The Meaning of Sheol According to the Prophets
- 1 “Sheol Has Enlarged Its Appetite”
- 2 The Proud King of Babylon Brought Down to Sheol
- 3 The Fall of the King of Babylon Parallels the Fall of Lucifer
- 4 The Fall of the King of Tyre Parallels the Fall of Lucifer
- 5 “Until They are Destroyed from the Land”
- 6 “The Soul who Sins will Die”
- 7 The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol
- 8 “Progressive Revelation” on the Nature of Sheol?
- 9 “Where, O Sheol, Is Your Destruction?”
- 10 Samuel, Saul & the Witch of Endor (and Elijah & Enoch)
Let’s now observe what the Old Testament prophets had to say about the nature of Sheol.
“Sheol Has Enlarged Its Appetite”
We’ll start with Sheol as used in the book of Isaiah:
ISAIAH 5:11-14 (NRSV)
Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine, (12) whose feasts consist of lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine, but who do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands! (13) Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge; their nobles are dying of hunger and their multitude is parched with thirst. (14) Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure; the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and all who exult in her.
This passage is referring to the wicked nobles of Judah and the numerous people corrupted by their leadership. According to verses 11-12 these people had completely forsaken the LORD and had plunged into a flood of “partying” and dissipation. In fact, earlier in chapter 3 the LORD remarked that they had become as brazenly shameless as Sodom (3:9) — that’s pretty bad! As a result of their evil deeds, God had to justly pronounce judgment on them as shown in verses 13-14 above. Many were to be taken into captivity, no longer blessed with the knowledge of God. Many more would die of hunger and thirst, while others would be slain by the sword (1:20).
Clearly, multitudes would die because of God’s righteous judgment. This explains why verse 14 proclaims, “…Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure.”
This is obviously not a literal statement. Sheol is not some living entity that possesses a colossal maw and appetite, but God uses this metaphor to effectively illustrate that numerous people would die because of His just judgment. “The wages of sin is death” and these rebels were simply going to have to eat the fruit of their actions (after much merciful patience on the LORD’s part, I might add).
In verse 24 God uses clear metaphors to illustrate the nature of Sheol and eternal damnation:
ISAIAH 5:24 (NRSV)
Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten [i.e. decay] and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
We know this text is referring to the death of these people because the very next verse says so (verse 25). The root that decays is probably referring to their bodies in light of verse 25 which states, “their corpses were like refuse in the streets.” But their immaterial being, their soul that goes to Sheol, is likened to straw devoured by fire and dry grass that goes up in flame. The example is clear: straw and grass that are set ablaze go up in smoke and cease to exist; likewise blossoms that “go up like dust” no longer exist as well. This corresponds to the nature of Sheol because Sheol is a condition of non-existence where dead souls are held until their resurrection on judgment day. These metaphors are applicable to both Sheol, which is the temporary hell or the first death, and the lake of fire (Gehenna), which is the eternal hell or the “second death.”
Since Isaiah 5:14 blatantly refers to wicked people, the King James translators naturally rendered Sheol as “hell.” They obviously did this to give the impression that wicked people go to a nether realm of conscious torment when they die. This is in contrast to Isaiah 38:10 where they rendered Sheol as “the grave” because the text refers to godly king Hezekiah. Needless to say, this schizophrenic practice is a translation error of the greatest magnitude. It grieves my heart to see how the truth about Sheol was purposefully covered up in order to support the religious myth that Sheol (“hell”) is a nether torture chamber where undying souls suffer conscious torture without respite until their resurrection on judgment day.
Let’s observe precisely what Hezekiah said in this particular passage:
ISAIAH 38:9-12 (NASB)
A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after his illness and recovery:
(10) I said “In the middle of my life I am to enter the gates of Sheol; I am to be deprived of the rest of my years.” (11) I said, “I shall not see the LORD, the LORD in the land of the living; I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world. (12) Like a shepherd’s tent my dwelling is pulled up and removed from me; as a weaver I rolled up my life. He cuts me off from the loom; from day until night Thou dost make an end of me.”
In this passage Hezekiah is praying for deliverance from a fatal illness that would cause him to die prematurely. Note, first of all, that Hezekiah clearly expected to go to Sheol when he died — just like Jacob, Job, David, Solomon and so many other men of God in the Old Testament era. The rest of his statements are very revealing concerning the nature of Sheol. In verse 10 he says that, if he dies and goes to Sheol, he will “be deprived of the rest of his years.” The rest of his years of what? The rest of his years of life! Hezekiah knew that if he died and went to Sheol, the spiritual graveyard of souls, he would be dead – he would not have life anymore; he would cease to have consciousness or feeling. That’s why, in verse 11, he speaks of life in this world as “the land of the living.” This is in contrast to the “land” of Sheol, which is the “land” of the dead where lifeless souls are held until their resurrection on judgment day. Notice also, in verse 11, he makes it clear that he “shall not see the LORD” in Sheol. This is further proof that souls held in Sheol are dead and conscious of nothing. After all, the Bible reveals God to be omnipresent; consequently, a righteous man like Hezekiah would certainly be able to sense God’s presence even in the nether abode of Sheol; that is, as long as he were alive, conscious and able. However, since souls held in Sheol are dead they are unable to experience God in any sense. Because they lack conscious existence the only thing they can “experience” is death itself, utter non-being. This is why Hezekiah would “not see the LORD” in Sheol.
