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Where is Sheol?

"In one of the psalms I read that the wicked are doomed to Sheol. What or where is Sheol? Is it like hell?" The passage in question is Psalm 9.17 that reads: "The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God." The term Sheol is found over 60 times in the Bible, mostly in the books of Isaiah, Job, Psalms, and Proverbs. Because Sheol is a Hebrew word, it isn't found in the New Testament at all.

So, what/where is Sheol? The Hebrew root of Sheol seems to be related to the hollow in the palm of the hand and to the "deep" of the sea. If this is true, the original sense of the word would probably be the place of the deep. In ancient Israel the seas were considered places of chaos and evil, so much so that Israel tended to hire any sea going vessels that might be needed instead of building up their own navy or merchant marine. In any event, there seems to be a sense that Sheol wouldn't be a top travel destination. And yet, the Old Testament seems to make it clear that Sheol is a rather common destination-indeed, it's apparently the destination of all who pass through this life.

When we read through the scriptures we see that, according to the early writers, Sheol was the destiny of everyone who lived. "Remember how short my time is-for what vanity you have created all mortals! Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?" (Psalm 89.47-48). The answer to the rhetorical question is that no one escapes the power of Sheol, thus everyone is destined to go there. The writer of Ecclesiastes puts in similarly as he writes in his cynical style: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9.10).

So, if everyone is destined for Sheol, where is this place? A variety of scriptures indicate that Sheol is a place beneath the earth. During the exodus wanderings there was a rebellion and the rebellious people experienced Sheol firsthand when "they went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly" (Numbers 16.33). Amos wrote that Sheol is a place beneath the earth's surface that might even be reached by a couple of good shovels and strong backs: "Though they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them" (Amos 9.2a).

But by looking at these scriptures alone we only get a part of the picture of what Sheol is. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the translators chose to use the word Hades in place of Sheol. In Greek thought, Hades was the place of the dead, the place for all the dead, and that seemed to fit nicely into the Hebrew concept of Sheol. Some writers assert that God cannot be praised from Sheol and so God should spare these writers from the dreaded place (Psalm 6.5, Isaiah 38.18). And in 1st Samuel 2.6, as well as in other passages, we see the word Sheol used as a parallel synonym for death: "The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up."

By looking at the broader contexts of the word in scripture we see that Sheol is most likely used as a euphemism for death; indeed, Sheol may be seen as death personified or located as an actual resting place for the dead.

Did I say resting place? Like I said, Sheol doesn't seem to be a top travel destination-I guess people didn't want to die back then either. In the Old Testament death was never viewed as a pleasant end, whether we passed there in peace (cf. 1 Kings 2.6 and Job 21.13) or were carried there in punishment (Numbers 16). Indeed, "Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will speak and say to you: 'You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!' Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering" (Isaiah 14.9-11). Not a pleasant picture. Thanks be to God for the promises of a life beyond death-a life beyond Sheol.

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