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Ecclesiastes 12:5-7 (ESV):

5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

From this passage we learn that man goes to his "eternal home" upon death (v5), but we know that man is the union of body and spirit (Genesis 2:7), and when a man dies his body decays and turns into dust, and so by process of elimination, the part that is eternal (which goes to the "eternal home") must be the spirit, which returns to God (v7).

But we know that God is in Heaven (Psalm 11:4, 1 Kings 22:19, Isaiah 63:15, Matt 18:14, etc.).

So, by connecting the dots, we conclude that at death man's spirit (which is eternal) returns to God, who is in Heaven.

However, Ecclesiastes 9:10 paints a different picture:

10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

According to Ecclesiastes 9:10, we go to Sheol instead. In other words, we have the following apparent contradiction:

When we die, our spirit goes to Heaven (because God is in Heaven), yet we go to Sheol.

Question: Where do we go when we die, to Heaven (because God is in Heaven) or to Sheol?


Related questions:

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    You really are a Spirit Realm Investigator. Your questions are always so interesting.
    – Austin
    Jan 27 at 6:39
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    When the breath goes forth from the body, the person ceases to exist! That we do not go anywhere, except the component parts - the body goes to the grave and the breath returns to God.
    – Dottard
    Jan 27 at 22:40
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    When an electronic device's battery wears out and is removed, the device is dead, no longer functioning. The batteries themselves are fungible, not intrinsically part of the device, and as far as the device is concerned, what happens to those batteries is moot. Similarly, when a car dies and is sent to the wrecker, its fuel and battery are removed. Now consider that when we die, our life-force (our battery, our fuel) is sent back to the maker. We are not the battery or the fuel, and the fuel or battery is not us. When we die, we go to the grave. Jan 29 at 4:07
  • @RayButterworth: When we die, we go to the grave - 1) Are you saying that "we" are our bodies? If so, what if you lose a leg? Would "you" still be you or 90% you? What if "you" lose your legs and your arms? Would that still be "you"? 2) What about Sheol?
    – user38524
    Jan 29 at 4:16
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator, I'm saying that until resurrection, people cease to exist at death, at least whatever it is that constitutes their self-awareness and consciousness does. ¶ I guess my biggest objection is the conclusion that because something goes to God and God is in Heaven it follows that that something goes to Heaven. Isn't God potentially everywhere? And even if not, when I get a refund and the money goes back to me, it goes to my bank, not to my house where I happen to be. Regardless of the facts, I disagree with the logic. Jan 29 at 17:37

3 Answers 3

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Let's consider 3 possibilities:

  1. It's a contradiction
  2. The spirit returns to the presence of God
  3. The spirit returns to the realm of God

1. Contradiction


A textual analyst should be open to finding irreconcilable texts, but I suggest it is foolish to assume we are smarter than whoever wrote the text and that we readily spot things they were too simple to notice. We should first ask if there is a reasonable explanation that allows the possibility that the writer did know what they were talking about.

The case for contradiction finds further difficulty in the fact that the two texts we are considering here come from the same book. It's one matter to say author A & author B have different, irreconcilable worldviews...it's another to say the author (or compiler, if you like) of Ecclesiastes couldn't keep his story straight from one chapter to another.


2. 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)


3. 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--as Dottard has already alluded--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).


Conclusion

Possibilities 2 & 3 above are not entirely mutually exclusive. The Biblical text is unclear as to whether or not the spirits of the dead will be in the presence of God prior to their resurrection, even if a well-placed early source like Polycarp thought so, but there is no reason to doubt the consistent attestation that the dead go to Sheol.

I do not believe it is necessary to resort to contradiction here--a viable explanation exists that respects the intelligence of the author. It is possible for the spirits of men to return to the "heavens [which] are The Lord's", satisfying Ecclesiastes 12:7, without conclusively ruling out option 2 or option 3 above.

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Both are correct!

