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Isaiah 38:17-19 (ESV):

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. 19 The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.

Luke 23:43 (ESV):

43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

It looks like Isaiah & Jesus had different expectations about what would happen to them as soon as they died. Jesus expects a paradise. Isaiah 38:17-19 describes something completely opposite. Is this a contradiction?

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  • Isaiah is not talking about what happens after death. It is a figurative explanation of praising God and describing his redemption or rescue. I am sure you have asked countless similar questions before.
    – Michael16
    Feb 20, 2022 at 4:45

4 Answers 4

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+50

Here is the grid of possibilities:

A. "Today you'll be with me" B. "I tell you today"
1. Isaiah speaks of despair No Contradiction No Contradiction
2. Isaiah speaks of unconsciousness Contradiction No Contradiction

To those seeking to avoid a contradiction, there are 2 ways out:

  • Show that Isaiah speaks of despair
  • Move the comma in Luke

(one could do both, but for purposes of resolving a contradiction it is unnecessary)

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The infamous comma

Dottard has already made the case for adjusting the common location of the comma in the Lukan passage, and rightly points out that there was no punctuation in the original text.

I do not contest that both comma options are grammatically plausible. I do suggest, however, that it is relevant to consider the realities of writing without punctuation: if a writer wants the reader to understand, the writer must take care to avoid ambiguity.

One of the ways this is done is by using an introductory word or phrase, such as "behold" or "now" or "and it came to pass" -- in a world without punctuation, this tells the reader "we're now starting a new idea" (or a new sentence, in modern parlance). Luke clearly knows this and uses these phrases in his work.

If Luke wants the reader to understand that he's using the phrase "I say unto you today", he has failed to make it clear to the reader that this is what he is doing, rendering the word "today" entirely unnecessary. In fact, if this were Luke's intent, he would have been better off leaving out the word "today" entirely.

That said, no author avoids ambiguity completely, and Luke is known to make ambiguous statements elsewhere (Luke 2:2 being the classic example). Avoiding the contradiction by moving the comma is a possible solution, but not a definite solution.

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Hezekiah had a rough day

The Isaiah passage in the OP is a psalm of praise from king Hezekiah, not a vision or sermon of Isaiah (see verse 9). That this is a psalm is further supported by the clear echoes Hezekiah makes of some of the psalms of his ancestor, David (see esp. Psalm 6:4-5 & 30:9).

I have written about these Psalms in the Addendum here. For a more thorough review & a reductive argument against post-mortal unconsciousness, see the linked post. For a quick summary:

This serves to highlight the temporal nature of David's concerns. While his spirit is in Sheol, David will not be doing the things he's doing now (in life) to praise God and teach His message. He sees an end to his ability to do what God sent him (David) here to do.

In this Psalm, David is grateful to God for preserving his life on earth and wants to praise & serve God on earth in gratitude.

The same can be said of Hezekiah's psalm in Isaiah.

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It is noteworthy that both David & Hezekiah are kings who have a great deal of power & luxury from a worldly standpoint--they recognize that the privileged position they occupy won't follow them to Sheol. "Having it all" can create a variety of incentives, such as:

  • Valuing the things of this life too much
  • Defining one's identity by one's rank, power, or possessions
  • Feeling an obligation to use one's gifts to accomplish good

Any combination of the feelings above can readily lead someone to resist or even fear death. What am I giving up? Did I really accomplish everything it was in my power to accomplish?

It is not even necessary to impute any negative motives to Hezekiah; he nearly died. It is clear that he, like David before him, wants to use his remaining time in life to praise God and "make known thy truth". He has a unique position here and now (from his perspective) to do both of those things to great effect.

--

Episode 37--the Assyrian Menace

Isaiah 38 is found in the "history" portion of Isaiah:

  • The "Assyria" section (chapters 1-35)
  • The history section (chapters 36-39)
  • The "Babylon" section (chapters 40-66)

Isaiah doesn't follow the pattern with complete obstinance, but he's clearly organized his book by topic, and grouped major themes together. Chapter 38 is part of his account of some of the most significant political events of his (Isaiah's) life, including the war with Sennacherib.

Episode 37 of Isaiah has a very compelling plot line and keeps fans on the edge of their seats--the great potentate Sennacherib, having laid waste to city after city, civilization after civilization, brings his hordes to Jerusalem to conquer it as well. The stakes couldn't be higher (if Jerusalem had been destroyed by Assyria more than a century before it really fell to Babylon, we probably would have no Bible today).

