It is written:
And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (Genesis 37:35)
Having established that the human soul exists, we now turn our attention to the mysterious realm known as Sheol.
The word “Sheol” basically has reference to the world of the dead. It is that realm where the spirit travels to at the point of death.
Sheol As Translated In The Old Testament
The word “Sheol” is translated with several different words in nearly every translation. Following is a list of every occurrence of the word in the Old Testament Scriptures, along with its’ rendering in the King James Version of the Bible:
Deuteronomy 32:22; 2 Samuel 22:6; Job 11:8; Job 26:6; Psalm 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 55:15; 86:13; 116:3; 139:8; Proverbs 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; Isaiah 5:14; 14:9; 28:15, 18; 57:9; Ezekiel 31:16-17; 32:21, 27; Jonah 2:2; Habakkuk 2:5
Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 21:13; 24:19; Psalm 6:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14-15; 88:3; 89:48; Proverbs 1:12; 30:16; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 14:11; 38:10, 18; Ezekiel 31:15; Hosea 13:14
Numbers 16:30, 33; Job 17:16
Why was the word “Sheol” translated in so many different ways?
The answer to this question lies in understanding that the word could carry different meanings in different time periods. Much of the same is true in our world today. Simply consider how the word “gangster” meant “politician” in the 1920’s!
Speaking of this important aspect of the history of the word Sheol, Blanchard has written:
“What did the Old Testament writers mean by ‘Sheol’? The answer seems to be that the word was used to mean different but related things at different times. It is interesting to see how some of our best-known English translations of the Bible handle this. In the Authorized Version, first published in 1611, ‘Sheol’ is translated ‘hell’ thirty-one times, ‘grave’ thirty-one times and ‘the pit’ three times. The New International Version, first published in 1979, has ‘grave’ fifty-five times, ‘death’ six times, and three other phrases for the remainder. The New American Standard Bible, first published in 1971, plays it safe by leaving Sheol untranslated, allowing the reader to determine from the context what the writer meant—though in thirty-four places it puts the note ‘i.e. the nether world’ in the margin. The English Standard Version (on which this book is based) also leaves ‘Sheol’ untranslated. In trying to pull all of this together, it is important to realize that God revealed truth progressively, with the light becoming brighter as the centuries went by, and especially as the Old Testament gave way to the New (with a gap of 400 years in between). This does not mean that the New Testament contradicts the Old; there is not a single case where this happens. Instead, the Bible has a remarkable unity, with each part taking its proper place in the whole scheme of things. There are many statements which underline the fact that although the Bible is a unity, God revealed truth gradually, adding greater intensity to the light as he went along….This is one of the Bible’s ways of telling us that the Old Testament is no less the Word of God than the New, but that in the New Testament the light is brighter. With that in mind, we are in a position to assess what the Old Testament writers had in mind when they used the word Sheol. To help us do this, I will leave the word Sheol untranslated; this will make it clear where it is being used. Firstly, there are a few cases where it seems to refer to death or the grave. When he was suffering from a serious illness, King Hezekiah of Judah was terrified at the prospect of a premature death, and cried out, ‘In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years’ (Isaiah 38:10)…Secondly, it was used in referring to the place or state to which all men go at death. One of the clearest examples of this is when the psalmist asks, ‘What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?’ (Psalm 89:48). The answer to the question is obviously, ‘No one’; everyone will ‘see death’ and be subject to ‘the power of Sheol’. Elsewhere, we are told that ‘The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up’ (1 Samuel 2:6)—and again this clearly applies to everyone….The picture we have is of a place of shadows, ‘the land of darkness and deep shadow’ (Job 10:21); of darkness, ‘The enemy … has made me sit in darkness like those long dead’ (Psalm 143:3); and of silence, ‘The dead … go down into silence’ (Psalm 115:17). The images are those of a place in which ‘the colour is gone from everything; a washed-out copy is all that remains’4 (S.F.D. Salmond) and the individual person is ‘but a shadow of his former self’. (Buis)5 In his book The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis describes his travellers going to ‘the grey town’6—his way of expressing the general feeling of Sheol that comes across in these quotations from the Old Testament. Thirdly, there are some places in which Sheol is seen as a place of punishment for the wicked. Job says of the wicked that ‘They go down to Sheol’ (Job 21:13, NASB) and that Sheol snatches away ‘those who have sinned’ (Job 24:19); David says that ‘The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God’ (Psalm 9:17); another writer says that the steps of the adulteress ‘follow the path to Sheol’ (Proverbs 5:5). It is difficult to see how the meaning of Sheol in these places can be limited to the grave or the state of being dead. If that were the case, why are warnings such as these given only to the wicked and never to the righteous? The Old Testament might not be as clear as the New Testament in its teaching on the afterlife, but there is no doubt that it does speak of a place where ‘God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil’ (Ecclesiastes 12:14) and where there will be ‘a fire … kindled by [God’s] anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol’ (Deuteronomy 32:22). We would be less than honest if we ignored statements as serious as these. Fourthly, the Old Testament teaches that for God’s people there was to be deliverance from Sheol. One of the clearest statements about this is where the psalmist says of those who trust in themselves (one of the Bible’s classic definitions of the unbeliever) that ‘They are appointed for Sheol’ and then adds, ‘But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me’ (Psalm 49:15). Another psalmist writes with equal assurance of life after death: ‘You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory’ (Psalm 73:24). The British preacher Alec Motyer is hardly exaggerating when he calls this ‘eloquent testimony to a sure hope beyond the grave’.7 The general picture of death in the Old Testament is shadowy and gloomy, but as Buis puts it, ‘There are passages here and there that reveal glimpses of a more wonderful life after death for the believer.’8 When they caught these glimpses, Old Testament believers were able to break through the natural fear of death and rejoice in the assurance that they would ‘dwell in the house of the LORD for ever’ (Psalm 23:6).” (John Blanchard, Whatever Happened To Hell? 544-596 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; EP Books)
In our next studies, we will learn more about this realm known as Sheol.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.