In addition, notice that Hezekiah points out that he “shall look upon man no more” in Sheol. How can this be if Sheol was, in part, a paradise where righteous people hanged out with Father Abraham and other saints, as religionists claim. If this teaching were true then Hezekiah would be looking upon many people in Sheol. Furthermore, if this teaching were true, why would Hezekiah be praying so earnestly not to go there? You would think that he’d want to go to such a pleasant paradise, the sooner the better. These factors all prove that this belief is unbiblical and therefore false. Hezekiah knew that he wouldn’t be seeing the LORD or anyone else in Sheol because he fully understood that Sheol was and is a place and condition where people only “experience” death itself. Although he knew that he’d eventually go there, as every righteous (and unrighteous) person did when they died in Old Testament times, he wanted to avoid it as long as possible and enjoy a long, productive life in “the land of the living.”
Regarding this last point from verse 11, some may argue that Hezekiah technically stated, “I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world.” The obvious argument being that, although Hezekiah will not see people in the physical world any longer, he will definitely see multitudes of people in the paradise compartment of Sheol, as well as others being tormented in the fiery compartment. Momentarily accepting this argument, let’s read Hezekiah’s statement as if this contention were true: “I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world, but — thank God — I shall look upon many people in Sheol while socializing with Abraham and friends.” Let’s face it, this belief makes an absurdity of passages like this. What Hezekiah was really saying was that, because he was about to die and go to Sheol, the graveyard of dead souls, he would no longer see and commune with his fellow human beings anymore. You see, with a proper understanding of the true nature of Sheol, scriptural statements like this make perfect sense.
Let’s address an important question that is naturally raised in light of the fact that Hezekiah and other righteous people where destined to go to Sheol: What benefit was there to serving God in Old Testament times if both the righteous and the unrighteous went to Sheol when they died? First of all, those who served God were promised a full, blessed life on earth (Deuteronomy 8:1; Ezekiel 18:5-9, 14-17, 27-28), whereas those who forsook Him were risking the judgment of premature death unless, of course, they repented (Deuteronomy 8:19-20; Ezekiel 18:10-13, 18, 20, 26). Secondly, although both the righteous and the wicked went to Sheol when they died, the righteous were promised a resurrection unto eternal life as shown in Hell Know (Daniel 12:2-3), whereas the wicked would only be resurrected to face divine judgment and suffer the destruction of the second death (Daniel 12:2; Revelation 20:11-15; Matthew 10:28; 2 Peter 3:7).
Before the ascension of Christ every soul had to die because no ransom of innocent blood had yet been paid; thus no soul could obtain intrinsic immortality and, consequently, go to heaven at the time of physical death. In our present era redeemed men or women go to heaven when they physically die to bask in the presence of the LORD while awaiting their glorious bodily resurrection — death and Sheol have zero power over blood-bought spiritually-regenerated children of the Most High God!
The Proud King of Babylon Brought Down to Sheol
Isaiah 14:1-23 addresses the LORD’s just judgment on the king of Babylon. “The wages of sin is death” and this was the Almighty’s sentence for the notorious Babylonian king. Consequently, the king died and his body was not given a proper burial. The passage also shows the king’s soul going to Sheol.
Out of the multitude of passages in the Old Testament that describe the nature of Sheol this is the only one that advocates of eternal torture occasionally cite to support their belief. They’re not overly gung ho about it, however, since nothing is said about souls writhing in fiery torment, but they do occasionally cite it in a weak attempt to support the idea that souls in Sheol are conscious and can talk. Let’s closely examine the passage piece by piece to see if this is so.
Verses 1-3 show that the LORD will deliver the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and bring them back to their homeland. Starting in verse 4 we see the Israelites taunting the fallen, dead king of Babylon:
ISAIAH 14:4-8 (NRSV)
You will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has ceased! How his insolence has ceased! (5) The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked, the scepter of rulers, (6) that struck down the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution. (7) The whole earth is at rest and quiet; they break forth into singing. (8) The cypresses exult over you, the cedars of Lebanon, saying “Since you were laid low, no one comes to cut us down.”
These verses reveal how oppressive, insolent and wicked the king of Babylon was to all the peoples and nations that surrounded him. Verses 5-6 show that the LORD Himself had broken the king’s staff and scepter; in other words, the LORD’s sentence of death brought an end to his tyrannical reign. Hence, all the peoples of the earth who were either oppressed by him or feared his possible threat are now at peace and even celebrating in song (verse 7). Verse 8 even states that the trees the king would regularly cut down for his numerous building projects would break out in exultation. Did these trees literally break out in triumphant jubilation? Of course not, this is figurative language. God is a master communicator and he uses figurative language here to make a point — the king of Babylon was so wicked that even inanimate objects would rejoice over his death!
