Gathered to His People (Genesis 25:17)

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Death is such a funny thing.

I’ve done my fair share of funerals (and attended even more), and I almost always say the same things every time.

“They’re enjoying eternity with God.”

“We mourn, but they rejoice.”

Or, most often,

“They’re home.”

I can not remember, even one time, ever saying the phrase that “[INSERT PERSON’S NAME] has been gathered to his people.”

And yet, you see that exact phrase nearly 30 times in the Bible, most often used in the Old Testament. It’s an “antiquated” phrase, but what makes it remarkable is it’s distinctiveness. What does it mean to be “gathered to your people”?

One school of thought talks bout it being a physical location, as in you occupy the same graveyard as your people. That can’t be possible though, since people like Abraham and Aaron and Moses were all buried in locations far from relatives.

A more likely idea is that the deceased is gathered to the place of the afterlife, where the generations before them existed.

This makes sense when you consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:32-33: “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

This verse clears up a misunderstanding of the Jews in the first century (or more likely, an oversimplification on their part), that when you die, you’re not really “alive” until the Resurrection. Jesus affirms that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still very much “alive,” just not in this physical world.

The term “being gathered to his people” then speaks of a reunion of sorts. Not the same type of reunion that’s mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5:13-18, which speaks of the final judgment, but a reunion nonetheless.

What makes this phrase curious is its usage in Genesis 25:17 as referring to Ishmael. It’s said several verses before of Abraham (Genesis 25:8), but why would it also be said of the non-promised son?

It’s possible that in his case, that phrase really only talks about the physical side of Ishmael’s death. Twice in Scripture (Genesis 16:30; 25:18), it says that he settled near his relatives. Could it be that he was also just simply buried near them?

To me, the proximity in Scripture — used both of Abraham and Ishmael nine verses apart — implies that it’s used similarly. Just as Abraham was gathered to his people, Ishmael was gathered to his.

…And that’s as far as I feel comfortable taking it. I won’t presume to know the ins and outs of the afterlife, but I do know from talking to people near death, that they’re at least looking forward to a reunion with Christians they’ve known. As well as a union with God and saints that they’ve never met.

When we near the end of our life, that’s one reunion we should all be looking forward to as well.