December 23: Revelation 20:11-15

Revelation 20:11-15

This is the last of the four scenes in chapter 20; like the second scene (vv. 4-6, cf. the prior note), it is centered on the throne of God in heaven, and refers to the heavenly aspect of the great Judgment.

Revelation 20:11

“And I saw a great white ruling-seat [qro/no$], and the (one) sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven(s) fled (away), and a place was not found for them (any longer).”

The color white, as a divine symbol, indicating both purity/holiness and victory, has been used repeatedly in the book of Revelation (4:4; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:11, 14, etc). Here it specifically characterizes the qro/no$, or ruling-seat of God in heaven, which features prominently in the visions of chapters 4 and 5, as elsewhere in the book (1:4; 6:16; 7:9-17; 8:3; 12:5, etc). Since the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) rules alongside God the Father (at His right hand), he shares this same throne, and the People of God in heaven—i.e. the raised/exalted believers, and symbolized by the 24 Elders—also sit upon heavenly thrones (4:4; 11:16; 20:4), in the presence of God and Christ.

The reference to the earth and sky (“heaven[s]”) fleeing from God’s face is a traditional apocalyptic motif, indicating that creation itself cannot stand before the manifest presence and power of God. Moreover, here it alludes to the dissolution of the ko/smo$ and the end of the Age. Various upheavals in the natural order would already have taken place during the end-time period of distress, and more so with the return of Jesus and beginning of the Judgment, as depicted vividly in the sixth seal-vision (6:12-17) and all throughout the trumpet- and bowl-vision cycles (chaps. 8-9, 15-16). This corresponds to the more concise reference to the events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus—Mark 13:24-25ff par, drawing upon Old Testament passages such as Isa 13:10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15. This “Day of YHWH” imagery (cf. Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15, etc) has ancient roots in Near Eastern and Israelite tradition. The difference is that here, as in other apocalyptic Jewish writings of the period, the imagery is unquestionably eschatological—it refers to the end of the current Age (and to the end of the world/universe as we know it).

Revelation 20:12

“And I saw the dead—the great (one)s and small (one)s (alike)—having stood in the sight of the ruling-seat. And the paper-rolls were opened (up), and another paper-roll was (also) opened, which is the (roll) of life, and the dead (one)s were judged out of the (thing)s having been written in the paper-rolls, according to their works.”

This is the heavenly Judgment—that is, the end-time Judgment in its heavenly aspect—which is itself a reflection of the more ancient afterlife Judgment scene, widespread in religious thought throughout the ancient Near East (and in other cultures). Here the afterlife setting is preserved, since it clearly refers to the dead. Presumably it involves all human beings, though believers have already been set aside, having passed through the Judgment, as is indicated by the passing reference to the “roll of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8). The idea of election/predestination is strong in the book of Revelation, though this does not preclude the need for believers to remain faithful, nor negate the real danger of being led astray by the evil/wickedness in the world. These bi/blia, or scrolls (lit. paper-rolls), draw upon two lines of tradition: (1) a record of a person’s deeds which will be used in the (afterlife) Judgment, and (2) rolls of citizenship, in which the names of those belonging to a particular city or locale are recorded. The visions in Revelation make use of both images, which are also attested elsewhere in Scripture (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Mal 3:16; Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20-4:3). Here the former tradition—the record of a persons deeds (e&rga, “works”)—is emphasized.

Revelation 20:13

“And the Sea gave (up) the dead th(at are) in it, and Death and the Unseen realm gave (up) the dead th(at are) in them, and they were judged, each (person), according to their works.”

In the book of Revelation “the sea” (h( qa/lassa) is primarily a symbol, signifying the dark and chaotic domain of evil, especially as it exerts influence over the peoples of the earth (the nations). For more on the ancient roots of this symbolism, cf. my recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. Here the “Sea” is fittingly paired with Death and the realm of the dead (the “unseen” realm, a%|dh$, hades). This generally indicates that we are dealing with the Judgment of the wicked, the heavenly Judgment against the nations. While elsewhere in Scripture, believers are also said to have their works judged (Rom 2:15-16; 1 Cor 3:13-15; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10, etc), here it is primarily, if not exclusively, the wicked (unbelievers) who are being judged by their works.

Revelation 20:14

“And Death and the Unseen realm (of the dead) were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death, the lake of fire.”

