Sheol In the Bible: The Old Testament
Jacob, Job, and Solomon’s View of Sheol, the Intermediate State
We’ll begin our scriptural study on the intermediate state by observing how Jacob, Job and Solomon viewed Sheol. All three were godly men of the Old Testament era. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the father of faith, and the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. In fact, his name was changed to “Israel.” Job was regarded so highly by God that He boasted there was no one on earth as great as him (Job 1:8). As for Solomon, the Bible says “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart” (1 Kings 10:23-24).
These scriptural facts reveal that, although far from perfect, Jacob, Job and Solomon were great and mighty men of the Old Testament period. Hence, there’s no reason not to assume that their recorded statements about Sheol are sound and particularly so if they’re in harmony with what the rest of the Bible teaches.
With this understanding, let’s consider the very first passage in the Bible where the Hebrew word Sheol appears.
What Jacob Said
The term Sheol first appears in Genesis 37:35. This was the occasion where Jacob’s sons treacherously sold their brother Joseph into slavery and then lied to their father by telling him that Joseph was slain by a wild beast. Jacob believed the lie and was understandably heartbroken:
GENESIS 37:35 (NRSV)
All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him [Jacob]; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son [Joseph], mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.
Two simple facts can be derived from Jacob’s brief expression of grief in this passage: (1.) Jacob very much expected to go to Sheol when he died, and (2.) Jacob believed that Joseph was already in Sheol, that he would remain there, and that he would himself join him when he eventually died.
The King James Version translates Sheol in this passage as “the grave.” Why? Obviously because the verse refers to Jacob and Joseph, both righteous men of God (righteous, that is, in the sense that they were in-right-standing with God via their covenant, not that they were unflawed individuals). This is in harmony with the King James translator’s policy of rendering Sheol as “hell” when it applied to unrighteous people and as “the grave” when it applied to the righteous. As pointed out in Chapter One, there is absolutely no justification for this practice; the meaning of the word Sheol does not change depending upon the character of the person going there.
We thus find evidence in the very first appearance of Sheol in the Bible that religious people have tried to mislead the populace about its nature and who exactly went there.
As for the King James and other translations rendering Sheol as “the grave,” it was pointed out in the first chapter that Sheol never denotes the physical grave or tomb where bodies are laid to rest; there’s a separate Hebrew word for this. Sheol should only be understood as “the grave” in the sense that it is the graveyard of souls in the spiritual realm, where dead souls are held and “awaiting” resurrection to be judged by God. This will become more evident as our study progresses.
Another important point concerning Jacob’s view of Sheol: Although Jacob doesn’t state anything about the nature of Sheol, it’s obvious that he didn’t regard it as some sort of nether paradise where his son was hanging out with father Abraham, which is what many ministers today advocate. If this were the case, would Jacob be “mourning” and “bewailing” Joseph so grievously? Of course not. It might be argued that Jacob was grieving over his own personal loss and not the destination of his son’s disembodied soul. If this were so, wouldn’t Jacob likely exclaim something to the effect of, “Praise you LORD that my son is now in the blissful presence of father Abraham, and I will one day go down to this same paradise rejoicing.” Yet Jacob says nothing of the kind; in fact, his reaction is completely opposite to this.
Job’s View of Sheol
Let us now consider Job’s view of the intermediate state. Job was the greatest man of his time and God bragged of his character, integrity, godliness and hatred of evil (Job 1:1,3,8). Furthermore, in the book of Ezekiel God spoke of Job in the same breath as Noah and Daniel, two other great men of God (Ezekiel 14:14-20). The LORD obviously has a very high opinion of Job. We can therefore regard Job’s views on Sheol as very reliable.
As we shall see, Job goes into quite a bit of detail on the nature of Sheol. Did he just dream up all this information or did he have divine revelation on the subject? No doubt God revealed these truths to him. We can confidently draw this conclusion because what Job says about Sheol is in complete agreement with what the rest of the Bible teaches on the subject; only if Job’s position contradicted the rest of Holy Scripture would we question its validity.
