Sheol Definition & Descriptions in the Bible
Let’s now look at various biblical descriptions and insights about Sheol not yet addressed or, at least, not fully addressed.
Sheol is Contrasted with “the Land of the Living”
The reality that Sheol is the realm where dead souls are held awaiting their resurrection can be derived from the fact that Sheol is often spoken of in contrast to “the land of the living.” In the previous chapter we witnessed evidence of this in Hezekiah’s statements from Isaiah 38:9-12. Let’s look at some other biblical examples:
PSALM 116:8-9 (NASB)
For thou hast rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. (9) I shall walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
We see in this passage that the LORD delivered the psalmist from a life-threatening situation. Verse 3 reveals that the psalmist was distressed and sorrowful because, as he puts it, “The cords of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me.” (We, once again, see evidence here that death and Sheol are synonymous terms in the Bible). Obviously the psalmist was quite concerned that he’d lose his life in this situation, but the LORD ultimately delivered him and that’s why he exclaims in verse 8: “thou hast rescued my soul from death.” The psalmist knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, the world of the dead where lifeless souls experience only death (naturally). Note that God saved his soul from death. He did not save him from fellowship with Father Abraham in the paradise compartment of Sheol; he saved him from death. Because the LORD delivered him, he states in verse 9: “I shall walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” Why does he state this? Obviously because you can’t walk before the LORD in Sheol.
Needless to say, if life in this world is “the land of the living” then it stands to reason that Sheol is the land of the dead or “the world of the dead,” as James Strong defines it, where souls suffer death itself — the state of non-existence.
David speaks of “the land of the living” in these two passages:
PSALM 27:13 (NASB)
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
PSALM 142:5 (NASB)
I cried out to Thee, O LORD; I said, “Thou art my refuge. My portion in the land of the living.”
In each of these cases David was in a life-threatening situation. If the LORD failed to come through he would have died and gone to Sheol. As you can see, David speaks of life in this world as “the land of the living” as opposed to the alternative — dying and going to Sheol. Allow me to repeat: if life in this world is “the land of the living” then Sheol is obviously the land of not-living — the land of the dead, the realm of utter non-existence.
When his life was in danger, Jeremiah likewise used the phrase “land of the living” in this prayer:
Because the LORD revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at the time he showed me what they were doing. (19) I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” (20) But, O LORD Almighty, you who judge righteously and test the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.
As you can see, there were people out to kill Jeremiah; their intent was to “slaughter” him and “destroy” his very life, thus cutting him off from “the land of the living.” These evil plotters rightly knew that if they successfully murdered Jeremiah his soul would go to Sheol, the nether realm of dead souls. Since souls in Sheol are literally dead, Jeremiah would be completely cut off from those who are alive in “the land of the living.”
But let’s suppose for a moment that Sheol is a place where souls are alive and conscious as religionists contend — the wicked suffer continuous torment without a drop of water for relief while the righteous blissfully enjoy paradise. Let’s reword the evil plotters words in verse 19 as if this belief were true:
“Let us physically destroy Jeremiah and cut him off from the land of the living on earth. Unfortunately his soul will immediately go to the paradise compartment of Sheol where he’ll enjoy blissful communion with Father Abraham and other righteous saints that have passed on.”
Once again, we see that adjusting the Scriptures to fit the religious belief that souls are alive in Sheol, whether tormented or blessed, makes an absurdity of God’s Word.
The bottom line is that if souls in Sheol are alive and conscious then Sheol is just as much “the land of the living” as life on earth is “the land of the living.” Yet, this would make nonsense of the Scriptures. Hence, if life on earth is “the land of the living” then we naturally conclude Sheol must be the land of not-living, the land of the dead.
Sheol: The Soulish Grave of “All the Living”
Notice what David exclaims to God after having been rescued from a life-threatening situation:
PSALM 56:13 (NRSV)
For you have delivered my soul from death and my feet from falling so that I may walk before God in the light of life.
Obviously David knew that Sheol was the state of death where “the dead know nothing” and where “there’s no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10). The only reason he could “walk before God in the light of life” was because God rescued his “soul from death.” He knew, as we’ve looked at before, that Sheol is a state where you cannot remember or praise God (Psalm 6:5). God used David himself to reveal this in Scripture. Thus, if the LORD hadn’t delivered him on this occasion, his soul would have dwelt in the silent darkness of non-existence.
