We first need to understand, while all the dead went to Sheol, not everyone went to the same place in Sheol. It seems there was a different place for the righteous versus that for the wicked. There are passages within scripture that mention at least three different sections within Sheol (Dt 32:22; Ps 30:3; Is 14:15; 2Pt 2:4) with the righteous occupying the upper part, the wicked the lower part (sometimes called the “pit”), and some angels occupying another, separate, section of Sheol. We will discuss this latter section in a separate post. In addition, the Talmud supports this belief as well (see ref).
What are some of the characteristics of Sheol? Many Old Testament passages tell what Sheol is not rather than what it actually is. Many passages contrast Sheol to life and hence the term “land of the living” in contrast to the land of the dead – the opposite of each other (Ps27:13; 52:5; 116:9; 142:5; Is 38:11; 53:8; and Ezekiel 26:20; 32:23-27; 32:32). Sheol is a place where activities of physical life are no longer possible: they do not marry, procreate, or carry on business transactions; they cannot attend public worship in the temple and give sacrifices or praise; they cannot eat or drink; they do not have any wisdom or knowledge about what is happening in the land of the living; they are cut off from the living; they have entered a new dimension of reality with its own kind of existence (Ps 6:5, 30:9, 88:10-12, 115:17; Ec 9:5, 10; Is 38:18). It is a place hidden to us and of a different dimension. Some scripture calls it a “shadowy place” or “place of darkness” (Jb 10:21-22; Ps 143:3) and a place of disembodied spirits (Jb 26:5; Ps 88:10; Pv 2:18, 9:18, 21:16; Is 14:9, 26:14, 19). Other scripture tells us Sheol is found “down”, “beneath the earth,” or in “the lower parts of the earth” (Jb 11:8; Is 44:23, 57:9; Ek 26:20; Am 9:2). Since the rebellion of Adam, Satan is the ruler of the earth (Mt 4:8-9) and of death (1Co 15:26). During Old Testament times even the righteous were not in God’s presence after death.
Yet, Sheol was also not a place of inactivity. Ps 115:17 states, “It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to silence.” Yet, this is not a verse that supports the idea of “soul sleep.” To a Jew, praise involved the temple in Jerusalem, especially in David’s case. There is no temple in Sheol and, therefore, no place to adequately praise God. David was making a statement of contrast between the live, physical world and the dead, spiritual world. We have contrast here – silence of praise, not silence in totality
Princeton scholar Charles Hodge stated: “That the Jews believed in a conscious life after death is beyond dispute.” There are Biblical examples as well. Jacob expected to see his son Joseph in Sheol and interact with him (Gn 37:35). There are numerous other scriptures that support expectations of interacting with loved ones who had passed on before (Gn 15:15, 25:8, 35;29, 37:35, 49:33; Nu 29:24, 28, 31:2; Dt 32:50, 34:5; 2Sa 12:23). Those in Sheol can converse with each other and can make moral judgments on new arrivals (Is 14:9-20, 44:23; Ek 32:21).
Although there are not many Old Testament passages that directly state torment occurs in Sheol, Old Testament scripture is not exactly silent on this issue either. Some scriptures do allude to the fact that Sheol is a place of God’s continuing judgment. The wicked in the lowest part of Sheol experience the fire of God’s anger (Dt 32:22), experience distress (2Sa 22:6; Ps 18:6, 116:3, 118:5), and may writhe in pain (Jb 26:5). Although no other passages in the Old Testament directly speak of torment in the intermediate state, there are other passages that speak of “everlasting humiliation and contempt” which awaits the wicked after the resurrection (Is 66:24; Dn 12:2). Peter was clear in stating the unrighteous are in torment until their resurrection: …the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the Day of Judgment, while continuing their punishment (2Pt 2:9).
What about the righteous? While they were certainly not in torment, scripture does not paint it as a place of paradise either. They feared death (Ps 6, 18:4, 55:4, 116:3); yet, still had hope (Ps 73:23-25). They knew they were not abandoned (Jb 26:6) and were not out of God’s reach (Ps 139:8). They knew Sheol was not permanent for them (Ps 16:10, 49:14-15, 86:13). The ascension of Enoch (Gn 5:24) and Elijah (2Ki 2:11) to heaven indicated that the righteous would someday be taken into God’s presence.
So, we now know that Sheol was established as an intermediate state for everyone where activity was still occurring. The wicked and righteous were in separate areas and experienced Sheol differently. Likely the wicked in a state of some type of torment and the righteous in a state of peace, but not necessarily paradise. In our next post, let’s see how the translators used various English words to translate Sheol into our present Bible and what that implies.