Hezekiah is a righteous king who works with his advisors and prophets to save Jerusalem by hearkening to and trusting in the Lord. Hezekiah knows full well what Assyria has done to the Nothern Kingdom, and that it is his own kingdom (Judah) that is keeping alive the records of Israel and the faith in the God of their fathers.

The Lord preserves Judah, led by its righteous king, Hezekiah. Thus, Hezekiah's apprehension about death has a far more sweeping application. If he, Hezekiah, is not there to lead his people (righteously), what will become of them? What would have already become of them? (check out the compelling sequels Jeremiah and Lamentations to find out).

Hezekiah is rightly concerned--who will praise the Lord, thank Him, serve Him, and teach His words in future generations--if the covenant people are destroyed.

--

Conclusion

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.

19 The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.

Hezekiah--by serving & trusting the Lord--has preserved his people and their faith from meeting the same destructive fate as the Northern Kingdom. He is therefore worried for what will happen, not only to him, but to his people--and the subsequent generations that need to learn of God's faithfulness--if he (Hezekiah) is unable to finish the work he seeks to do in mortality.

Hezekiah looks at his close scrape with death, and he sees despair. He sees a chance to live longer and do more for God & his people, and he rejoices.


This puts us in row 1 of the grid at the top of the post. Regardless of the decision we make on the Lukan comma, row 1 has no contradiction.

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  • Even if I accept your argument (which I believe is a stretch) it does not solve the problem with numerous other passages that depict sheol as a place of darkness and silence with people unconscious. Thus, I believe the OP only picked this text as a sample of the larger group of such "grave" texts.
    – Dottard
    Feb 15, 2022 at 10:33
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    @Dottard oh I agree this response doesn't review the context of all the mortalism-candidate passages in the Psalms; that would have been a much longer post. I've shared counterarguments on each one individually in other posts (as I'm sure you could share counterarguments on Isaiah 9, Isaiah 24, Luke 16, 1 Peter 3 etc. individually as well =) ) Feb 15, 2022 at 19:58
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    I agree, in principal, that there is no contradiction, and what a comprehensive answer. Upvoted + 1. You already now know my position on the comma. Feb 17, 2022 at 5:05
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There are two matters in this question.

1. Where to place the comma in Luke 23:43?

According to the following considerations:

  • Luke's style
  • Hebraistic style
  • the facts of what happened later

the comma in Luke 23:43 should be placed after "today" this giving the result

"I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.”

See the appendix below for more data.

2. She'ol/Hades is uniformly a place of darkness and silence as the OP's verse clearly shows.

[There is the obvious exception of the metaphorical parable in Luke 16 but that is another question that I have commented upon elsewhere on this site.]

She'ol/Hades is a place of darkness and silence, Ps 6:5, 17:15, 88:10, Isa 38:18, etc. Thus, the Bible refers to death as a "sleep", Matt 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52, John 11:11, 12, Acts 7:60, 13:36, 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51, 1 Thess 4:13-15, 5:10, 2 Peter 3:4.

Thus, Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross was simple - he would be raised in the great final resurrection to be with Jesus just as Job hoped in Job 19:23-27. Thus, there is no contradiction.

APPENDIX - Luke 23:43 and the comma

Luke 23:43 - “I tell you the truth today you will be with me in paradise.”

The original Greek text contained no punctuation so that the adverb of time, (σήμερον semeron), “today”, could equally modify “I tell” (lego), or, “you will be” (ese). Therefore, on the basis of the Greek text and syntax of this verse alone, it is impossible to determine where the comma (if any) should be placed.

However, it is possible to examine the author, Luke, and how he used the adverb σήμερον before or after the verb it modifies. This adverb occurs just 20 times in Luke and Acts. In 14 of those, the adverb occurs AFTER the verb (Luke 2:11, 5:26, 12:28, 13:32, 33, 22:34, 61, Acts 19:40, 20:26, 22:3, 24:21, 26:2, 29, 27:33). Of the remaining cases where the adverb precedes the verb, one is a quotation from Ps 2:7 (Acts 13:33), and in three cases, σήμερον is preceded by a conjunction (Luke 4:21, 19:5, 6) which makes such a construction inevitable. The single case, Acts 4:9, where the adverb precedes the verb. Thus, placing the adverb AFTER the verb is entirely in keeping with Luke’s literary style.

