The Hebrew language is full of metaphors. God is a rock, living water, or a strong tower. The subject of death is no different. I have blogged before about two very powerful images of death which occur in the OT, and one carries over into the NT. The first one that I will mention, which I actually wrote about second, is that death is like an underworld. Sometimes we think that death as an underworld is entirely of pagan origins. Yet the prophet Ezekiel used this very imagery when prophesying destruction upon certain cities. Within that imagery there was also language that death was like a giant pit which I want to explore a bit more here. Read about The Underworld at this link here.
The Gates of Hell shall not prevail is a post that I wrote waaaaay back in 2006. Yet for some reason, almost every time I check my stats, I get a hit off someone searching for either “The gates of hell”, “The gates of Hades”, or “The gates of Sheol”. Simply put, “the gates of Sheol” was an expression for the realm of the dead contained in several OT scriptures. Jesus was borrowing the OT metaphor for death when describing the victory that the church would have when He uttered the phrase “the gates of Hades shall not prevail”. Read my Gates of Hell post at this link here.
The metaphor I am blogging here is closely related to death as an underworld. The Hebrews conceived of death as a giant pit. When you died, somehow someway, you went into this pit that was death itself. The picture is a hopeless one because the type of pit that is spoken of is a pit from which there is no escape. Let us examine some scriptures. For poetry, I like the ESV.
88:3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5 like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:4 speaks of someone who believes they will shortly die. He sees his life as getting close to the grave, which is sheol. This language suggests that when he dies he will go down into this pit and be free to walk around among the dead, yet he will have no strength to ascend up out of the pit. In other words, it’s a one way trip; you go down, but you don’t come back. While in this pit, he would be in regions dark and deep, which sounds pretty ominous if you think about it. It seems that God’s mercies are not known in this realm of sheol, which is a giant pit. Come to think of it, if I wanted to scare someone about death, I might just read Psalm 88 to them.
30:2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Psalm 30:2-3 is praise to God for a miraculous healing. Since the psalmist, David, has been healed, this means he has been kept alive, and will not go down to the pit. He sings that God has brought up his soul from the grave, which is sheol, and then equates that with this pit. Here there is some hope since God is sovereign and has the ability to keep someone from going down to this pit.
28:1 To you, O Lord, I call;
my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit.
143:7 Answer me quickly, O Lord!
My spirit fails!
Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit.
Psalm 28:1 and 143:7 should both be examined separately in their respective contexts, but contain the same type of thought. If God doesn’t answer a prayer, the one offering the prayer will be like one who goes down into this pit. We could come away with two conclusions. First, we could assume that the person’s prayer is for their physical life to be spared. If God doesn’t answer this prayer, then they will die and go down to the pit, which is the grave. A second option is that if God is silent, then their really is no point in living. If God does not hear when the person calls, it’s like they are in the pit already. Since God is not answering my prayer, I may as well be in the grave because God doesn’t hear the prayers of those who are in this giant pit, which is sheol. Simply put, it could be that they are equating separation from God with the pit.
38:17 Behold, it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
18 For Sheol does not thank you;
death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope
for your faithfulness.
Isaiah 38:17-18 is a great place to end our little study because it brings us full circle back to the gates of sheol. Hezekiah has been spared death because he found favor in God’s sight. Earlier in this passage in Isaiah 38:10, he had compared his near death experience with approaching the gates of sheol. Dying would mean departing from the land of the living into the realm of the dead through these gates. Now here in these verses he speaks of deliverance from the pit, but it’s a spiritual deliverance from sin as well as from the realm of the dead. He remarks that those who are in the grave, or the pit, cannot praise the LORD, they cannot celebrate God, and they cannot hope for God’s truth. So again, there is this hopelessness about the grave which all faced when approaching death. But since God delivered Hezekiah from both his sins and from physical death, this marks an occasion of rejoicing. God is sovereign even over this awful pit which is a picture of death.
This is what makes the resurrection so marvelous to those who understood the hopelessness of death. God had used these metaphors to explain the scariness, the spookiness, and the horror of being separated from God at death. Yet there was hope in these passages that God could, and perhaps someday would, deliver the righteous from death. When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, He ascended up out of that deep, dark pit of death. He proclaimed His victory over it by saying, “Where is your victory now, O Death? I have conquered you!” I Corinthians 15:55. It is understandable when unbelievers express fear and apprehension when dealing with the subject of death. Without Christ, death IS like a deep, dark pit from which there is no escape.
A prophetic application requires a knowledge of the book of Revelation. We read there of a bottomless pit from which certain creatures will ascend during the end times. If this bottomless pit finds its roots in the picture of death as a pit, perhaps this is the realm of the dead, or some portion of it, which is pictured to us in the book of Revelation, see Revelation 9:1-10, 11:7, 17:8, 20:1-3.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman