Sheol is often defined as the “abode of the dead.” “Conceived of as situated in the depths of the earth, Sheol is a place of physical deathin contrast to the vitality of life on earth with all of its brightness and activity (cf. Job 10:21–22). Both the righteous and the wickedwent to Sheol, although there is some indication of a distinction in their condition there (cf. De 32:22; Is 57:1–2; Lk 16:23). Moreover, the righteous looked for ultimate deliverance from Sheol (e.g., Ps 49:15; 73:24).” Although Sheol appears throughout the Bible, my interest is to study the imagery of Sheol in the book of Psalms. But it is imperative to have an overview of the full notion of the imagery of Sheol in the Bible before we delve into the study of it in the book of Psalms.
The word Sheol occurs 66 times (including repointing Masoretic Text’s šĕ˒ālâ in Isa 7:11 to šĕ˒ōlâ following the reading eis hadēn in Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and most commentators).Since this word is very unique to the Hebrew Bible, its etymology is widely debated. Among the many suggestions, I think two suggestions of Hebrew origin stands out.
- A weakened form of the root שֹׁעַל (š‘l), from which derive the words for a hollow hand (Is. 40:12) and a hollow way (between vineyards, Nu. 22:24). In post-biblical Hebrew ša‘al means the ‘deep’ of the sea. If this derivation is correct, the original sense will be the hollow, or more probably deep, place.
- Another view that it is derived from the root שָׁאַל (š’l) meaning ‘ask’ or ‘enquire’. In this case, it may have been originally the place of enquiry, where oracles could be obtained. Jastrow found 28 times where š’l is used of consulting oracles including references to consulting the spirits of the dead in Deut 18:11 and 1 Chr 10:13.
There are other designations used for the abode of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. They are mostly used as semantic equivalents to Sheol. They are found in similar context and imagery. They are
a. מָוֶת (māwet)
“Death,” like Sheol, is often used to refer to the realm of death (Ps 6:6; Prov 7:27) as well as to the personified chthonic power behind death and to all that is associated with it such as disease, sterility, drought, etc. (Hab 2:5; Job 18:13–14; 28:22; Isa 28:15, 18; Hos 13:14; Ps 49:15; Cant 8:6).
b. שַׁחַת (šaḥat)and בּוֹר (bôr)
šaḥat (Ps 16:10; Job 17:13–14; Isa 38:17–18; Jonah 2:3–7) and bôr (Isa 5:14; 38:18; Ezek 31:16; Pss 30:4; 88:4–5; Prov 1:12) both refer to the abode of the dead as the “Pit.”
c. אֲבַדּוֹן (˒ăbaddôn)
This is usually translated “Perdition” or “(place of) Destruction” <˒bd, “to perish” (Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12; Prov 15:11; 27:20). The personification of Abaddon can be seen in both Old Testament and New Testament. (Job 28:22, Rev 9:11).
In the Septuagint (LXX), Sheol is often translated as Hades. In the Greek Mythology, “Hades is the lord of the dead and ruler of the nether world, which is referred to as the domain of Hades or, by transference, as Hades alone.” The same idea occurs in the New Testament (Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15, Matt 16:18, Rev 1:18. In the New Testament Hades appears in the personified form too (Rev 6:8). Sometimes all the dead seem to be in Hades (Acts 2:27), but otherwise Hades is just the abode of the wicked (Lk. 16:23; Rev. 20:13-14). The forces against the church is described as the forces of Hades (Mt. 16:18). Christ preaches in Hades (1 Pet. 3: 19ff.) and he has the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). Hades in New Testament derives meaning from Sheol but goes beyond it to adequately include the Greek mythical notions.
The underworld is also often described in the New Testament as the “Abyss” (άβυσσος), often translated “Bottomless Pit” (Luke 8:31; Rom 10:7; Rev 9:1–2 ; 17:18; 20:1, 3)
c. Gehenna or Gê Hinnom
The Greek term denoting a place of punishment is Gehenna, used 12 times in the New Testament. Gehenna or Gê Hinnom, is the “Valley of Hinnom,” is a valley running south of Jerusalem. In this valley, the Israelites sacrificed their children to Molech in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Ki 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6). In the New Testament, the word Gehenna (“hell”) falls many times from the lips of Christ in most awesome warning of the consequences of sin (Matt. 5:22, 29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). However, Gehenna, is not to be confused with Hades or Sheol.
- Grave, Hell, And Pit
The translations of Sheol include grave, hell, and pit. They are poor and inadequate translations of the word, because they cannot contain the imagery of Sheol in its fuller sense. In the same way, earlier times there were attempts to identify Sheol with the popular Christian notions of limbo, purgatory, or hell. Although all of these notions contain partial meaning of Sheol, they are not the same. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible stands as antonym of the life and the abode of the dead.
