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Isaiah 38:17-18:

17 Behold, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; But You have kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, For You have hurled all my sins behind Your back. 18 For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. [NASB]

17 Surely for my own welfare I had such great anguish; but Your love has delivered me from the pit of oblivion, for You have cast all my sins behind Your back. 18 For Sheol cannot thank You; Death cannot praise You. Those who descend to the Pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. [BSB]

17 Lo, to peace He changed for me bitterness, And Thou hast delighted in my soul without corruption, For Thou hast cast behind Thy back all my sins. 18 For Sheol doth not confess Thee, Death doth not praise Thee, Those going down to the pit hope not for Thy truth. [YLT]

17 Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. 18 For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. [KJV]

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. [ESV]

About verse 17:

  • Which is more accurate: me, my soul or my life? Does it make any difference?
  • Which is more accurate: pit of nothingness, pit of oblivion, corruption, pit of corruption or pit of destruction? Interestingly, YLT is the only one that omits the word pit.

About verse 18:

  • Which is more accurate: Sheol or the grave? Does it make any difference?

Overall, what does Isaiah 38:17-18 tell us about the author's view of death, Sheol and the afterlife? Does Isaiah describe the afterlife as a state of oblivion, nothingness, non-existence, non-being? Does he mean something else?

In addition to this passage, I think it would be convenient to keep in mind what Isaiah said about the afterlife in other instances. For example, Isaiah 14:9-11:

9 Sheol below is excited about you, to meet you when you come; It stirs the spirits [Or shades (Heb Repha’im)] of the dead for you, all the leaders [Lit male goats] of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. 10 They will all respond and say to you, ‘Even you have become weak as we, You have become like us. 11 Your pride and the music of your harps Have been brought down to Sheol; Maggots are spread out as your bed beneath you And worms are your covering.’ [NASB]

Did Isaiah believe that the spirits (Repha’im) of the dead were in Sheol? If so, how is this reconciled with the depressing description of Sheol in 38:17-18? Is Sheol a depressing place in the underground hosting the spirits of the dead?

In short: what did Isaiah believe about Sheol, death and the afterlife?


Related questions:

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  • Good question. +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 0:53
  • Agreed 😌—-🙏🏼
    – user36337
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:13
  • @AshleyRoberts You should write an answer! :) And tell me what you think of mine, if you don't mind. :D
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:14
  • @Spirit Realm Investigator Hey man, I see you post a lot of posts on the afterlife. If you’d ever be interested in reading books, I will recommend 2 of them to you: 1st Book: Hell on Trial, The case for Eternal Punishment by Robert A. Peterson. 2nd Book: 40 questions about Heaven & Hell by Alan Gomes. I’m about halfway through each, but I think you’d benefit from them. ;)
    – Cork88
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:49
  • @Cork88 - I've enquired about a lot of topics in the past, but yeah, right now I'm focusing on afterlife questions. Thanks for the book recommendations. Do they go over Isaiah by any chance? How would those authors answer this question?
    – user38524
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 2:45

3 Answers 3

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Isaiah 38:17 reads (NASB) literally:

“Behold, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; But You have kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, For You have hurled all my sins behind Your back.

My Soul

Note that the phrase "my soul" is Hebrew idiom for "me" or "I" or "myself" as shown in the appendix below. It is thus rendered in most versions:

  • NIV: Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.
  • ESV: 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.
  • BSB: Surely for my own welfare I had such great anguish; but Your love has delivered me from the pit of oblivion, for You have cast all my sins behind Your back.
  • CSB: Indeed, it was for my own well-being that I had such intense bitterness; but your love has delivered me from the Pit of destruction, for you have thrown all my sins behind your back.
  • HCSB: Indeed, it was for my own welfare that I had such great bitterness; but Your love has delivered me from the Pit of destruction, for You have thrown all my sins behind Your back.

This is not surprising as according to Gen 2:7, the soul is the the person.

