In our last message, we set out to discover what the Bible teaches about hell. To do this, we set out to learn exactly what the Scriptures have to say about the topic. We learned that the Old Testament word that is translated as “hell” in English is the Hebrew word Sheol. We followed this word out, and we saw that it is used as a place where both the righteous and the wicked go after death. Though it is sometimes hard to see what it means since it is often used in poetry, it seems clear enough that Sheol means the state of death. Those who are in Sheol are in the death state, in contrast to those who are still alive.
We examined the first nineteen occurrences of this word in the last message, which took us through all the occurrences up to the end of the book of Job. Now, let us continue to examine this word from where we left off at the beginning of the book of Psalms.
Psalm 6:5. For in death there is no remembrance of You;
In the grave who will give You thanks?
The twentieth time this word occurs is in the book of Psalms. In Psalm 6, David is speaking. He is calling upon the LORD to save him, and he makes this argument as a reason He should do so. In death, he insists, there is no remembrance of the LORD. No one gives Him thanks in Sheol. Notice again the parallel thought here that characterizes Hebrew poetry. Death and Sheol are spoken of as being parallels. When one is in the state of death, he is unable to remember the LORD or thank Him. This shows that Sheol is viewed as a place of powerlessness and of forgetfulness. Whatever orthodoxy might say, there is no indication here that “hell” is “conscious.”
Psalm 9:17. The wicked shall be turned into hell,
And all the nations that forget God.
This is another Psalm of David. He speaks of the wicked, and assures us that they will be turned into Sheol. Yet the idea of “turned” is more of “returned,” or “turned back.” This is contrasted with the next verse, “For the needy shall not always be forgotten; The expectation of the poor shall not perish.” When God remembers the needy and in resurrection at last gives the poor the expectation that they looked forward to, He shall turn the wicked back into Sheol and return the nations that forgot Him there. Again this is poetic, but the idea that they shall be returned to Sheol at the same time that the LORD is blessing others is clear in this passage.
Psalm 16:10. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
This is another Psalm of David. Though certainly David will be resurrected in his turn, yet this has not happened yet. David has been dead for nearly three thousand years, and he most certainly has seen corruption. Yet David was not speaking of himself here. Peter explains this verse in Acts 2:29-32.
29. Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, 31. he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. 32. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.
As Peter explains it, David did die and see corruption. He reasons then that David was really speaking as a prophet, and was referring to Christ, Whom God would raise up. He was the One Who would not see corruption. Once again, then, we see that Sheol is used for a Godly person, and is not speaking of anything like what is commonly thought of as “hell.” The Lord’s soul would not be left in the state of death, nor would His body see corruption.
This passage, since it is quoted in the New Testament, allows us to discover what the Greek equivalent is for “Sheol,” as the Spirit chooses the Greek word to use as an equivalent in this passage. When we look at Acts 2, we discover that the Greek translation for the Hebrew Sheol is “Hades.” Therefore, once we have completed our study of the word “Sheol,” we will have to go on to study the Greek word “Hades” before we can say we know everything the Word of God has to say about this word and what it means.
Psalm 18:5. The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
David is again writing this Psalm, and he speaks of a time when His enemies had surrounded him, hoping to put him to death. He describes this poetically as the sorrows of Sheol surrounding him, and the snares of death confronting him. This Psalm is actually a repeat, with a few minor edits, of the psalm David sang in II Samuel 22, and this verse is the same as II Samuel 22:6. It was verse 6 rather than 5 because in Samuel the title is included as the first verse, whereas in the Psalms for whatever reason those who set up our Bibles decided not to include the Psalm titles in the verse numbering scheme. This has led to some mistakenly neglecting even to include the Psalm titles in their copies of the Psalms! But this is the same verse as that prior verse, and means the same thing.
Psalm 30:3. O LORD, You brought my soul up from the grave;
You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
This Psalm was written for the dedication of David’s house, probably by David himself. The author here describes how the LORD brought up his soul from Sheol. The parallel statement explains what this means. The LORD had kept him alive, that he should not go down to the pit. The poetic figure is that he had been brought down until he was face-to-face with Sheol, but the LORD lifted him up and kept him alive after all.
Psalm 31:17. Do not let me be ashamed, O LORD, for I have called upon You;
Let the wicked be ashamed;
Let them be silent in the grave.
David is writing this Psalm again. He calls upon the LORD to not let him be ashamed. Instead, He should let the wicked be ashamed, and be silent in Sheol. Notice that Sheol is not viewed by David as a place of noise, screaming, or torment. Instead, it is a place of silence, the silence of death. This makes sense when we understand that Sheol is the state of death. There is nothing but silence in death.
Psalm 49:14. Like sheep they are laid in the grave;
Death shall feed on them;
The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning;
And their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling.
This Psalm is by the sons of Korah, Levites who apparently were musicians like David was. The writer speaks here of those who are foolish. Like sheep they are laid in Sheol. Sheep are completely innocent and trusting. They will walk quietly to the slaughter, and will die without uttering a sound. The foolish, then, are describes as being laid in Sheol like sheep without even a protest. Of course, the state of death is an idea, not an actual place, so one cannot be laid there. But the figure is clearly drawn from one being laid in a grave. The Psalms are poetry, and so such images are common.
While in Sheol, death will feed on the foolish. Yet there is a different fate for the upright. Death is now pictured for them as a sleep, and in the morning of their resurrection they shall have dominion over all the foolish. Yet while the upright are awake and dominating, these foolish will continue in Sheol. While the upright enjoy the beauty of life, any beauty these had will be consumed away in Sheol. While the upright come back to live once again in the homes they had left behind in death, the foolish will remain in Sheol, far from the places they once called home.
Psalm 49:15. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave,
For He shall receive me. Selah
Our next occurrence is in the very next verse. While the foolish are consumed in Sheol, the author is certain that God will redeem his soul from the power of the state of death. He will receive the author out of Sheol. He calls upon his readers to consider this, and think about the following verses in the light of this. The hope of resurrection life in the kingdom of God to come is clearly set forth as the hope for God’s people in this chapter. If one does not receive this reward, then languishing in Sheol is the only alternative.
Psalm 55:15. Let death seize them;
Let them go down alive into hell,
For wickedness is in their dwellings and among them.
David is again the author of this Psalm. He is considering the treachery of certain men in his own court, like Ahithophel his former counselor and Absalom his own son. For their treachery, he declares that death should seize them, and that they should go down alive into Sheol. In Numbers 16:30 and 33 we saw this previously, when the earth opened up and swallowed up alive Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram and all their families. David is clearly referring to this in this statement, telling us that these men deserve a similar fate. Perhaps he is not thinking this for Absalom, for he in other places seems reluctant to see his son killed, despite his rebellion and wickedness. Yet certainly the other conspirators have earned David’s wrath. They deserve death, he reveals, because wickedness is in their dwellings and among them. They have plotted against David, God’s chosen ruler, and planned to set themselves up in his place, just like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram had done in Numbers. So this occurrence of Sheol is a reference to Numbers 16, and speaks of being snatched into death suddenly in a poetic figure as going down alive into Sheol.
Psalm 86:13. For great is Your mercy toward me,
And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
Our thirtieth occurrence of the word Sheol is again in a Psalm of David. David is thanking the Lord his God here for His great mercy toward him, and for delivering his soul from the depths of Sheol. We have already seen David use this poetic figure multiple times before. It means he was in danger of death, and the Lord rescued him from it.
Psalm 88:3. For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to the grave.
This Psalm is by a man named Heman the Ezrahite. He speaks to the LORD in the midst of terrible trouble. The way he describes it, it seems clear that he is afflicted with the terrible disease called leprosy. In this verse, he tells us that his soul is full of troubles, and his life draws near to Sheol. Indeed, the state of death must seem like it is constantly present to anyone who is thus afflicted with such a terrible illness.
Psalm 89:48. What man can live and not see death?
Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave? Selah
This time, this Psalm is by a man named Ethan the Ezrahite. He asks these questions, and the answers to them are obvious. What strong man can live and not see death? Of course, no man can do this. Can a strong man deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Of course, he cannot. No man by strength, wisdom, or any other means can escape from death, which eventually comes for us all. Only in resurrection do we have any hope.
Psalm 116:3. The pains of death surrounded me,
And the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
This Psalm is anonymous as far as its human author is concerned. Considering the portion it is in, perhaps the best guess is Hezekiah, the great king of Judah who was the first such king to at last serve God like his ancestor David had done. Yet this is only a guess.
The author describes a situation in which the pains of death surrounded him and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of him. He found trouble and sorrow, and it seemed they would overwhelm him. This reminds us of how David described similar circumstances in Psalm 18. It is the LORD Who would deliver the author out of these troubles later in the psalm. Death and the state of death, Sheol, are used interchangeably here.
Psalm 139:8. If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
This is yet another Psalm of David. David is describing the LORD here as inescapable, what modern theology would call “omnipresent.” David knows that if he ascending into heaven, the LORD will be there. If, on the other hand, he makes his bed in Sheol, the LORD will likewise be there. Here we can see that heaven is put for height and Sheol for depth. The description of Sheol as a “bed” reminds us of the bed one lies on in a tomb, the place where the dead are laid. These things are described poetically, but the point is clearly that you cannot escape the LORD wherever you go.
Psalm 141:7. Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave,
As when one plows and breaks up the earth.
The thirty-fifth occurrence of the word Sheol is also our last occurrence in the book of Psalms. Psalm 141 is another Psalm of David. He puts these words in the mouth of the wicked. They declare that their bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheol, as when one plows and breaks up the earth. The idea is of a farmer plowing his fields, and his plow turns up human bones. Perhaps some men were fleeing from enemy raiders, or perhaps these men were raiders themselves. One of their number was wounded and died as they fled. Having no time to properly bury him, they hastily dug a shallow grave and placed him in it. Now, many years later, this farmer turns up his bones with his plow. This is what the bones of these wicked men look like, scattered at the very mouth of the state of death, Sheol. Of course, Sheol does not really have a mouth. But remember that the book of Psalms is poetry, and these are poetic images. We should not go to the book of Psalms to find out what this word means. It is enough to see that nothing in this book would contradict or prove untrue what we have said about Sheol so far.
Proverbs 1:12. Let us swallow them alive like Sheol,
And whole, like those who go down to the Pit;
The wise man writing this is probably not Solomon. This book seems to go back and forth between recording the actual proverbs Solomon told, and recording the wise things Solomon’s teachers taught him and brought him up learning as a young man. This section is described as “the words of the wise and their riddles” in verse 6.
Here, sinners are described as speaking to a young man and trying to entice him to follow their ways. They are planning to waylay, murder, and rob innocent men. They confidently assert that they will swallow them alive like Sheol, and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. They basically view themselves as the instruments of Sheol, bringing men down to the state of death by their murderous actions.
Proverbs 5:5. Her feet go down to death,
Her steps lay hold of hell.
Solomon is being warned against the apostate woman here. The Hebrew word zur means estranged, and indicates a Hebrew woman who has taken up the wicked religious and moral practices of the nations around Israel. Solomon should not follow her ways, he is warned, for her feet are taking her to death, and her steps are laying hold on Sheol. Sheol would be the fate of any Israelite who followed the ways of those who had abandoned the LORD and followed the wicked practices of other nations.
Proverbs 7:27. Her house is the way to hell,
Descending to the chambers of death.
This is two chapters later, but Solomon is being warned once again against both the apostate Hebrew woman zur, and the foreign woman nakar. Of course, when a foreign woman practiced idolatry and worked wickedness, she was doing what would be natural for her to do. Solomon is warned that her house is the way to Sheol, and is part of the descent to the chambers of death. It would have been well if Solomon had heeded this warning! Alas, we know he did not.
Proverbs 9:18. But he does not know that the dead are there,
That her guests are in the depths of hell.
