Giving Grace: He Remembers That We Are Dust

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“Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7)

“He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

There was a time when professionals had general knowledge of their profession. Doctors were just doctors; lawyers were just lawyers; and Generals were just Generals. In fact, early in America’s war for independence, General George Washington had several defeats and one soldier’s report home read like this: “In general, the General was out-Generaled.”

But now we live in a world of specialists. There are no longer just doctors in general. There are cardiologists, dermatologists, hematologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, pulmonologists, and oncologists. Rare is the occasion when you have a generalist. Everyone seems to have a lot of knowledge about little. And so it takes a team to sort things out, none of them individually capable of understanding the whole. 

I’ve heard patients say something like this: “My doctor knows about my cancer, but he doesn’t know me.”

Some people think God is a specialist—that all He cares about is our spiritual welfare, but He really doesn’t care about our physical, emotional, or mental wellness. He leaves that to others.

Some people think God is a specialist—that all He cares about is our spiritual welfare. That’s not what the Bible says.

That’s not what the Bible says. According to Psalm 103:14, “He knows our frame ….” This means God knows exactly what we’re made of, how we’re put together, and why we’re put together that way.

Neurologists may know something about the brain; an orthopedic may know something about bones; but God knows us. He understands the brain and the mind; He knows the heart and the emotions; He knows the body and the spirit; He knows us because He made us. 

Very Good

The Master Carpenter knows how to form each component, how each piece goes together, and perhaps most importantly, why he chose to make it in the first place.

The Hebrew noun for “frame” is found as a verb in Genesis 2:7, “The LORD God formed man of dust.” Isaiah 64:8 states, “You, LORD, are our father. We are the clay, and you are the potter [Form-maker].”

Some people have a view of God that goes something like this: God was getting along perfectly fine in eternity when all of sudden the created world came into existence and now He has a problem on His hands. Get this straight: The world is not a problem for God; He intended it to be. You are not a problem for God; He intended you. Your neighbor is not a problem for God; He intended him and her. God meant to create him; God meant to create her. This doesn’t mean that God desires everything that happens in the world—God never has and never will desire anything that is evil, sinful, harmful, or less than the very good world He created.

It was God who gathered a few particles of earth and formed them into a simple human body and called it very good.

Rare is the person who says, “I’m merely dust.” We rarely think of ourselves in terms of such simplicity. We’re more sophisticated than that. We’d rather think of ourselves as formed from something far more valuable than dirt. That’s why we use such phrases as “He’s worth his weight in gold” and “she’s such a gem.” And to be treated as dirt means to be treated badly.

But all of our wishful thinking doesn’t change the fact that we are made of that sort of earthiness that we feather away from our bookshelves, mantels, and dressers, and discard into the wastebasket.

If we’re honest, we don’t like our humanness—or at least something about our humanness. If we could create ourselves, we would all create ourselves differently. Subconsciously we all think we could do a better job than God did when He created us. With a few notable exceptions, most of us humans look at ourselves and say, “Not good.” God looks at us and says, “Very good.” Whose voice are you going to listen to?

Most of us look at ourselves and say, “Not good.” God looks at us and says, “Very good.” Whose voice are you going to listen to?

From the near beginning Adam desired to be something more than what God created him to be. But we find value in the reality that God made us in His image.

We Are Dust

When God first made man, there was no other ingredient in humanity than dust. Pure dirt. Man was dust and nothing more than dust. We are by nature messy, dirty, dusty, earthy creatures. Should it be a surprise to us then, how often we need the vivification of the Spirit? Should it be a surprise to us then how often we need the broom of the Spirit, not to pick us up and throw us away, but to gather us again into the form He intends.

In the middle of his song of praise, the Psalmist grounds everything about his praise in this fact, that God knows our frame and He remembers that we are dust.

God knows. Among all of the content of God’s perfect knowledge is the crystal-clear knowledge of human nature. No one knows better than God who we are. God knows our frame. What is our frame?

First, our frame is fickle. In other words, it is easily moved around by the slightest gust. It’s not difficult to disturb dust. It only takes a feather. God knows that our lives are super-susceptible to change and outside influence. He knows that our lives can be turned upside down in a simple, earth-shaking moment. He knows that our mind can waffle between two opinions for ages. He knows that our emotions can go from Mount Everest to Death Valley in mere seconds. God knows our frame, and He knows that it is fickle. He knows that we are highly susceptible to all of the basic elements: the turning of the tide (water), the changing of the wind (air), the shifting of sand (earth), and the fury of fire.

The Psalmist says that God knows our frame because God is the framer. The Prophet uses the noun form of the same word in Isaiah 64:8, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay; and you are the potter (the Former/Framer); we are the work of your hand.

Second, God knows that our frame is frail. Not only are we susceptible to sudden change, but we are also “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,” as the hymn says.

The Psalmist says in 103:15, 

As for man, his days are like grass;
He flourishes like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it
And it is gone
And its place knows it no more.

In Psalm 104, the theme picks up again in verse 29:

When you hide your face,
They are dismayed;
When you take away their breath,
They die.
And return to their dust.

