An oft-quoted passage from Ecclesiastes says, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (Ecc.12:7) This verse tells us that when our body of dust returns to the earth, the spirit goes up to God. Is this ‘spirit’ an ‘eternal spirit’? Is it unique to human beings?
Looking up the word for ‘spirit’ used in Ecclesiastes 12:7, we find it is the Hebrew word ‘ruwach’, (#07307) meaning “wind; by resemblance, breath, i.e. a sensible (or even violent) exhalation”, translated into the English words, “spirit, wind, breath, side, mind, blast, vain, air, anger, cool, tempest, courage” and used 378 times in the Old Testament. The root word of ‘ruwach’ (#07306) is often used of ‘smelling’ (Genesis 8:21, 27:27; Leviticus 26:31 etc.)
Animals and Humans
Scanning through the 378 passages in which the word ‘ruwach’ (07307) is used, we find it first in Genesis 1:2 when the Spirit of God is moving on the waters to initiate the Creation of the world. ‘Ruwach’ is the same word used for the ‘breath’ of life in man and animal in Genesis 7:15, 21-22:
“And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the ‘breath’ of life… And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the ‘breath’ <neshamah ruwach> of life died.”
Therefore, ‘ruwach’ is not unique to human beings.
‘Ruwach’ is used many times for a ‘wind’, like the wind that brought the locust plague in Exodus 10:13, and a rain storm in 1 Kings 18:45 (cp. Psalm 107:25).
The word ‘ruwach’ is also used to denote the feelings of individuals, whether of a sorrowful ‘spirit’ (1 Samuel 1:15), or a ‘spirit’ of jealousy (Numbers 5:14), or an evil ‘spirit’ (Judges 9:23; 1 Samuel 16:14), or a broken ‘spirit’, or a desire for God to renew a right ‘spirit’ within a person (Psalm 51:10,17). We aren’t to be quick in our ‘spirit’ to be angry and those who are patient in ‘spirit’ are better than those who are proud in ‘spirit’ (Ecclesiastes 7:8,9). Those who rule their ‘spirit’ are better than those who take a city (Proverbs 16:32).
This same word for ‘spirit’ is often used when special gifts or abilities were bestowed by God. For example, the super-natural power that Samson was given (Judges 14:5-6), or the ‘spirit’ of wisdom God gave to Bezaleel to create the furniture for the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 31:3).
Breath – A Life-giving Force
As we read in Genesis 2, God’s ‘breath <neshamah> of life’ was breathed into the body He had shaped out of dust, creating a living soul or being… Adam. Neshamah and ruwach have similar meanings and are used interchangeably (See Genesis 7:22 where both are used for ‘breath’) In Genesis 2 we find the equation:
BODY OF DUST + BREATH OF LIFE = A LIVING SOUL.
The Hebrew word ‘ruwach’ is used numerous times of our ‘breath’. For example in Job 12:10, it says that in God’s hand is “the soul of every living thing and the ‘breath’ of all mankind.”
In Job 27:3 it says, “my ‘breath’ is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils.”
In Psalm 146:3-4 it says, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His ‘breath’ goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
Psalm 104:25-29 also speaks of the sea creatures returning to dust if God takes away their ‘breath’. (cp. Job 34:14-15; 33:4)
These passages show that the creative equation of Genesis 2:7 can be reversed:
A LIVING SOUL minus BREATH OF LIFE = DUST.
Death results in returning to dust, a cessation of life, often described in the Bible as “breathing our last breath”.
The ‘Spirit’ is Eternal
However, in the Psalms and Job passages above we see that the ‘spirit’ is eternal! It is the life-giving energy which belongs to God. This spirit – breath – wind is the sustaining life-force for man and animal. God created man and animal from dust and gave us the ‘breath’ of life…and we became living ‘souls’ <nephesh>. How incredible to appreciate that life, breathing and the emotions we feel are all the gift of God’s eternal spirit!
One last helpful passage is Ecclesiastes 3:19-21:
“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one ‘breath’; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”
We are clearly told here in Ecclesiastes 3, that this life-giving ‘spirit’ or breath is the same in humans as in animals. We are both creatures created from the dust of the earth and animated by God’s life-giving force. As it says in Ecclesiastes 3, when humans or animals breathe their last breath, their bodies return to the dust from which we all were created. Humans and animals all go to one place in death – the grave. As we read in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “the ‘spirit’ shall return unto God who gave it.” It was and is God’s spirit, it will always belong to Him.
However, Ecclesiastes 3:21 asks the question, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” Even though both humans and animals are animated by God’s spirit, only humans have the ability to think ‘spiritually’. Animals cannot think on this higher level.
So what are you doing with the life-force that God has given you? Does your spirit reach up for Godly things?
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-11 ESV)
Next, we hope to consider the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in the New Testament. If you would like to do our Discovery Lesson on the ‘soul’ in the Old and New Testaments, click on What is a Soul?