Let’s continue with the passage:
ISAIAH 14:9-11 (NRSV)
Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades [the dead] to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. (10) All of them will speak and say to you: “You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!” (11) Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you and worms are your covering.
Sheol is preparing to receive the dead soul of the Babylonian king. The dead are roused to greet the king, including those who were once mighty kings of various nations. The Hebrew word for the dead in verse 9 is rapha (raw-FAW) which the NRSV translates as “shades,” as shown above. This word refers to the dead and can also mean “ghost.” Both the KJV and the NKJV translate rapha as “the dead” while the NASB renders it “the spirits of the dead” and the NIV as “the spirits of the departed.” Although these latter two translations use “spirits” in their multi-word definition of rapha, the usual Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ – ruach – does not appear in the text. Why do I point this out? Because when an unredeemed person dies their spirit (or breath of life) returns to God from whence it came; their dead soul goes to rest in Sheol until their resurrection.
With this understanding, verse 10 shows these dead souls greeting the Babylonian king by informing him that, despite all his former glory and infamous power, he has now become weak like they are, signifying that human distinctions of greatness are meaningless in Sheol, the world of the dead.
Should we take verses 9-10 literally? Did the dead souls in Sheol really rise up to greet and mock the king of Babylon? Absolutely not. We confidently conclude this for three reasons: 1. These people who are greeting the king are described as “dead” in verse 9. The dead are dead. Dead people are not conscious and cannot talk. 2. The passage switches from literal language to figurative language in verse 8; this is obvious because trees don’t talk and celebrate. Verses 9-11 continue in this figurative mode. Why should we assume this? Because, once again, the dead souls housed in Sheol are dead. Anything that is dead is not conscious and therefore cannot very well think, speak or greet; hence, the language must be figurative. 3. We’ve examined a multitude of clear passages in our study plainly revealing that Sheol is the nether realm of the dead, the “land of silence” where the dead know nothing and therefore cannot think or even remember God. This is verified by numerous respected men of God throughout the Old Testament and even by the LORD Himself, as we shall see in the next section on Ezekiel 32. Scripture is not open to isolated interpretation based on personal bias (see 2 Peter 1:20-21). Scripture interprets Scripture; it’s an interpretational law. Consequently, verses 9-10 must be interpreted as figurative language. And please notice that, figurative or literal, nowhere is anyone shown writhing in fiery torment hoping for a mere drop of water for relief.
Verse 11 continues, showing that the Babylonian king’s “pomp” has brought him the sentence of premature death. Surely “pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18 KJV). It goes on to say that maggots will be the king’s bed and worms his covering. This is insightful in multiple ways: The verse specifically refers to Sheol, which is backed up by its mention in verse 9, so we know the text is specifically talking about the world of the dead where the soul goes after death and not to the physical grave or tomb. It is said that maggots are his bed and worms his blanket. Is this literal language? Are there literal maggots in Sheol feeding upon dead souls? Not likely. This is more figurative language drawing a parallel to the physical grave to produce a powerful image (in the next chapter we’ll examine how Sheol and the physical grave are distinct yet parallel concepts in Scripture). What’s the picture we get from this image? Since maggots consume only carcasses, the image is that of death. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s not supposed to be. Death was God’s judgment on the pompous Babylonian king for death is the wages of sin.
Also consider the image of maggots being his bed and worms his covering.
NOTE: Even though “bed” isn’t in the original Hebrew text, the obvious implication of the verse is that maggots would be what he would lie on, like a mattress, which explains why the NRSV and NASB add the word “bed.”
The picture is clearly that of sleeping in death, not roasting and wailing in roasting conscious torment.
The parallel to the physical grave offers further insight. The Babylonian king was not given a proper burial like other rulers placed in personal tombs; the king’s body was discarded into a big hole with other Babylonian corpses and naturally devoured by maggots. This is corroborated by verses 18-20:
ISAIAH 14:18-20 (NRSV)
All the kings of the nations lie in glory, each in his own tomb; (19) but you are cast out, away from your grave, like loathsome carrion, clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword, who go down to the stones of the Pit, like a corpse trampled underfoot. (20) You will not be joined with them in burial because you have destroyed your land, you have killed your people.
Not being given a proper burial was the deepest degradation to ancients of the middle east. Ecclesiastes 6:3-6 shows that dying without mourners or honors was considered worse than being born dead, even if the person lives a full life and has numerous children (!). Such was the pompous Babylonian king’s dishonorable and humiliating demise. Verses 18-19 show that other kings were honorably placed in tombs and “lie in glory” whereas the Babylonian king is merely tossed into a mass grave with other dead Babylonians, a meaningless, unmarked grave that people walk over with no regard.
