A Place Called Sheol
The man was distraught. His son Joseph was missing. Only a bloodied coat was found. Apparently, a wild beast had devoured the son he had loved so much. Though the rest of the family tried to console him, Jacob refused all comfort and said,
This grief he was feeling would hound him until death – or so he thought.
Years later, a famine consumed the land. Jacob’s other sons insisted on taking littlest brother Benjamin to Egypt with them in order to obtain food. Jacob protested,
“My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 42:38 NASB
Jacob was not about to allow the loss of another beloved son. Why should an old man, he asks, be made to end his days in such sorrow?
What we are seeing is the first occurrence of the word “Sheol” in the Bible. It arises without explanation, and Bible scholars debate the origin of the term. But regardless of where the word came from, it is obvious what it means: the place you go when you die. It seems clear that Jacob is using a figure of speech, common at least in his family, meaning death. In the same way, we might say, “She died of a broken heart; he put her in the grave.”
That going to Sheol refers to death is made all the more clear as we continue with the story. Because the brothers refused to make the trip for food without Benjamin and because the famine persisted, Jacob relented. But in Egypt, true to Jacob’s premonition, Benjamin was threatened with confinement. One of the brothers, knowing the heartache that this would bring Jacob, spoke up before the authorities for Benjamin’s release. First, he relates how they had to prevail upon Jacob to allow Benjamin to come at all. Then he quotes Jacob’s fear:
Then, the son goes on to, in effect, explain the figure of speech to the Egyptians, who, like us, might appreciate a clarification:
Thus we see even more clearly that to “bring down to Sheol” equates to “he will die.”
Even today, someone is likely to say that so-and-so “has one foot in the grave.” Or, “He bought the farm.” Or, “He kicked the bucket.” Though we do not always know the origin of such figures of speech, it is usually clear that they refer to dying. If we today have figures of speech referring to death, is it so strange that the ancients did as well?
References to Sheol Are References to Death
Jacob was not the only person in the Bible to refer to Sheol, not by a long shot. The term shows up frequently. And in every case, it refers to death.
For example, Israel’s great king, David, had many close encounters with death. As a military man, his life was often in danger. He also was a prophet and a poet. He wrote many of the psalms of the Bible. This includes the much-loved 23rd Psalm. There he wrote about “the shadow of death.” Just a few psalms before, he wrote,
“The shadow of death,” “the cords of Sheol,” and “the snares of death” are vivid images conveying the way a soldier of that time might feel when threatened with death. Likewise, in some other age someone might refer to “the grim reaper.” Even today we can relate to all these phrases and feel a cold chill.
Another psalm, not specifically ascribed to David, reads,
So we quickly see that Sheol as an expression for death was not limited to Jacob, or David, but was a common one.
Here are some more examples by other Bible authors showing how Sheol and death are always linked:
These three prophets of Israel – Isaiah, Hosea, and Habakkuk – all used the term Sheol in the same breath as the term death. These snippets are not enough for us to understand what each passage was about. But they are more than enough to see that death and Sheol are used together and refer to the same thing.
Not only are the terms used together in the Bible, they are used interchangeably. Compare these two passages which we have already seen individually:
In one case it’s the cords of death, in the other, it’s the cords of Sheol. There’s no real confusion because it’s the same cords.
In fact, Sheol was so closely associated with death in the ancient Hebrew mind, that even when the word death was not specifically mentioned, everyone understood what Sheol meant. We can see this in a portion of Ecclesiastes:
The writer did not have to explain what he meant by Sheol. Everyone in that day understood. And even in this day, though Sheol may be an unfamiliar term to us, common sense would have led us to guess that the grave probably was what the writer had in mind.
Since Sheol is always associated with death, then a brush with Sheol would mean a brush with death, as in:
In this psalm, David speaks of being healed. This, he says, brought him up from Sheol. In the same way, we might say to a person who has returned to work after being out for a week with a bad case of the flu, “The dead have been raised!” Or, if she’s still sniffling we might refer to her as “the walking dead.”
Similarly, another psalm writer says,
The reader or hearer would understand him to be meaning he almost died, or he was at the point of death. Sheol communicated death to them in that same way that words like graveyard and cemetery communicate death to us.