This is the common spiritual grave of all humankind where the souls of all non-born-again people go at physical death. No one had the opportunity to be reborn spiritually and receive immortality until Jesus died and was raised. Before that all humankind went to Sheol the “common grave.” This is why, when Joshua was nearing his time of death, he said he was “about to go the way of all the earth” (Joshua 23:14). What is “the way of all the earth”? Why Sheol, the graveyard of souls.
In complete agreement with Joshua, Job made the statement:
JOB 30:23 (NRSV)
“I know that you [God] will bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all the living”
What is “the house appointed for all the living”? Sheol, of course. Notice that Job makes it very clear that “all the living” would go there. That’s why Ethan the psalmist asked the rhetorical question: “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:48).
Thus Sheol can be described as the common grave of humankind. People’s bodies may, in fact, be housed in separate, individual graves, tombs, mausoleums, or otherwise all over the earth, but throughout history all people’s souls have shared the common spiritual grave, Sheol. We see this fact evident in Job 3:13-19 where Job said that, if he died, he would experience the sleep of death “with kings and counselors of the earth… with princes… There the wicked cease from troubling and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together… The small and great are there and the slaves are free from their master” (NRSV).
Job makes it clear that kings, counselors, princes, wicked people, weary people, prisoners, people of small and great social stature, and slaves will all be housed in the same condition together. Indeed, Sheol is the common grave of every soul throughout human history, “the house appointed for all the living,” as Job describes it above. The only people who can escape the power of Sheol are those who have obtained immortality by being born again of the imperishable seed of Christ (1 Peter 1:23).
W.E. Vine, the Hebrew and Greek scholar, points out in his lexicon that Sheol/Hades “never denotes the grave” (286) and he’s technically right if, in fact, “grave” is referring to the physical hole, tomb or mausoleum where corpses are housed. As pointed out earlier in our study, the Hebrew word qeber (KEH-ber) is the biblical word used to specify this. However, although Sheol doesn’t refer to the literal physical grave where the body is buried, it can accurately be described as the grave of the soul — the common spiritual graveyard where all dead souls are housed.
We see this in Ezekiel 31:14-18 where it says that whole nations (which are likened to trees, e.g. “trees of Eden,” “cedars of Lebanon”) will go to “Sheol, to those slain by the sword… to the earth beneath; you will lie in the midst of the uncircumcised with those who were slain by the sword” (verses 17-18 NASB). Sheol is specifically mentioned three times in this passage (verses 15, 16 & 17) and the context clearly states that Sheol is death: “For they have all been given over to death, to the earth beneath” (verse 14 NASB). “The earth beneath” or “world below” (NRSV) is a descriptive phrase for Sheol, which we’ll analyze in Chapter Nine. Note, incidentally that this passage describes souls as lying in Sheol with other dead people (verse 18). “Lie” is shakab (shaw-KAB) in the Hebrew, meaning “to lie down” or “sleep,” which indicates being in a horizontal or prostrate position as on a bed or the ground. The image is that of resting or sleeping, not writhing and wailing in constant roasting torment begging for less than a drop of water. The latter notion simply isn’t biblical. A belief that’s not biblical is false and, as such, is a false doctrine. It may be religious, it may be traditional in the sense that it goes back to the time of Augustine and the Pharisees, but it’s false nevertheless. A lie 1600-2000 years ago is still a lie today; the mere passage of time does not give credence to error.
My main point here is that, because of God’s judgment, whole nations of people will go to Sheol and lie together “in the midst of the uncircumcised.” This clearly shows that Sheol is indeed the common grave of all spiritually un-regenerated souls.
In the New International Version, which is the most popular modern translation of the Bible, Sheol is consistently translated as “the grave” in the Old Testament. At first, I considered this an improper translation of the word since Sheol does not technically refer to the physical grave where bodies are housed. However, as I studied the subject and discovered that Sheol clearly refers to the common graveyard of unregenerated souls, I’ve concluded that “the grave” is indeed a sound translation. (Unfortunately, some modern translations sometimes translate Hades as “hell,” which is erroneous because it gives the impression that Hades and the lake of fire—hell—are one-and-the-same, which they’re not, as seen in Revelation 20:11-15).