The parallel of the soulish grave to the physical grave are shown in this passage as well. The text is clearly talking about the physical tomb and suddenly mentions that the king will be “clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword, who go down to the stones of the Pit, like a corpse trampled underfoot.” We found out in Chapter Three that “the Pit” is another biblical term for Sheol. Obviously the physical grave and Sheol are distinct yet parallel concepts: Just as a body lies dead in a grave or tomb, so the soul lies dead in Sheol. Please note the language that is repeatedly used to describe the people in either the physical grave or Sheol – “carrion,” “the dead” and “corpse.” What’s God trying to communicate to us by the usage of this language? Just as a physical grave or tomb is meant only for that which is dead, so it is with Sheol. Souls in Sheol are carrion, not living, thinking, talking people.
How much plainer could God be in His Word? Isaiah 14 in no way supports the idea that souls are conscious in Sheol.
The Fall of the King of Babylon Parallels the Fall of Lucifer
(This section is available in the published version of Sheol Know, available by June, 2015)
The Fall of the King of Tyre Parallels the Fall of Lucifer
(This section is available in the published version of Sheol Know, available by June, 2015)
“Until They are Destroyed from the Land”
Let’s now consider a minor point from the book of Jeremiah:
“ ‘But like the bad figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the Lord, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. (9) I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curse and an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them. (10) I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.’ ”
The passage details God’s stern punishment on wicked Zedekiah—the puppet king of Judah—his corrupt officials and the Jews under them, as well as those who escaped God’s discipline (the Babylonian invasion) by fleeing to Egypt. The LORD was going to “destroy them from the land” by means of sword, famine and plague.
If wicked people suffer roasting torture in Sheol until their resurrection hundreds or thousands of years later, isn’t it curious that God didn’t add something to the effect of: “I will destroy them from the land I gave to them and their ancestors and they will subsequently suffer fiery torment in Sheol until their resurrection.” This is the case with numerous other passages that address God’s earthly judgment on wicked people as well. The point? If Sheol is a place of conscious existence where the unrighteous experience constant roasting agony until their resurrection in the distant future why would God omit such important information? It’s not like it’s an insignificant detail. The reason He “omits” it is because it’s simply not true. Sheol isn’t a torture chamber in the heart of the earth for conscious wicked souls (and neither is it a blissful paradise for righteous souls), it’s the graveyard of dead souls where people ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection.
“The Soul who Sins will Die”
In Ezekiel 18 the LORD Himself makes an enlightening statement that indirectly addresses the nature of Sheol:
(4) “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine. The soul who sins shall die…
(20) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
Ezekiel 18:4,20 (NKJV)
The LORD is getting across to the Israelites that each person is to die for his or her own sins. Sons should not bear the guilt of their fathers and vice versa. Notice clearly what God says will happen to those who engage in sin as a lifestyle without care of repentance: “The soul who sins shall die.”
Keep in mind that this is YaHWeH Himself speaking here. The LORD of course knows everything there is to know about Sheol and yet he doesn’t say anything about the wicked soul going to Sheol to experience constant roasting torment when the body physically dies. Why? Because souls—people—who unrepentantly sin will die; and Sheol is the “world of the dead” where dead souls ‘rest’ in death till their resurrection on judgment day (Revelation 20:11-15).
The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol
Ezekiel 32 features the longest passage on Sheol in the Bible. Chapters 31-32 of Ezekiel address God’s judgment on the nation of Egypt where Egypt is likened to a great cedar of Lebanon that is about to be felled by the nation of Babylon and, consequently, descend into Sheol where other nations condemned by God had descended, like Assyria, Elam and Edom. This passage powerfully drives home the image of Sheol as the common soulish grave of humankind where dead souls are housed until their resurrection on judgment day. God Himself is speaking in this passage from verse 18 onward:
EZEKIEL 32:17-32 (NRSV)
In the twelfth year, in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me:
(18) Mortal, wail over the hordes of Egypt, and send them down, with Egypt and the daughters of majestic nations to the world below, with those who go down to the Pit, (19) “Whom do you surpass in beauty? Go down! Be laid to rest with the uncircumcised!”
(20) They shall fall among those who are killed by the sword. Egypt has been handed over to the sword; carry away both it and its hordes. (21) The mighty chiefs shall speak of them, with their helpers, out of the midst of Sheol: They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised killed by the sword.”
(22) Assyria is there, and all its company, their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword. (23) Their graves are set in the uttermost parts of the Pit. Its company is all around its grave, all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.
(24) Elam is there, and all its hordes around its grave; all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised into the world below who spread terror in the land of the living. They bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit. (25) They have made Elam a bed among the slain with all its hordes, their graves all around it, all of them uncircumcised killed by the sword; for terror of them was spread in the land of the living, and they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit; they are placed among the slain.
(26) Meshech and Tubal are there, and all their multitude, their graves all around them, all of them uncircumcised, killed by the sword; for they spread terror in the land of the living. (27) And they do not lie with the fallen warriors of long ago who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war*, whose swords were laid under their heads, and whose shields are upon their bones; for the terror of the warriors was in the land of the living. (28) So you shall be broken and lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are killed by the sword.
