Psalm 16 begins with a superscription that says “a miktam of David.” What’s that, you ask? Well, according to the ESV Archaeology Study Bible, a miktam possibly suggests “something carved into stone and thus indelible . . . a written testimony of the petitioner placed on display in the temple as a permanent witness to the work of God in his life.” If this is the case, it is fitting that the words of Psalm 16 express such a fixed devotion to the Lord. And such confidence in the Lord that He would not abandon him even in death.

Such confidence gets at the heart of our biblical hope and the promise of this psalm as God has fulfilled it in raising Jesus, the son of David, from the dead (Acts 2:22–36; 13:26–41). The ESV Archaeology Study Bible includes an article on death and the afterlife with this psalm. Let’s learn some more about what Jesus conquered in rising from the dead.

Death, the Afterlife, and the Underworld

In Israel, as throughout the ancient world, there was a general sense that life continued in some form after death. However, the full biblical teaching concerning eternal life does not appear to have been commonly understood in the OT period. Biblical authors generally contrast the experience of the dead with that of those in the “land of the living.”

Egyptians and Life After Death

The Egyptians appear to have had the most fully developed and positive view of the possibility of life after death in the ancient Near East. In Egyptian thought, after death the individual undertakes a perilous journey (aided by magical spells and, if fortunate, the gods) through the underworld to arrive at the place of judgment before Osiris, the god ruling the land of the dead (known as the Duat).

There the heart of the individual is weighed against a feather (representing maʻat, the proper order of the cosmos). If the heart is found to weigh more than the feather, the individual is judged unrighteous and condemned to a place of suffering. If the heart is found to weigh less than the feather, the individual is allowed to proceed to the place of rejoicing. Thus a hymn of praise to Amun-Re declares, “He judges the unjust and sends him on to the Place of Fire; the just man goes to the West.”

Mesopotamians on Life After Death

In Mesopotamia the understanding of life after death was neither as well-defined nor as positive. After death the individual continued in a vague, shadowy existence. There was, apparently, neither judgment and suffering nor blessing and joy. Surviving literature from Mesopotamia describes the existence of the dead as a kind of aimless wandering in a dark and gloomy land, cut off from the joys of life and from the gods. However, the condition of the dead was improved by proper burial and appropriate memorial offerings after death.

Hebrews on Life After Death

The OT understanding of death and the afterlife appears to have elements of both of these, refracted through the prism of God’s truth. Much of the biblical language is reminiscent of Mesopotamian religion. The dead are often described as cut off from the land of the living, unremembered (Job 24:20; Eccles. 1:11), unable to praise God (Ps. 6:5; 115:17), and existing without joy or hope (Job 17:13–16). They go down to the underworld, from which they cannot return (Job 7:9–10).

Yet other places in the OT state a clear expectation that the righteous will be with God after death, suggesting that life after death is a more positive experience for God’s people. The psalmist believes that he will not be abandoned by God in the underworld (Ps. 16:10). Job asks God to hide him in Sheol until his wrath has passed (Job 14), with the expectation of a coming time of renewal (Job 14:14), and speaks of redemption so that even after his death he may, in his flesh, see God (Job 19:25–27).

Isaiah speaks of God’s ultimate victory over death (Isa. 25:8). Hosea notes that God has the power to ransom the dead from death (Hos. 13:14). Hannah and the psalmist both sing of God’s ability to raise up the dead from the realm of the dead (1 Sam. 2:6; Ps. 9:13; cf. also Wisd. Sol. 16:13). Ultimately, the psalmist declares that the death of the righteous is precious in the sight of God (Ps. 116:15), who will ransom and receive the upright (Ps. 49:14–15).

Not Abandoned in Sheol

The most common OT word for the land of the dead is Sheol. This is generally a neutral term, referring to the abode of the dead in a general way without distinguishing between the eternal destinies of the righteous and unrighteous. Its location is vaguely described as below the ground, at the foundations of the mountains (Deut. 32:22), or beneath the subterranean waters (Job 26:5). The grave is commonly in the OT called, with literal simplicity, “the pit.” Terms such as “decay” and “destruction,” in reference to death, reflect the reality of bodily decay after death (Job 24:20). The writers of the OT depict Sheol as a place of fire (Prov. 30:16) with an insatiable appetite to devour the living (Prov. 27:20; Isa. 5:14; Hab. 2:5).

Nevertheless, in some places there appears to be a distinction between the fates of the righteous and of the unrighteous. The psalmist of Psalm 49 declares that the unrighteous will remain in Sheol while the righteous will be redeemed from it (49:14–15). Similarly, David in Psalm 31 contrasts the wicked, who will go down to Sheol, with the righteous, who will be in the presence of God. In addition, Sheol is presented a number of times in the book of Proverbs as the destination of those who do not embrace wisdom; see 1:12; 2:18; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:24; 21:16; 23:14. While Proverbs does not state what will become of those who embrace the way of wisdom, it is strongly implied that their fate will be different than those who fail to do so.


In a few places, Abaddon is used as an alternate name for Sheol (cf. Job 26:6; Prov. 15:11; 27:20). In Job 28:22 it is parallel to “Death” and is personified as one who speaks. The term abaddon is an abstract noun formed from the verb for “to perish” or “to destroy,” hence the meaning “(place of) destruction.” Like Sheol, it refers to the place of the dead. Unlike Sheol, the etymology of the name suggests a negative connotation, though that is not especially apparent in six instances of its usage in the OT (all but Ps. 88:11 in the Wisdom Literature).

In the one NT usage of the term (Rev. 9:11), its negative connotation is more pronounced: Abaddon is the name of the “angel of the bottomless pit” who rules over the dead and hence the suffering described in Rev. 9:10. In later Jewish writings, Abaddon is the name of the place of the punishment of the wicked. The name suggests the possibility that even in early Israelite thought there existed a distinction between the eternal fate of the righteous and the unrighteous within the general concept of Sheol as the realm of the dead.

Explore the Biblical World with the ESV Archaeology Study Bible

If you would like to learn more about the world of the Bible, then stop by our store and purchase this resource today. The ESV Archaeology Study Bible is also available in our ESV Bible Study Pack. Visit this page and learn more!

Write A Comment