By Aaron Berry, Crosswalk.com
Google the phrase “Ashes to Ashes” and the first thing you’ll find is a famous song by David Bowie. Considered to be a song referencing his own struggle with drug and the desire to bury the past, the chorus of the song reads:
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low
As this chorus implies, “ashes to ashes” is often used to refer to the temporality or futility of human endeavors. But the phrase’s meaning is far deeper than that. In fact, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” finds its origins long before David Bowie.
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Is ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Mentioned in the Bible?
Although it sounds like a Bible verse (and is often assumed to be one), the exact phrase, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” is found nowhere in the Bible.
It is, however, derived major biblical themes that can be found in several passages in Scripture.
Genesis 2:7 says that “God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
Then, in Genesis 3:19, after Adam and Eve disobey God and sin’s curse spreads to all creation, God tells Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Just as man was fashioned from the dust of the ground, man was cursed to experience death and decay—returning to dust.
In addition to dust and ashes referring to mankind’s origin and ultimate decay, it’s also used in Scripture to describe mankind’s weakness and unworthiness to stand before God. When Abraham talks to God in Genesis 18, asking him to spare Sodom, he says, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”
In summary, the Bible uses dust and ashes to refer to mankind’s humble origin, feeble composition, and temporal nature. More broadly, the terms are used to convey poverty, humiliation, and lowliness.
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Why Is ‘Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust’ a Misquoted Phrase?
It’s not uncommon for people to mistakenly attribute common phrases or wise sayings to the Bible. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Spare the rod, spoil the child” are just some of the examples.
But it’s not just the fact that “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sounds biblical, it in fact finds its source in church tradition and liturgy.
What Is the Context and Origin of ‘Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust?’
The phrase is derived from The Book of Common Prayer, a compilation of morning & evening prayers, communion prayers, and service orders for baptisms, confirmations, and other events in the Church of England.
The phrase, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” comes from the “The Order for the Burial of the Dead”, an “order of service” for graveside funeral services. As the dirt was being “cast upon the body by some standing by,” the Priest presiding over the ceremony recited the following:
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
With the visual reminder that the body was returning to the dust as it was being buried, the mourners were reminded that the frailty of “our vile body” should direct our hope to the certainty of eternal life and the promised resurrection from the dead.
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Does 'Ashes to Ashes' Relate to Ash Wednesday or Lent?
While the exact phrase is in reference to funerals, not to Ash Wednesday or Lent, the biblical concept that ash and dust represent at the beginning of Lent is directly connected.
As was mentioned earlier in this article, dust and ashes communicate humility and penance. In biblical times, covering oneself in dust and ashes was always connected with fasting.
In the Catholic observation of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, ash is applied on people’s foreheads in the shape of a cross. As this is applied, one of the common phrases uttered by a priest is, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” calling to mind God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19.
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3 Things Christians Should Remember about Ashes and Dust
While ashes and dust (and the themes of frailty, weakness, temporality, and death that go along with it) hardly seem to be an encouraging thought, the realities of life that “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” invoke are more hopeful than discouraging.
1. They Remind Us of Our Creator
We are not independent creatures but are totally and completely reliant on the one who fashioned us and who will ultimately call us home when our mortal bodies fail in this world.
2. It’s Good that God Knows Our Weakness
In Psalm 103:13-14 we read, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” Although life makes us painfully aware of our own frailty, God approaches our frailty with fatherly compassion, prompting us to rest peacefully in his arms—both while we live and when he calls us home.
3. This World Is Not Our Home
As it mentions in The Book of Common Prayer, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” should invoke hope in our souls. This world is not our home. The things of this world are temporary and do not satisfy.
As we consider our own frailty, let us direct our focus to the hope that Christ has secured for us in his death, burial, and resurrection. One day, we will possess a body, not of ashes and dust, but one like our Savior’s.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:20-21
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Aaron Berry is a co-author for the Pursuing the Pursuer Blog. You can read more articles from Aaron and his colleagues by subscribing to their blog or following them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Aaron currently resides in Allen Park, MI with his wife and two children, where he serves in his local church and recently completed an MDiv degree at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.