Pit (שַׁחַת shachath)

This word "pit", when it refers to the place of the dead, is practically synonymous with she'ol and the parallelism with Isa 38:18 makes clear. Indeed, this is often the case. Note the extract from BDB:

pit of Sheôl, ׳ירר שׁ Job 33:24; ׳ראה (ה)שׁ Psalm 16:10 ("" שִׁאוֺל), Psalm 49:10; ׳לשׁ, with הוֺרִיד Ezekiel 28:8, and Psalm 55:24 (׳לִבְאֵר שׁ); קָרֵב Job 33:22; יָמוּת Isaiah 51:14; ׳עָבַר בֵשּׁ Job 33:28; ׳יָרַד אֶלשֿׁ Psalm 30:10; ׳מִשּׁ, with חשׁק Isaiah 38:17 (poem), with חשׂח Job 33:18 (מִנִּיֿ); with העלה Jonah 2:7; with הֵשִׁיב Job 33:30 (מִנִּיֿ); with נאל Psalm 103:4; personified Job 17:14 ("" רִמָּה). — ׳שׁ here either = שְׁאוֺל (hollow place, cavern), or < = pit in שְׁאוֺל (compare, from Ezek. on, בּוֺר

בְּלִי beli = a wearing out

The use of this as a modifier of "pit" (above) simply says what is rather obvious - that in the the grave/pit/she'ol, the body rots, or corrupts, or is destroyed.

CONCLUSION

Thus, Isa 38:17, 18 simply says that God had protected Hezekiah from death and dying and the associated rotting in the ground, and extended his life by 15 years. It says nothing about a disembodied "soul" or "spirit" in she'ol etc.

APPENDIX - "My Soul"

In Hebrew, the idiom of "my soul" is often used to mean, "I", or, "me", or, "myself" etc. Note the following examples of this:

  • Jer 4:19 - My soul, my soul! I writhe in pain! Oh, the pain in my chest! My heart pounds within me; I cannot be silent. For I have heard the sound of the horn, the alarm of battle. [= my anguish my anguish]
  • Job 10:1 - My soul loathes my life [= I loathe my life]
  • Isa 42:1 - “Here is My Servant, whom I uphold, My Chosen One, in whom My soul delights. I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will bring justice to the nations. [= in whom I delight]
  • Ps 43:5 - Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why the unease within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God. [= Why am I so depressed and downcast?]
  • Ps 63:1 - O God, You are my God. Earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You. My body yearns for You in a dry and weary land without water. [Note the parallelism]
  • Ps 77:2 - In the day of trouble I sought the Lord; through the night my outstretched hands did not grow weary; my soul refused to be comforted. [= I refused to be comforted]

Thus, the distinctive "my soul" invariably means I or me or myself. This is a very common Hebraism.

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  • "that in the the grave/pit/she'ol, the body rots, or corrupts, or is destroyed." Where does it say that the body rots/corrupts in Sheol? I don't see the "body" anywhere, in Isaiah 38:17. Did I miss it? Also, בְּלִי(beli) almost always appears as a negation(e.g. without, nothing, lack, unintentionally, etc.) Isaiah 38:17 seems to be the only time it is ever translated as "corruption". A better translation would be "nothingness" or "oblivion". Check out my answer to see why.
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 3:58
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First read [Isaiah 38:9] and notice [Isaiah 38:17-18] is not Isaiah's view of Sheol - since the text's Author was Hezekiah, King of Judah חִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶֽלֶךְ יְהוּדָה (after recovering from sickness) as stated in [Yeshayahu 38:9].

Your Septuagint even testify's Yeshayahu 38:17-18 was written by Hezekiah King of Judah [Isaiah 38:9] : "προσευχὴ Εζεκιου βασιλέως τῆς Ιουδαίας".

Please update your question concerning King Hezekiah's view of Sheol instead of Isaiah's for readers seeking authorial intent of Isaiah 38:17-18.

The English Translation of King Hezekiah's poem in [Yeshayahu 38.17] would be : "Behold"(הִנֵּה) "for-peace"(לְשָׁלוֹם) "[is] bitter for-me" (מַר־לִי), "[it is] bitter"(מָר)

What is Bitter? - Peace. Why is Peace, bitter for Hezekiah? - Solitude allowed Hezekiah to reflect on all his sins.

