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Proverbs 15 (ESV):

9 The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.
10 There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way; whoever hates reproof will die.
11 Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord; how much more the hearts of the children of man!

24 The path of life leads upward for the prudent, that he may turn away from Sheol beneath.

27 Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live.

Notably, verse 24 introduces directions: up & down. Given the context, it sounds to me as if the righteous are the ones who go upward, whereas the wicked go downward (to "Sheol beneath").

A similar notion of directions (up & down) is alluded to by Ecclesiastes 3:21 (ESV):

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

Since Ecclesiastes 3:21 is a question, it seems to convey uncertainty, as if the author is not quite sure, meaning perhaps that the answer to the question is unknown to him or depends on other variables.

Questions:

  • Is there a connection between Proverbs 15:24 and Ecclesiastes 3:21? Are both passages talking about the same thing?
  • Can a person avoid going to Sheol at death (down) by living a righteous life (up)?

Related questions:

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    The best one (in my opinion) of this, your series of questions on the afterlife. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 4 at 13:04
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    I wish that you were clear about what you are asking. We have in Eccl 9:2 that all have the same fate - so are you suggesting that the righteous do not go into sheol but go straight to heaven? In a previous question you have both the righteous and wicked in separate places in sheol/hades
    – Dottard
    Feb 4 at 21:56
  • @Dottard - do you mean that you wish I were clear in this specific question or that you wish I were consistent across multiple questions? I have asked many contradictory questions in the past (some of my questions seem to favor one doctrine, other questions seem to favor another doctrine, etc.) Feb 4 at 23:57
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - I base this on the what you have accepted as true/correct answer - that does not appear to inform subsequent questions. This one (which I have heard before) is "scraping the bottom of the barrel" to find a Biblical justification for the immortal soul. In you opinion, when a person dies do they go to heaven, sheol or something else?
    – Dottard
    Feb 5 at 1:40
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    This on of those theories that (in the words of Sir Humphrey) I would call very "brave" because it contains so many elements that are not supported by Scripture such as (1) saints of OT rising with Jesus to heaven (2) how anything can have eternal life without God (3) how pain can be inflicted without a body (4) why people are treated differently in BC vs AD, etc. But each person is free to believe whatever. I believe that Jesus/God is the only source of life, period. I also think He is kind and not vindictive nor sadistic. Jesus took our punishment.
    – Dottard
    Feb 5 at 3:00

3 Answers 3

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Upwards

An overly literalistic reading of up & down plays right into a popular naturalistic argument--it contends that the Bible indicates that the heavens where God dwells are above us in the sky, but in modern times we have sent machines & people into the sky, and there's nothing up there like what the Bible describes. A rocket sent upward will go through various layers of the atmosphere and eventually enter the vacuum of space. Furthermore, because the earth is spherical, that portion of the cosmos that is above our head at this moment will, 12 hours later, be below our feet. Is the Bible wrong?

The flaw in this argument can be seen by means of a thought experiment. I'm writing this post in the USA; there are users on this site who are in Australia--we are almost exactly on opposite sides of the earth. If we both were to look up at the same time, we would be looking in opposite directions! Which of us is wrong? Neither.

People 2500 years ago did not have as detailed an understanding of the cosmos as we do today, and surely people 2500 years from now will be just as happy to ridicule the simplistic nature of the understanding we have at present. They may well have believed pi = 3 or that the spirits of the dead inhabit caverns deep in the earth, but that isn't relevant. If God could only communicate everything or nothing we would have to be content with nothing.

That God knows things beyond the confines of our understanding is expressed effectively in the poetry of Job:

17 Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?

18 Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all. (Job 38:17-18)

God recognizes our limited understanding and communicates at a level we can understand:

The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple (Psalm 119:130)

(if we're willing to ask & seek--see Matt. 7:7)

If we are looking for the elevation of a specific realm, we will search the Biblical authors in vain. They didn't know. Plotting the Cartesian coordinates of Sheol was never the intention.

Does upwards describe God, or does God define what upwards is?

I propose the latter--God is upwards in that He exceeds the world around us in power, majesty, and glory. That is true regardless of the hemisphere in which this post is being read.

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A sincere question

That the "who knows" in Eccl. 3:21 is a genuine question, rather than a rhetorical exercise, is supported by comparison to Ecclesiastes' use of the same "who knows" expression in 2:19 & 6:12, where uncertainty is clearly expressed (see Pulpit commentary).

The writer is asking a question because he does not know.

--

Don't count on skipping the layover in Sheol

Jacob was a righteous man, yet when he contemplated death we read:

and all his sons and all his daughters rise to comfort him, and he refuseth to comfort himself, and saith, 'For -- I go down mourning unto my son, to Sheol, and his father weepeth for him (Genesis 37:35 YLT)

Similar comments could be made with respect to Isaiah, as demonstrated in this post.

The hope for the righteous, then, appears not to be the opportunity to avoid Sheol (a place of diminished power & glory?), but that like the hiker on a mountain ridge, the journey may involve both descent & ascent, but the final destination is upwards.

--

Conclusion

Is there a connection between Proverbs 15:24 and Ecclesiastes 3:21? Are both passages talking about the same thing?

There is a connection in that they both contemplate the afterlife, and the possibility of moving upwards (towards God); both appear more interested in the destination than the contours of the journey.

Can a person avoid going to Sheol at death (down) by living a righteous life (up)?

