Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus (Part 2)

Click here to read “Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus (Part 1).”

Sheol Is Silent

A stark contrast the Old Testament presents when comparing Sheol to heaven is the activity it describes to each place. Heaven and earth are places where God is praised continually.[1] But, when the soul reaches Sheol, that praise stops abruptly. David prays for God to “let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol.”[2] The deaths of his enemies would not only silence them upon earth, it would silence them in the underworld as well. Sheol is a place where the once mighty now lie still.[3] It is the land of silence, where the dead go down to silence.[4]

Hezekiah prays that God would rescue him from his sickness because “Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.”[5] What he was saying was that if he died, his praises would stop. Sheol is a place of silence for both the believer and the unbeliever. For that reason, it makes sense for King Hezekiah to plead with God to rescue him from death. His death would not glorify God. His rescue would — and did.

David had a similar experience when he was in threat of death, and he prayed for God to deliver him “[f]or in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?”[6] His plea is so like that of Hezekiah that they mark a certain approach to the whole concept of Sheol. To these two people of God, there was no afterlife. There was merely silence and stillness — a waiting on God for perhaps rescue by resurrection. To neither of these Old Testament saints would a residence in Sheol be considered a goal to attain. For both of them it was an inevitable consequence of their own mortality — to be avoided at all costs.

David’s son, Solomon, had an insatiable curiosity, and set his mind to study everything that could be studied. He wrote thousands of proverbs encapsulating his wisdom and composed over one thousand songs.[7] His “wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt.”[8] Yet when he described Sheol, he merely warned his readers to do whatever they wanted to do before death, because “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”[9] His studied assessment of Sheol agreed with the Old Testament consensus. He saw it as a place where the thoughts are silenced.

Sheol Is Dark

Other characteristics of Sheol found in the Old Testament consensus do not match modern views of the afterlife. Job described a person in Sheol as spreading out his bed in darkness.[10] He described Sheol as “the land of darkness and deep shadow, the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness.”[11] David describes those “long dead” as sitting in darkness.[12] Jeremiah described “the dead of long ago” as dwelling in darkness now.[13] If Sheol is a place, then darkness might only imply a lack of visual awareness in that place. If Sheol is a state, then these references to darkness would imply a lack of cognitive awareness in that state.

Sheol Is Sleep

David prayed to the Lord, “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”[14] He anticipated that his death would find him in Sheol and doing what all others in Sheol were doing: not praising, not singing, not playing golden harps. He defined existence in Sheol as sleeping the sleep of death. The exact phrase “slept with his fathers” is found 36 times in the Old Testament.[15] It was a common expression used to describe the fact that someone had died.

Daniel described existence in Sheol as sleeping “in the dust of the earth.”[16] It was a condition which required an awakening — a resurrection. This sleep was never the hope of Old Testament saints. The resurrection and restoration to life was the hope. Sleep was simply a way of describing the state of death itself. Jesus used the same terminology to describe the death state of Jairus’ daughter.[17] He said of Lazarus (in Sheol) that he had “fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him”.[18]

Conditionalists prefer to use the term “sleep” to describe the intermediate state for several reasons, among them: 1) it is used by the Scripture itself; 2) it emphasizes the need for resurrection; 3) it places the hope of humanity not in the death state itself, but in the Lord who will raise (awaken) the dead.

Sheol Is Universal

The thing most stressed in the Old Testament concerning Sheol is that it is synonymous with death itself. In the New Testament, this is seen by the terms “Death” and “Hades” appearing next to each other.[19] All those who die (the event) experience Hades (the state). In the Old Testament, this fact is seen in numerous passages where death and Sheol are placed in parallel. David, for example, says that “the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.”[20] He also says, “[I]n death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?”[21]

Other psalmists reflect the same association between death as an event, and Sheol as the state it initiates. The sons of Korah say of the foolish: “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd.”[22] Ethan the Ezrahite proclaims, “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?”[23]

Hannah prayed, “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”[24] The theology of her prayer is impeccable. To die is to be brought down to Sheol, where all the other dead are. To be rescued from that condition is to be brought back to life, and that is something that only the Lord can do.

Summary of Parts 1-2

Sheol, then, is a silent, dark state or condition in which everyone exists at death and can only live again by a resurrection from the Lord. It is always contrasted with heaven and never equated with it. It is not the hope of the saints; rescue from it is the hope of the saints. That is the Old Testament consensus.

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)


[1] Psalm 69:34; 113:3; 145:3-7; 148:2.

[2] Psalm 31:17.

[3] Ezekiel 32:21, 27.

[4] Psalm 94:17; 115:17.

[5] Isaiah 38:18.

[6] Psalm 6:5.

[7] 1 Kings 4:32.

[8] 1 Kings 4:30.

[9] Ecclesiastes 9:10.

[10] Job 17:13.

[11] Job 10:21-22.

[12] Psalm 143:3.

[13] Lamentations 3:6.

[14] Psalm 13:3.

[15] 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chronicles 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20.

[16] Daniel 12:2.

[17] Matthew 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52.

[18] John 11:11.

[19] Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14.

[20] 2 Samuel 22:6.

[21] Psalm 6:5.

[22] Psalm 49:14.

[23] Psalm 89:48.

[24] 1 Samuel 2:6.

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