In fact, Luke employs a common Hebrew idiom of adding “today” after a verb to add emphasis, and solemnity. For example: Deut 4:1 – “I teach you today”; Deut 11:26 – “I set before you today”; Deut 28:13 – “I give you today”; Deut 6:6, 7:11, 12:23 – “I command you today”; Deut 8:19 – “I testify against you today”; Deut 30:18 – “declare to you today”; etc. See also Deut 4:26, 30:19, 32:36, Acts 20:26, 26:2, etc. Thus, Luke’s style is consonant with Biblical literary style.

The question of the placement of the above comma can also be resolved by the semantics rather than the syntax of the passage. If the comma is placed before “today” (eg, as in most versions), then Jesus said that very day the two would share the joys of paradise. However, if it is placed after “today”, then Jesus employs a construction, which adds emphasis to the veracity of what He is saying. In order to choose between these two alternatives requires the answer to two more questions: What is Paradise? And, Where did Jesus and the criminal go that day?

  • Paradise: The word paradise, occurs only three times in the New Testament - Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7. These references suggest that paradise is synonymous with heaven.
  • Jesus and the Criminal: Jesus did not go to heaven that day, Friday, because he told Mary Magdalene on the following Sunday morning (John 20:17) that He had not yet ascended to the Father.
  • There is also the plain statement of 1 Thess 4:15-17 that “we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have fallen asleep.” … “the dead in Christ will be the first to rise.” … “After that, we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Thus, we all meet the Lord in the air when He comes again in the clouds of glory. Therefore, the thief could not have gone to be with Jesus that day.

Therefore, since Jesus could not have intended that He and the criminal were to be in paradise that day, he presumably intended the adverb today as emphasis as per Koine (common) Greek and Hebrew idiom. Thus, the correct place for the comma is after today thus making the passage read: “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.” Thus, the passage does not (and could not) imply heavenly rewards immediately at death.

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  • Very good answer. Without reading it, I wouldn't have understood the question that it is assuming the contradiction about purgatory and the "today you will be I. Paradise" issue. However I couldn't find any Greek version that puts comma after today : I say you today,. You must cite the ref whether any Greek NT renders that. A little Greek version comparison or citation about it. biblehub.com/texts/luke/23-43.htm
    – Michael16
    Feb 15, 2022 at 7:34
  • @Michael16 - the original Greek text did not have any commas - all such punctuation is a later interpretation.
    – Dottard
    Aug 24, 2023 at 6:42
  • @Dottard Isn't John 5:25-29 a better example then Job 19:23-27? Aug 24, 2023 at 6:49
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    @DanielDahlberg - I agree that John 5:25-29 is an excellent text about the bodily resurrection. However, the question concerns the OT use of she'ol, thus I quoted the OT reference in Job.
    – Dottard
    Aug 24, 2023 at 7:03
  • @Dottard Yes you right! You could add John, because if that is a correct punctuation in Luke 23:43 then he contradicts himself in John 5:25-29. Aug 24, 2023 at 7:37
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Since, the question doesn't give any indication as to the seeming contradiction, I assume that you think these words from Isaiah "you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction", are a description of literal rescue from hell and transfer to heaven. It is not a literal description, but such a figure of speech is found common in the Bible. See, Ps 40:2; Ps 86:13; Ps 88:4-6; Jonah 2:6;

Psalms 30:3 (ESV) O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

[Eph 2:5-7 ESV] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

The authors refer to their salvation from assured destruction, either through a sinful life or from impending calamities or death. The figure exists even in modern language, "Dead man walking".

As for the argument of shifting the comma in Luke 23:43 to mean "I say to you today". I see no Koine Greek NT editor doing that, and just 2 of them ignore the comma to make it ambiguous. It is not a solid argument, but an apologetic conjecture.

Joseph Benson commentary:

Observe, 1st, “That the word σημερον, to-day, is not to be connected with I say, as if the sense were this, I say to thee to-day; but with the words following, so as to contain a promise, that the thief [with respect to his soul] should even that day be in paradise, appears from the familiar phrase of the Jews, who say of the just man dying, To-day he shall sit in the bosom of Abraham. 2d, Christ doubtless spake in that sense in which the thief could, and in which Christ knew he would, understand him; now he, being a Jew, would surely understand him according to the received opinion of his nation concerning paradise, which was, that it was the place into which pious souls, separated from the body, were immediately received.”

