The Heavens and the Earth and the Sea
Your country – where did it come from? How about your city – what were its origins? If we want to know where things came from, their origin, we have to look to those who have written history. Either through firsthand knowledge or research, historians have recorded for us how things began. Most of us know the origin of our country and city because it was probably part of the curriculum followed in our schooling.The origin of many other things becomes known, however, only if we happen to take an interest in research ourselves or come into contact with someone who has taken such an interest.
How about you? I’m talking about the origin of you. Where did you come from? I hope you had a couple of parents around to be a continual source of that kind of information. Grandparents and great-grandparents, too. Our family, those who came before us, tell us where we came from.
The Israelites were blessed in this way. Their origins were passed down to them. They knew that they had descended from one man named Abraham who had been chosen by God. These facts were not just passed on orally but were also recorded in the genealogies and the narratives of the Bible. But their family history included something more than most family trees. It included the history of the universe.
In the Beginning
The Hebrews were very adept at tracing family history. The lists in my family Bible only go back a few generations; theirs went all the way back to the very first man. That’s what you call thorough! In the mention of Adam, the creation of the universe was also described. Not in any great detail, mind you. But enough description to answer the question of where it all came from. Or, more precisely, who it all came from. If I want to know who brought the first airplane into existence, I am satisfied when I hear the names Wilbur and Orville Wright. I do not need to know the kinds of wrenches they used or where they bought the raw material before I can accept the answer. Even if I was interested in such detailed information and could discover it, this still would not change the answer to my original question – no matter how much detail I did or didn’t uncover. God created the universe and, for most of us, that gets to the main point. Let science discover all it can, but no matter how much it does or doesn’t discover, the answer to the question about who will not change. In the meantime, we need simple explanations of the creation from the Bible that will help all of us – whether we’re scientists or not – live morally and practically in this world. Moses summed up the story this way:
“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them…” Exodus 20:11 NASB
Not bad for a week’s work. Heavens, earth, and sea – and all that is in them! That just about covers everything. And this threefold view of God’s work is repeated at various places in the Scriptures. Here’s an example taken from a time when a group of people were praying to Him:
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them, Acts 4:24 NASB
To acknowledge the extent and grandeur of God’s creative ability at the beginning of a prayer would have to make almost any request that follows seem possible. And, of course, that’s the idea of addressing Him in this way – not for the effect it has on Him (as if He could be “buttered up”) but for the effect it has on us as we pray. We are petitioning the One to whom all existence owes its existence!
To describe the creation as heavens and earth and sea is helpful because it is meaningful and simple. It is natural for the human mind to want to order and categorize what it sees – to make sense of things. But there is more than one way to slice the creation pie.
Visible and Invisible
From the beginning, we have always known that there is more to this creation than what we can see. Yes, it has its visible elements, but there are also things that, though we can’t see them, are just as real. Not only are they just as real, they seem more long lasting. Take love, for instance. Can we see it? No. Does it exist? Yes. How about God – do we see Him? No. But if invisible things aren’t real then God isn’t real. And how about you? Didn’t we already decide there was more to you than what can be seen? If there is not an invisible you, then the corruption and decay of your body after death is you decaying – lifeless and waiting for the first wind to spread you a hundred different directions. People have died…but love remains. People have died…but God remains. People have died…but people remain (those same people, in Sheol below). Therefore, we know that the invisible parts of the creation are just as real as the visible parts…and more long-lasting.
The Bible sometimes uses the twofold description of creation – that is, visible and invisible, as in this verse from the New Testament speaking of Jesus:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. Colossians 1:15-16 NASB
Notice that God is specifically referred to as being invisible. Also note that things created were referred to as both visible and invisible. Of course, with respect to man, it was the dust of the ground that provided the visible part and the breath of God that provided the invisible part.
The Bible also used other terms to describe the visible-invisible dichotomy. The following verse describes it in a way that affirms what we have already seen about invisible things being more long-lasting than visible ones:
while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18 NASB
The things which are not seen are still things. They are just unseen. The universe we live in has things which are seen and things which are not seen. Two kinds of things. The “seen” you will perish; the “unseen” you will never perish.
Another way of referring to the two aspects of creation uses the words flesh and spirit. What is seen of people is called flesh. Unseen things are spirit. That’s why Jesus says,
God is spirit… John 4:24 NASB
That’s another way of saying that God is invisible. God has been teaching us from the beginning to live according to values we couldn’t see. You can’t see honesty. You can’t see integrity. You can see the results of them, but not those things themselves for they are spiritual things. Unseen.