NOTE: Some may understandably argue that, since the LORD later accuses Job of speaking “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2), his statements concerning the nature of Sheol are unreliable. But which of Job’s words did God feel were “without knowledge”? Obviously his erroneous belief that it was God Himself who was afflicting him, not the devil; which naturally provoked Job to rail against the LORD throughout the book, e.g. Job 10:1-3. This is what God understandably took issue with, not his theological insights concerning the intermediate state. Once again, Job’s statements about Sheol should only be questioned if they are not in harmony with what the rest of the Bible teaches.
For those unfamiliar with the book of Job, let me briefly explain its contents: Satan argues to God that Job is devoted to Him merely because the LORD blessed him so greatly and contends that Job will curse Him to His face if his blessings were removed. God therefore permits Satan to attack Job to find out. As a result of Satan’s attacks, Job loses his ten children, hundreds of his employees (with only four survivors), all his great wealth and even his health as he is afflicted with painful sores from head to toe.
After many months of suffering, three of Job’s friends go to “comfort” him and end up judging & accusing him of some great hidden sin, which they presume brought about all his horrible suffering. Most of the book consists of Job, in great anguish, profoundly debating with these “friends;” it should be noted, however, that much of what Job says is directed at God Himself. Such is the case with this passage:
JOB 14:10-15 (NRSV)
“But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire and where are they? (11) As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, (12) so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be aroused out of their sleep. (13) Oh that you (God) would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! (14) If mortals die, will they live again? All of the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. (15) You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the works of your hands.”
Much is said in this passage so let’s take it point by point.
Firstly, in verse 10 Job declares that “mortals die” and then asks “where are they?” He partially answers his own question in verse 12 by likening death to “sleep” which humans will not “awake” from until “the heavens are no more,” or, we could say, a very long time. What needs to be emphasized from these words is that Job describes the condition of death as “sleep” from which all human beings will one day “awake” or be resurrected.
Yet he still hasn’t really answered the question of where people go after they die. The very next verse answers this: In his great anguish he cries out to God to hide him in Sheol. Why does Job pray this? Because his suffering was so great he wanted to escape it through death; and obviously when a person died, Job believed, his or her soul would go to Sheol.
One may argue that, in verse 12, Job is perhaps referring to the body “sleeping” in the grave, but the obvious focus of his words is the death condition of the soul in Sheol because in the very same breath, verse 13, he prays to God to go specifically there: “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint a set time and remember me!”
Job erroneously believed that God Himself was causing his great afflictions; he was obviously unaware of the Devil’s hand in the situation. In truth, God only permitted Job’s afflictions by allowing Satan to attack him. Regardless, the fact is that Job believed that by dying and going to Sheol he would escape his intense suffering.
Yes, as amazing as it may seem, Job was actually hoping and praying to die and go to Sheol, a place traditionally considered “hell” and viewed as a horrible, devil-ruled torture chamber! Obviously Job’s view of Sheol was quite different from what religious tradition has taught us. He prayed to go to Sheol because, being one of God’s inspired servants, he knew that Sheol was a condition of unconsciousness which he describes as sleep. Job was understandably weary of his intense suffering and wanted it to end. He knew that in death, in Sheol, he would find relief from his misery, not an increase of it.
A vital fact that needs to be stressed from the above passage is that, regardless of the nature of Sheol, Job definitely believed that everyone would ultimately be resurrected from there. In verse 12 he makes it clear that all mortals who lie down in the sleep of death will one day awaken, that is, be resurrected when “the heavens are no more.” And, while Job prayed to go to Sheol in verse 13, it was not with the expectation that he would remain there forever. Job obviously believed that if God “hid” him in Sheol He would “appoint a set time and remember” him, which is obviously when his “release” would come (verse 14). Release from what? Obviously his release from captivity to Sheol, “the world of the dead” as scholar James Strong defines it. So God “remembering” him and “releasing” him are references to a future resurrection from Sheol, which is in harmony with what the rest of the Bible teaches.