The structure of Eccl 12:5-7 is rather simple but stark - it contains a series of metaphors about aging and death:

  • men become afraid of heights and dangers (advancing frailty)
  • the almond tree blossoms (a reference to the funeral?)
  • the grasshopper looses its spring (weak in the joints)
  • pitcher is shattered at the spring (death)
  • the wheel is broken at the well (falls into the ground)
  • the dust returns to the ground from which it came (decay in the grave)
  • the breath returns to God who gave it (the person expires)

The last metaphor is simply another way of saying the person expires and the spark of life alluded to in Gen 2:7 is given up. That is, Eccl 12:5-7 describes the reverse process of Gen 2:7. [Recall that the word רוּחַ (ruach) quite often means "breath" as in Ex 15:8, Job 4:9, 6:26, 15:30, 16:3, Jer 5:13, 10:14, 51:17, Hab 2:19, Ps 135:17, etc; or "wind" gen 8:1, Ex 15:10, Num 11:31, 1 Kings 18:45, Jer 10:13, etc; mental disposition, 1 Chron 5:26, Ezra 1:1, 5, Jer 51:11, etc, etc.

Note Ps 78:39 - He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.

In Eccl 12:7, on the basis of gen 2:7 I would posit a better translation id "breath. [See BDB for a more thorough list of the various meanings of רוּחַ (ruach)].

Location

As to the "location" of God, that is not always a meaningful phrase. As is well-known, God is often depicted as being in "heaven"; but that is not always true. God is known to be omnipresent - everywhere at once. See Isa 66:1, Jer 23:23, 24, Heb 4:13, 1 Kings 8:27, Matt 18:20, etc. However, let me quote Ps 139:7-10 -

Where can I go to escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle by the farthest sea, even there Your hand will guide me; Your right hand will hold me fast.

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  • The last metaphor is simply another way of saying the person expires and the spark of life alluded to in Gen 2:7 is given up - and where does that spark of life go? To Heaven, Sheol or somewhere else? (Basically, the question I asked in the OP)
    – user38524
    Jan 27 at 16:06
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - the spark of life, called the breath of life, goes back to God who gave it (obviously) according to the text! The location of God is vague in Scripture - sometimes it is in heaven and other times in she'ol - see Ps 139:8, 9 - God is omnipresent and not confined.
    – Dottard
    Jan 27 at 20:41
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - I have added some further material that may help.
    – Dottard
    Jan 27 at 21:20
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There is no contradiction here. We have only not read the passages.

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

Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Unless you = the spirit, each passage is saying something entirely different. The latter is saying that our spirit(i.e. spirit that belongs to us) goes to God. Ecclesiastes 3:21 says something similar.

Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

As you pointed out, God resides in Heaven, and Heaven is depicted as above in relation to the earth in many places in scripture(e.g. Psalm 14:2, Isaiah 63:15, Lamentations 3:41, Matthew 28:2, Luke 24:51, John 20:17). Thus, Ecclesiastes 3:21 is reiterating what is said at Ecclesiastes 12:7. Well, it would be the other way around, as Ecclesiastes 12 is chronologically after Ecclesiastes 3, but you get the point. So notice how Ecclesiastes 3:21 says the spirit OF man goes upward, and not the spirit THAT IS man goes upward. Our spirits are not synonymous with us.

Therefore, when Ecclesiastes 9:10 says that WE are going to Sheol, it's saying that WE are going to Sheol and not that OUR spirits are going to Sheol. The spirit of man is never equated with man himself.

Hope this helps! Have a good day.

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  • Therefore, when Ecclesiastes 9:10 says that WE are going to Sheol, it's saying that WE are going to Sheol and not that OUR spirits are going to Sheol. The spirit of man is never equated with man himself. - if a man ceases to exist upon death, then how can a non-existing being go anywhere? I see only three options, either 1) the body (the molecules) go to Sheol, 2) the spirit goes to Sheol or 3) Sheol is a metaphorical place. Can you edit your answer to explain which of the 3 options you advocate and why?
    – user38524
    Jan 30 at 21:33

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