The fact that Death and Hades (= Hebrew Sheol) are thrown into the lake of fire, just as the Satan was (v. 10), suggests a mythic personification of Death—i.e. Death as a person, ruler over the realm of the dead. This is well-established in Biblical tradition, even if the authors of Scripture did not necessarily take the personification in a literal, concrete sense (cf. Rom 5:14ff; 6:9; 1 Cor 15:26, 54-56; Rev 1:18; 6:8). The idea of a second death reflects the distinction between earthly and heavenly Judgment, especially as it pertains to the wicked—the earthly Judgment results in physical death (19:21, etc), while the heavenly Judgment ends in a final death of the soul. All human beings (including believers) must endure the physical death of the body, but believers are saved from the second death (2:11). Fire is a primary motif of judgment, and especially of the heavenly Judgment (cf. the previous note). While the specific image of a lake (or river) of fire is traditional, stemming from ancient conceptions of death and the underworld, it is possible that, in the book of Revelation, it alludes to the visionary symbolism associated with the Sea.

Revelation 20:15

“And if any (one) was not found (with his name) having been written in the paper-roll of life, he (also) was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This statement is a simple and traditional description of the fate of the wicked in the heavenly (afterlife) Judgment. It serves as a fitting conclusion to the entire complex of visions that depict the end-time Judgment, particularly those spanning chapters 15-20 (cf. also 6:12-17; chaps. 8-9; 11:13ff; 14:6-20).

The final two chapters of the book of Revelation deal specifically with the New Age, the blessed and eternal life of believers, the People of God, in heaven. Before proceeding with a study of chaps. 21-22, it is necessary to attempt a summary of the book’s eschatology, as it pertains to the Last Judgment, and to give further consideration to the traditional background (and meaning) of the “thousand years” in chap. 20, the so-called Millennium. This will be done via a pair of supplemental articles.

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September 12: Revelation 1:17-20

Revelation 1:9-20 (continued)

Revelation 1:17-20

The previous daily note examined the visual details of the initial vision in verses 9-20 (vv. 12-16). There I pointed out that the figure of the vision was depicted and described with both heavenly and divine characteristics. The details (and language used to describe them) are drawn largely from four passages in the Old Testament:

Central to the vision, with its identification of the figure as “(one) like a son of man” (v. 13; Daniel 7:13f), is the description of “the Ancient of Days” in Dan 7:9-10. In this regard, there is an interesting variant reading in the Greek of Dan 7:13, for the Aramaic

“…(one) like a son of man was coming and reached unto [du^] the Ancient of Days”

where the preposition du^ is translated by the corresponding e%w$ (“unto, until”). However, some manuscripts of the LXX instead read the particle w%$ (“as”):

“…(one) as a son of man was coming and came near as [w($] the Ancient of Days”

which could be taken to mean that he had the likeness or appearance of the Ancient of Days.

In the verses which follow (vv. 17-20), the heavenly/divine figure addresses the seer John. It is introduced with a notice of the traditional reaction of fear to seeing a heavenly being (Ezek 1:28; Dan 8:17; 10:9-10; Tob 12:15-16; Mark 16:5 par; Luke 1:12; 24:5, etc), followed by the similarly traditional words of reassurance mh fobou= (“you must not be afraid”, “do not fear”), as in Lk 1:13, 30; 2:10; John 6:20 par; Acts 18:9; 27:24, etc.

The figure makes a declaration (“I am”, e)gw/ ei)mi) which is associated with God (YHWH) and which reflects divine attributes, following the pattern in 1:4, 8 (cf. also 21:6). There are two specific titles involved:

Two points must be noted in relation to this declaration: (1) this heavenly/divine figure is identified (implicitly) with the risen Jesus, and (2) the declaration is defined in terms of Jesus’ resurrection:

“…and I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n] into the Ages of the Ages”

This is important, as it reflects the early Christian mode of thinking which identified Jesus’ deity primarily with his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). This can be seen especially in examples of the earliest Christian preaching and (Gospel) proclamation—e.g., Acts 2:24-36; 3:15-16; 7:55-56; 13:30-37ff; Rom 1:4; Phil 2:9-11, etc. Being exalted to divine/heavenly status, Jesus shares divine attributes and titles, such as “the Living One”. He also shares precisely the eternal Life which God possesses, and, as such, he lives “into the Ages of Ages” (i.e. forever)—cf. Dan 4:34; 6:26; 12:7, etc.

The final phrase of this declaration sharpens the eschatological context, touching upon the idea of the end-time Judgment. The risen Jesus how has authority over death and the dead (i.e. those who are dead):

“…and I hold the keys of Death and of the Unseen world (of the dead)”

Death is depicted primarily as a place—the traditional Hades (a)i+/dh$, or ai%dh$, a%|dh$), the “unseen” realm (below ground) where the dead reside. In figurative (and mythological) language, this realm is ruled over by a figure personifying Death itself. To say that Jesus “holds the keys” is a symbolic way of describing the power/authority he has (cf. Isa 22:22; Rev 3:7), as the living one, over death. In traditional Jewish thought, a heavenly being (Angel) typically had power over Death/Hades (cf. Apocalypse of Abraham 10:11, etc), an idea with a very long history (cf. Exod 12:23ff; Num 22:23ff; 1 Chron 21:12ff; and many other passages). This specific image of Jesus holding the key of Death is repeated in 9:1; 20:1, emphasizing its eschatological significance. The end-time Judgment was often closely connected with the resurrection of humankind, which by the time of the book of Revelation was typically applied to both the righteous and wicked together.

