Can you please explain Sheol? This came up in a recent Bible study, and I knew nothing about it. How does this differ from our thoughts that a believer dies and goes to heaven?
James F. Pope
Sheol is the transliteration of a Hebrew word into English. It is a word that can have different meanings based on context. While most Bible translations translate the Hebrew word, some translations simply render the Hebrew as Sheol. So, let’s take a look at a few Bible passages and see how context determines the shading of that word. I’ll include different translations that help explain the meaning.
“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5 English Standard Version). The book of Psalms features Hebrew poetry, and the hallmark of that genre is parallelism. In some cases, the first half of a verse is restated in similar terms in the second half of a verse. In Psalm 6:5, death and Sheol are synonyms. In Scripture, Sheol often refers to the state or condition of being dead; a person is no longer physically alive on the earth. This meaning of Sheol does not take into account the eternal judgment occurring at death, which places a person’s soul in heaven or hell. Sheol can simply refer to humanity’s common experience of dying: “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:5 NIV 2011)
“I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37:35 Christian Standard Bible). With but two exceptions (Enoch and Elijah), all human beings have experienced death. In Genesis chapter 37 we learn that some of Jacob’s sons had convinced him that his favorite son, Joseph, was dead. Heartbroken, Jacob lamented that his grief would be lifelong—lasting until the time when he, like his son, died. Sheol can also refer to the believer’s state or condition of being physically dead and not alive on the earth. “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave” (Genesis 37:35 NIV 2011).
“For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol” (Deuteronomy 32:22 New American Standard Bible). In Deuteronomy chapter 32 Moses spoke to the people of Israel for one of the last times in his life. In his message, he spoke of God’s fiery wrath for those who reject him. It is clear that Sheol can refer to hell, the place of eternal punishment. “For a fire is kindled in My anger, and shall burn to the lowest hell” (Deuteronomy 32:22 New King James Version).
It is context that gives Sheol its various shadings. For the Christian, Sheol can mean only the grave or the condition of being physically dead. Unless the Lord returns visibly to this world during our lifetime, you and I will experience physical death, but that is just the beginning of a never-ending life with God in his presence.
Old Testament writers who used the word Sheol also spoke of people enjoying God’s eternal blessings through faith in the promised Messiah. The writers described heaven in different ways: being at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11), dwelling in the house of the Lord (Psalm 23:6), being with God in glory (Psalm 73:24), having joy (Isaiah 26:19), and enjoying everlasting life (Daniel 12:1-3). Rest assured: When Christians die, their souls go to heaven.
Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 06
Issue: June 2018
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