Gathered To His People
David A. Padfield
Who among us has not pondered the great question, "Will I recognize my friends in heaven?" While the Bible does not directly ask this question, the human heart does. In death's dark hour, can I comfort the relatives of those who "died in the Lord" with the hope of a future reunion in heaven? Or, when the undertaker closes the casket, is this truly the hour of final separation? It appears as though the Scriptures assume we will know and recognize one another in heaven.
The great patriarch Abraham died at the age of 175. Moses records his death with these words: "Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. . . " (Gen. 25:8-9a). Notice the sequence: he died, was gathered to his people and then his body was buried in the cave of Machpelah. Though the tomb was new, somehow Abraham was now with his people.
This phrase, "gathered to his people," is found recorded at the death of many Old Testament worthies, such as:
- Ishmael (Gen. 25:17)
- Isaac (Gen. 35:29)
- Jacob (Gen. 49:33)
- Aaron (Num. 20:24)
- Moses (Deut. 33:50)
- Josiah (2 Kgs. 22:8)
The destiny of Moses is further described in Deuteronomy 31:16 when God says, "Behold, you will rest with your fathers." This could not possibly refer to his physical body, for it was buried "in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor" (Deut. 34:6).
Not only do we read of individuals being "gathered" to their people, but after the death of Joshua we find an entire "generation had been gathered to their fathers" (Judg. 2:10).
But what does it mean to be gathered to our people? "Gathered" (Hb. acaph) is defined as "to be collected, gathered together . . . used of entering into Hades, where the Hebrews regarded their ancestors as being gathered together. This gathering to one's fathers, or one's people is distinguished both from death and burial" (Gesenius' Hebrew And Chaldee Lexicon, p. 626). William Wilson commented, "To be gathered to his fathers, is a peculiar phrase deserving notice; it is distinguished from death which precedes, and from burial of the body which follows: Gen. xxv. 8; xxxv. 29; 2 Kings xxii. 20. It seems to denote the being received by his own people, or among them. We read in the N.T. of being received into Abraham's bosom, or of sitting down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven, as at a feast; so that to be gathered to his own people, is to be with them in joy or torment in Hades" (Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, p. 182).
Abraham has been "gathered to his people" until that day when his dust shall live again at the sound of the last trumpet, and all the buried dead shall hear the voice of the Son of Man. When Isaac and Ishmael were "gathered to their people," did they recognize their own father, Abraham? It would be foolish to deny they did.
It was a source of comfort when the prophetess Huldah told Josiah he would be "gathered to his fathers" (2 Kgs. 22:20). But what comfort would there be if he could not recognize his "fathers"? Was he to dwell in eternity, among his own family, as a total stranger?
When we speak of future recognition, some skeptic will usually ask, "Would you be happy if you were in heaven knowing some of your friends were not there?" Instead of helping our problem, this question increases it. If I can not recognize any of my loved ones in heaven, then I would be forever uncertain if any of them made it there! I would have to worry about all of them. Furthermore, this question assumes that I would want to overlook the manner of life these people led while alive. If they are lost, it will be because they did not desire heaven enough to quit the practice of sin. Yes, we will be saddened by the loss of some, but I always throughout this is why "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
Another objection sometimes raised is found in Matthew 22:30. There, Jesus tells us that in the resurrection we will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, but be like the angels of heaven. But this passage proves our point. The angels of heaven certainly know and recognize each other. We will not have a physical marriage there, for we will be married to the Lamb of God (Rev. 19:7).
The first child from the union of David and Bathsheba died after a week of suffering (2 Sam. 12:15-23). Grief stricken David, with his child yet unburied, said, "Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me." What comfort could David have of being with his child again if he could not distinguish his child from mine?
After the final judgment I fully expect to "see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:28). I shall see them in the same way I shall see Jesus (1 John 3:2) and his Father (Rev. 22:4). The same Greek word (optomai) is used in all three verses.
Congregations often sing the beautiful song, "Shall We Gather At The River?" In it, we ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to meet by the river of life (Rev. 22:1) when our journey here is completed.
Knowing we shall recognize one another in heaven, let us labor diligently to increase our acquaintances there. And as another song suggests,
"If we never meet again this side of heaven,
As we struggle through this world and its strife,
There's another meeting place somewhere in heaven,
By the side of the river of life."
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 19, pp. 580, 597