When the kindness of God spared David from death, he could write,
This reminds me of a time years ago in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was angry and was letting off steam by driving down what I remember to be a six-lane undivided highway far in excess of the speed limit. I was weaving through the traffic like a fiend. This went on for several minutes before I came to my senses and slowed down. There were three others in the car with me and countless other folks on that road. It is only the kindness of God that spared my life, as well as the lives of others. I didn’t deserve to be let off without an accident or ticket after driving so recklessly and irresponsibly. His lovingkindness was great toward me. I can only hope that He will one day think me worthy of the mercy He showed me which let me live longer on the earth. Though I am still ashamed of the incident and don’t put myself in a class with David, he often acknowledged the mercy of God that kept him out of Sheol and I have a keen appreciation of what he meant.
We could wish that the Bible had a section where you could turn and look up a dictionary definition of Sheol. Then we wouldn’t have to look at all these different passages. But the lack of such a section and the frequent use of the term without explanation, is itself of great value. First of all, since the term is used in consistent fashion we can easily determine its meaning. Pre-schoolers learn a multitude of words without consulting a dictionary. When parents and siblings use words consistently, the meanings are eventually recognized. Secondly, the lack of specific explanation shows that “Sheol” was widely known and used. That is, it was part of the common understanding. The writer would no more have to stop and define his term than he would if using the terms “heaven” or “earth.”
I could show you more verses (the word “Sheol” appears over sixty times in the Bible), but we have seen enough to know that a reference to Sheol is a reference to death. A figure of speech common to the ancient Hebrew mind is becoming a little better known to us.
What Is Sheol?
Is Sheol only a figure of speech? It doesn’t seem to be. Rather, it seems also to be the specific place people go when they die – the place that their spirits or souls depart to at death while their bodies remain here and return to dust. Let’s look at some more verses to make this even clearer.
Sheol was an actual place. Listen to David:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. Psalm 139:7-10 NASB
The point of David’s poetic waxing, of course, is that God is everywhere. Or as the theologians might say, omnipresent. But in making his point, David refers to various specific places…and Sheol is one of them. Obviously, he considers Sheol as much a real place as heaven or the sea.
Just because Sheol was a real place whose existence was widely known does not mean that people knew many details about it. The reason for this, of course, was that it was a destination for which only one-way tickets were issued. As Job said,
The miracle of raising someone from the dead would not be seen until long after Job’s time. But even when Elijah and Elisha restored some from the dead, it was understood that such restoration was only temporary. Death could only be put off for a while. Even the power of miracle resurrections eventually faded before the unrelenting power of death. (When we get to Jesus, we will see how He changed this…once for all.)
If we are looking for a detailed description of Sheol like we would find in a travel brochure, the Bible will disappoint us. Although “Sheol” appears 66 times in 17 different books of the Bible, it is never once described in any detail. Of course, that is because the people who wrote the books of the Bible wrote while they were still living – before they went to Sheol. They wouldn’t obtain enough information about it until after they were finished here on earth.
You would think that those folks who were raised from the dead might be a good source of information about Sheol. But when you turn to those parts of the Bible, there is no debriefing of those who came back from the dead. The Bible continually focuses its attention on this life. If some sort of map is needed for getting around there, we may assume that it won’t be provided to us until we get there.
Not only does the Bible focus on this life rather than on the afterlife, it rarely gives much description of the landscape anyway. I am referring to the fact that the bulk of the Bible’s words are given to describing people’s words and their actions. It seldom describes appearances. Though we know Goliath was large and David was small by comparison, we know hardly anything of Samson’s stature…and no one even knows the color of Jesus’ hair or eyes. What we do know of the mountains, valleys, and cities of the Bible is picked up in bits and pieces. There are no extended descriptions of scenes such as we are used to finding in a novel or travelogue. The lack of a detailed description of Sheol is all the more expected for this reason.
It is sufficient for us to know that there is a place that people go when they die. That means that death is not the end. We just go somewhere else. That doesn’t mean we want to go there before our time. We are like Hezekiah, a king of Israel during the time of Isaiah the prophet. He became mortally ill and was informed by Isaiah that he should set his house in order and prepare to die. Hezekiah prayed to God that he might live longer and God granted him fifteen more years. He wrote of this deliverance from premature death in this way:
He speaks of entering the gates of Sheol and thus regards it as a place to which he will go. He does not, however, want to go there yet. He does not want to know what Sheol looks like. He likes the way the earth looks and wants to stay longer.
Sheol Is a Place Separate from Here
Whatever Sheol was like, it was someplace distinctly separate from here. Contact between those on earth and those in Sheol was not allowed. There were people in those days just as there are in ours who sought such contact. Called mediums or spiritists, their activities were forbidden by the Law of Moses.
