Excursus 6: Sheol, The Realm of the Dead
In the psalmist’s theological treatment of God’s justice being acted upon the wicked he proclaims, “The wicked go down to the realm of the dead, all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9.17). This realm of the dead was known by the ancient Israelites as Sheol. This realm was considered to be a place where God was not present; although there are some exceptions (see Psalm 139). Theologian John H. Walton gives a few judgments of what Sheol was like within the cognitive environment (the thinking) of the ancient Near East:
- Those in Sheol are viewed as separated from God (Psalm. 6.5; 88.10-12; Isaiah 38.18), though God has access to Sheol (Amos 9.2; Proverbs 15.11).
- Sheol is never referred to as the abode of the wicked alone.
- While Sheol is never identified as the place where all go, the burden of proof rests on those who suggest that there was an alternative.
- Sheol is a place of negation: no possessions, memory, knowledge, or joy.
- It is not viewed as a place where judgment or punishment take place, though it is considered an act of God’s judgment to be sent there rather than remaining alive. Thus it is inaccurate to translate Sheol as “hell” if the latter is by definition a place of punishment.
- There is no reference that suggests varying compartments in Sheol. “Deepest Sheol” (e.g., Deuteronomy 32.22; NIV “the realm of the dead below”) refers only to its location (“beneath”) rather than to a lower compartment.
In the OT there is not much emphasis on the after-life as there is in rabbinic Judaism and the NT. For the psalmist, and much of the early OT writings, there is an emphasis on the continuity of life (on earth) in the people. Brevard Childs teaches, “The threat that assails the suffering psalmist is that in death he is cast off from the worship of God.” There is no worship of God in Sheol. In the Psalms, the dead are divorced from communion with God because they are outside the province of His cult. This, for ancient Israelites, is the true sting of death. Psalm 88.10-12 expresses the despair of this reality well,
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
We see from this psalm that no soundings of praises “rise up” from Sheol – which is the whole point of the Psalter (originally named tehillim, or “praises”). It is in Sheol that God’s wonders are absent and it is where God’s love and faithfulness cannot be “declared.”
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