Lastly, by describing Sheol as the “common grave” of dead souls I don’t want to give the impression that the remains of souls are thrown into Sheol and placed haphazardly like a mass grave during wartime or what have you. We saw evidence last chapter, in the section on Ezekiel 32:17-32, that there are compartments and levels to Sheol. Whole nations of dead souls are kept in one section on a certain level and others elsewhere. Solomon mentioned the “chambers” of Sheol in Proverbs 7:27. Bodies are buried in earthly graveyards in an orderly fashion according to family, purchaser and sometimes even religious faith; for instance, there are Catholic cemeteries and church cemeteries where only those of that specific faith can be buried. Why would we think it would be any different for dead souls in Sheol?
Sheol and the Physical Grave: Distinct Yet Parallel
Although the physical grave (qeber) and the soulish grave (Sheol) are indeed separate terms in the Bible they are often mentioned in the same breath. Why? Obviously because the two go hand in hand — if one physically dies his/her soul goes to Sheol; if one’s soul is in Sheol it’s because s/he physically died. Simple, right? Let’s look at a few examples:
In Psalm 30:3 David states, “O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (NRSV). Here, once again, David is praising God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation. On this occasion David was so close to death that he considered himself as good as dead; that’s why he symbolically exclaims, “you brought up my soul from Sheol [and] restored me to life.” David obviously didn’t literally die, but he came so close that he spoke as if did. Also take note that David makes it clear in this passage that Sheol is the condition and place that souls specifically go to at physical death; this is, of course, in contrast to the physical grave where bodies are housed. Take note as well that David describes Sheol as “the Pit,” a synonym for Sheol.
With this understanding, notice what David goes on to say in verse 9: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (NRSV). Observe how David mentions “the Pit,” which is a reference to Sheol, and then in the very next breath asks, “Will the dust praise you?” “Dust” is definitely a reference to the physical grave or tomb (qeber) where the body is housed because dust is what (unpreserved) bodies revert to after death. The reason David interchangeably refers to Sheol and the physical grave here is simply because the two, although distinct, naturally go together.
We also see this in Psalm 88 where Heman prays for deliverance from a serious life-threatening situation. In verse 3 Heman states, “For my soul is full of troubles and my life draws near to Sheol. (4) I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, (5) like those forsaken among the dead like the slain that lie in the grave (qeber)” (NRSV). By saying that his “life draws near to Sheol,” Heman is simply expressing how close he is to losing his life in this situation. Now notice what Heman declares in verses 10-12:
PSALM 88:10-12 (NRSV)
“Do you [God] work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (11) Is your steadfast love declared in the grave (qeber), or your faithfulness in abaddon (destruction)? (12) Are your wonders known in darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?”
Heman specifically mentions Sheol in verse 3 and refers to it as “the Pit” in verse 4. His reference to “darkness” and “the land of forgetfulness” in verse 12 are also references to Sheol, although they could arguably apply to the physical grave as well. In addition, he refers to Sheol as “regions dark and deep” in verse 6. He also mentions the literal grave, qeber, in verses 5 and 11.
Why is this important to our subject? I just want to clearly show how Sheol and the physical grave are sometimes spoken of in the very same breath. Although Sheol definitely refers to the common grave — “gravedom” — where all un-regenerated souls go to and qeber refers to the physical grave/tomb where bodies are lain to rest, both terms are parallel and signify the same condition: DEATH, the cessation of life. Qeber signifies the utter absence of life in the physical realm and Sheol denotes the utter absence of life period.
Because Sheol and qeber are sometimes spoken of in the same breath some theologians have mistakenly theorized that Sheol refers to the physical grave, at least in the context in question. Yet, Sheol is repeatedly described in the Scriptures as a place and condition where immaterial souls specifically go, not bodies. This has been firmly established in our study. As such, the idea that Sheol refers to the physical grave must be rejected.
Our conclusion is that Sheol and qeber are distinct yet parallel terms in the Bible; they each have separate definitions but naturally go together. Being parallel terms, they signify the same thing — death, the absence of life. Is there any life in a physical grave? Of course not. Neither is there life in Sheol, the soulish grave. Is a grave meant for anything other than that which is dead? Of course not. The same goes for Sheol. Both terms, though distinct, denote the utter absence of life.
This presents a problem for the religious traditional view that teaches that Sheol/Hades is a nether realm where unredeemed souls exist in a state of conscious torment desperately hoping for a mere drop of water for relief and Old Testament saints hanged out in paradise with father Abraham (literally in his chest cavity) before the ascension of Christ. If this were so, Sheol and qeber couldn’t possibly be sister terms. Why? Because qeber would signify the utter absence of life, whereas Sheol would refer to the express opposite — conscious life in a spiritual dimension, whether in misery or bliss. They wouldn’t be parallel terms if they both represent two completely opposite concepts.