Following this declaration, in verse 19, John is given (again, v. 11) the command to write down the things he sees and hears: “Therefore you must write the (thing)s you see…” The verb ei@de$ is an aorist form, which often indicates past action (“saw”), and might, from the standpoint of the book and its publication, refer to the things which John saw. Along these lines, it is probably better to view the aorist form as referring to the visions taken as a whole, reflecting an “external” view. These visions are qualified here two ways:

    • “the (thing)s which are” (a^ ei)si/n)—present
    • “the (thing)s which are about to come to be” (a^ me/llei gene/sqai)—immediate future

The context makes clear that the “future” events should be understood as occurring (close) after events of the present time (i.e., from the standpoint of the author and his original audience). Note the wording: “…are about to come to be with [i.e. after] these (thing)s”.

Finally, in the concluding words of verse 20, the risen Jesus offers a partial explanation of the first vision, its secret (musth/rion). This is an important aspect of eschatological (and apocalyptic) language—the revealing of something which has been secret, or hidden. In this instance, as in the parables of Jesus (Mark 4:11ff par), it is the specific symbols which are interpreted; two symbols are involved:

    • “the seven stars…upon my right hand”
      = “(the) Messengers of the seven congregations”
    • “the seven gold lamp(stands)
      = “the seven congregations” (contrast this with Zech 4:2ff)

There is a close connection here with the earlier reference to “the seven Spirits” in verse 4, which, as I have previously discussed, are best understood as heavenly beings (i.e. Angels). Note the symmetry:

    • Seven Spirits [Angels] before the throne of God (i.e. the ‘Ancient of Days’)
      —Seven stars (= heavenly Messengers) in the right hand of Jesus
    • Seven Lamps [Believers] surrounding the heavenly/divine figure (i.e. ‘one like a son of man’)

As in the introduction (vv. 1-3), Jesus serves as the intermediary:

    • God gives the message to
      • Jesus Christ, who gives it (through his Messenger[s]) to
        • Believers (through a chosen prophet)

This interplay continues into the “letters” which follow in chapters 2-3, as will be discussed in the next note. In the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, Angels are often ‘assigned’ to particular peoples or nations (Dan 10:13, 20-21; 12:1), and also to specific individuals (cf. Tob 12:14-16; 1 Enoch 100:5; Matt 18:10; Acts 12:15, etc). The idea that certain heavenly Messengers are designated to groups of believers (congregations) in various locations is fully in accordance with this line of tradition. As previously noted, the picture of seven Angels is also traditional (1 Enoch 20:1-7; Tob 12:15; 4Q403).

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

    1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
    2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

    • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
    • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
    • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

    • “the one having come to be born of God…”
    • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

    • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer]
      —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer]
      —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
    • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

    • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
      —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
    • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
      —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
    • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
      —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
    • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
      —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
    • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
      —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

    • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
    • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
    • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
      • “(in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him”
      • “and he is not able to sin”
        • “(in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God”

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

    • “the one having come to be born out of God”
      —”he does not sin”
      ——”His seed remains in him”
      —”he is not able to sin”
    • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in an earlier Saturday Series study. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
    • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next note.

Note on “Sheol”

In the recent study on Psalm 6, the usage of the term loav= (š®°ôl, sheol) was noted, being the first such occurrence in the Psalter as we have it. As this term will be encountered in other Psalms, and, indeed, is found relatively frequently in Old Testament poetry, I felt it was worth devoting a special study to it. The word loav= occurs 66 times in the Old Testament Scriptures, primarily in poetry (16 in the Psalms, 9 in Job, 9 in Proverbs, 10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and 5 in the Minor Prophets). The context of how it is used makes clear that it is a (poetic) term for the realm of death and the dead, occasionally used as a personification of death (and the grave) itself. However, in spite of this, the actual origins and derivation of loav= remain quite uncertain. It is clearly an ancient, traditional Hebrew word, and yet there are no clear parallels or cognate examples from other Semitic languages of the period (i.e. Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc).