(29) Edom is there, its kings and all its princes, who for all their might are laid with those who are killed by the sword; they lie with the uncircumcised, with those who go down to the Pit.
(30) The princes of the north are there, all of them, and the Sidonians, who have gone down in shame with the slain, for all the terror that they caused by their might; they lie uncircumcised with those who are killed by the sword and bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit.
(31) When Pharaoh sees them, he will be consoled for all his hordes — Pharaoh and all his army killed by the sword, says the Lord GOD. (32) For he spread terror in the land of the living; therefore he shall be laid to rest among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword – Pharaoh and all his multitude, says the Lord GOD.
*NOTE: Verse 27 is an obvious improper translation: The statement made in the negative — “And they do not lie” — simply makes no sense in light of its context. The New International Version properly translates this verse in the form of a rhetorical question as such: “Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to the grave with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads?”
As you can see, the Pharaoh of Egypt and his army have been judged and condemned by God. What is the LORD’s sentence? God states in verse 20 that “Egypt has been handed over to the sword” and, in verse 31, “Pharaoh and all his army killed by the sword.” So God’s sentence is death. Is this a just sentence? Absolutely. It’s in line with the biblical axiom “the wages of sin is death.”
Since Egypt’s sentence is death, verse 18 says that the Egyptians shall be sent down “to the world below, with those who go down to the Pit.” “The Pit” is bowr in the Hebrew and is another term for Sheol, as detailed in Chapter Three; this synonym for Sheol appears 4 more times in the passage (verses 24, 25, 29 & 30) while Sheol itself appears twice (verses 21 & 27). As such, there’s no doubt that this section of Scripture is addressing the subject of Sheol, the intermediate state of un-regenerated souls between physical decease and resurrection.
With this understanding, let’s work our way through the long passage point by point.
Verse 18 describes Sheol as “the world below.” Sheol is described this way because it is part of the underworld. We’ll look at this in detail in Chapter Nine but, briefly put, the Bible speaks of three realms or universes: 1. heaven, which is described as “the third heaven” in Scripture and is where God’s throne is located, 2. the earth & physical universe, and 3. the underworld (see Philippians 2:10 for verification). You’ll note that verse 18 above describes this “world below” as “the Pit.” Why? Because Sheol is a 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 and so on.
We know souls housed in Sheol are dead because the Bible repeatedly says so in numerous ways as detailed throughout this study. For instance, Ecclesiastes 9:5 & 10 explicitly state that “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol” and that the people housed there are “dead” and “know nothing.”
The fact that souls in Sheol are dead is verified in verse 19 where it says that the Egyptians will be “laid to rest with the uncircumcised.” Notice they will be “laid to rest,” not writhe in screaming torment for over a thousand years without a break, as some ludicrously teach. No, they are simply laid to rest; this phrase is repeated in verse 32 in reference to the Pharaoh being “laid to rest” in Sheol. The two words “laid” and “rest” used in conjunction evoke the image of sleep. In addition, verse 21 says that people in Sheol “lie still,” verse 25 that Elam will be in “bed,” and verses 27, 28 and 30 that those in Sheol “lie” there. All these images clearly suggest sleep, not conscious suffering in fiery torment. Of course, these descriptions aren’t suggesting literal physical sleep, but rather the “sleep” of death itself, from which all unrighteous souls will be “awakened” to undergo the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).
Verse 25 flat out states that souls in Sheol are dead: “they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit; they are placed among the slain.” In other words, the newest group of souls entering Sheol will be “placed among the slain.” You see? Souls in Sheol are dead, they are not alive and are therefore conscious of nothing. How much clearer could God be?
Note also how verse 19 says that the Egyptians will be laid to rest “with the uncircumcised.” Who are the “uncircumcised”? In the Bible circumcision was a sign that a person was in covenant with God under the law of Moses. The Scriptures always distinguish between those who are in right-standing with God and those who are not. The “uncircumcised” in the text did not have a contract with God and therefore were not right with Him. This would include the numerous peoples cited throughout the passage—the Assyrians, Edomites, Sidonians, etc. In other words, verse 19 is simply pointing out that the Egyptians will be laid to rest in the very same section of Sheol that housed other uncircumcised godless people from that era.
As noted throughout our study, souls in right-standing with God also went to Sheol at the time of death during the Old Testament period but were not laid to rest with the uncircumcised. There was obviously a separate section of Sheol for those in covenant with God. If this sounds strange to you, consider the fact that 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? These righteous souls will be resurrected at the time of their bodily resurrection when the Lord returns to earth to establish his millennial reign (Daniel 12:1-2 & Matthew 19:28-30), although I leave room for the possibility that their souls were raised to life when Jesus ascended to heaven (Ephesians 4:7-10). In any case, righteous souls no longer go to Sheol when believers die because they possess eternal life through spiritual regeneration via the imperishable seed of Christ (1 Peter 1:23).