People Who Go to Sheol are “No More”
David says something interesting in Psalm 39 while lamenting about God’s severe discipline and the brevity of life:
Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.”
We don’t know what David’s sin was or the nature of God’s discipline, but the psalm shows David’s suffering and his lamenting reflections on the transient nature of life. God’s hand of discipline was so heavy that David no longer even enjoyed living and was concerned for his very life, which is why he asks the LORD to look away from him before he departs – that is, dies – and is “no more.”
Please notice what David didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Look away from me… before I depart and share fellowship with Abraham in the paradise compartment of Sheol.” As you can see, such a belief makes utter nonsense of the passage because it’s not true; it’s a false doctrine, pure and simple. David knew that if he died he’d go to Sheol and be “no more,” meaning he’d be dead – his conscious life would expire as the breath of life returned to the LORD and his soulish remains would go to Sheol to rest in death.
This is not an isolated example as there are many other passages revealing that those who die and go to Sheol are “no more.” For instance, in Psalm 59 David prays that the LORD would hold his wicked adversaries accountable for their sins:
For the sins of their mouths, for the words of their lips, let them be caught in their pride. For the curses and lies they utter, 13 consume them in your wrath, consume them till they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.
Notice that David doesn’t say, “Consume them until they die and go to Sheol where they’ll suffer constant fiery roasting.” Why doesn’t he phrase it like this? Because it’s simply not true. It’s a false doctrine; a religious myth. When God’s wrath fell David’s enemies would die and be “no more” because their soul would go to Sheol, which is the “world of the dead,” not the world of fiery conscious torture or the world of chummin’ with father Abraham in bliss.
Here’s an example from the LORD Himself from Ezekiel’s prophecy against the city of Tyre:
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘When I make you a desolate city, like cities no longer inhabited, and when I bring the ocean depths over you and its vast waters cover you, 20 then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more. You will be sought, but you will never again be found, declares the Sovereign Lord’.”
When God’s judgment falls on Tyre it will become a desolate city as the inhabitants will be wiped off the face of this earth. Verse 20 shows that they will go the “the pit” and “the earth below,” which are synonyms for Sheol, and verse 21 elaborates that this is a “horrible end” where they will be “no more.” Please notice that going to Sheol is spoken of by God as a horrible END and not the beginning of a life of never-ending roasting torture. No, when these people go to Sheol they will be “no more” because Sheol is the “world of the dead,” which is in contrast to life on earth, which is the “land of the living,” as shown in verse 20. In other words, if life on earth is the “land of the living” then Sheol must be the land of the dead where souls rest in the ‘sleep’ of death until their resurrection. God Himself describes their condition in Sheol as being “no more.”
For further examples see Genesis 42:13,32,36, Job 7:21, Psalm 104:35 and Isaiah 26:14.
“Gathered to His People”
Let’s now consider an interesting phrase that is often used in the Old Testament to describe the perishing of an Israelite. Notice what the LORD tells Moses at the end of his life:
“There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.”
What does “gathered to your people” mean? We know it’s linked to the death of a person, but does it refer to the body being placed in a tomb amongst others from one’s people? No, this phrase refers to the soul going to Sheol. For proof consider a similar statement in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy:
The LORD said to Moses, “Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them.”
Deuteronomy 31:16 (NRSV)
God informs Moses that he was soon going to die and describes it in terms of “lying down with his ancestors,” which—like “gathered to his people”—refers to his soul going to Sheol, the graveyard of dead souls. We know that God wasn’t referring to Moses’ body “lying down with his ancestors” because Moses’ body was not buried with his forefathers, but in an unknown grave in Moab, as shown in Deuteronomy 34:6. With this understanding, notice that God Himself describes the condition of the soul in Sheol in terms of lying down, which corresponds to Sheol as the condition of death where dead souls ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection.
Let’s observe further proof that being “gathered to his people” refers to the soul “lying down” in Sheol and not to the dead body resting in a tomb:
When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
And the following verses of the next chapter:
Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. 2 Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him,
These verses prove that being “gathered to his people” is not a reference to the body, but rather to the soul going to Sheol and being laid to rest with the deceased’s countrymen. We discovered in the previous chapter that dead souls in Sheol are laid to rest according to nation, family and so on (see The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol). In Chapter Three we saw that the Hebrew word bowr (borr) is used as a synonym for Sheol, meaning “pit,” “well” or “dungeon.” Moreover, Proverbs 7:27 suggests that there are “chambers” or orderly sections to Sheol. As such, Sheol is a colossal pit or dungeon in the underworld where dead souls are housed until their resurrection. Sheol has levels and chambers where dead souls are “laid to rest” in an orderly fashion, according to nation, clan and family, much the way that bodies are buried in earthly graveyards in an orderly fashion according to citizenship, family, purchaser and sometimes even religious faith (for instance, there are Catholic cemeteries and church cemeteries where only those of that specific faith can be buried).