Before analyzing the notion of Sheol in the book of Psalms in particular, it is imperative to know the notion in the broader Hebrew Scriptures. In the majority of cases in the Old Testament, Sheol is used to signify the grave, a place to which one ‘goes down’ (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num 16:30, 33; 1 Sam. 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6; Job 14:13; 17:13, 16, etc.). It represents the lowest place imaginable (Deut 32:22; Isa 7:11) often used in contrast with the highest heavens (Amos 9:2; Ps 139:8; Job 11:8). Sheol is often associated with various water images as in Jonah 2:3–6, which couples sheol with numerous terms for the chaotic waters including Sea (yām/yammı̂m), River (nāhār), breakers (mišbārı̂m), waves (gallîm), waters (mayîm), and the deep (tĕhôm). The images of the gates of Sheol (Isa 38:10; Pss 9:14; 107:18; Job 38:17; Jer 15:7) and the “bars” of the underworld (Jonah 2:7, Job 38:10; Job 17:16) have to do with the imprisoning power of Sheol and its impassable nature, which prevents escape (Job 7:9). Another key characteristic of Sheol is darkness (Job 17.13). Sheol is also characterized by dust (Job 17:16; 21:26) and silence (Isa 47:5).
In the Hebrew Bible just like in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures Sheol is also personified. Sheol, like Death, is described in the Hebrew Bible as having an insatiable appetite (Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; Prov 27:20; 30:15b–16). Sheol also swallows people (Prov 1:12). Twice in Hos 13:14 Yahweh is described as ransoming Ephraim from the grasp of personified Sheol and Death. Sheol is also the personified king of the kingdom of dead (Is 14:9). Similarly, in Hab 2:5, the personified Babylonian empire is compared to Sheol. But these personifications are purely political and in no place any deity is attested to Sheol.
The inhabitants of Sheol are called Rephaim. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is commonly the abode of the dead. But in many biblical passages this is the place for the wicked. “In the later Jewish literature we meet with divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the imagery of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk. 16:19-31.” By the end of the Old Testament period, there was even hope that one would finally be delivered from Sheol (Jb 14:13–22; 19:25–27; Pss 49:15; 73:23–28; Dn 12:1–2).
The imagery of Sheol is very strong in the book of Psalms and it possesses a variety of information regarding the nature of Sheol.
Psalmist does make it clear that those who are in Sheol cannot praise God. “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise (Ps 6:5)?” There are other Psalms which carries the same meaning. Psalm 115:17 says “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence. King Hezekiah’s prayer in the book of Isaiah is another coinciding passage: “For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness (Is 38:18).” In these passages Sheol and death are spoken almost synonymously. Thus, it becomes clear that only the living can praise God (cf. Is 38:19, Ps 88: 10-12).
Since Sheol is a place of inactivity its inhabitants cannot remember the great deeds of the Lord. That is why the psalmist compares Sheol with the land of forgetfulness (Ps 88:12). Another reason why The Psalmist calls it a land of forgetfulness is because God does not remember those who are here. “…like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand (Ps 88:5).
“Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol (Ps 31:17).” In this passage the psalmist wishes that the wicked go dumbfounded to Sheol. At another place, the psalmist says that if the Lord had not been his help, his soul would soon have lived in the land of silence (Ps 94:17). Psalm 115:17 also expresses the same understanding. It is also probable that being a place where one cannot praise God, it becomes a land of silence.
The Psalmist says, “For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead (Ps 143:3). In Sheol there is no light (88:6,12). It is also considered the abode of the Raphaim (shades) (88:10-12) which is an allusion that Sheol is a place of darkness. Job says “…before I go whence I shall not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness (Job 10:21-22).” There are other passages in the Bible which suggest Sheol as a place of darkness (Job 38:17; 17:13). According to Theodore J. Lewis, “Darkness is a key characteristic of netherworlds and this holds true for Sheol as well. It occurs in parallelism with ḥōšek, “darkness” (Job 17:13; cf. Lam 3:6; Job 18:18) as does ˒ereṣ, “underworld” (Pss 88:13; 143:3).”
As in the other books of the Old Testament, the book of Psalm also contains the idea that Sheol is a place of all the dead. “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (Ps 89:48). Like in other places of Old Testament, there are differences of opinion in the book of Psalms too concerning who will go down to Sheol. Although the above passage indicates that all the dead, both the righteous and the wicked would go down to Sheol, there are a few passages which think that only the wicked will go there (Ps 9:17). Probably, the idea of Sheol as being the place of all the dead has undergone a change in the course of history. From the place of all the dead, it later became a place for the wicked. Such a contrasting view is tried to reconcile in the later Jewish literature. The book of Enoch makes divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch 22:1-14).
