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Sheol,


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שְׁאוֹל . This Hebrew name for "the place of departed spirits," and the "state of the dead," is used in a variety of senses by the writers of the Old. Test., which it is desirable to investigate, referring to the articles (See HELL), (See HADES), etc. for the general opinions of the Jews respecting the continuance of existence after death.

I. Signification of the Word. The word is usually said to be derived. from שֹׁאֵל, shaal, "to ask or seek," and may, be supposed to have the same metaphorical signification as the orcus rapax of the Latins, or "the insatiable sepulchre" of English writers. This etymology, however, is rather uncertain, and no aid can be obtained from the cognate Shemitic languages, for, though the word occurs in Syriac and Ethiopic, its use is too indeterminate to afford any clue to its origin. We are therefore left to determine its meaning from the context of the most remarkable passages in which it occurs. s.v.

The first is (Genesis 37:35) "And (Jacob) said, I will go down into the grave (שְׁאלָה, sheolah) unto my son mourning." The, meaning of this passage is obviously given in the translation. There is rather more difficulty in Numbers 16:30, where Moses declares that Korah and his company shall go down alive into sheol (שְׁאֹלָה, sheolah), and in Numbers 16:33, which describes the fulfilment of the prophecy. But on referring to Deuteronomy 32:22, we find that sheol is used to signify "the underworld." "For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and it shall burn to the lowest hell" (שְׁאוֹל תְּחַתַית, sheol techithith); to which the sequel gives the foilowing parallelism: "It shall set on fire the foundations of the mountains." Hence it would appear" that, in the description of Korah's punishment, sheol simply means the interior of the earth, and does, not imply a place of torment. In 2 Samuel 22:6, the English version stands thus: "The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me." The English word "hell" (from the Saxon hela "to conceal") does not here mean a place of torment, as will at once appear from a literal translation of the passage in which the parallelism of the Hebrew is preserved. "The snares of sheol (חֶבְלֵי שְׁאוֹל, chebley sheol), encompassed me;" "The nets of death (מוֹקְשֵׁי מָיֶת, mokeshey maveth) came upon me." Thus viewed, it appears that "the snares of sheol" are precisely equivalent to "the nets of death." In Job 11:8, there seems to be "an allusion to a belief common among ancient nations that there is a deep and dark abysss beneath the surface of the earth, tenanted by departed spirits, but not necessarily a place of torment:

Canst thou explore the deep things of God?

Canst thou comprehend the whole power of the Almighty?

Higher than heaven!

What canst thou do?

Deeper than sheol!

What canst thou know?

Again (Job 26:5-6), in the description of God's onmipotence:

Sheol is open before him,

And there is no covering for the region of the dead.

In Isaiah 14:9, "Sheol from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming," the meaning of the prophet is, that when the king of Babylon, whose miserable fate he is predicting, should go down into the underworld, or sheol, the ghosts of the dead would there rise up to meet him with contumely and insult. Our English version in this passage renders sheol "hell;" but, clearly, the place of torment, cannot be meant, for it is said in Isaiah 14:18 that all the kings of the nations repose in glory there that is, "rest in their sepulchres, surrounded by all the ensigns of splendor which the Eastern nations were accustomed to place around the bodies of deceased kings."

These and many other passages which might be quoted sufficiently prove that a belief in futurity of existence was familiar, to the Hebrews, but that it was unfixed and indeterminate. It is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to determine whether the term sheol, when used in a menacing form, implies the idea of future punishment or premature death. Hence, while we are led to conclude, with the Articles of the Church of England, that "the old fathers did not look merely to transitory promises," we see that only through the Gospel were "life, and immortality brought to light."

II. Is Sheol a Place? According to the notions of the Jews, sheol was a vast receptacle where the souls of the dead existed in a separate state until the resurrection of their bodies. The region of the blessed during this interval, or the inferior paradise, they supposed to be in the upper part of this receptacle; while beneath was the abyss, or Gehenna (Tatrtarus), in which the souls of the wicked were subjected to punishment.

The question whether this is or is not the doctrine of the Scriptures is one, of much importance, and has, first and last, excited no small amount of discussion. It is a doctrine received by a large portion of the nominal Christian Church; and it forms the foundation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, for which there would be no ground but for this interpretation of the word Hades. The question, therefore, rests entirely up the interpretation of this latter word. At the first view the classical signification would seem to support the sense above indicated. On further, consideration, however, we are referred back to the Hebrew sheol; for the Greek term did not come to the Hebrews from any classical source or with any classical meanings, but through the Sept. as a translation of their own word; and whether correctly translating it or not is a matter of critical opinion. The word Hades is, therefore, in no wise binding upon us in any classical meaning which may be assigned to it. The real question, therefore, is, what is the meaning which sheol bears in the Old Test. and Hades in the New? A careful examination of the passages in which these words occur will probably lead to the conclusion that they afford no real sanction to the motion of an intermediate place of the kind indicated, but are used by the inspired writers to denote the grave the resting place of the bodies both of the righteous and the wicked; and that they are also used to signify hell, the abode of miserable spirits. But it would be difficult to produce any instance in which they can be shown to signify the abode of the spirits of just men made perfect, either before or after the resurrection.