“There the Wicked Cease from Turmoil, and the Weary are at Rest”
Job elaborates greatly on the nature of Sheol in chapter 3 of the book named after him. In this chapter Job curses the day of his birth because his suffering is so great. In essence, Job is wishing that he were never born into this world because then he would never have had to experience such incredible agony. He then details what it would be like for him if this were so:
“Why did I not perish at birth and die as I came from the womb? (12) Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? (13) For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest (14) with kings and counselors of the earth who built for themselves places now lying in ruins, (15) with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. (16) Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? (17) There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. (18) Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout. (19) The small and great are there, and the slave is freed from his master.”
Job starts off this passage by asking why he didn’t die as an infant. He says that, in that event, he would not be enduring all the great suffering that he was experiencing. He explains in verse 13 that, had he died in infancy, he would be peacefully “lying down… asleep and at rest.”
Job then further explains that he would have shared this condition of sleep and rest with kings and counselors of the earth, with the small and the great, with rulers and slaves, with captives and weary people and, yes, even with the wicked! In this state of death, Job declares in verse 17 that “there the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest,” and in verse 18 he makes it plain that there’s no “slave driver’s shout” as well.
This coincides with what Job later says concerning the wicked:
“They [the wicked] spend their days in prosperity and in peace they go down to Sheol.”
Notice that Job didn’t say the wicked go down to Sheol in torment; no, they go down to Sheol in peace. This completely contradicts the religious traditional belief that the unredeemed go to some horrible devil-ruled nether realm immediately after physical death to suffer torments as they are goaded on by slave-driving demons in fiery pits with not a single drop of water for relief. Instead Job makes it clear that there is no turmoil or torment for the wicked in Sheol.
If Job’s view of Sheol is divinely inspired and therefore coincides with the rest of the God-breathed Scriptures, these are potent facts indeed! They reveal that at death kings, counselors, rulers, infants, the wicked, the weary, captives, the small, the great and slaves all share the same condition, a condition of peaceful “sleep” and “rest,” which are obvious references to unconsciousness. No wonder Job, stripped of all his possessions, forsaken by his wife and friends, tortured by painful sores from head to toe, mocked and made a byword by everyone and mourning for his ten children & hundreds of servants, prayed to go to such a place. Needless to say, Job’s understanding of Sheol was quite different from that held by so many misguided religious people today.
Some may wonder if perhaps Job was referring to the literal grave or tomb where the body is laid to rest since there is no specific mention of Sheol in chapter 3. This idea is ruled out because Job makes it clear in verses 13-15 that, if he died, he’d be lying down asleep with kings, counselors and rulers. So Job is plainly referring to a common place or condition that all people shared together. Biblically speaking, this would be Sheol, the realm of dead souls, as verified in Ecclesiastes 9:10, a passage we shall examine in the next section. In addition, Job would not be referring to the literal grave or tomb for the body because it is not acceptable or usual practice to bury people together in mass graves or tombs, whether then or now.
Before we continue let’s remember that, as detailed in Chapter One, this was well before the death and resurrection of Christ, hence spiritual rebirth and the consequent attainment of eternal life were yet to be manifested. For this reason, the souls of Old Testament saints could not be ushered into God’s presence when they physically died; the souls of both the righteous and unrighteous went to Sheol at this time because redemption was not yet available.
Amazingly, some righteous captives to Sheol—death—were set free when Jesus was resurrected:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
(51) At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split (52) and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. (53) They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Notice how verse 52 says that these “holy people who had died were raised to life” and not these “holy people who had died physically, but were still very much alive in the paradise section of Sheol fellowshipping with father Abraham, were raised to life physically.” With passages like this it’s important to note what the Bible actually says and also what it doesn’t say. Interestingly, there’s no account of these resurrected people lamenting that they had to leave paradise with Abraham to come back to this lost world. Why not? Because it’s a false doctrine.