“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.” Deuteronomy 18:10-11 NASB
Obviously, the dead still existed. They existed, however, in a different place. There was to be no confusion of those places and no mixing of the living and the dead.
Once someone went to Sheol, they were not heard or seen in the earth anymore. Job said,
Sheol was a place of darkness, a place unseen and unknown to those on the earth. And he says later,
Just as drought and heat could dry up all the water, so death caused humans to evaporate. Sheol consumed humans. It left nothing but the wrapper. Just as we quoted Job earlier:
You and I already know that once someone dies, you do not see them again. Job has painted a picture for us that expresses that truth. At the same time, however, he is reassuring us that the real person (the hidden one) has gone on – just to dwell in another place.
David loved to praise the Lord. He sang. He played. He danced. And he wrote down psalms so others could join in with him. For him, life was an opportunity to sing the praises of the God of Israel. Death silenced such praise. As he said,
And, of course, death did silence David as far as we are concerned. We cannot imagine that he praised the Lord any less in Sheol, but we cannot hear it. What transpires there – or doesn’t transpire there – is unknown to us. It is a spiritual place.
The buffer of silence that exists between here and Sheol is not altogether a loss, though, for not everyone’s speech was as edifying as David’s. Therefore, the Bible says of some of the disobedient folks,
In their case, silence would be an improvement.
Sheol is a definite place. And it is different from the earth. A different dimension, if you will.
Who Is in Sheol?
In one sense, this question hardly needs to be asked. We have seen that Sheol is nothing if not the place where people go when they die. The point to be emphasized here is thateveryone who dies goes there. The Bible mentions no other possible destination for the dead, at least not in the Old Testament books.
The Old Testament covers almost four thousand years of history. For those four thousand years, and for the Hebrew people, there was one and only one place to which the dead went. It was called Sheol.
In our day we sometimes contemplate the moral quality of a deceased person’s life and thereby try to make a judgment as to the destination of their soul. As you have probably already begun to see, this sort of thinking is out of place given the Bible’s description of death and Sheol. The Hebrew mind saw Sheol as the place of the dead. All the dead. It was the inevitable destination of all who lived. As an Israelite named Ethan wrote,
You and I acknowledged in the first chapter that death was inevitable. They knew that in Ethan’s time, too. But God had also revealed that death meant a change of location and manner of existence – not the end of existence. And so while you or I might just as easily have said, ” What man can live and not see death?” Ethan could add the part about Sheol. He had more knowledge about death than you and me. And, through the Bible, this knowledge is being imparted to us.
Everyone who was born, was born into the earth. Everyone who dies, dies into Sheol. As Paul says of the birth and death experiences,
It is an undeniable fact that we come into this world with nothing. Birthing room attendants can attest to this. And it is just as undeniable that we take nothing out of it. I asked an experienced funeral director just for the fun of it. He was quick to assure me of what everyone knows.
Whenever we came into the earth, what we needed was provided for us here. For this same reason, no one takes anything to that place called Sheol. Whatever is needed can be provided by God there just as He provided here.
You have seen with me the Bible portraying only one destination for those who leave this earth. This is why, as David is about to die, he says to his son Solomon,
David and Solomon both knew only too well that death was “the way of all the earth.” And that way led to only one place.
For this reason, Solomon could write,
“If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things–do not all go to one place?” Ecclesiastes 6:3-6 NASB
Solomon knew that whether you were a great king or a miscarriage, you eventually went to the same place.
Years before, David had been concerned with another son – this one just a baby. The child was terribly ill and David prayed for days that the child would get better. In the end, it was to no avail. So David stopped his praying and grieving. He changed his clothes and began to eat again. His servants were shocked. David had been so upset about the child’s sickness, how could death not have upset him more? David responded to their inquiry,
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” 2 Samuel 12:22-23 NASB
David knew he couldn’t bring the baby back from Sheol. But he knew he would one day join him there. That is, he knew their separation was temporary…and he knew there was a place they would both end up.
The Bible has always been so helpful to human beings. We already knew that death claimed everyone. It granted no exemptions. What we didn’t know was what happened to folks – to the unseen part of them. You are seeing that the Bible tells us that they went to a place called Sheol. God’s main purpose in communicating this fact to us is in order that we might have hope regarding those who have died. Though He has not told us much about the place, we do know that all the dead are there and therefore they have not been annihilated or forgotten by Him. Of course, this means hope not just for our loved ones but for ourselves as well.
