Going Down to She'ol
Many Christians pass over the word She'ol in the Bible without realizing what they're reading. Do we nag our children with, "You are bringing my gray head down to She'ol?" What would we tell someone who asked where She'ol was?
Despite the fact that She'ol isn't a part of our vocabulary the way heaven and hell are, it still has or should have a place in our theology. She'ol is one of the concepts that links the presence of God to a place, the place of non- and anti- worship, the place of no peace and no joy.
In the Bible, the word She'ol, occurs most often in the context of righteous people seeking against opposition to worship in the temple. She'ol is the place antithetical to the place of worship, which is the temple.
The first two Psalms introduce us to the nature of this struggle. They describe two paths: the "way of the righteous" and the "way of the wicked." The way of the righteous is meditating on the Torah (Ps. 1:2). The way of the wicked is meditating against the Lord and against the Messiah (Ps. 2:1). Throughout the Psalms, these two ways lead to two different places. The way of the righteous leads to the presence of God, while the way of the wicked leads away from the presence of God to She'ol, where they will perish (Ps. 2:12). The Psalms mark a spiritual path with physical footprints.
In Psalm 89, the wicked of Psalm 1 become "the enemies," and they seem to have the upper hand over the righteous speaker, seemingly, the Messiah. He cries out, "How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?" (Ps. 89:46). He describes his sense of forsakenness in terms of death and the hand or power of She'ol (Ps. 89:48).
She'olis a place name for death but here, it seems to extend to forsakenness.
The Psalm goes on to proclaim that for "the righteous," She'ol is merely a place of temporary distance from God. The Messiah will not remain in this place of distance from the Lord, because "forever" is in the hands of the Lord, not in the hands of the wicked enemies (Ps. 89:51). The enemies of the Messiah may have a temporary hold, and take him through She'ol. But eventually the Messiah, the paradigm of righteousness, will emerge victorious.
The Psalms' theology of place has the temple, where the "face" of God is the "hottest," at its heart and She'ol, where the face of God is the bleakest, on its outskirts. The righteous can get dragged into this place emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. Of course, God can reach into She'ol, and extricate the righteous.
This drama is repeated in the New Testament, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. His cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is a parallel to the righteous one in the Psalm, who longed to be in the Temple. Although his distance from God was agonizing, the Messiah went to She'ol and back again, to the greater Holy of Holies, not in a building but at the right hand of the Father.
Can righteous Christians be dragged away from God? Yes, most certainly; if the wicked could drag the Messiah into She'ol, they can do the same to his followers. But, like him because of him they will again go to the place where the face of God shines the brightest.
Rajkumar Boaz Johnson is associate professor and chair of the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University.
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