King Hezekiah writes the following [about YHVH] : "and You desired my soul from the grave of decay, for You have cast behind You all my sins." (וְאַתָּה חָשַׁקְתָּ נַפְשִׁי מִשַּׁ֣חַת בְּלִ֔י כִּֽי־הִשְׁלַ֛כְתָּ אַֽחֲרֵ֥י גֵֽוְךָ כָּל־חֲטָאָֽי)

Why does YHVH save souls from Sheol?

King Hezekiah thinks the reason YHVH saves souls from Sheol is to maintain His praise on earth [Isaiah 38:18] "For the grave shall not thank You, nor shall death praise You; those who descend into the pit shall not hope for Your truth." (כִּֽי־לֹ֥א שְׁא֛וֹל תּוֹדֶ֖ךָּ מָ֣וֶת יְהַלְלֶ֑ךָּ לֹֽא־יְשַׂבְּר֥וּ יֽוֹרְדֵי־ב֖וֹר אֶל־אֲמִתֶּֽךָ)

King Hezekiah in [Isaiah 38:18] offers the same reasoning for YHVH saving souls as King David in [Tehillim 23:3] "He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness for His Name's sake." (נַפְשִׁ֥י יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב יַנְחֵ֥נִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶ֜֗דֶק לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמֽוֹ)

If a soul glorifies שְׁמוֹ His-Name, then YHVH will remember to save that soul.

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  • Whether it was Isaiah or King Hezekiah should not make a huge difference(both were righteous servants of Yahweh). And you didn't even answer the question.
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 15:39
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For your first question: "Which is more accurate: me, my soul or my life? Does it make any difference?"

It doesn't make a difference. My "soul"(נֶפֶשׁ, pronounced nephesh) is synonymous with ME, my entire being, i.e. my totality as an existent entity. To see that, read this answer here. The point is, translations of נֶפֶשׁ as "soul" or "me" are all completely valid.


And now your second question: "Which is more accurate: pit of nothingness, pit of oblivion, corruption, pit of corruption or pit of destruction? Interestingly, YLT is the only one that omits the word pit."

The phrases "pit of nothingness" and "pit of oblivion" practically mean the same thing. Nothingness is defined as the absence or cessation of life or existence. Oblivion is defined as the state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening. Both "oblivion" and "nothingness" imply each other. If you are completely unaware/unconscious of anything, that implies that you have no existence or life, i.e. that you are nonexistent. And if you are nonexistent, that implies that you are completely unaware/unconscious of anything! So, either expression would get the point that Hezekiah is trying to make across.

The NASB, BSB, NET Bible, and Amplified Bible all translate Isaiah 38:17 using "nothingness" or "oblivion". The NET Bible tries to justify their translation of "oblivion" in a footnote; "tn בְּלִי (beli) most often appears as a negation, meaning 'without,' suggesting the meaning 'nothingness, oblivion,' here. Some translate 'decay' or 'destruction.'"

That's a pretty solid argument. In all 58 times the word בְּלִי is used, it never means "destruction" or "corruption"(that is, unless you decide to translate it as such in Isaiah 38:17. In which case that would be the one exception; though undoubtedly the case for translating it as "oblivion" or "nothingness" is much stronger). 99% of the time it's used, it's used as a negation of some sorts, e.g. "unintentionally(without intention)", "unknowingly(without knowing)", "without", "nothing", "no one", "no more", "lack", etc. So it's most probable that the point Hezekiah is trying to make about death is that it is "without anything whatsoever", i.e. a "pit of oblivion/nothingness".

A translation of בְּלִי as "oblivion" or "nothingness" would also fit the context better than that of "destruction" or "corruption" would. Hezekiah goes on to say in the very next verse that the dead cannot praise or thank God, or even so much as hope for His faithfulness. Praising, thanking, and hoping are all feats that require mental faculties to be accomplished. If what Hezekiah had just said about death being a "pit of oblivion" is true, then an indisputable corollary is that those in the "pit of oblivion"(i.e. the dead) are wholly incapable of praising, thanking, or hoping(which is precisely what Hezekiah goes on to say)! There's absolutely no reason(other than translator bias) to translate בְּלִי as "destruction/corruption", and every reason to translate it as "oblivion/nothingness"(i.e. it's better lexically supported and it fits the context better). Hence, the BSB, NASB, NET Bible, and Amplified Bible all get it right.