I am stressing the plain and simple facts taught so far by the Bible: Sheol is the place of death, and all the dead go there. I am stressing them for two reasons: First, the Bible so abundantly teaches them. Secondly, these Bible facts seem to be largely unknown to many people today. I didn’t know them myself until I began to run across this term Sheol in my Bible reading. I then checked out Bible reference books. Most such books, both Jewish and Christian, are quick to acknowledge this Sheol reality, but for some reason it is not taught among the masses of people. Nevertheless, you have seen for yourself that all the dead, good and bad alike, were designated for Sheol at death.
You may at this point be a little frustrated with me. I tell you in the book’s title that everyone is going to heaven and all I have succeeded in doing so far is showing that everyone is going to Sheol. But as I said in the beginning, we will need patience. We are letting the Bible tells its story. We are trying to establish the context in which Jesus Christ came and did His redemptive work. Therefore, we are fully fleshing out the Old Testament perspective on afterlife. Once we’ve fully established the reality that Jesus faced, we’ll be able to describe the majesty of His accomplishment.
Why Would Anyone Want to Go to Sheol?
No one did want to go to Sheol. Going to Sheol meant dying, and, of course, no one wanted to die. No one except depressed people.
If we find out today that someone wants to die, we know something is wrong with them. It is not normal for healthy people to want to die. Rather, it is usually a sign of depression. If a depressed person says he wants to die, we are concerned but not altogether surprised. Therefore, we are not surprised when we hear Job, once his calamities have really gotten him down, saying,
Job was so miserable, he just wanted to die. That’s what he was asking in his request “hide me in Sheol.” He was speaking from the same despair that also caused him to say,
“Why did I not die at birth,
Come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me,
And why the breasts, that I should suck?
For now I would have lain down and been quiet;
I would have slept then, I would have been at rest,
With kings and with counselors of the earth,
Who rebuilt ruins for themselves;
Or with princes who had gold,
Who were filling their houses with silver.
Or like a miscarriage which is discarded, I would not be,
As infants that never saw light.
There the wicked cease from raging,
And there the weary are at rest.
The prisoners are at ease together;
They do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
The small and the great are there,
And the slave is free from his master.” Job 3:11-19 NASB
Though this passage does not mention Sheol by name, you see that he is talking about the one place that all go at death. Regardless of their length of life. Regardless of their station in life. Regardless of the moral quality of their life. One place.
Before he repented and was restored, Job indeed wanted to die. Moreover, he was not the only Bible hero to get so discouraged. The great prophet Elijah requested to die (1 Kings 19). And Jonah begged with all his soul to die (Jonah 4). Have you ever been that miserable? I have. Of course, we have no more right to take our own life than we do anyone else’s. Therefore, a desire for death should never be translated into action. Job, Elijah, and Jonah all exercised this restraint. They knew that God’s desire for us in those times is to strengthen us to get back in the race of life – not the rat race, but the right race.
Our point here is that people wanted to go to Sheol about as much as they wanted to die – because it was the same thing. If going to Sheol was the equivalent of dying, then everyone’s natural desire was to postpone it. Everyone knew they had to go there eventually but the hope was that they could go like Abraham did:
I hope that when you die, it will be with this same sense of satisfaction.
Why Is There a Place Called Sheol?
Sheol existed because God did not want our lives to cease at death. He never wanted death for us in the first place. He had warned Adam and Eve to keep that one simple commandment so that they would not die. Only when they disobeyed did death make its entrance into human experience. But God in His mercy provided a resting place for their unseen beings. Sheol was a place to be thankful for. It meant the dead were somewhere, even though we could no longer enjoy them.
Sheol, however, was not an entirely satisfactory solution either. Who would want to exchange the known of the earth for the unknown of Sheol? Beyond that, Sheol was never described in any glorious terms. Nothing was mentioned that made it attractive. The righteous didn’t want to go there anymore than the wicked did. The righteous were rewarded by getting to postpone their inevitable trip there, but no one was righteous enough to avoid it altogether.
Therefore, this place called Sheol was both a solution and a problem: A solution if anyone was worried that this life is all there is, but a problem in ways we are just beginning to see. This is why we are letting the Bible tell the story in its own order and at its own pace. You and I already knew that death was a problem, but the Bible tells us that there was more to the problem than we realized. In fact, death was not just a problem for us – it was a problem for God. Stick with me and I’ll show you just what I mean.
End of Chapter Two