Prayers from Sheol

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We can maintain that the death of the human being or person is strictly biological only if we accept that the human being . . . is fundamentally or strictly identical to a biological being.[1]

The ability of scientists to offer narrow and specific definitions is one of the great powers of medical professionals as they make their diagnoses and prescriptions. But, using the quote above, Abigail Maguire is concerned to offer lawmakers a more holistic definition of death that is connected to our understanding of human nature. I concur that the reductionism of “biological death” is based on an incomplete picture of who humans are—much like its opposite state “biological life.” According to the Christian tradition, humans have souls (Gen 2:7), the divine image (1:27), and a personal destiny which transcends their death (Rev 20:11–21:27). Therefore, the biblical perspective on life and death may differ in important ways. We might even ask: Will there still be a hard line dividing the two?

You might be thinking, “I know where this is going. The resurrection!” That’s a great theological trajectory. But even though the resurrection will certainly affect our thinking on the matter (cf. Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:14, 17), I’d like to extend our discussion back into those questions about human nature and about a unique way that the Bible talks about death. Let us begin with a question that is posed by the psalmist. In Ps 89:48–49 we read:

What human can live and never see death?
Who can deliver their soul from the power of Sheol?

A safe answer to the rhetorical question in the first line is a negative one: “No human escapes death” (cf. Heb 9:27).[2] The second line also asks a question that we may answer negatively: “No human can deliver their soul from Sheol.” But the biblical (and ancient) worldview allows for more than human involvement in the affairs of this world. God and other supernatural beings are living, active, and may provide a fuller answer to the psalmist’s question about deliverance from Sheol.

What kind of place is Sheol? Colloquially, it is known as the “land of the dead.” According to scholar Christopher B. Hays, Sheol can be described as a deep place (Deut 32:22; Job 11:7), a pit under water (Ezek 28:8), a dark place (Job 17:13; 38:17; Ps 23:4; 88:6; 143:3; Lam 3:6), a dusty place (Job 17:16; Ps 22:16, 30; 30:10; Dan 12:2), a place of forgetfulness (Job 24:19–20; Ps 31:13; 88:5; Eccl 9:10), a place of sorrow (Gen 42:38; 44:29–31), and the destination of all (Ps 89:48; cf., Eccl 8:8).[3] A curious aspect of the word “Sheol” is that it does not occur in neighboring languages. It may be that the biblical authors preferred this idiosyncratic word in order to avoid the idolatrous connotations of the standard terms for death as a general practice (not a rule), since those terms were names for deities with numerous worshippers across the ancient world.[4]

I’d like to emphasize one point: Sheol is a place. It should not be fully equated with death as a cessation of bodily functions like biology’s definition of death.[5] Moreover, in Sheol the dead move, talk, have feelings, and make threats. Humans described as biologically dead are inert, non-functional. Clearly Sheol differs broadly from our notion of biological death. At the other end of the spectrum, we should also ask if life is ever described in the Bible as a place more than the functionality of the body. The answer comes in Ps 116:9: “I will walk before the LORD in the land of life/the living” (cf. the “land of life” in Ps 27:13; 52:7; Isa 53:8; and eight other times). I call this the “Lifeworld.” In sum, the Lifeworld and Sheol are viewed in the Bible as places and do not exclusively represent the state of our bodily functions. I believe our awareness of these places of life and death will help us to answer the psalmist’s question above.

In fact, I would like to suggest that these spatial descriptions of life and death are not mutually exclusive. The biblical authors seem to think that the Lifeworld and Sheol created a Venn diagram.

How can we suggest an overlap between the realm of life and the realm of death? In two main ways. First, we know all sorts of places that overlap. Consider your place on the sidewalk, your spot at the beach, or the line between a mountain and valley—where does one end and the next begin? Perhaps the same type of overlap existed in the minds of the biblical authors and readers. The common practice for the Israelites and their neighbors was to bury their dead under the ground, in caves, or to lose them under the ocean’s waves. These places may have promoted the idea that one could visit the realms of the dead (down there) and return. The Hebrew idiom for burial “to be gathered” indicates the desire to be put in the right place: “I [Jacob] am about to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite” (Gen 49:29). Modern readers are tempted to conclude that these places, the Lifeworld and Sheol, are mythical or figurative realms, and thus, they do not matter. But we should not hastily dismiss the authentic experience of places which the ancients struggled to describe simply because they do not conform to our scientific or “objective” descriptions.

Second, the overlap between the place of death and life is complicated by our definition of place itself. Just as we can hold a reductionistic view on humanity, we can also have a reductionistic view on place as merely physical. Among philosophers, the phrase “lived space” intentionally affirms the unity of human experience and space, i.e., place incorporates the subject and object.[6] Richard Medina put a similar thought into the title of a recent article: “Life and Death Viewed as Physical and Lived Spaces: Some Preliminary Thoughts from Proverbs.”[7] He argues for a biblical conception of life and death as “lived spaces, i.e., promised or envisaged experiences of blessedness and crookedness respectively.”[8] Notice that this differs from a figurative use of life and death as mere characters in a literary scheme.