This time it is the foolish, the morally deficient, woman whom Solomon is being warned against. She lures a man to commit adultery in her house. What he doesn’t realize is that the dead are there, and her guests are in the depths of Sheol. Of course, this is poetic imagery, but the reality is that adultery is one of those crimes for which men will be judged unworthy of life in the eon to come.
Proverbs 15:11. Hell and Destruction are before the LORD;
So how much more the hearts of the sons of men.
This verse comes from a section that is actually written by Solomon, and contains some of his proverbs. This is one of those proverbs. It speaks of Sheol and Abaddon, the state of death and destruction. These are things that seem closed and mysterious to men, for we cannot peer into Death, nor know the inner workings of Destruction. Yet these things are open and clear before the LORD. How much more, if He sees and understands these mysteries, does he see and know the hearts of the sons of Adam?
Proverbs 15:24. The way of life winds upward for the wise,
That he may turn away from hell below.
This is another proverb of Solomon. The way of life is pictured as a path winding upward for the wise, leaving Sheol, which is below, far behind him. Of course, this is only a poetic image, but the idea is that the wise follow a way that will lead them into eternal life in the future, and away from the state of death, in which the foolish and wicked will remain at that time.
Proverbs 23:14. You shall beat him with a rod,
And deliver his soul from hell.
This proverb is in a third section of Proverbs, which returns to Solomon’s teachers advising him regarding wisdom. They are advising here that one who brings up a child should not withhold correction from him. Beating him with the rod of correction is ultimately for him a good thing, for by doing so you will deliver his soul from Sheol in the end. Notice here that the rod is correction, not just punishment. It is not simply to punish the wayward child that the rod is applied, but to correct him and guide him into the right way. It is such guidance that will ultimately help him guide his steps into the way that leads to eonian life.
Proverbs 27:20. Hell and Destruction are never full;
So the eyes of man are never satisfied.
We have bypassed another section of proverbs by Solomon, and are back in a section of wise words taught to Solomon in his youth. Sheol and Abaddon are never full, the wise man declares. Of course, this is true. No matter how many people die and enter the state of death Sheol, there is always room for another to die, and another, and another. This is not some statement as to the size of some place called “hell,” but rather a statement of the obvious, and what should be clearly true to any thinking person about death. The proverb, then, is comparing this to the eyes of man. Like Sheol is never full, so the eyes of Adam are never satisfied. One who has much knowledge always wants more. One who likes exploring new places and seeing new things always wants to travel more and see more. One who purchases and increases possessions always wants to buy another thing, and another, and another. One who is addicted to pornography always wants to buy another magazine or visit another website. Indeed, the eyes of man are never satisfied as long as they live.
Proverbs 30:16. The grave,
The barren womb,
The earth that is not satisfied with water—
And the fire never says, “Enough!”
This is the forty-fourth occurrence of Sheol in Scripture, and last occurrence in Proverbs. This chapter is written by a man named Agur the son of Jakeh, who was obviously also a wise man. He is writing of four things that are never satisfied and never say “Enough!” The first is Sheol. This is the same truth we had in the last verse. The second is the barren womb. Made for bearing children, yet destined never to bare them, the barren womb remains ever unsatisfied. The third is the earth that is not satisfied with water. No matter how much water is put upon it, it will eventually soak it up and be ready for more. And finally is fire. Fire never decides it has burned enough. As long as there is still fuel and oxygen to burn, the fire will continue unabated.
So we have completed our examination of the word “Sheol,” the word that is translated “hell” in the Old Testament, from Genesis to Proverbs. We have seen that it is used as a place where both the righteous and the wicked go after death. Though it is sometimes hard to see what it means since it is often used in poetry, it seems clear enough that Sheol means the state of death, or death as a temporary state while resurrection is still possible. This contrasts with destruction, which is permanent death or death from which there will never be a release.
This word Sheol, whatever it might mean, clearly means nothing like what men mean when they use the word “hell.” Whatever is believed and taught about hell, it is clear that it would have to be read into the word Sheol, for it cannot be read out. This word Sheol has nothing to do with what men mean when they use the word hell. To translate it by this word is misleading, to say the least. There is nothing of the modern conception of the word “hell” in the Hebrew word Sheol.