit'), but re-creates this person out of memory in the Last Day, because a sinful man will then be resurrected together with his sinfulness, but then God will be a creator of sinfulness, which is both absurd and evil calumny on God who not only does not but ontologically cannot create sin and evil. What remains, is that either God does not resurrect sinners at all, which is outright wrong according to Scriptures, or that sinners, after death, continue their existence and even can benefit from prayers of their beloved ones still living historical lives in this visible universe. And surely the second is Biblically, and also philosophically and ontologically plausible, whereas the first is not.

Not only the Holy Scriptures, but also so many cultures have this deep and correct insight of soul being more principal than body and of soul's survival of body. But modern Western civilization has become incorrigibly indifferent towards and has even forgotten altogether both the eternity and soul, even God has become redundant for the West and this materialistic climate influences with its poisonous breath also the Biblical hermeneutics practiced at this site so pervasively.

Thus, after death to God goes our most important aspect, the aspect through which we know what is good and what is bad, our conscious soul, or the conscience-endowed soul, which can be tormented by this conscience, or painfully be pinched by the same conscience. That's why the Lord says not to be afraid of those who kill our bodies, but of the one who can put one to hell after death, and this one can be either the Lord Himself or our conscience or both together, for unrepented deceased soul is tormented in presence of God.

12
  • Do you use the words "soul" and "spirit" interchangeably? Do you make a distinction between the two? Jan 17 at 22:09
  • The distinction is so difficult to make and different philosophers and different theologians make often different classifications; but one is clear: what survived body and goes to God is the very core of our personality, conscious and thinking, it is we who survive in fact our body. Thus it is better to die than to commit sin. Jan 17 at 22:24
  • 1
    @LevanGigineishvili Please don't start an Answer with rhetorical questions. You have six in your opening paragraph. This reads more like a blog post. Just get to your point, which will be seen for its value if it can be most simply put. Jan 18 at 2:03
  • @Jesse Steele Thanks for addressing my post. I will consider changing. But they are not rhetorical questions, if anything, they are “leading [towards correct answer]” questions, in order to rise attention in a reader. Jan 18 at 4:29
  • 1
    (-1) This answer has been flagged as Low Quality - indeed, it uses everything except hermeneutics to answer the question. If this was a generic 'Bible study' site, perhaps philosophy-only answers would be on-topic. The issue isn't so much about 'rules' as it is about the site topic - you'd prefer the topic to be modified so that answers aren't required to use any hermeneutical methods, in which case it would no longer be the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. I hope you can agree how peculiar such a request sounds?
    – Steve Taylor
    Jan 18 at 9:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.