If you think about it, the normal course of human life is defined by our intense dependence upon the particularities of where we are, and those places are also defined and shaped by our engagement with them. We can envision the biblical realms of life and death in the same manner. The Lifeworld is defined and inhabited by those whose spirits are engaged in life. Sheol is defined and inhabited by spirits engaged with death. The realms are spiritual and not disconnected from the physical.

Whether we conceive of “place” in a physical sense or with an added spiritual sense, places can indeed overlap. The more explicit evidence from the Bible for the overlap between the Lifeworld and Sheol will be presented below.

Let us return to the question from Psalm 89: “Who can deliver from Sheol?” We find the answer in the mouth of Hannah: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6). The LORD can move those in Sheol into the Lifeworld. The rest of Hannah’s prayer refers to a number of experiences associated with death, especially the deadness of her womb, paired with her new and abundant experience of life. Hannah’s description of the LORD’s capacity to deliver from Sheol is actually confirmed by the testimony of a number of psalms:

I cried to you, / and you healed me. // O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; / You kept me alive from among those who go down to the pit. —   Ps 30:2–3
I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, / and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. —   Jon 2:2
For great is your steadfast love toward me; / you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. —   Ps 86:13

In these prayers from Sheol, the supplicant mentions being in mourning (Ps 30:11), having enemies who rejoice in his pain/illness (v. 1), being covered with flooding water and waves (Jonah 2:2, which accurately describes his miraculous experience in the belly of the fish), being poor/humble (Ps 86:1), and suffering the persecution of rebellious/violent men (v. 14).

Yet they all leave Sheol! In each case the supplicant ascends from the realm of Sheol due to the benevolence of the LORD God. Apparently, the path of our lives can move us in and out of Sheol. This can happen amidst our lived experiences of death and its hinterlands. Jon Levenson has called Sheol “the prolongation of the unfulfilled life.”[9] Thankfully, there is a God who fulfills our life through his grace, at times in our current situations and ultimately in the hereafter.

The authors of the psalms ask the question: “Who can deliver from Sheol?” and answer: “The LORD!” They repeatedly affirm this: “Our God is a God of salvation, / and to God, the LORD, belong deliverances from death” (Ps 68:20, cf. Ps 49:15). The early church affirmed the same for the Lord Jesus, when they heard his comparable claim in Rev 1:18: “I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[10]

When we are convinced by our scientific worldview to only talk about death and life in reductionistic terms, I think we risk misunderstanding ourselves and God’s hand of rescue. We may feel hesitant in appropriating the Bible’s “prayers from Sheol” for ourselves or risk seeing life in a diminished way.

In practice, I believe the biblical evidence given above directly impacts how the church should appropriate the Sheol-texts of the Bible in troubling times. According to the variety of situations these prayers arise from, I recommend that these texts are…

  • …fitting during serious illnesses
  • …fitting during depression
  • …fitting during social exclusion
  • …fitting during persecution (from people or even God)
  • …fitting during all mortal threats
  • …fitting during thanking God for salvation from all of the above

The place called Sheol by the Bible affirms that human nature includes more than bodily functions. Some experience the land of death, Sheol, and are raised back to the land of the living. In some cases, we call this healing, and in others we call this resurrection. But if Sheol can be experienced while we are “biologically alive,” as these psalms seem to indicate, then the church can offer these prayers from Sheol as a different way to confront the human predicament and relationship with death. We can extend our prayers, laments, and encouragement into these troubling times, all the while acknowledging more about who we are, and more about what our great God can do.


[1] As quoted in: Abigail Maguire, “Towards a Holistic Definition of Death: The Biological, Philosophical and Social Deficiencies of Brain Stem Death Criteria,” New Bioethics 25, no. 2 (2019): 172–184. The cessation of activity in the brain stem, circulation, and respiration have all been used as definitions of biological death.

[2] Notable exceptions of Enoch in Gen 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kgs 2 aside.

[3] Christopher B. Hays, A Covenant with Death: Death in the Iron Age II and Its Rhetorical Uses in Proto-Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 176f.

[4] See: “Other Designation for the Abode of the Dead” in Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, The Abode of The,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992).

[5] It is a common fallacy to assert that simply because words are paralleled in Hebrew poetry they mean the same thing. This is not true for death/mwt and Sheol, despite significant overlap.

[6] Phil Hubbard, “Space/Place,” in Cultural Geography: A Critical Dictionary of Key Concepts, ed. David Atkinson et al., International Library of Human Geography 3 (New York, NY: I. B. Tauris, 2005); Eric Prieto, Literature, Geography, and the Postmodern Poetics of Place (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 12–14.

[7] Richard W. Medina, “Life and Death Viewed as Physical and Lived Spaces: Some Preliminary Thoughts from Proverbs,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 122, no. 2 (2010): 199–211.

[8] Surprisingly, Medina is not invoking Henri Lefebvre with the term “lived space.” Medina, 205.

[9] Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 78.

[10] The Septuagint translates with the word “Hades” for sixty-two of the sixty-five instances of the term “Sheol” in the HB.