The Place of the Dead
In the next few sections we are going to wrestle with Job’s attitude (and that of the Old Testament in general) regarding death and the afterlife. We need to understand the concept of death the ancients held, and then we will see how a brighter revelation came with the resurrection of Jesus. You see, if we were to convert Job’s ideas of death into modern thinking, he would be saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Whoa, is this the position of great faith?
Job uses the image of a tree to represent the possibility of new life. Even if you cut down a tree and destroy it, he says, “at the scent of water” it is capable of budding again. In the mind of a Christian, this imagery is great! But not so for Job. He knew nothing of the “shoot” that would arise from the “stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). He also knew nothing of the dead tree on Calvary that would spring up to eternal life.
Job’s statement that the dead “will not awake” is softened slightly by the qualifying phrase, “till the heavens are no more.” Again, to a Christian mindset, this is good preaching! It should immediately bring up that awesome occasion when “the heavens will disappear with a roar” and the Lord will usher in “a new heaven and a new earth” (II Peter 3:10-13). However, Job had no knowledge of Christian theology. He was actually describing something that in his mind was impossible, unthinkable. He meant that it was as unlikely that human beings would ever rise from the dead as that the stars would fall out of the sky.
This view was the standard teaching of his time regarding the afterlife. The Old Testament folks had no concept of “Heaven.” Heaven was the place where God lived, but there was never any suggestion that the faithful would go there when they died. In fact, the Hebrew world for the place of the dead was “Sheol,” and Sheol was a murky limbo kind of place, cold and forbidding. As David described it in Psalm 88:10-12, it was a region of “darkness” and “oblivion.” “Do you show your wonders to the dead? . . . Is your love declared in Sheol? . . . Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” I am not positive, but this may be the thinking behind the erroneous doctrine of Purgatory. No doubt, it was far better to be alive on earth than to be in Sheol!
Strange as it may seem, it appears that when Old Testament believers died they did not go to Heaven but to someplace rather nearer to (though not the same as) the Christian concept of Hell. Instead of going to be “with the Lord,” they were merely “gathered to their people” (see Genesis. 25:8, etc.). Granted, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration it was in a glorified state, for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). On the other hand, what are we to make of the great prophet Samuel who, when he was called up from the grave, appeared back on earth not as a radiant and glorified being but as a perturbed spirit, a ghostly old man who was at the mercy of a pagan spiritualist. (see I Samuel 28)? As Jesus taught, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven” (John 3:13). Again, when Jesus told His disciples that He was going to His “Father’s house” in order “to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), the clear implication was that before this no such place had been prepared. Even in the case of King David, Peter thought it important to declare in his Pentecost sermon, “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day,” and he “did not ascend into heaven” (Acts 2:29, 34). In the words of Thomas å Kempis, “Under the Old Law the gates of Heaven were shut and the way to Heaven dark.”
This might seem like a bleak and muddled conclusion. What else was there to say about death before Jesus Christ came to break the bonds of the grave and to “set all its captives free?”
If you are interested, you can download the whole study of Job.
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