Sheol is the place of the רְפָאִים (rephaim). The original meaning of the word is uncertain. It is often translated “the shades below” (cf. Ps. 88:11; Job 26:5; Isa. 26:14). These are dead people who dwell in “the depths of Sheol” (Prov. 9:18), where they live together in “the assembly of the dead (rephaim)” (Prov. 21:16). This understanding of rephaim seems to have been widespread in ancient Syria-Palestine.
יְֽהוָ֗ה הֶֽעֱלִ֣יתָ מִן־שְׁא֣וֹל נַפְשִׁ֑י חִ֜יִּיתַ֗נִי (מִיּוֹרְדֵי־)[מִיָּֽרְדִי־]בֽוֹר׃ (Ps. 30:4 WTT)
O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit (Ps 30:3). The text is a form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism wherein the second part of the verse simply repeats and enforces the thought of the first. Therefore, it becomes clear that in this verse, Sheol is synonymous with the Pit. In Hebrew, the word Pit (בֽוֹר) is used 37 times. At least in a few instances, the word is used to mean the “pit” which becomes one’s grave (Ps. 55:23, “pit of the grave”). The word is also used to mean a place where one exists after death (Ps. 69:15).
There are enough indications that Sheol is the imagery of the place of sorrows and troubles. The Psalmist in his distress feels that he is entangled by the cords of Sheol. “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me (Ps 18:4-5).” This verse has a parallel in the 2 Samuel 22:6. “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish (Ps 116:3).” In both these examples, Sheol is having a deep relationship with death itself. It is a place of deep sorrow in which one suffers distress and anguish. And when the psalmist life is full of troubles, he feels that he is near to Sheol (Ps 88:3). One thing to notice in all these psalms which uses the imagery of Sheol as a place of sorrows is that it is an expression of the deep sorrows and troubles of this life itself and not of a life after death. The psalmist feels that the sorrows and troubles of this life have brought him to Sheol.
Sheol is depicted as having powers to entangle one. Only God can save one from the power of Sheol (Ps 49:15; 18:5; 116:3). In Ps 49: 14-15, Sheol is depicted as a home of the foolhardy as well as their custodian. Such personifications help us to understand that only God can help one from the clutches of death. The personification of Sheol can be found in other places of the Bible too as was explained earlier.
The wicked go down to Sheol alive as a form of punishment. Such an idea is also found in the book of Numbers. The rebellious Korah and his people go down to Sheol as punishment (Num 16:30-33). We have the parallel passage in Psalm 55:15. “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts (Ps 55:15). The Psalmist prays that a person may be punished with death so promptly that he will be as if buried alive. According to Psalm 141:7 the wicked will be punished their bones will be strewn at the mouth of Sheol (Ps 141:7).
Even though Sheol is considered as the place of forgetfulness in which the inhabitants are like the like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom God remember no more, for they are cut off from God’s hand (Ps 88:5), it is not away from God’s presence. God’s omnipresence pervades over even the deep darkness of Sheol. The psalmist says he cannot run away from the presence of YHWH. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps 139:8). Such an idea is present in the other texts of Old Testament too (cf. 1 Sa 2:6; De 32:22; Job 14:13; 26:6; Pr 15:11).
The eternal presence of YHWH even in Sheol suggests that in death God’s people remain under His care, and the wicked never escape His judgment Therefore it is only apt that God delivers the righteous from the shackles of Sheol which is the synonym of death and in which they cannot praise God. The power of God can deliver the psalmist from Sheol (Ps 16:10; 49:15; 86:13). Thus, God restores the psalmist to life (PS 30:3). The idea that God delivers the righteous and the god fearing from Sheol is found also in other books (Pr 15:24; Hos 13:14). Thus, it becomes clear that YHWH is the ruler of Sheol. This is a major difference from other Ancient Near Eastern traditions in which the ruler of the netherworld is another God.
