What the Sheol?

One of the first points folk bring up about Hell is that if it is as horrible as people say it is, and if the way to avoid it is to believe God, then why didn’t God bring it up before the New Testament? Before Matthew or Mark (whichever was first) we don’t get an inkling of the doctrine of hell, they say. All we see are some random intertestamental doctrines that may or may not be true—like the stuff Jude quotes out of the oft-wrong book of Enoch.

And yes it is true; you won’t find the exact Hell from the New Testament in the Old. Most Bible reading Christians in the West know that the OT term for That Place is Sheol but it has a semantic range that is much broader than the Hell of the New Testament.

For example, we have passages where Sheol explicitly means the grave (ie: Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Ki 2:6). Mind you, there are individuals, some of them Good People, in these passages expecting to die and go there—which sure doesn’t sound like the Hell we know. These people all expected to go there when they died (2 Sam 12:23) and in some cases it’s even called a place for the righteous to rest (Job 14:13)!

Yet we have other passages describing it as not a very nice place to be. Lacking activity (Ecc 9:10; Is 38:10-20), lacking light (Job 10:21-22), silent (Ps 94:17; 115:17), separated from the land of the Living, a place where worshiping God doesn’t happen (Ps 6:5; 88:10-12; 115:17; Is 38:18), a place where God’s wrath is poured out on the wicked (Deut 32:22). It is so bad that it is described as a place where the wise avoid (Pr 15:24) and where the righteous will be ultimately rescued from (Ps 49:15) and appointed to glory (Psalm 73:24).

In both cases it is a place where God is in control of it. It exists only under his say so (1 Sa 2:6; De 32:22; Job 14:13; 26:6; Pr 15:11) and he is there, in some sense (Ps 139:8).

Ancient Hebrew was a funny language. Sometimes you’d have words that had this sort of wide semantic range. So if the thing crawls it is covered under a word that means Crawling Things. And if it flies: Flying Creature. It is no different with Sheol.

As the NASB Topical Index lists, Sheol has been used metaphorically to illustrate greed, murder, jealousy, troubles of live and awful situations—but in each of these cases it is pointing to the way Sheol functions. So jealousy, like Sheol, is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20) it kills by swallowing the living (Prov 1:12), is severe (Songs 8:6), a place of troubles (Psa 88:3), reaches out (2 Sam 22:6) during awful situations (Jon 2:2) and it even illustrates an active death (Isaiah 28:15, 18). So we’ll see life situations, for example, where a lecherous woman has her feet planted in Sheol (Pr 5:5; 9:18.). In some sense, she illustrates that the wicked come from and return to there (Ps 9:17)

But there is other imagery that is brought up. Sometimes, the writers would delve into the evils  performed by men to illustrate a point. So looking to this awful situation where Kings were sacrificing their own children to idols (2 Kin. 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 19:6). The place is so bad that sometimes authors refer to it as The Valley (Jer. 2:23; 31:40). Isaiah draws a picture of a place long prepared for a wicked king. A place of fire with plenty of wood set aflame by the breath of the Lord. This valley is the same place where those children were tortured and killed: Topheth in Hinnon Valley (Isaiah 30:33). Horrifying imagery. And an important piece of information for the next post.

As I said earlier, this Sheol is being used to punish but it currently has ramifications in the world. This place is not for the righteous, the wise will avoid it (and even try to have others avoid it with severe punishment if need be (Proverbs 23:1) because the contempt of being there is unending (Dan 12:2). But can’t this just be a metaphor for the fact that punishment must happen? Well, it doesn’t seem likely since it looks like God’s punishment is necessarily testimonial (Is 34:8-10) though currently delayed awaiting repentance (Prov. 1:24-31; Eccl. 8:11-13; Hab. 1:2-4 ).

Now, I have barely even skimmed the massiveness of this topic in the Old Testament. I only barely touched on the positive eternal state for the righteous or what constitutes being part of the righteous or if people can swing between positions or not. And in all honesty, if a person spends any time going through all the passages above they will see that vastness of what’s going on in the OT. But the point here isn’t to describe how it all works but to show that it is there. Of course the folk that think every passage of Sheol refers to Hell are wrong; equally wrong are the folk who think because of the wide semantic range that there is no hell in the Old Testament. It takes some serious work to be sensitive to the different uses but it is there.

But even with that aside, what’s important to note here that the fundamental problem with Sheol is its separation from life. In all cases (be it the grave, the eternal state, or the metaphors) Sheol stands antithetical to life—and life is directly the purview of God. The constant point throughout the Old Testament is that Man’s highest end is discovered in a relationship with the living God but being separated from that is catastrophic and horrid. The fact that people make this all the worse by actively rebelling paints the separation as the deepest of tragedies.

So this separation is to be shunned but admitted that it does, and will, happen. That’s why it is fundamentally horrid. Not because of the smoke. Not because of the silence. Not because of the darkness. But because it stands knowingly bereft of the Lord of Life.

If I’m right about that, the New Testament will pick up on that and be equally concerned. But that’s for a later post.

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