Another Heaven, Another Earth, and Another Sea
The Bible’s purpose has always been to give understanding. To do this, it must establish order for our minds. Where there is no order, there can only be confusion. The Bible has always presented an ordered view of the creation. There were the heavens where the birds flew. There was the earth where man and beast dwelt. And there was the sea which had its own set of creatures. Each part of the creation provided the environment, or home if you will, for its particular creatures.
Just as seen things had their own places normal to them, so unseen things did, too. For example, God’s home was in the heavens. That’s why people prayed, “Our Father who art in heaven.” That didn’t mean that God couldn’t see and hear everything going on down here. Obviously He could, or we’d be wasting our time praying. But His natural habitat was heaven.
God Himself put it this way:
“Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool.
Where then is a house you could build for Me?
And where is a place that I may rest?
For My hand made all these things,
Thus all these things came into being,” Isaiah 66:1-2 NASB
We get the picture. God has a presence in the earth (His feet rest here), but His throne is in the heavens. A king, or any earthly leader, is often judged by the glory of His throne (or seat of his power). Has any king or president ever had a throne or residence as glorious as the heavens? I tell you that the poorest man has the richest art collection in the world if he makes the effort to watch the sunrises and sunsets each day. A painting of a sunflower sold for $40 million a few years ago, but you can see an original for nothing.
Beyond the glory of the visible heavens, however, lies the heavens that are invisible. Obviously, the Bible was not teaching the idea that God could be reached at 40,000 feet. Or 50,000. Or even a zillion miles. There are heavens that are invisible to our eyes and to the strongest telescopes. And just as birds dwell in the visible heavens, God and the angels dwell in the invisible heavens. The difference between the visible heaven and the invisible one is not a matter of distance, but of dimension. Jesus would lift His eyes to heaven when He prayed. He did not expect to see God with His physical eyes. Rather, He knew there was another dimension up there. And it was into that dimension that He spoke.
The earth, too, has an invisible dimension. There is the realm that we see, but there is also a realm which we do not see. You remember Samuel from the last chapter. One of his tasks before he died was to anoint a successor to King Saul. God’s choice was a young man named David, but Samuel did not know that at first. All he knew was that the new king was to come from among the sons of a man named Jesse. So Samuel went to the town of this family, which was Bethlehem. Jesse’s oldest sons were named Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah. Here’s what Samuel (the “he” of the first sentence) encountered:
When they entered, he looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord’s looks at the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Next Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are these all the children?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward… 1 Samuel 16:6-13 NASB
Though David had a handsome physical appearance, his youth, smallness, and last position in the birth order would cause no one to take him as a serious candidate for king. Only when the process of elimination pointed his way was he even considered. But God sees things we don’t see. He sees the spiritual dimension of the earth. He saw the size of David’s heart, which was not only bigger than any of his brothers’ but bigger than Goliath’s as well!
The physical heavens clothe the spiritual heavens. Our physical eyes see only the outward garment of sky and clouds, but the eyes of our heart see beyond to the unchanging reality. The same is true of the earth. Our bodies clothe our spirits. Our physical eyes see only the outward garment of face and the rest, but the eyes of our heart – though we cannot peer where only God sees – knows that there is a spiritual person inside. Therefore the Scripture says,
The heavens are the heavens of the Lord,
But the earth He has given to the sons of men. Psalm 115:16 NASB
The Hebrew mind would see this truth in two dimensions. Similarly, we have two eyes to give us the sense of depth in the physical sphere. There is a greater depth in the creation: visible and invisible. Physical creation does not exist independent of spiritual creation. It mirrors and reflects it.
The Bible is presenting an ordered universe with both physical and spiritual dimensions. As there is order in the physical side, so also there is order in the spiritual side. Physical realities are used to explain spiritual realities – as in this verse:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. Psalm 103:11 NASB
And just as the physical heavens were above the physical earth, so the spiritual heavens were above the spiritual earth. Whether we lift our eyes or bow our heads, the spiritual being within us is acknowledging the Spiritual Being in the spiritual heavens.
But what of the sea? Does it have any spiritual counterpart in the Bible’s point of view? You guessed it –
The Depths of Sheol
Israel’s prophets viewed Sheol below as something to be contrasted with heaven above. As Isaiah said,
“Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Isaiah 7:11 NASB
As heaven is measured by height, so the ocean is measured by depth.
Earlier we read from David’s Psalm 139. Let’s look at part of it again:
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. Psalm 139:7-8 NASB
Obviously, David is contrasting the height of the heavens with the depth of Sheol. Heaven is as high as you can go in the creation; Sheol is as low as you can go.
Job, also, reveals this three-tiered view of spiritual creation in this passage:
“Can you discover the depths of God?
Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?
They are high as the heavens, what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol, what can you know?” Job 11:7-8 NASB
There is nothing higher in creation than heaven; neither is there anything lower than Sheol.
Sheol is often described with terms like “deep,” “depths,” “lowest” and such. Terms like “high,” “heights,” and “highest” are reserved for heaven.
Creation Is Two-Dimensional and Three-Tiered
Summing up what we have gleaned from the Bible: It presents a view of creation as existing in two dimensions: visible and invisible. We could also say “seen and unseen” or “flesh and spirit.” This two-dimensional creation exists in three tiers: heaven, earth, and sea (corresponding to Sheol).
Each tier has its own inhabitants, both in the physical realm as well as the spiritual one. Even children are familiar with the creatures which belong to each realm: Birds for the air, fish for the sea, and so on. In the spiritual dimension, heaven was designed for God and angels, earth for living humanity, and Sheol below for deceased humanity. It’s a simple concept, but God must know that’s the way we prefer things.
In any given Bible verse, it’s not always clear which dimension is being referenced. Obviously, when it tells us to pray “Our Father who art in heaven” it is not encouraging us to picture Him hanging on to a star. On the other hand, when the Scriptures told the Israelites not to make idols of any likeness of anything in the heavens, it was speaking of the physical heavens. For how could the Israelites make a likeness of something they couldn’t see? There are other times, however, where both dimensions of creation may be in view.
For example, Moses told his fellow Israelites that to insure the blessing of God they should obey the words he had written down for them. He said God’s instruction was not too difficult for them to understand or perform. He stressed the point this way (the “it” he uses in the first sentence refers to God’s instruction):
“It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Deuteronomy 30:12-13 NASB
We see Moses using the heavens and the sea to express great distances to which one could go. We today might use figures of speech like “outer Mongolia” or “Timbuktu.” It seems natural to take his expressions as referring to the physical heavens and the physical sea. However, the apostle Paul quotes this verse in the New Testament and uses the terms in their spiritual sense:
“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” Romans 10:6-7 NASB
Paul refers to the spiritual heaven where Christ ascended after His resurrection, and the spiritual sea where He had descended at death before His resurrection. The word “abyss” literally means “bottomless,” so it is understandable why it might substitute for the sea, especially in this context. In fact, abyss is used for the sea or ocean outside of the Bible, and even in our day. Obviously, Christ did not descend into the physical ocean at His death. He descended into the spiritual depths called Sheol, the realm of the dead.
Knowing this, we can feel what David felt as we see this word picture he drew:
…You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. Psalm 86:13 NASB
This imagery of a “man overboard” who is “sinking” toward “death” works to describe either a physical or spiritual deliverance. Here is a similar picture from another passage of David’s:
“For the waves of death encompassed me;
The torrents of destruction overwhelmed me;” 2 Samuel 22:5 NASB
Vivid and consistent imagery communicates like no other kind of speech.
By the way, I mentioned earlier that Bible scholars were uncertain of the origin of the specific word “Sheol.” One of the two main theories holds that it comes from a word meaning “hollow” or “deep.” You can easily see how that understanding would fit with everything we have learned. Even so, the way a word is used is always a more reliable guide to understanding what people mean than the origin of the word. I don’t know the origin of the word “dude” but if I hang around people who use it frequently, I’ll know what they mean. Likewise, when we look at all these Bible verses describing Sheol and its place in the universe, we get the idea.
Sheol Is a Spiritual Place
In this chapter I have shown you how and where Sheol fits into the created order or scheme of things. It is a simple view. And it is the view consistently put forth by the prophets of Israel. It is not original with me.
We had already learned that Sheol was a place distinct from the earth and that it was below. Now we can see clearly that it was part of an overall view of creation held by the Bible writers: two dimensions and three tiers.
Sheol was an actual place, but a spiritual one. What I mean is that you couldn’t see it. Not physically anyway. You could not see the spirits of the people who existed there. But then we never saw their spirits when they lived on earth either. We only saw their bodies. We can get a hint of what people’s spirits are like by their actions – but never enough to judge them.
I’ll admit that this biblical view of creation on three levels and in two dimensions does not present all the scientific aspects. But I did not take into account all the science involved when I turned on the light in this room either. And there was a lot of science behind that little act. Neither did I ponder the mysteries of electronic circuitry and silicon chips when I turned on this computer. I just needed it to work. The Bible is not trying to be a science book. If it were, to which century’s scientists would it write? Their curriculum changes over time. The Bible is giving us an outlook to live by – for any century. Its truths transcend scientific eras. The two-dimensional, three-tiered view of the universe may seem simplistic to some, but God figured we’d probably prefer a light switch to a wiring schematic and a biography of Edison.
Sheol Was a Place to Avoid…as Long as You Could
Since Sheol equates to death, then to avoid Sheol would be to live a long life. This is just the way it is referred to most of the time in the Bible’s book of Proverbs. This book is filled with practical advice. Much of it is cast in terms of a parent giving instruction to a child. For example,
Do not hold back discipline from the child,
Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.