The most obvious association for loav= would be with the common root lav, which has the basic meaning “ask, inquire” (cf. Akkadian ša°¹lu, “ask, decide”, etc). Unfortunately, it is hard to see exactly how the word, as it is used in the Old Testament, might relate to this root. One suggestion is that it refers to the realm of death (or the “underworld”) as a “place of interrogation”, i.e. where the deceased is judged and called to account (examined). Another possibility is that it relates to the idea of “asking/inquiring of the dead”, i.e. necromancy and the consulting of spirits (of the dead). Admittedly, such a connection is quite speculative, and far from convincing.

Another conceivable derivation, and one adopted by a number of commentators today, is from the root huv I (vb ha*v* š¹°â), which indicates ruin, devastation, destruction—cf. the related nouns hY`a!v= (š®°iyyâ), /oav* (š¹°ôn)—the final lamed (l, l) being an example paragogic epenthesis (insertion of a letter at the end of a word to aid in pronunciation). According to this theory, loav= would fundamentally mean something like “(land) of ruin”, “desolate (land)”.

Less plausible attempts have been made over the years to connect the word with different ancient Semitic roots (real or putative), but none have achieved any real acceptance by scholars. For a good survey of this evidence, consult the major critical dictionaries such as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (article “Dead, Abode of the”).

Old Testament Usage

While loav= occurs primarily in Old Testament poetry, there are a few instances in the historical books (8 total) where it is included as part of the traditional narrative. Most notably, there are four occurrences in the Joseph narratives, referring to the sorrow and misfortune that will accompany the aged Jacob when he dies (to meet his son[s] in the realm of death). In Gen 37:35 (following the reported death of Joseph), we read:

“And all his sons and all his daughters stood up to sigh (with) [i.e. console] him, and he refused to be (consol)ed, and said that ‘I will go down to my son mourning, (down) to Še’ol!’ And his father wept (for) him.” (cf. also Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31)

In Numbers 16:30, 33 (the episode of Korah’s rebellion), the emphasis is on the sudden destruction, from natural disaster (brought about by YHWH as punishment), which will befall the rebels and send them “down to Sheol”:

“But if YHWH (should) exercise creation (over the) created (thing), and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them (up)—and all the (ones who are) for them—and they go down living to Še’ol, then you will know that these men (have) despised YHWH!” (v. 30)

The contrast clearly is with the natural death most humans experience (v. 29). Similarly in 1 Kings 2:6, 9, there is a contrast between dying in peace and as the result of violence, etc. Thus, in all these instances, loav= is used in connection with the idea of a person dying under unusual or unfortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the oldest occurrence of loav=, in terms of the age of the preserved text, is in the so-called “Song of Moses” (Deut 32), dated by many commentators (on objective grounds) to perhaps the 12th-11th century B.C. (cf. my recent Saturday Series studies on the Song, esp. on vv. 15-25). The two bicolons (couplets) in verse 22 use the image of a blazing wildfire to illustrate the burning anger of God (YHWH) when he acts in judgment (on Israel, for violating the covenant):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

Other examples from early poetry, preserved in the context of the traditional (historical) narrative are: 1 Samuel 2:6 (Song of Hannah) and 2 Samuel 22:6 (Song of David). The first of these follows closely the idea of God’s judgment (in its violent aspect) and power over the created order (life and death), as expressed in the Song of Moses and the episode of Numbers 16 (cf. above); indeed the statement in 1 Sam 2:6 echoes that of Deut 32:39b. In the Song of David (2 Sam 22:6), loav= is clearly used as a colorful (hyperbolic) reference to the violent turmoil and (destructive) danger the poet (David) faces; note the parallelism in the bicola of vv. 5-6, which is both synonymous (second line [in italics] stating and intesifying the imagery of the first)—

“For the breaking (wave)s of death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al struck me with fear;
the twisting (cord)s of Še’ol swirled around me,
the ensaring (trap)s of death hit (right) in front of me.

but also chiastic:

    • waves of death
      • torrents of Beliyya’al
      • swirling bonds/pains of Še’ol
    • snares of death

When we turn to the remainder of occurrences in Old Testament poetry, we may divide these as follows: (a) Psalms and the book of Job, (b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs), and (c) in the Prophets.