As already seen, in the great majority of instances sheol is, in the Old Test., used to signify the grave, and in most of these cases is so translated in the A.V. It can have no other meaning in such texts, as Genesis 37:35; Genesis 42:38; 1 Samuel 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6 Job 14:13; Job 17:13; Job 17:16; and in numerous other passages in the writings of David, Solomon, and the prophets. But as the grave is regarded by most persons, and was more especially so by the ancients, with awe and dread as being the region of gloom and darkness, so the word denoting it soon came to be applied to that more dark and gloomy world which was to be the abiding place of the miserable. Where our translators supposed the word to have this sense, they rendered it by "hell." Some of the passages in which this has been done may be doubtful, but there are others of which a question can scarcely be entertained. Such are those (as Job 11:8; Psalms 139:8; Amos 9:3) in which the word denotes the opposite of heaven, which cannot be the grave nor the general state or region of the dead, but hell. Still more decisive are such passages as Psalms 9:17; Proverbs 23:9; in which sheol cannot mean any place, in this world or the next, to which the righteous as well as the wicked are sent, but the penal abode of the wicked as distinguished from and opposed to the righteous. The only case in which such passages could, by any possibility, be supposed to mean the grave would be if the grave that is, extinction were the final doom of the unrighteous.

In the New Test. the word ¯ δης is used in much the same sense as שאול in the Old, except that in a less proportion of cases can it be construed to signify "the grave." There are still, however, instances in which it is used in this sense, as in Acts 2:31; 1 Corinthians 15:55; but in general the Hades of the New Test. appears to be no other than the world of future punishments (e.g. Matthew 11:23; Matthew 16:18; Luke 16:23).

The principal arguments for the intermediate Hades as deduced from Scripture are founded on those passages in which things "under the earth" are described as rendering homage to God and the Savior (Philippians 2:10; Revelation 5:13. etc.);. If such passages, however, be compared with others (as with Romans 14:10-11, etc.), it will appear that they must refer to the day of judgment, in which every creature will render some sort of homage to the Savior; but then the bodies of the saints will have been already raised, and the intermediate region, if there be any, will have been deserted.

One of the seemingly strongest arguments for the opinion under consideration is founded on 1 Peter 3:19, in which Christ is said to have gone and "preached to the spirits in prison." These spirits in prison are opposed to be the holy dead perhaps the virtuous heathen imprisoned in the intermediate place into which the soul of the Savior, went at death that he might preach to them the Gospel. This passage must be allowed to present great difficulties. The most intelligible meaning, suggested by the context is, however, that Christ by his spirit preached to those who in the time of Noah, while the ark was preparing, were disobedient, and whose spirits were thus in prison awaiting the general deluge. Even if that prison were Hades, yet what Hades is must be determined by other passages of Scripture; and, whether it is the grave or hell, it is still a prison for those who yet await the judgment day. This interpretation is in unison with other passages of Scripture, whereas the other, is conjecturally deduced from this single text. (See SPIRITS IN PRISON).

Another argument is deduced from Revelation 20:14; which describes "death and Hades" as "cast into the lake of fire" at the close of the general judgment meaning, according to the advocates of the doctrine in question, that Hades should then cease as an intermediate place. But this is also true if understood of the grave, or, of the general intermediate condition of the dead, or even of hell, as once more and forever reclaiming what it had temporarily yielded up for judgment just as we every day see criminals brought from prison to judgment, and, after judgment, returned to the prison from which they came.

It is further urged, in proof of Hades being an intermediate place other than the grave, that the Scriptures represent the happiness of the righteous as incomplete till after the resurrection. This must be admitted; but it does not thence follow that their souls are previously imprisoned in the earth, or in any other place or region corresponding to the Tartarus of the heathen. Although at the moment of death the disembodied spirits of the redeemed ascend to heaven and continue there till the resurrection, it is very possible that their happiness shall be incomplete until they have received their glorified bodies from the tomb and entered upon the full rewards of eternity.

On this subject, see Dr. Enoch Pond, On the Intermediate Place, in American Biblical Repository for April, 1841, whom we have here chiefly followed; comp. Knapp, Christian Theology, § 104; Meyer, De Notione. Orci ap. Hebraeos (Lub. 1793); Bahrens, Freimuthige Unters. uber d. Orkus d. Hebraer (Halle, 1786); Witter, De Purgatorio Judoeorum (Helms. 1704); Journ. Sac. Lit. Oct. 1856.;


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sheol,'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/s/sheol.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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Tuesday, November 24th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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