The frailty of humanity is expressed in Psalm 102:1-11:

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
Let my cry come to you,
Do not hide your face from me
In the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
Answer me speedily in the day when I call
For my days pass like smoke;
And my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass
And has withered;
I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
My bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
Like an owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
All the day my enemies taunt me;
Those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
And mingle tears with my drink,
Because of your indignation and anger;
For you have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

The human predicament is pretty pitiful. We are fickle and we are frail.

Third, God knows that we are fallible. We are not merely susceptible to change and breakdown, but we are liable to lapses in judgment and even sin. Most famously, the prophet Isaiah wrote,

All we, like sheep, have gone astray;
We have turned—everyone one—to his own way.

Jeremiah said in 17:9,

The heart of man is deceitful above all things,
And desperately sick;
Who can understand it?

John Wesley wrote in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection,

1) Everyone may mistake as long as he lives. 2) A mistake in opinion may occasion a mistake in practice. 3) Every such mistake is a transgression of the perfect law. Therefore, 4) every such mistake, were it not for the blood of atonement, would expose to eternal damnation. 5) It follows that the most perfect have continual need for the merits of Christ, even for their actual transgressions, and may say for themselves, as well as for their brethren, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ 

God knows that we are fickle creatures; God knows that we are frail creatures; and God knows that we are fallible creatures.

God knows that our frame is fickle, frail, and feeble—and he never forgets it.

We may overestimate or underestimate ourselves often. Some time ago, I took my boys to a park for a day out while Sarah and the girls were away. We went to a park in Lafayette that has multiple playgrounds based on age—one for toddlers, one for slightly older children, and a third one for ages ten to twelve. And would you guess which park our six- and four-year-olds chose? Yes, they wanted the most difficult playground. I was sure that Carson (4) was overestimating his ability to climb the plastic trees. But to my surprise, he navigated them perfectly, not only climbing them, but then moving from one plastic tree top to another like a monkey.

On the other hand, Carson fell down some stairs yesterday.

God knows that our frame is fickle, frail, and feeble—and he never forgets it. Ever. God has never for a single moment forgotten that we are merely dust. I forget it often.

But We Were Made for His Spirit

Psalm 104:29-30 says,

As for man, his days are like grass;
He flourishes like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it
And it is gone
And its place knows it no more.

When you send forth your Spirit,
They are created.
And you renew the face of the ground.

Notice that for the Psalmist, this is not referring to original creation but to new creation. It comes after his description of the death of man.

God could have breathed His Spirit into plants. He could have animated the trees instead of humans. He could have placed His image upon the angels. He could have made a world without giving His Spirit to anything.

God could have made a world in which there was no dust and, therefore, no Adam and no Eve; and therefore, no sin; and therefore, no mess; and therefore, no pain; and therefore, no suffering; and therefore, no death and no hell; and therefore, no resurrection; and therefore, no redemption; and therefore, no reconciliation; and therefore, no re-creation and no heaven. But in the eyes of the Almighty God, the absence of a thousand hells is nothing compared to the loss of a single heaven. And the heaven our Creator chose to create is one of free personal love toward one another.

So God chose to animate dust in the form of Adam and Eve. He didn’t form particles of dust in order to make a neat but temporary sculpture; He did so to animate it with His Spirit. “The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7).

He formed us in order to fit us for His Spirit. “And he remembers that we are dust.” God remembers that we are dust.

God has done something amazing with the most elementary particle of creation. He has breathed into it His Spirit. We are nothing apart from the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. As dust we are next to nothing; with the Spirit we are everything God created us for.

The claim to be anything apart from the Spirit is an illusion, self-deception. This two-fold reality is the truth: we are in form only dust but are fitted for the Spirit of God.

If I reject the Spirit I am left with nothing but dust, the sort of stuff I happily and frequently sweep away. Hell is dead and dusty. Heaven is animated and alive.

We often think that the Spirit is the opposite of flesh, of dust. The miracle of humanity is not that the Spirit might consume the dust, but that the Spirit would enter the dust.

It is characteristic of sinners to try to find meaning and value in the self rather than in the Spirit. But this is always vain and is always at our own expense. Mere dust cannot appraise itself.

Dust and Spirit are as opposite as we can imagine. Dust is the basic stuff of earth; Spirit, we think sometimes, is the basic stuff of heaven. If there is any possibility of crossing the line of demarcation between dust and Spirit, between heaven and earth, between God and man, it must be from the direction of the Spirit. Dust can’t transcend this line. Dust can’t even act on its own; it must be acted upon. 

The miracle of heaven is that it has room for dust fitted with the Spirit. In fact, heaven began at the moment the Spirit entered the dust. For time and for eternity, there will never be a separation of the Spirit and of dust except in hell. Heaven is at the same time both the most spiritual and the most physical place.

Isaiah said, “We are the work of your hand.” The Psalmist says, “and he remembers that we are dust.”

I stood beside the graveside of a loved one
Like planting seed to wait and watch for Spring
When Christ returns with all his power and glory
He’ll call for death to come to life and dust shall sing

When dust shall sing on resurrection morning
The saints arise and let their voices ring
Those that remain will be changed in a moment
We’ll hear the shout and trumpet sound
When dust shall sing

Since Jesus died the grave has lost it’s victory
If you’re in Christ, death has lost it’s sting
Christ conquered death, so he’ll conduct the chorus
With voices raised and shouts of praise
Then dust shall sing

A glorious day when Christ returns,
The dead in Christ shall rise first
And dust shall sing

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David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).