John Gill commentary says,

this agrees with the sense of the Jews, who say {b}, that

"the souls of the fathers, or patriarchs have rest, and in a moment, immediately enter into their separate places, or apartments, and not as the rest of the souls; of whom it is said, all the twelve months the soul ascends and descends, (goes to and fro,) but the souls of the fathers, מיד בהפרדן, "immediately, upon their separation", return to God that gave them.''

Some would remove the stop, and place it after "today", and read the words thus, "I say unto thee today"; as if Christ only signified the time when he said this, and not when the thief should be with him in paradise; which, besides it being senseless, and impertinent, and only contrived to serve an hypothesis, is not agreeably to Christ's usual way of speaking, and contrary to all copies and versions. Moreover, in one of Beza's exemplars it is read, "I say unto thee, οτι σημερον that today thou shalt be with me", c. and so the Persic and Ethiopic versions seem to read, which destroys this silly criticism. {b} Tzeror Hammor, fol. 58. 4.

(The story of the penitent thief has sometimes been considered the most surprising, the most suggestive, the most instructive incident in all the Gospel narrative. ... In the salvation of one of the thieves @vital@ @theology finds one of its finest demonstrations.@

@Sacrementalism was refuted,@ for the thief was saved without recourse to baptism, the Lord's Supper, church, ceremony, or good works.

@The dogma of purgatory was refuted,@ for this vile sinner was instantly transformed into a saint and made fit for paradise apart from his personal expiation of a single sin.

@The teaching of universalism was refuted,@ for only one was saved of all who might have been saved. Jesus did not say, "Today shall ye be with me in paradise", but "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."

@The notion of soul-sleep was refuted,@ for the clear implication of the entire incident is that the redeemed thief would be in conscious fellowship with his Saviour in paradise even while his body disintegrated in some grave.

Too, it is doubtful whether any other gospel incident presents the plan of salvation more clearly or simply.--Dr. Charles R. Erdman)

It is better to assume the promise about "today" denotes assurance, and perhaps a literal truth, and that there is no purgatory in Jewish beliefs, and the supernatural realm transcends the physical dimensions.

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  • I edited the question to clarify where I see the apparent contradiction. I should've made that clearer earlier. My apologies for the inconveniences.
    – user38524
    Feb 19, 2022 at 22:52
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This is a contradiction only if you come from Protestant background. All other Christian faiths agree that unlike the body the soul never ceases to exist it is eternal. Now let us look at Isiah you quoted from this angle .

Isiah 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.

Here the speaker talks about how he/she is saved from eternal damnation because all sins were forgiven

Isiah 38:18 For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.

Here the speaker says how Sheol and death are not happy because they didn't claim the soul because it was forgiven . It also says the souls who were claimed by them have no hope

Isiah 38:19 The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.

Here in contrast to the souls claimed by Sheol the souls saved praise God . From a Christian stand point we can see that the father in the verse is God the father, children are the believers and the your represents Jesus the redeemer.

Now we see there is no contradiction at all . Isiah 38:17-19 is the saved soul praising Christ for his redemptive work .

You can also refer

John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies. 26 And everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

But if you go by the soul is in dormant state after death then you will have multiple other verses to explain.I will quote some here

Jeremiah 15:1 And LORD JEHOVAH said to me: “If Moshe and Samuel would stand before me, my soul is not pleased with this people. I would send them out from before my face and they would leave!"

2 Maccabees 15:12-14 12Now the vision was in this manner. Onias, who had been high priest, a good and virtuous man, modest in his looks, gentle in his manners, and graceful in speech, and who from a child was exercised in virtues holding up his hands, prayed for all the people of the Jews: 13 After this there appeared also another man, admirable for age, and glory, and environed with great beauty and majesty:14 Then Onias answering, said: This is a lover of his brethren, and of the people of Israel: this is he that prayeth much for the people, and for all the holy city, Jeremias, the prophet of God.

Luke 9:29-31 And whilst he prayed, the shape of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became white and glittering. 30 And behold two men were talking with him. And they were Moses and Elias, 31 Appearing in majesty. And they spoke of his decease that he should accomplish in Jerusalem.

Luke 16:19-31 The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Revelation 6:9-11 And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying: How long, O Lord (holy and true) dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? 11 And white robes were given to every one of them one; and it was said to them, that they should rest for a little time, till their fellow servants, and their brethren, who are to be slain, even as they, should be filled up.

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