Verse 20 states that those in Sheol have been “killed by the sword” and that the Egyptians will suffer this same fate. This phrase (or similar phrasing) is used for every group mentioned in the passage. In other words, the text repeatedly emphasizes that these people are dead. Also notice that it says they were killed “by the sword.” If taken in a strictly literal sense we would have to conclude that each of these thousands upon thousands of people from varying nations perished by the stroke of a sword. Is this what happened? Of course not. Many obviously died from other methods—arrow, spear, club, fire, etc. “The sword” simply refers to the God-ordained right of a government to inflict the penalty of death on those who have committed capital crimes or those judged and condemned by God (see Romans 13:4). For instance, Ezekiel 31-32 show that Egypt had been judged and condemned to death. Whom does God commission to carry out this sentence? Babylon, as verified in Ezekiel 32:11: “ ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘The sword of the king of Babylon will come against you [Pharaoh and his army]’.” It’s unlikely that the Pharaoh carried a sword and, even if he did, it was merely for show; so “the sword” that the king of Babylon carried was actually the authority from God to carry out His just sentence of death.
Verses 22-23 introduce a revealing concept:
Assyria is there, and all its company, their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword. (23) Their graves are set in the uttermost parts of the Pit. Its company is all around its grave, all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.
Ezekiel 32:22-23 (NRSV)
These verses reveal that the Assyrians are in Sheol and that they are killed, fallen by “the sword” of the LORD’s judgment. In addition, three times the passage emphasizes that the graves of the Assyrians are in Sheol. The words “graves” and “grave” are respectively translated from the Hebrew words qibrah (kib-RAW) and qeburwrah (keb-oo-RAW), which refer to literal graves or tombs. What’s this mean? Simply what we’ve been discovering throughout this study—Sheol is a graveyard in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest until their resurrection. Just as dead bodies are laid to rest in grave plots on earth, so dead souls are laid in grave plots in Sheol.
Is a grave ever intended for anything other than that which is dead? Of course not. This is further proof that souls in Sheol are dead and that Sheol itself is a soulish graveyard in the underworld, not a diabolical torture chamber.
Verses 24-26 likewise point out that there are “graves” in Sheol for the people of Elam, Meshech and Tubal. Tell me: Are people placed in graves for the purpose of conscious torture or simply to lie in the “sleep” of death?
Notice in verse 23 that the Assyrians’ graves are set “in the uttermost parts of the Pit.” This is evidence that there are levels in Sheol and distinct sections. The dead souls of the Assyrians were, evidently, placed in one of the lowest levels.
Verse 23 ends by pointing out that the Assyrians once “spread terror in the land of the living.” The “land of the living” obviously refers to life on earth where the Assyrians warred, conquered and ruled. This is in contrast to Sheol, the land of the dead, where they would spread terror no more. How is it that they won’t spread terror anymore? Because they’re dead. Sheol is the land of the dead where “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom.”
The very same point is made in reference to Elam, Meshech, Tubal and Egypt in verses 24, 25, 26, 27 and 32. We’ll look at this further in the following chapter.
As you can see, throughout this long passage God repeatedly uses unmistakable and vivid language to show that souls in Sheol are dead. God is without doubt a master communicator. With this understanding, verse 31 must be taken in a non-literal sense because it states that, after Pharaoh dies, he will “see” the other groups laid to rest in Sheol and be “consoled.” This is obviously not to be taken literally. Pharaoh and his men will be dead at this point and will not be able to see anyone or anything; they’ll be laid to rest in the sleep of death just like the other groups in Sheol. In fact, the very next verse—verse 32—emphasizes that Pharaoh is “laid to rest” in Sheol, not alive and making observations; and please notice that he’s “laid to rest” not suffering in fiery torture. However, even if we were to view verse 31 literally it still wouldn’t support the religious view that pagan souls are in a state of constant torment until the Day of Judgment. After all, how would Pharaoh possibly be consoled by the fact that he and his army are going to join thousands upon thousands of writhing, screaming souls in roasting agony? Do you see how unscriptural this mythical belief is?
“Progressive Revelation” on the Nature of Sheol?
