by Luke Wayne
Ecclesiastes 12:7 "and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it."
Groups like the LDS (Mormons), the World Mission Society Church of God, and the Swedenborgians argue that we existed in heaven as spirits prior to our physical birth on earth. One of the most popular arguments among proponents of this view is to point to Ecclesiastes 12:7, particularly where it says "the spirit returns to God who gave it." If our spirits return to God, so the argument goes, they must have been with God at some point before. They conclude, therefore, that we were once spirits living with God in heaven and we can return to our heavenly home when we die.
The Biblical Response:
The Bible clearly teaches that our physical life comes first and spiritual life comes afterward (1 Corinthians 15:46-47) and that we are first born of flesh and then afterward of spirit (John 3:3-6). The gospel of John repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the fact that Jesus is from heaven whereas we are not (John 3:31, 8:23, 6:23-51). As to a man's spirit, the scriptures say:
Zechariah 12:1, "The oracle of the word of the Lord concerning Israel: Thus declares the Lord, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him."
Our spirit is something God formed "within us", not something we already existed as before coming down and taking on a body. So what, then, are we to make of Ecclesiastes 12:7? Let's look at it in context:
Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low 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 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, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity."
The references to man "going to his eternal home" and his spirit returning "to God who gave it" are not hopeful images of a grand homecoming to some glorious, former heavenly abode. They are part of a chain of references to death, mourning, terror, decay, breaking, shattering, dimming, and the like. These are somber words about tragedy, loss, and death. "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity." This is far from a happy promise of future heavenly hope, much less a testimony of a past heavenly life beyond. These are simply euphemisms for death. But let's take this a step further back. If "the spirit returns to God who gave it" is an ancient Israelite euphemism for death, where did that euphemism come from in first place? Does the mere existence of such a euphemism show that there was a general assumption that we pre-existed in heaven and would return there? A closer examination shows otherwise.
The creation account in Genesis tells us that God formed us out of dust and then personally breathed the breath of life into us:
Genesis 2:7, "the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature."
What makes us alive is the breath of God in us. The concepts of "breath" and "spirit" are closely tied together in ancient thinking, as can be seen in verses such as:
Job 27:2-5, "As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter, as long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. Far be it from me to say that you are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me."
Notice, that "as long and my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils" is a way of saying, "as long as I am still alive." The spirit of God, in this context, is the breath of life. It is what makes man alive. God has given us His own breath. If that breath were to go back to Him, we would be dead. The Spirit of God = The Breath of God = Human Life.
Job 32:8, "But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand."
Job 33:4-7, "The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. Answer me, if you can; set your words in order before me; take your stand. Behold, I am toward God as you are; I too was pinched off from a piece of clay. Behold, no fear of me need terrify you; my pressure will not be heavy upon you."
Here again, the spirit of man/the spirit of God is equated with the breath of God in us rather than our soul or spiritual self. It is the breath of God in creation that gave life to "a piece of clay." This does not mean that the word "spirit" never means our eternal soul in any context, but that is not how the word is being used in these instances. When the Old Testament refers to our spirit in the context of life and death, it is often referring to this breath of life that God has sent down to make us alive. If he takes that breath back, we die. Notice how God refers to the coming judgment of the flood later on in Genesis:
Genesis 6:3, "Then the Lord said, My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years."
God is pronouncing that His spirit will not remain1 in man forever. What does He mean? He says plainly afterward:
Genesis 6:7, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land."
God's breath was not going to remain in man. Man was going to die at the time God appointed. This was fulfilled in the flood, where only Noah and his family were spared. For God's spirit to abide in us means for us to stay alive. For it to return to Him does not imply that we return to Him. It implies that we no longer have the breath of life in us and we are dead.
Job 34:14-15, "If He should set His heart to it and gather to Himself His spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust."
This is what Ecclesiastes was talking about. To have one's spirit or breath return to God means to die. This is the tragic fate of all men this side of eternity no matter what we do, and we are powerless to stop it.
Ecclesiastes 8:8, "No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death."
A theme echoed by the psalmist:
Psalm 146:3-4, "Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish."
The spirit, in this context, is not something we are. It is something we need to retain in order to stay alive, and we have no power in ourselves to do that. We are utterly dependent on God every moment. Every breath we take is literally a breath borrowed from Him. The breath of God is life and death.
Psalm 104:27-30, "These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground."
So it is clear, then, that the reference in Ecclesiastes 12:7 does not refer to, or in any way imply, a supposed heavenly pre-existence of men. Ecclesiastes is not talking about eternity, heaven, or future resurrection. It does not deny these things, it's simply not focused on them. It is talking about the meaning of this earthly life and the question of how we should live it in light of our fragile mortality. Those who want to posit a pre-existence find no help here, or anywhere in scripture.
- 1. some English translations read "my Spirit shall not strive with man forever," however the most ancient Hebrew manuscripts read "abide in" or "remain in" rather than "strive with." "Abide/remain" is also the meaning preserved in the earliest translations like the Greek Septuagint, the ancient Aramaic Targums, and the Latin Vulgate. The idea of "abide/remain" rather than "strive with" is therefore almost certainly the original reading, and also fits better in the context.