You shall strike him with the rod
And rescue his soul from Sheol. Proverbs 23:13-14 NASB
If you’re opposed to corporal punishment, just regard “the rod” as a good tongue lashing. The point is that if you properly discipline a child, you will spare them far worse torments. Aside from the grace of God, I attribute my longevity of life so far to the diligence of my parents who instilled in me values I still hold dear.
In a similar vein, another proverb says,
The path of life leads upward for the wise
That he may keep away from Sheol below. Proverbs 15:24 NASB
Life is like a broad place to play. But at the edge there’s a cliff. If you play close to the edge, you’re liable to fall (into Sheol). Don’t play close to the edge. There’s plenty of room in the middle, boys and girls. Be wise. So the book of Proverbs teaches us.
The proverbs also warn against adult sins such as adultery (transgression of the seventh of the Ten Commandments). It uses picturesque speech (as we are seeing the Bible continually do) by personifying the adulteress as anyone who leads astray. For example,
For the lips of an adulteress drip honey
And smoother than oil is her speech;
But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
Sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death,
Her steps take hold of Sheol. Proverbs 5:3-5 NASB
“Her” ways are a fast track to Sheol. In another place, it says this of the adulteress:
For many are the victims she has cast down,
And numerous are all her slain.
Her house is the way to Sheol,
Descending to the chambers of death. Proverbs 7:26-27 NASB
The picture is designed to provoke revulsion, and help the reader avoid temptation. Temptation is alluring, but who wants to spend time with someone whose house leads to “the chambers of death” for crying out loud?
And speaking once again of a personified temptress, it says,
But he does not know that the dead are there,
That her guests are in the depths of Sheol. Proverbs 9:18 NASB
Some of the Bible’s picturesque language is beautiful – then there are stark and graphic warnings like these. For those of us to who like to read books with lots of pictures, there is nothing quite like the Bible. Picture after picture.
If you are a parent, you are in a good position to appreciate what God is trying to do with the Bible. You want your child to have a healthy respect for death so that he or she can avoid it, but neither do you want them to be afraid of it. In God’s case, He made us aware of Sheol so that we’d know death wasn’t the end of existence. That, however, is not all of the comfort He wants to give us. Before we understand the greater comfort, we must understand how the problem affects God Himself.
Sheol Meant Further Separation from God
Perhaps now you see why I said that death was not just a problem for us, but for God, too. When Adam and Even sinned, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. That marked a separation from God. It was not a complete separation because He made garments for them. And His care for them was shown in other ways, just as He has always continued to make His sun shine on the just and the unjust. Yet something special had been lost.
Since death took people below, it only meant further separation from God. This was one more reason why He did not want people to sin. It hastened the day of their death and removed them from the earth. The three-tiered, two-dimensional worldview conveyed this graphically. And, remember, everyone who died was going down to Sheol which was farther from God than the earth – not just certain “bad” people.
This does not mean that people who go to Sheol are out of His reach, for the Bible says,
And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. Hebrews 4:13 NASB
There is no place anywhere in the creation that is out of sight for Him.
And, as if we needed any specific confirmation, Job says,
“Naked is Sheol before Him…” Job 26:6 NASB
Indeed, all things are “open and laid bare” or “naked” to God. Therefore, we needn’t think that going to Sheol took one beyond the reach of God. But it was better to be alive on the earth.
No one could see what life was like in Sheol anymore than a baby in the womb can see what life is like outside the womb. As you have seen after reading all these Scripture verses about Sheol, the Bible’s instructions are about how to live here on the earth. We human beings don’t know any more details about Sheol below than we do about heaven above. The emphasis of the Scripture is on life. In that regard, it tells enough about Sheol to accomplish two goals: First, to avoid it for as long as possible. Second, to be comforted that once we die we have a place to go and are not forgotten by God.
(At this point, you could be frustrated with me because instead of proving that everyone is going to heaven, I’ve only proved that everyone is going to Sheol. Nonetheless, I told you we had to let the Bible unfold the story in its own way, and that is what we’re doing. You’ve completed one-third of the book. Already you’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t my Bible teachers ever tell me about Sheol?” Your biblical understanding of heaven is going to be solid and strong. Hang in there!)
And so we see that the problem of death is even bigger than we first thought. It’s a problem for God as well as us, and the problem is bound up in the very structure of the universe. God promised through His prophets that He would do something about it, but it was not at all apparent how He was going to solve it.
Before we see what that solution is, however, we must lay a little more groundwork. The better we understand the problem, the better we will understand the solution. And this solution is a doozy – one that men and angels would study and admire for all eternity!
End of Chapter Four