The above passage from Ezekiel 32 and other texts disprove the theory that humanity had a “progressive revelation” concerning the nature of Sheol. This theory suggests that the Hebrew understanding of Sheol evolved over time and, of course, is embraced by those who advocate that Sheol is a place of conscious torture. The reason they are forced to adopt this odd theory is obvious: The many Old Testament passages on Sheol that we’ve examined in this study clearly reveal that Sheol is a “Pit” in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest in the sleep of death—a vast soulish graveyard where there is consciousness of nothing. Since they are unable to reconcile these numerous passages with their belief that Sheol is a place of constant conscious torment they have no recourse but to completely ‘write them off ’ with this theory. This is a blatant case of “taking away” from God’s Word, a practice severely condemned in Scripture (see Deuteronomy 4:2, Proverbs 30:5-6 and Revelation 22:18-19)
The reason these people are compelled to such error is because they’ve been indoctrinated that Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31 is a literal account of life after death for un-regenerated souls. Yet, if we take this tale literally the entire rest of the Bible is in error on the nature of Sheol. Hence, they had no recourse but to concoct the idea of “progressive revelation.” Aside from the obvious fact that this reasoning conflicts with the weight of scriptural testimony, there are two problems with this position: 1. Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is clearly a fantastical story that was never meant to be taken literally. We’ll examine it in detail in Chapter Eight where you’ll see that it would be absurd to take it literally. And 2. the idea of “progressive revelation” suggests that humanity’s awareness of the nature of Sheol slowly evolved over time. The problem with this is that there is clearly no progressive revelation on Sheol in the Bible. The testimony of Scripture goes from the concept of Sheol as a nether graveyard where dead souls are conscious of nothing as they “sleep” in death, to the abrupt and completely opposite notion (based solely on a literal interpretation of Jesus’ parable) that Sheol is a nether realm where souls are fully alive and conscious, either in a state of constant fiery torment or hanging out with Abraham in communal bliss, depending upon whether the soul is wicked or righteous respectively.
So how does Ezekiel 32:18-32 disprove this theory of “progressive revelation”? Simply because God Himself is speaking throughout this long passage. Throughout this study we’ve examined numerous passages on Sheol that reflect what various Old Testament characters believed about the nature of the intermediate state. We’ve looked at Job’s view, Solomon’s view, David’s view, Hezekiah’s view and many others. All of their views coincide that Sheol is a “Pit” in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest in the unconscious sleep of death ‘awaiting’ their resurrection. One may argue that their views are the result of a limited understanding of the subject and are therefore inaccurate. Yet, one cannot make this argument concerning Ezekiel 32:18-32 because God himself is speaking. It’s the same thing with Ezekiel 18:4,20 and 28:7-8,19, which we looked at earlier this chapter. Not to mention Ezekiel 26:19-21, which we’ll examine next chapter. The LORD Himself is speaking in all these passages. Does anyone ludicrously think that God had a “limited understanding” of the nature of Sheol? Does anyone absurdly think that the LORD had to have “progressive revelation” on Sheol? Or has He always known precisely and completely everything there is to know about it? The answers are obvious.
The vast majority of people who believe that Sheol is a place of conscious torment (or bliss for Old Testament saints) have never researched the subject of Sheol beyond Jesus’ story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. I know because I was once one of them. As such, I understand their reasoning: The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, if taken literally, reveals that people are in a conscious state in Sheol; and since Jesus Christ himself is speaking it’s not necessary to look into the subject any further. In other words, Jesus’ tale tells us everything we need to know about Sheol; after all, who would know more about Sheol than Jesus Christ himself?
Well, according to the Bible there’s only one higher than the Son, and that’s God the Father, and He is the One speaking in Ezekiel 32:18-32 wherein He repeatedly and explicitly reveals that souls in Sheol are “slain,” “laid to rest,” “lie still,” in “bed” in “graves,” etc. There’s mysteriously no hint of souls suffering in roasting anguish crying out for less than a drop of water that won’t be given. Why is it that advocates of conscious torture fail to bring up this long commentary on Sheol by God the Father Himself in Ezekiel 32? Because it contradicts their false religious belief, that’s why.
Am I suggesting that that the Father and Son contradict each other? Absolutely not; that’s an impossibility. What I am saying is that the Scriptures very clearly show that the Father is the head over the Son and this is explicitly stated (1 Corinthians 11:3 & 15:27-28) (We could say that the Father and Son are equal in being, but the Son is subordinate to the Father in function or relationship). Hence, Jesus would never contradict the Father; in fact, he can’t contradict the Father because, as he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Consequently, Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus must be interpreted in light of what the entire rest of the Bible teaches on the subject of Sheol, including what the Father, who is the head, plainly taught, not to mention the Spirit, which brings us to one more crushing point…
Another reason this “progressive revelation of Sheol” argument holds no water is because the Psalms are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and, as such, all the psalmists “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). This is why Jesus said David was “speaking by the Spirit” when he quoted Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:43-44). This, of course, implies that David was “speaking by the Spirit” in all his psalms (and he wrote at least half of them). In other words, David’s statements in the Psalms were spoken by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God. In light of this, David’s exposition on Sheol contained in the psalms, as well as statements by other psalmists, shouldn’t be considered just “their view” of Sheol. No, it’s God’s view too because they were “speaking by the Spirit,” as Jesus put it, and the Holy Spirit is God; and God had no “progressive revelation of Sheol.” He’s always known the truth about its nature..
“Where, O Sheol, Is Your Destruction?”
The Hebrew word Sheol appears twice in the book of Hosea, both in the same verse:
I will ransom them from the power of the grave (Sheol); I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave (Sheol) is your destruction?
