Online Bible Commentary
The Spirit Goes Upward
Ecclesiastes 3:15 That which is has already been, And what is to be has already been; And God requires an account of what is past. 16 Moreover I saw under the sun: In the place of judgment, Wickedness was there; And in the place of righteousness, Iniquity was there. 17 I said in my heart, "God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work." 18 I said in my heart, "Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals." 19 For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. 21 Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth? 22 So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? (NKJV)
Solomon, son of David, was the king of Israel for some forty years (1 Kings 11:42) from 970 B.C. until his death at the age of fifty-nine in 931 B.C. He wrote the book of Ecclesiastes likely near the end of his life, about 935 B.C.
Solomon, being the son of a king, had received the best education known to man at the time. He learned the best of human wisdom. He also was blessed by God with true wisdom, the wisdom from God. He was considered to be the wisest man ever to live.
In this passage, Solomon writes of the injustice of life. The past repeats itself throughout life, and we are held accountable for our actions in the past (v. 15). Injustice must be judged.
However, the judgment that our society metes out is not always just. “Wickedness” exists in the hearts of some human judges. Instead of “righteousness” we may find “iniquity” (v. 16).
Solomon knows in his heart that God judges both the “righteous” and the “wicked” (v. 17a). There is a time when “every purpose” and “every work” will be judged by God (v. 17b). We are comforted in the knowledge that God provides a final justice, even though justice may not be found on this earth.
As “God tests” us we find that in some ways we are like animals (v. 18). Like animals, we too die. In that way, we have “no advantage over animals, for all is vanity” (v. 19). Our lives, in that way, are in vain because we have the same ending as animals. The bodies of both men and animals “return to dust” (v. 20).
“Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth (v. 21)? This is a human question from Solomon, not divine certainty. However, it does seem to indicate that he may hold a belief that the human spirit of believers “goes upward”, to be with God, at death, which is divine certainty. At the same time, the idea of the spirit of the animal staying with the body is not denied by Scripture.
Solomon concludes, from a human standpoint, “that a man should rejoice in his own works”, should enjoy life (v. 22a). For who knows “what will happen after” his life on earth is over (v. 22b)?
Much of the book of Ecclesiastes is written from the viewpoint of life “under the sun”, life in this world. Solomon is describing thoughts from a human point of view. Bear in mind that Solomon did not have the benefit of the continued revelation of God’s word, the New Testament.
Hermeneutics, which means “to interpret” in the Greek, informs us that verses and books of the Bible are to be interpreted in the context of the whole teaching of the Bible. Therefore, this passage does not teach the absence of an afterlife. Instead, it is only asking questions that men ask themselves. The Bible teaches that when a Christian dies his spirit “goes upward” to be with God in Heaven.