(a) Psalms and the book of Job

The word loav= occurs 16 times in the Psalms, and 9 times in the poetic dialogues of Job. Much of this poetry appears to be quite early, and/or preserving genuinely archaic features. The data from the Psalms may be summarized as follows:

    • as a general (poetic) term for the realm of the dead
    • in the context of suffering/misfortune leading or drawing a person to death
    • imagery related to the fate of the wicked

This largely confirms the usage and range of meaning indicated above. With regard to the first point, laov= as a basic poetic term for death and the realm of the dead, this is more or less present throughout; perhaps the clearest examples would be in 6:6[5]; 49:15[14]; 139:8; 141:7 (cf. also Song 8:6). However, in many of the Psalms, the idea is connected with suffering and distress facing the Psalmist, by which his very life is in danger and on the verge of death (88:4[3], etc). Whether this should be taken literally or figuratively, it is part of the motif of a hope for deliverance which is integral to those Psalms (cf. the study on Psalm 6). In Psalm 49:16[15] and 89:49[48], we read of the “hand [dy`] of Š®°ôl“, referring to its power to grasp/keep hold of the dead, or to bring a person down into the grave. A similar anthropomorphic image involves Š®°ôl as one who devours (49:15[14]), possessing a wide mouth (hP#, 141:7) along with a ravenous appetite. This sort of personification of death and the grave was common to Ancient Near Eastern (religious) thought, and the idiom was retained in Israelite tradition and poetry (cf. on Psalm 5:10[9] in my recent study). A more objective image was that of a deep pit (30:4[3]; 86:13), or ropes/bonds which hold the deceased tight (18:6[5]; 116:3). With regard to death and the grave (i.e. loav=) as the fate of the wicked, sometimes indicating an unnatural or violent death (as in Num 16:30ff, etc), this is expressed clearly in 9:18[17]; 31:18[17]; 49:15[14]; 55:16[15].

In the book of Job, laov= tends to be used more figuratively as an image of deep darkness (i.e. characteristic of the realm of death)—11:3; 14:13; 17:13. However, the basic association with the actual death of a person, and fate of the grave, is also very much present, as fits the general narrative context of Job’s suffering (7:9f; 17:13, 16; 21:13). The association with the fate of the wicked, mentioned in examples above, is also seen in 24:19. Of special interest is Job 26:5-6, where there is evidence of a more precise concept of the realm of death as a “netherworld” located under the earth. Here loav= is paired with the term /oDb^a& (¦»addôn, cf. Prov 15:11; 27:20; and also Job 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12), probably meant to indicate the decay and destruction characteristic of the grave.

(b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs)

The word laov= occurs 9 times in Proverbs (also once in Ecclesiastes [9:10]); however one dates the various Proverbs, they certainly utilize much ancient (poetic) imagery to make an ethical point. We have, for example, the motif of Death/Sheol as a ravenous, devouring person (1:12; 27:20; 30:16), used to illustrate human greed and wickedness, etc. Indeed, abandoning the way of wisdom, and taking the way of sin and folly instead, leads to Š®°ôl (5:5; 7:27; 9:18)—another adaptation of traditional imagery involving Š®°ôl and the fate of the wicked (cf. above). There is also a wisdom-variation of the Psalmist’s plea for deliverance from death (cf. examples above), with the exhortation to avoid the fate of Š®°ôl by adopting the course of wisdom and prudence (15:24; 23:14). The maxim in Eccl 9:10 is similar to the Psalmist’s statement in 6:6[5].

(c) The Prophetic Oracles (esp. Isaiah and Ezekiel)

There are 20 occurrences of loav= in the Prophetic writings—10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and another 5 in the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk). The references in Ezekiel (31:15-17; 32:21, 27) are interesting in that they likely represent the most recent occurrences in the Old Testament, perhaps reflecting the intentional use of older (archaic) imagery.

In Isaiah 5:14 we find again the traditional image of the wide mouth and devouring appetite of Death/Sheol; whereas in 7:11 (cf. also 57:9) it is simply the depth of it (in contrast with the height of heaven) that is emphasized. Š®°ôl features in two noteworthy nation-oracles: against Babylon (chap. 14 [vv. 9, 11, 15]) and against Jerusalem itself (chap. 28 [vv. 15, 18]). In 14:9ff we have another example of Š®°ôl as the fate of the wicked; while in 28:15ff this is played on in the opposite sense—the people of Jerusalem believe they will be able to avoid the fate of death and destruction. Isa 38:10ff simply utilizes loav= in the basic sense as the realm of death, the sentiment expressed in v. 18 being similar to that of Psalm 6:6[5].

The traditional imagery of the depth of Š®°ôl, and its devouring appetite, occur again in Amos 9:2 and Habakkuk 2:5. Two other references in the Minor Prophets are especially noteworthy:

    • The opening of the poem in Jonah 2:2-9, very much of a kind with many Psalms in which the protagonist asks YHWH for deliverance from the danger and distress he faces (cf. above):
      “I called out to YHWH from (the things) pressing on me, and he answered me;
      from the belly of Še’ol I (call)ed for help, and You heard my voice.”
    • In Hosea 13:14, the word occurs twice, in parallel couplets, which form a declaration (or question) by YHWH, the interpretation of which, in context, continues to be debated. Reading the first couplet as a declaration, we have:
      “From the hand of Še’ol I will pay to release them,
      from death I will redeem them (as my kin)—
      where (are) your deadly (blow)s, Death?
      where your destroying (power), Še’ol?
      —(their) gasping (for sorrow) is hid from my eyes.”
      Paul makes use of the second couplet in 1 Cor 15:55.