And now your third question: "Which is more accurate: Sheol or the grave? Does it make any difference?"

Yes, it would make a tremendous difference. Grave is defined as "a place of burial for a dead body, typically a hole dug in the ground and marked by a stone or mound." That is not what Sheol is. Nowhere in the entire Bible is a dead body said to be "buried" in Sheol; that certainly isn't what is being said here! Hezekiah unquestionably makes a reference to his soul in verse 17, and soul ≠ body, thus it would be erroneous to translate שְׁאוֹל(Sheol) as "grave".


For your fourth question: "Did Isaiah believe that the spirits (Repha’im) of the dead were in Sheol? If so, how is this reconciled with the depressing description of Sheol in 38:17-18? Is Sheol a depressing place in the underground hosting the spirits of the dead?"

I suggest you check out this fantastic answer here. Oh, also, in answer to this; "Did Isaiah believe that the spirits (Repha’im) of the dead were in Sheol"... No. The word used there, רְפָאִים(Repha’im), is not the same word translated as "spirit", which is רוּחַ(ruwach); רְפָאִים would refer to a "ghost" or "shade", while רוּחַ would refer to the vital breath that sustains a living entity(found in both humans and animals[e.g. Genesis 7:15; 22, Ecclesiastes 3:21]). So no, Hezekiah did not believe that the רוּחַ of the dead were in Sheol.


For your last question: Overall, what does Isaiah 38:17-18 tell us about the author's view of death, Sheol and the afterlife? Does Isaiah describe the afterlife as an state of oblivion, nothingness, non-existence, non-being? Does he mean something else?

Overall it tells us that death is not our friend; it's not a "place" anyone wants to be in. According to Hezekiah(in Isaiah 38:17-18), it's a place of oblivion, of nothingness, of non-existence; as a result, none who are dead can praise or thank God, or even hope for His faithfulness. As devoted servants of God(who live to praise and thank Him), death is not something we'd want to be left in; it is an enemy(1 Corinthians 15:26). Thankfully, God has promised to raise us from the dead, just as He did with His Son(1 Corinthians 6:14).

Hope this helps! Have a good day.

6
  • I would say this is an excellent answer! It appears logical and well thought out. However, I don’t know Hebrew at all, so there could be elements of your answer that might require attention..? There are a number of Hebrew experts on the site - assuming you aren’t one, which is a big assumption! Hopefully they see your answer and comment.. 🙏🏼🕎
    – user36337
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:33
  • (I’m a completely lay Christian.)
    – user36337
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:34
  • Well, all you need to do to verify what I said is go to BibleHub(or StepBible, or BlueLetterBible) and check out all the occurrences of Strong's H1097(בְּלִי). Pretty easy! But thanks for the compliment on my answer. Have a great day. :)
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:37
  • 1
    Ah thanks for the encouragement there, I’ll use that as an exercise. Yes I’ve commented ‘excellent answer’ before, you see, but the Hebrew experts then came from a completely different angle and blew the answer - and my appraisal - out the water. 🤣 Hence my reserve.. I simply don’t know enough to trust my gut that your answer is watertight. It’s a +1 from me though for clarity, logic and research. 👍🏼😁
    – user36337
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 1:54
  • Good points (+1), although I share @AshleyRoberts's concern -- it would be insightful to see the peer-review and the answers from other experienced users. Perhaps they might detect weak spots in your case or even reinforce it. Who knows. Regarding your last point, it sounds intriguingly similar to David's pessimistic outlook on death, which is the complete opposite of Paul's hopefulness. I'm curious -- how would you answer this question: Is to die gain or not? Paul (Philippians 1:21-24, 2 Corinthians 5:8) vs. David (Psalm 6:4-5, 30:9)?
    – user38524
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 2:40

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