What about the rest of the Old Testament saints? They were possibly released from Sheol when Jesus ascended (Ephesians 4:7-10); if not, we can be sure that they’ll be resurrected at the time of their bodily resurrection when Jesus Christ returns to the earth, which takes place at the end of the Tribulation period and before Jesus’ millennial reign (Daniel 12:1-2 & Matthew 19:28-30). We’ll look at this in Chapter Eleven.
Solomon’s View of Sheol
Solomon was the wisest man on earth in his time (see 1 Kings 4:29-34) and God utilized his great knowledge and wisdom in three books of the God-breathed Scriptures.
NOTE: Although it is traditionally believed that Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, which I’ve always felt was fairly obvious, some modern scholars debate this.
Notice what it says about Solomon when the Queen of Sheba came to visit him:
Now when the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with difficult questions… (3) Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was hidden from the king which he did not explain to her.
1 Kings 10:1,3
The king’s wisdom was renowned and so the Queen came to test him with hard questions and verse 3 shows that “nothing was hidden from the king which he did not explain to her.” Do you think that one of the questions she asked him was what happens to people when the die? That is, where they go and what will it be like? Of course she did; after all, it’s one of the most common “difficult questions” people ask in life. With this in mind, it says that “Solomon answered all her questions” and that there was literally “nothing” he did not explain to her.
Furthermore, we know that Solomon had divine revelation on Sheol, the realm of the dead, because he commented on it quite a bit in the book of Proverbs, as we’ll see in Chapter Five. He also elaborates on it in Ecclesiastes, witness:
ECCLESIASTES 9:10 (NRSV)
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
The language in this passage describes beyond any question of doubt that Sheol is a condition of unconsciousness. Notice that, in Sheol, there’s neither good work nor bad work; there’s neither positive, hopeful thoughts nor anguished, hopeless thoughts; there’s neither knowledge of what’s good and holy or knowledge of what’s evil and impure.
This is further verified in verse 5:
ECCLESIASTES 9:5 (NRSV)
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.
The obvious reason the dead “know nothing” is because they’re no longer alive and conscious — they’re dead. This coincides with this passage from the Psalms:
PSALM 146:4 (KJV)
His breath goeth forth, he [his body] returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
The Psalmist makes it clear that when a person physically dies his or her thoughts perish. Note that there is no mention whatsoever of a person’s thoughts continuing to live on in some devil-ruled chamber of horrors. This is obviously because a dead person is no longer conscious of anything.
Take another look at Ecclesiastes 9:10 above and notice that Solomon doesn’t make a distinction between righteous or unrighteous people. Like Job, he plainly says that everyone would go to Sheol during this period of time, whether righteous or wicked, rich or poor, small or great. In fact, Solomon’s major point in Ecclesiastes 9 is that death or Sheol is the common destiny of all people before redemption was made available through Christ’s death and resurrection. He plainly states in verse 3 that “the same destiny overtakes all.” What destiny? The destiny of Sheol, the state of death, where—he goes on to say—there is neither work nor thought nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Jacob, Job and Solomon’s views of Sheol can be summarized as follows:
1. Sheol is a condition that every spiritually un-regenerated person will experience immediately following physical decease, which includes godly men and women in Old Testament time periods preceding the ascension of Christ. It includes the rich and the poor, the small and the great, the pure and the profane. In other words, Sheol is the common destiny of anyone who is spiritually dead to God and therefore un-redeemed.
2. Sheol is a condition of unconsciousness, likened unto sleep, where there is no work, thought or knowledge of any kind. It is not a place or state of conscious suffering and misery.
3. Sheol is a temporary condition and all consigned to Sheol will ultimately be resurrected.
NOTE: You can purchase a low-priced book version of Sheol Know, which is freshly edited and contains additional material (14 chapters, 339 pages), here.