LXX and influence on the New Testament

In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), laov= is translated by a%|dh$ (hád¢s), a word used almost exclusively for that purpose in the LXX. It is often transliterated in English as “Hades”, while the common translation “Hell” is quite inappropriate. In my view, it is better to translate literally as “(the) Unseen (place, i.e. of the dead)”, especially since the realm of the dead is the basic meaning, in context, for Hebrew laov=. The label “unseen” is also appropriate for the characteristic of the realm of the dead as a dark, shadowy place beneath the earth.

This word a%|dh$ occurs 10 times in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation (1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), it is virtually synonymous with “death” (qa/nato$). Acts 2:31 simply comes via the citation of Psalm 16:10 (v. 27), where a%|dh$ = loav= as the grave in which bodies decay. The occurrence in the saying of Jesus (“Q” [Matt 11:23; Lk 10:15]) also draws upon traditional imagery, though with a contrast between Heaven above and Š®°ôl below (cf. Isa 7:11). Only in two instances do we find a more decidedly negative aspect and connotation of the term, perhaps a bit more akin to the idea of “hell” in English:

    • In Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt 16:18, he states that “the gates of a%|dh$ will not have strength against it”—that is, against his e)kklhsi/a, i.e. believers, those called out to join together as his followers. This could be taken to refer to the powers of evil, etc, though it could just as easily be understood in the more traditional sense of Hades/Sheol as the realm of death—i.e. that Jesus’ disciples will have power over death, and the kind of illness, etc, that brings people to the point of death.
    • A sense of a%|dh$ closer to our conception of “hell” is found in Lk 16:23, within the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, even here, the term need not mean anything more than the place of the dead. The best way to view the scene described by Jesus, in my view, is that both men are in the Unseen realm (i.e. Hades)—i.e. both are dead—but within this realm there is a great separation. The Rich Man is in torment, while Lazarus enjoys (apparently) a more pleasant existence in “Abraham’s lap”. Even so, it is likely that a%|dh$ here draws upon one traditional aspect of loav= mentioned above—as signifying the fate of the wicked. It is this aspect that gave rise to our standard conception of “hell”, and the use of that word, however inappropriate, to translate both a%|dh$ and loav=.


The evidence examined above demonstrates, rather conclusively, I think, the basic range of meaning for the word loav= in the Old Testament, even if its fundamental (original) meaning and derivation remain uncertain. This may be summarized as follows:

    1. It refers generally to death and the realm of the dead, i.e. where the dead reside—both for the grave in the narrower sense, and in the wider sense of a dark, shadowy place of existence (for the dead) beneath the earth.
    2. This foreboding aspect, along with the universality of death, led to imagery emphasizing the all-consuming power of Š®°ôl, and the force by which it grabs hold of people. Sometimes, but not always, this was expressed by way of mythological personification—Death/Sheol as a person—a common ancient mode of expression, especially in poetry, which was preserved in the Old Testament.
    3. Quite often, the word loav= was used specifically in association with death (and the danger of death) experienced in the midst of suffering and misfortune of various kinds (including violence).
    4. As an extension of this, wicked and violent persons were seen especially as belonging to Š®°ôl, which also would be their fate—perhaps through an unnatural or violent death brought about by God’s judgment.
Note on loav= and the Afterlife

One striking fact, which many Jews and Christians today are bound to find troubling, is that, in all these references to Death and Š®°ôl in the Old Testament, there are precious few examples which indicate a specific belief in an afterlife. The references to Š®°ôl, insofar as they describe an afterlife at all, do not go much beyond the basic ancient Near Eastern concept of a dark, shadowy place where the dead have only a limited sort of existence. Even passages which refer to God delivering one up from Š®°ôl (e.g. Psalm 16:10; 49:16[15]; Hos 13:14) do not indicate anything like the idea of resurrection or promise of a future life in heaven; for the most part, they simply refer to deliverance from death in the present. The righteous person, loyal to YHWH, is being pulled down into Š®°ôl, in danger of death, and is saved by God—at least, that is the idea, expectation, and hope expressed in such passages. It is only in later Israelite and Jewish tradition that we find more clearly a belief in the resurrection of the dead, along with a blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. Daniel 12:2, however one dates the book of Daniel, would seem to represent the earliest certain example. By the first centuries B.C./A.D., the belief was quite widespread, enough so that, in the 1st century A.D., the Sadducean denial of resurrection was worthy of comment (Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:8; Josephus Antiquities 18.16). Earlier evidence for belief in actual resurrection from the dead is ambiguous at best; commentators would cite examples such as Hos 6:1-3; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:13-14—these refer primarily, in context, to national restoration, but may draw upon a more basic idea of bodily resurrection. Hope for the possibility of personal immortality—dwelling with God in Heaven—without experiencing death at all, may have been present in early Israelite thought as well (cf. Psalm 16:10, etc, and the examples of Enoch & Elijah).