This passage is simply God’s promise that all his children shall be ransomed from Sheol and redeemed from death. This was accomplished, of course, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “who became a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:6). Jesus took our place and died for our sins so we don’t have to. Christians who are spiritually born-again of the imperishable seed of Christ have eternal life in their spirits. Consequently, the only death they’ll undergo is physical death. The simple reason for this is that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Which is fine because those redeemed through Christ are going to ultimately receive a much better body—an imperishable, glorified, powerful, spiritual body (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-44)! The awesome thing about this new body, unlike the old one, is that it can inherit the kingdom of God!
You’ll observe that Sheol is mentioned synonymously with death and destruction in Hosea 13:14. In other words, Sheol is death and death is Sheol. The condition of souls in Sheol is destruction, not flaming torture. That’s why the LORD raises the question: “Where, O Sheol, is your destruction?” and not, “Where, O Sheol, is your continuous fiery torment?” The Bible is so easy to understand once you’re freed up from erroneous religious indoctrination!
Samuel, Saul & the Witch of Endor (and Elijah & Enoch)
Let’s now venture back to the Old Testament historical books and observe a fascinating incident that concerns Sheol. Samuel was the last of the judges and the first of the major prophets (1 Samuel 3:19-21). After Samuel died the ungodly King Saul was desperate for counsel and so went to a medium in order to get word from the dead prophet, a wicked act strictly forbidden by the LORD in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 18:10-13).The appearance of the dead prophet Samuel to the witch of Endor naturally stirs questions regarding the nature of Sheol; so let’s examine the passage:
1 Samuel 28:3-20
Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.
(4) The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. 6 He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. 7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”
“There is one in Endor,” they said.
(8) So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”
(9) But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?”
(10) Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this.”
(11) Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
“Bring up Samuel,” he said.
(12) When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”
(13) The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure [a “spirit” or “god” in the Hebrew] coming up out of the earth.”
(14) “What does he look like?” he asked.
“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
(15) Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
“I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”
(16) Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? (17) The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. (18) Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. (19) The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”
(20) Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel’s words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and all that night.
Was Samuel’s appearance after his death an illusion, an evil spirit masquerading as Samuel or Samuel himself coming back from the dead, i.e. Sheol? Scholars may be divided on the issue, but the scriptural evidence shows that it was indeed Samuel in disembodied form. As you can plainly see, verses 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 20 prove this and a couple of these verses state point blank that it was Samuel; for example, verse 15 says that “Samuel said to Saul” and verse 16 that “Samuel said.” Notice that these verses don’t say “A spirit masquerading as Samuel said.” No, they say “Samuel said.”
As we’ve seen in this study, souls in Sheol are dead because the spiritual breath of God that animates them — that is, gives them life — has returned to the Creator. People become living souls when God animates them with a breath of life, as the ‘creation text’ states (Genesis 2:7). Just as a physical breath of life is required for a body to live, so a spiritual breath of life is necessary for a soul to exist in a conscious sense. In the Old Testament period people’s souls went to Sheol at the point of physical death and the breath of life returned to the Almighty; this included both the righteous and the unrighteous. Elijah and (apparently) Enoch were exceptions (2 Kings 2:11 & Genesis 5:24). They bypassed death — Sheol — and went straight to heaven. God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign Creator of the universe and he occasionally chooses to treat some differently. God chose to spare them from death – Sheol – for His own purposes. Again, these are exceptions.
The case of Samuel is a temporary exception where God, in His divine wisdom, chose to allow Samuel to be resurrected to ‘witness’ to the witch (in a sense) and prophesy to King Saul. Further proof that this was actually Samuel is that the witch cries out in fear when she saw the prophet coming up out of the earth; in other words, she wasn’t used to such real manifestations! Secondly, notice that what Samuel said was in line with God’s Word, and what he predicted came to pass — Saul and his sons were dead the next day (1 Samuel 31).
The passage says nothing about the nature of Sheol so we must turn to the rest of Scripture for answers on that question, but it fits the Sheol-as-the-sleep-of-death model in that Samuel says, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This implies, of course, that he was disturbed from his ‘rest’ in Sheol. The rest of Scripture reveals what this ‘rest’ is — the ‘sleep’ of death where the soul is not conscious of anything because it’s dead.
How did God work this miraculous temporary resurrection? He simply breathed a spiritual breath of life into Samuel’s dead soul, which was housed in Sheol, and Samuel became conscious—i.e. a living soul—and came up. Speaking of coming up, note that Samuel came up from down in the earth, which is where Sheol—the world of the dead—is located: in the heart of the earth, albeit in the spiritual realm, not the physical, since Sheol and disembodied souls are not physical in nature (Matthew 12:40). Also, Samuel states that when Saul and his sons perish the next day they “will be with him.” My point? Both the righteous and wicked went to Sheol upon physical death in the Old Testament era. In our era, however, death has no power over those of us who’ve been born again of the imperishable seed of Christ, the second Adam—Praise God!
If my comments on human nature seem hard to understand (e.g. “spiritual breath of life”, etc.) please read Appendix B Understanding Human Nature – Spirit, Mind & Body.
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.