Doesn't sound promising, but the net trajectory can still be up. Because of the atonement of Christ, the Fall was a step downwards but forwards and ultimately towards God (see 1 Cor. 15:21,22,42; 1 John 3:2). Death can be too.

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    "God is upwards in that He exceeds the world around us in power, majesty, and glory. That is true regardless of the hemisphere in which this post is being read." I don't technically disagree with this. And I don't technically agree with it either! Obviously, God is not literally upward. As you say, "there's nothing up there like what the Bible describes". But that doesn't change the fact that in the mind of an ancient Israelite, "upwards" means Heaven or God. It's their way of saying that, if you know what I mean. I don't believe God is literally upwards.
    – Rajesh
    Feb 5 at 2:22
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    I believe that the ancient Israelites thought God was literally upwards. He isn't, but that's ok; the message remains. God uses humans, in their ignorance, to convey the truth He wants to. In Revelation 2:23, Jesus literally says that He searches the kidneys and hearts, because people at that time thought that the kidneys were the centers of thought and emotion(but that didn't matter to Jesus; He got message across). The message He is trying to convey to us is that He is capable of examining the innermost parts of a person, hence "kidneys" is translated as "mind" in every translation.
    – Rajesh
    Feb 5 at 2:28
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    Saying that the "spirit goes upward" was an ancient Israelites way of saying that the spirit goes to God in Heaven, even though it isn't technically true; just as saying that God searches the kidneys and hearts was their way of saying that God examines the innermost parts of a person, even though it isn't technically true. Hence, I agree with your last paragraph; "but the net trajectory can still be up. Because of the atonement of Christ, the Fall was a step downwards but forwards and ultimately towards God" Good job! +1 Have a good day. :) (Oh, tell me what you think of my answer)
    – Rajesh
    Feb 5 at 2:31
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    @Rajesh He got message across well-said--I believe that is indeed what God intends. Sure, I'll take a look at your post in a bit, thanks for the feedback. Feb 5 at 3:31
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    @AshleyRoberts thanks, and kudos for highlighting the relevance General Relativity on the Hermeneutics site! That might be a first =); well-played. Feb 5 at 5:39
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Question 1: "Is there a connection between Proverbs 15:24 and Ecclesiastes 3:21? Are both passages talking about the same thing?"

No, they're not talking about the same thing. Proverbs 15:24 talks about the man himself.

Proverbs 15:24 The path of life leads upward for the wise, that he may avoid going down to Sheol.

Ecclesiastes 3:21 talks about the spirit OF man.

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

The spirit of man is never referred to as "he" anywhere in the Bible; men themselves, however, are referred to as "he". Hence, the two passages are not referring to the same thing; the former speaks about the man himself, and the latter speaks about the spirit OF man(i.e. the spirit belonging to man).


Question 2: "Can a person avoid going to Sheol at death (down) by living a righteous life (up)?"

Notice that Proverbs 15:24 does not say that a wise man can avoid going down to Sheol at death. It only says that a wise man can avoid Sheol. There's a simple solution to this. Say one day you're crossing the road, looking at your phone, and listening to music with your airpods on(yes, unfortunately, people have done this before[and suffered the consequences]), and suddenly a person jumps out of nowhere and pushes you onto the sidewalk! You remove your headphones, take a look at the road, and see that a truck had just passed by at full speed! So you thank the person that pushed you onto the sidewalk saying, "You saved my life! I could've died just now, but thanks to you I avoided death! How ever could I repay you?" Do your words imply that you will avoid death forever? Or that you will never lose your life? No, they simply mean that at this moment you avoided death.

It's the same with Proverbs 15:24. A wise person would know that being on your phone with your airpods on listening to music while crossing the road where cars and trucks are always passing by is decidedly NOT a safe thing to do. They know that their focus should be on the road, on where they're going, always checking to see if any vehicles are passing by. In doing so, they may avoid dying(going to Sheol), as opposed to a foolish person whose life may be cut short due to their incompetence.

Proverbs 15:24 does not say that a wise man may avoid going to Sheol ad infinitum; nor that when a wise man does die, he might go somewhere other than Sheol; simply that a wise man, in his prudence, may avoid going to Sheol(in a scenario where going to Sheol is otherwise a possibility, e.g. crossing the road).

Hope this helps! Have a great day. :)

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    This is an interesting (and creative) take on the proverb. I see how the Ecclesiastes interpretation follows consistently from your viewpoint. I enjoy your parables, +1 Feb 5 at 4:27
  • Thanks so much! :)))
    – Rajesh
    Feb 5 at 4:40
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King Solomon gathered "The path of life is above the intelligent person, in order that he turn away from the grave below." (אֹ֣רַח חַ֖יִּים לְמַ֣עְלָה לְמַשְׂכִּ֑יל לְמַ֥עַן ס֜֗וּר מִשְּׁא֥וֹל מָֽטָּה) - [Proverbs 15:24] - reflective of [Exodus 25:22] where the Godly wisdom is found hovering [above] the law, even higher [above] the childlike Keruvim angels in the קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים holy of holies.

If an intelligent person does not maintain humility [Matthew 18:3-4] through charitable time spent learning as the childlike Keruvim angels [always bowing to study the law hidden in the Ark] eager to learn from others, then $elfish arrogance of complacency will be humbled by someone of greater intelligence. - [Ezekiel 28:16-17]

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