August 2: Romans 8:10

Today’s note is on Romans 8:10, supplemental to the discussion on Rom 8:1-39 in the series on “Paul’s View of the Law in Romans”.

Romans 8:10

Verse 10 cannot be separated from the context of verses 9-11, which form the culmination of the exhortation in 8:1-11, regarding the conflict between the Spirit and the flesh. The announcement of freedom from the Law in vv. 1-4 means that the believer must rely upon the Spirit for guidance—Paul characterizes believers as “the ones walking about according to the Spirit” (cf. Gal 5:16, 25). Deliverance from sin also means that believers are no longer under its enslaving power, and now have the freedom and ability to follow the will of God; however, the flesh remains as a source of struggle and conflict. This is the emphasis in verses 5-11, which correspond in many ways to the exhortation in Gal 5:16-25. According to Paul’s anthropology, the flesh itself remains opposed to the “Law of God” (vv. 7-8). The main argument in verses 9-11 is that believers are, and should be, guided and influenced by the Spirit, and not the flesh:

“But you are not in (the) flesh [e)n sarki/] but in (the) Spirit [e)n pneu/mati]…”

The preposition e)n here has the specific sense of “in the power of”—in a manner similar to the expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|). However, this is only one aspect of union with Christ and the Spirit; in the rest of vv. 9-11, the focus shifts from believers “in the Spirit” to the Spirit “in believers”. In other words, the power which guides and controls believers is based on the presence of the Spirit in them. Living, thinking, and walking “according to the flesh” is not, and should not be, characteristic of believers. This is reflected in the conditional clause which follows in v. 9a:

“…if indeed [ei&per] the Spirit of God houses [i.e. dwells] in you [e)n u(mi=n]”

The particle ei&per is somewhat difficult to translate; literally, it would be something like “if (indeed) about (this)”, with the sense that “if (indeed) it is so that…”. It indicates a condition, but one that is generally assumed to be true: “if it is so (as indeed it is!)”, i.e. “since (it is so that)”. For true believers in Christ, the condition would be true: the Spirit dwells in them. A series of sentences follow in vv. 9b-11, each beginning with the conditional particle ei) (“if”) and the coordinating particle de/:

V. 9b: “But if [ei) de\] any (one) does not hold the Spirit of God, that (one) is not of him.”
V. 10: “But if [ei) de\] (the) Anointed is in you…”
V. 11: “But if [ei) de\] the Spirit of the (one) raising Yeshua out of the dead houses [i.e. dwells] in you…”

The first (9b) is a negative condition: “if any one does not have [lit. hold] the Spirit of God”. Most likely the genitive au)tou= (“of him”) means “of Christ”, belonging to Christ—i.e. a true Christian has the Spirit of God. The last two sentences have positive conditions, and the two are closely related, connecting Christ with the Spirit of God:

    • V. 10—”the Anointed is in you [e)n u(mi=n]”
    • V. 11—”the Spirit of (God)… dwells in you [e)n u(mi=n]”

In each instance, the apodosis, indicating the fulfillment or result of the condition (“then…”), involves the theme of life vs. death. I begin with the last verse (v. 11):

    • “If the Spirit of the (one) raising Yeshua out of the dead houses [i.e. dwells] in you, (then)…
      • …the (one) raising (the) Anointed out of the dead also will make alive your dying [i.e. mortal] bodies through his Spirit housing [i.e. dwelling] in you”

The reference here is to the bodily resurrection of the end-time, which represents the culmination and completion of salvation for believers, according to early Christian thought. Note the repetitive symmetry to this sentence:

the Spirit of the one raising Jesus from the dead dwells in you
——will make alive your dying bodies
the one raising Christ from the dead…through his Spirit dwelling in you

This brings us to verse 10:

    • “If (the) Anointed (is) in you, (then)…
      • …the body (is) dead through sin, but the Spirit is life through justice/righteousness”

Here the apodosis is expressed by way of a me\nde/ construction:

    • me\n (on the one hand)—the body is dead through sin
    • de\ (on the other hand)—the Spirit is life through justice/righteousness