From the above analysis, it becomes clear that Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the book of Psalms, is a strong imagery for death and all that is anti-life. The meanings that emerged from our analysis clearly point out towards this fact. Sheol is first of all the abode of the dead where there is no praise of God. Even God does not remember those who are in Sheol. It is the place of silence and darkness. Sheol is rightly considered as the land of shades and the shadow of death pervades over it. No one can escape from the clutches of Sheol unless YHWH delivers him. The Psalmist in his distress and suffering feels that he is going down to Sheol. Even those who are alive feel at some moment the forces of death as very powerful. The wicked people live in darkness and do not like the light. They indulge themselves in anti-life activities and therefore the psalmist says that like Korah they will go alive to Sheol. YHWH who is the source of life, will deliver the righteous from the clutches of Sheol. He will not allow them to go to Sheol. In Psalm 116, we see that the psalmist was distressed and sorrowful because, as he puts it, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish (Ps 116:3).” Obviously the psalmist was quite concerned that he’d lose his life in this situation, but the LORD ultimately delivered him and that’s why he exclaims in verse 8: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” The psalmist knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, the world of the dead where life is as good as death. Because the LORD delivered him, he states in verse 9: “I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” If life in this world is “the land of the living” then it stands to reason that Sheol is the land of the dead or “the world of the dead” or “the world of the anti-life.”
The powers of Sheol can be found in the contemporary culture. In all the aspects of our life, we see the cords of anti-life activities. People feel the absence of God in the social, religious and personal lives. Where God is neither praised nor remembered Sheol becomes a reality. When people love darkness of hatred and immorality more than the light of love and Godliness, Sheol will entangle them. The imagery of Sheol brings to our mind al the atrocities that take place against life. Wicked people bring Sheol to their own lives as well as to the other’s lives. The contemporary culture with all its wickedness, atrocities against the weak, poor, minorities, women and children do bring to our mind the imagery of Sheol. When one acts against the life, one becomes an advocate of Sheol. Sheol is the anti-thesis of life. But God as the Supreme authority and author of life will strongly condemn such anti-life activities and bring deliverance to the righteous.
The above study of the imagery of Sheol brings to our mind certain points.
- Sheol is the abode of the dead often synonymous with death itself.
- Sheol represents all that is anti-life.
- Sheol is a place of silence where there is no praise of God.
- Although the presence of God is not felt in Sheol, it is not outside YHWH’s jurisdiction.
- Everyone experiences this Sheol (whether in this life or after death), God will deliver the righteous from its cords.
Sheol as the anti-thesis of life is the natural place of the wicked who act against the life. If anyone resists the life, he is in Sheol. Therefore, as righteous and god-fearing persons, it is an invitation for us to live life. In a world, which is so much anti-life oriented, we must become prophets of pro-life. Even though at times we might feel the absence of God in our lives, we need not worry. When one feels distressed and sorrows, one must remember that God as the Supreme author and authority of life can save one from the clutches of death and Sheol. As Christians, the resurrection of Jesus, is a proof and surety for us God will not allow his faithful ones to remain in Sheol. Let us praise the Lord in the land of the living so that we will be able to say with the Psalmist, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit (Ps 16:10).”
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Elwell, Walter A and Philip W. Comfort, ed. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.
Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Harris, R. Laird. “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts.” No pages. Cited 13-12-12. Online: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bets/vol04/4-4_harris.pdf.
Unger, Merrill Frederick et al., ed. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. 3. 1966. Repr., Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.
Kittel, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 10 vols. electronic ed. 2000, c1976. Repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1964.
Lindemans, Micha F. “Hades.” No pages. Cited 12-12-12. Online: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hades.html.
Toorn, Karel van der et al., ed. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd Extremely Rev. Ed. Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill: Eerdmans, 1999.
Vine, W. E. et al., ed. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. 2 vols. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1996.
Wood, D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, ed. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Youngblood, Ronald F. et al., ed. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Rev. ed. of: Nelson’s illustrated Bible dictionary. 1986. Repr., Nashville: T. Nelson, 1995.
 Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ABD 2:101.
 D. K. Innes, “Sheol,” NBD 1092.
 Innes, NBD 1092.
 Lewis, ABD 2:102.
 Lewis, ABD 2:104.
 Joachim Jeremias, “Hades,” TDNT 1:148
 Lewis, ABD 2:105.
 Merrill Frederick Unger, “Sheol,” NTUD.
 Unger, NTUD.
 Lewis, ABD 2:102.
 Lewis, ABD 2:103.
 H. M. Barstad, “Sheol,” DDD 769.
 Lewis, ABD 2:103.
 Innes, NBD 1092.
 “Sheol,” TBD 364.
 Lewis, ABD 2:103.
 Innes, NBD 1092.
 D. K. Stuart, “Sheol,” ISBE 4:440.
 “Sheol,” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words 1:178.
 R. Laird Harris, “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts,” n.p. [cited 13-12-12]. Online: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bets/vol04/4-4_harris.pdf.
 “Sheol,” NNIBD.