How was the concept of ‘hell’ understood in Old Testament times? Was hell a place of torment, that God warned his people to avoid? Did any faithful person ever long to go to hell? Of course not, you might say… but have another look.
Let’s begin by researching the Old Testament word for ‘hell’. In Strong’s Concordance the Hebrew word is ‘sheol’, and Dr. Strong defines it as ‘hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), including its accessories and inmates’. Dr. Strong also tells us that in the KJV ‘sheol’ has been translated into the English words, ‘grave, hell, pit.’
In order to find out if Dr. Strong’s personal definition of ‘hell’ is accurate, we need to examine the way ‘sheol’ has been used in the Bible.
The faithful man, Jacob, is the first person to talk about going to ‘sheol’. In Genesis 37:35 it says, “And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave <sheol> unto my son mourning.” In speaking about the grief he would feel if Benjamin did not return to him, Jacob also said, “if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave <sheol>.” (Genesis 42:38) So, the faithful man Jacob, believed that at death he would go to ‘sheol’. Jacob isn’t the one who longs to go to ‘sheol’, but he certainly believed that he will go there in death.
Jacob’s sons later reported the same belief to Joseph, saying that if they didn’t bring Benjamin back to their father, “that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave <sheol>.” (Genesis 44:3) Remember, this word ‘sheol’ can be translated into English synonymously as ‘grave, hell or pit’. Jacob’s sons believed their father would go to ‘hell, the grave, or the pit’.
Korah, Dathan and Abiram, wicked leaders who challenged Moses’ leadership, were swallowed up by an earthquake and went down alive into the pit <sheol>. (Numbers 16:30-33) So, it’s possible to go to ‘sheol’ alive… although they wouldn’t have stayed alive for long.
Job Asks to Go to ‘Sheol’
In the book of Job, ‘sheol’ features fairly often, as Job in his sufferings, was consumed with dying. His friend, Zophar, talks about hell as being one of the deepest places, in Job 11:8. Job, himself, asks to be hidden in the grave <sheol>, in chapter 14:13! He speaks of ‘sheol’ as a dark place of rest in the dust, surrounded by worms, where bodies corrupt. “If I wait, the grave <sheol> is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, thou art my father: to the worm, thou art my mother, and my sister. And where is now my hope? As for my hope, who shall see it? They shall go down to the bars of the pit <sheol>, when our rest together is in the dust.” (Job 17:13-16) Job certainly didn’t envision hell as a fiery place of torment. In his misery, Job longed to be at peace in the grave.
In the Psalms, David and the other psalmists, also refer to ‘sheol’ frequently. David says that no one gives God thanks in the grave <sheol> (Psalm 6:5). The wicked will be turned into hell <sheol> (Psalm 9:17) He speaks of the sorrows of hell <sheol> overwhelming him (Psalm 18:5), and is thankful that God has brought up his soul from the grave <sheol> and kept him from going down to the pit <sheol> (Psalm 30:3) Do any of these passages clearly indicate hell is a fiery place of torment? Or is hell just the place we go at the end of our life – the ‘world’ of the unconscious dead?
We have considered Psalms 16:10 in other blogs, as it is quoted in Acts 2, concerning Christ, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell <sheol>; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” In death, Jesus spent three days in ‘sheol’ – hell, the grave or the pit. If ‘sheol’ is a place reserved for the wicked, why would faithful Jesus be sent there? If ‘sheol’ is simply the grave, this is consistent with the New Testament message – Jesus spent three days in the grave.
In Psalm 89:48, the writer asks, “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave <sheol>?” We are powerless to escape death and the grave, only God can rescue us through resurrection. From this passage it is clear that all people go to ‘hell’ when they die, not only the wicked.
Psalm 139:8 says, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell <sheol>, behold, thou art there.” However, deep and dark ‘sheol’ is, it’s not too deep or dark for God to see us and bring us back to Him.
Proverbs 7:27 refers to a harlot, saying, “Her house is the way to hell <sheol>, going down to the chambers of death.” This could potentially sound like a place of punishment for the wicked. However, if this passage is simply saying that the harlot’s house is the way to the grave, eternal death is a sufficient punishment. Proverbs 15:24 is similar, “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from hell <sheol> beneath.”
Unconsciousness and Inactivity
Ecclesiastes 9:10, tells us that there is no work, or devices or knowledge or wisdom in the grave <sheol> where we are going. This passage indicates that ‘sheol’ is a place of unconsciousness and inactivity.
Lucifer – the King of Babylon
One oft-quoted passage in Isaiah 14, has very graphic language about hell. As you read it through, consider if this passage supports the fiery notion that hell is a place of torture, or the grave – a place where human life comes to an end and our bodies corrupt? Just to make it a little easier to read, we will use the ESV translation:
First take notice in Isaiah 14:4, that this passage is a PARABLE – a poetic story. Then, notice, who this proverb is speaking against?
“…take up this proverb [parable] against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!… Hell <sheol> from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave <sheol>, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer [day star], son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:…Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell <sheol>, to the sides of the pit. They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms.”
In the parable above, poetic language is used to describe the mighty King of Babylon, who thought he was equal to God, and was greatly humbled in death. Lucifer is a Hebrew word meaning ‘day star’. Just as we use ‘stars’ today to describe the rich and famous, so does the Bible. Death is the great equalizer for all mankind – rich and poor, wise and foolish, renown and obscure. Great riches and power cannot deliver us from death – it is the one certainty of life! Once again, the grave and pit are used synonymously with hell, and worms are in abundance! There is no mention of fire or torment.
When faithful King Hezekiah heard that he was going to die, he cried out to God in Isaiah 38:10-18 and said, “I shall go to the gates of the grave <sheol>: I am deprived of the residue of my years.” In Isaiah 38:18, he says, “For the grave <sheol> cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.”
Why would a faithful man like Hezekiah think he was going to the gates of ‘sheol’, if it is a place of fire and torment reserved for the wicked? If ‘sheol’ is simply the grave, this makes perfect sense, because all men die.
Another Old Testament passage that is often quoted in relation to hell, is Ezekiel 31. Again, we will use the ESV for this passage. Rather than choose ‘grave, hell or pit’ for this parable, the ESV translators have used the actual Hebrew word ‘sheol’! Notice that in verse 2, God is specifically giving this parable about Pharaoh King of Egypt. Pharaoh is the cedar tree.
In verse 15 to 18, the passage says, “Thus says the Lord God: On the day the cedar went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below. They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations. “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword. “This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord God.”
While this Ezekiel passage talks about ‘the world below’, there is no mention of fire or torment. Instead, there is the idea of rest, and lying among the dead.
Our last passage is Jonah 2:2. Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and would have died in its belly, had not he been miraculously rescued by God. In speaking of his experience, he refers to the whale’s belly as ‘sheol’. “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell <sheol> cried I, and thou heardest my voice.”
So, we can see from this little investigation, that in the Old Testament, hell, the grave and the pit are used synonymously. Never is there any mention of fire or torment. Instead, there are plenty of references to darkness, worms, unconsciousness, dust, corruption and the sorrows of death. For the first 4000 years of history, this was all that God revealed to mankind about hell – it was the place where all men go when they die. If however ‘hell’ was a fiery place of torment to punish the wicked, why wouldn’t God warn everyone that this was the case?
Incidentally, if you google the definition of hell, you will get this comment on the origin of the word: “the Old English hel, hell, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch hel and German Hölle, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to cover or hide.’” Hence, “helmet, to hell potatoes, etc.”
In the New Testament, the concept of hell is more complex, as there are four different Greek words that are used. We will investigate the New Testament hell, next blog, God Willing.