The oldest book of the Old Testament is not the first one. It is the book of Job. When Job lived exactly is unclear. That he and friends knew about Sheol is abundantly clear, because they use the word many times. In discourses like you find in Job or in the poetry that you find in Psalms, a certain degree of translational caution is in order. Some poetic license is used in these books. Also, in Job, several people speak who do not speak the truth. Consequently, determining the meaning of a word like Sheol or deriving doctrinal information about it using these books must be done with caution. The good news is that we can learn the meaning of Sheol from other places. While one might poetically refer to a non-existent place of the dead and call it Sheol, the reality of the place is established by its use in other books. So it is proper to understand Sheol as a place even in Job, Psalms and other poetic passages. You just have to double check what you glean from them.
Job first speaks of Sheol in 7:9
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to (Sheol) does not return.
Job is despairing of his life, but is even more concerned at this point with his death. He knows that he will eventually go to Sheol and considers it to be a one-way trip. This is not to discount Job’s belief in his eventual salvation. Job does speak of the resurrection at the last day in Job 19:25-27:
I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God: I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Job, a righteous man, speaks of Sheol and the resurrection of the body, but not of Heaven! It makes you wonder that if Job received knowledge of Sheol and the resurrection by revelation from God, why would God withhold information about Heaven? Gaps like this leads the skeptic to conclude that Heaven is a theological innovation of a later time, but God has His reasons for rolling out information at appropriate times. He doesn’t need to share those reasons with us.
In Job 11:8, Job’s friend Zophar speaks of the mysteries of God. His statement is a metaphor comparing the scope of the mysterious nature of God to the height of the heavens and depth of Sheol. Often when the word heaven is plural it is referring to the universe. Sheol is repeatedly referred to as the lowest place, but does this comparison mean that it is part of this universe? Here the poetic nature of the reading would not justify such a conclusion. Nonetheless, if it were just a grave, a grave would not be considered very deep. Clearly Zophar is referring to something else.
Job 14:13 provides an interesting contrast to what Job said in 7:9. Earlier, he did not wish to die, but as his suffering continues he now begs to be hid in Sheol until God’s wrath is done. So what is more desirable, to suffer in this world or be in Sheol? The question is pondered further in chapter 17:
If the only home I hope for is Sheol(grave), if I spread out my bed in the darkness, if I say to corruption, “You are my father” and to the worm, “My sister”, where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of Sheol (death)? Will we descend together into the dust?
Truly this is a sad passage. Job grasps for any kind of hope, because suffering stifles hope. It is easy to see why translators might choose “the grave” and “death”, because Job speaks of corruption and the worm. That makes it sound like we are talking about the condition of the body. But Jesus speaks in the terms used in this passage as well. We’ll address these passages later, but for now lets note that Jesus wasn’t speaking about the fate of the earthly body.
Job seems to have a hard time deciding whether Sheol is a desirable or undesirable place. In Job 21:13, he gripes about the injustice that exists in life. He notes that wicked people sometime have a good life, and they go to Sheol peacefully. Since Job’s life is such a horrible trial, it is understandable that he is a bit jaded. To note, he doesn’t seem to see Sheol as a place of justice. In other words, it’s not a place where the evil people get what’s coming to them. To him it is just the common fate of us all. Jesus would paint a significantly different picture. So would Job’s friends. One of his “buddies”, Bildad, describes death and Sheol as a punishment for sin in 24:19. Whether ultimately saved or damned, Sheol exists because of sin. Bildad is at least correct about this.
The Bible doesn’t paint death as a deliverance from what is undesirable about life. Death is the direct result of sin. It is punishment, and it’s a punishment that every human being has earned through sin. What lies on the other side of death is also the consequence of sin, at least in part. This is true of whether we are talking about Sheol for the righteous or for the unrighteous, or even for that matter in one way, if we are talking about Heaven.
Humans are properly a body and a soul (call it consciousness if you like). Having those two things segregated as they are by death is undesirable, even though one might argue that having soul and body together in a life like Job’s is worse.
Next Time: There is more to say about Sheol, but lets take a break and look at some of what the Bible says about Heaven