So when the Bible talks about Aaron, Moses, Jacob and others dying and being “gathered to their people” it means that their dead souls went to Sheol — the graveyard of souls — and were laid to rest with their countrymen, tribe and family in an orderly fashion, just as the warriors of Egypt and other pagan nations were laid to rest with their countrymen, as seen in Ezekiel 32:17-32. It doesn’t mean that they went to Sheol and consciously hanged out with their dead loved ones and enjoyed sweet communion in a supposed paradise compartment of Sheol, as some teach. This is a false doctrine that’s incompatible with the Scriptures. After all, when the phrase “gathered to his people” is used, as well as any reference to a person dying and going to Sheol, does the passage say anything anywhere about them being conscious and buddying around with their countrymen in Sheol? Of course not; on he contrary, the language is always that of “sleeping” in death, being silent, not being able to remember or praise God, resting, being “no more,” and so on. It’s the language of the condition of death, the state of utter non-being, which means the absence of consciousness.
In Genesis 50:1 above we observe Joseph mourning greatly for his father, as does the entire family and others nine verses later:
When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.
Why all the loud, bitter lamentations if Jacob went down to a nether-paradise to fellowship with father Abraham? Jacob reacted the same way when he was informed that Joseph was dead, as shown in Genesis 37:34-35. Such a reaction makes no sense if Old Testament saints went to a conscious life of bliss where they communed with their countrymen. If this were the case, would he be “mourning” and “bewailing” him so grievously? Of course not. Someone might argue that Joseph and the other family members were grieving over their own personal loss and not the destination of Jacob’s disembodied soul. If this were so, wouldn’t they likely exclaim something to the effect of, “Praise you LORD that our father is now in the comforting presence of Abraham, and we will one day go to this same paradise to reunite with them.” Yet they say nothing of the kind; in fact, their reaction is completely opposite to this. Why? Because the idea that Sheol is a place where souls are conscious and holy people of the Old Testament went to paradise with father Abraham is a false doctrine.
Wicked Kings “Rested with their Fathers”
As noted in Genesis 47:30 above, Jacob spoke of dying in terms of “resting with his fathers.” Interestingly, this same phrase is used in reference to wicked kings in the Old Testament. For instance, these first two references refer to two of the worst kings of Judah:
So Joram [aka Jehoram] rested with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the City of David.
2 Kings 8:24 (NKJV)
So Ahaz rested with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the City of David.
2 Kings 16:20 (NKJV)
Please notice that, in both cases, “rested with his fathers” is differentiated from their bodies being buried. In other words, “resting with their fathers” is a reference to their souls going to Sheol where they were “gathered to their people,” as detailed in the previous section.
These next two verses refer to the wickedest kings of the northern kingdom of Israel:
So Omri rested with his fathers and was buried in Samaria. Then Ahab his son reigned in his place.
1 Kings 16:28 (NKJV)
So Ahab rested with his fathers. Then Ahaziah his son reigned in his place.
1 Kings 22:40 (NKJV)
Like righteous Jacob, these wicked kings and many others are said to have “rested with their fathers” when they physically perished. The Hebrew for “rested” is shakab (shaw-KAB), which literally means “to lie down” or “sleep” and “slept.” They obviously “lied down” or “slept” in the figurative sense of ‘sleeping’ in death in Sheol, the graveyard of dead souls, until their resurrection to be judged.
While these kings were all Israelites they were wicked leaders who turned the Hebrews away from the LORD. In fact, Ahaz was the worst king of Judah; and Omri and Ahab were the evilest kings of the northern kingdom. If the doctrine that Sheol is a place of conscious existence where wicked souls suffer constant fiery torment and righteous souls are comforted in paradise, then these four kings would’ve certainly gone to the torments section, right? Yet there’s no indication of this in these passages because it’s a false doctrine. These evil kings died and they “rested with their fathers” in Sheol. That’s what the Bible plainly teaches.
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