If verse 11 referred to bodily resurrection at the end, verse 10 refers to a dynamic that is already realized in believers presently. It still involves life and death, but not one following the other (as in the resurrection); rather, the two exist at the same time, side by side—the body is dead, the Spirit is life. This anthropological dualism is typical of Paul’s thought; however, it is interesting to note that he has here shifted away slightly from the flesh/Spirit conflict emphasized in vv. 1-8. The “flesh” (sa/rc) relates to the impulse toward sin, the “body” (sw=ma) to death itself. It may be helpful to consider the anthropological terms Paul makes use of in Romans:

    • sw=ma (“body”)—that is, the physical (human) body, which is subject to death (“dying/mortal”, Rom 6:12; 8:11), according to the primeval judgment narrated in Gen 3:3-4, 19, 22-23. In Rom 7:24, Paul refers to it as “the body of death” (cf. also Rom 4:19). For believers, the redemption of the body, i.e. the loosing it from the bondage of death, is the final, culminating event of salvation—the resurrection (Rom 8:23).
    • ta\ me/lh (“the [bodily] parts”)—the different components (limbs, organs, etc) of the physical body, which should be understood two ways: (1) the sensory/sensual aspect of the body, which is affected and influenced by the impulse (e)piqumi/a) to sin, and (2) the means by which human beings act and work in the body. The first of these is expressed in Rom 7:5ff, 23—it is specifically in the bodily members that sin dwells and works. The second is indicated in Rom 6:13ff, as well perhaps by expression “the practices/deeds of the body” in Rom 8:13.
    • sa/rc (“flesh”)—a wide-ranging word and concept in Paul’s thought, it refers principally to the physical/material aspect of human nature (the body and its parts), but also within the specific context of sin. The “flesh” indicates human nature as enslaved under the power of sin (throughout Rom 7:7-25 and 8:1-11ff [cf. above]). Believers in Christ are freed from the enslaving power of sin, but can still be affected, in various ways, by the flesh and the impulse to sin which resides in it (Rom 8:1-11, and see esp. Gal 5:16-25).
    • nou=$ (“mind”)—according to Rom 7:13-25 (esp. vv. 23-25), the mind, representing intellectual, volitional and ethical aspects of human nature, is not enslaved by the power of sin the same way that the flesh is. Though it can come to be dominated entirely by wickedness (cf. Rom 1:28), in Rom 7 (where Paul likely is speaking for devout Jews and Gentiles), the mind is torn, wanting to obey the will (or Law) of God, but ultimately overcome by the power of sin in the flesh. For believers, the “mind” is to be renewed (Rom 12:2), through “walking in the Spirit” (not according to the flesh or the things of the world), so that we may be transformed more and more into the likeness of God in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 3:18).
    • o( e&sw a&nqrwpo$ (“the inner man”)—Paul uses this expression in Rom 7:22, contrasting it with the “(bodily) parts”; it is best, I think, to understand it as representing a human being in the exercise of the mind, as opposed to following the (sinful) impulse of the flesh. That it is largely synonymous with the “mind” (nou=$) for Paul is indicated by his use of the expression in 2 Cor 4:16, compared with Rom 12:2. For believers, it reflects that aspect of the person which recognizes the will of God and experiences the work of the Spirit (cf. Eph 3:16).
    • pneu=ma (“spirit”)—it should be noted that Paul rarely applies this word to ordinary human nature; it is reserved for believers in Christ, and there it refers, not to the human “spirit”, but to the Spirit (of God and Christ), i.e. the Holy Spirit. However, at the inmost “spiritual” level, believers are united with the Spirit (cf. above) and it becomes the guiding power and aspect of the person.

With regard to Rom 8:10, it is interesting to observe that, after the phrase “the body is dead”, Paul does not say “the Spirit is alive”, but rather, “the Spirit is life“, using the noun zw/h. This is because it is not a precise parallel—as indicated, above, pneu=ma is not the human “spirit” but the Spirit of God (and Christ); as such, it is not alive, it is Life itself. What then, does it mean that the Spirit is life “through justice/righteousness”? Here again, it is not an exact formal parallel:

    • dia\ a(marti/an (“through sin”)—the power and work of sin results in death for the body
    • dia\ dikaiosu/nh (“through justice/righteousness”)—the power and work of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ) results in the believer experiencing the life that the Spirit brings

Some commentators would say that Paul does mean pneu=ma in v. 10 as the human “spirit”. I disagree completely. While this, admittedly, would allow for a more natural parallel, it contrasts entirely with Paul’s use of the word throughout Romans. The whole emphasis in 8:1ff is on the Spirit of God (and Christ), not the human “spirit”.