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Sheol: The Abode of the Dead

A Study of the Imagery of Sheol (שְׁאוֹל ) in the Book of Psalms

1. Introduction

Sheol is often defined as the “abode of the dead.” “Conceived of as situated in the depths of the earth, Sheol is a place of physical deathSHEOL_web_6in contrast to the vitality of life on earth with all of its brightness and activity (cf. Job 10:21–22). Both the righteous and the wickedwent to Sheol, although there is some indication of a distinction in their condition there (cf. De 32:22; Is 57:1–2; Lk 16:23). Moreover, the righteous looked for ultimate deliverance from Sheol (e.g., Ps 49:15; 73:24).” Although Sheol appears throughout the Bible, my interest is to study the imagery of Sheol in the book of Psalms. But it is imperative to have an overview of the full notion of the imagery of Sheol in the Bible before we delve into the study of it in the book of Psalms.

2. An Overview of Sheol in the Bible

2.1. Etymology of Sheol

The word Sheol occurs 66 times (including repointing Masoretic Text’s šĕ˒ālâ in Isa 7:11 to šĕ˒ōlâ following the reading eis hadēn in Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and most commentators). [1] Since this word is very unique to the Hebrew Bible, its etymology is widely debated. Among the many suggestions, I think two suggestions of Hebrew origin stands out.

a. A weakened form of the root שֹׁעַל (š‘l), from which derive the words for a hollow hand (Is. 40:12) and a hollow way (between vineyards, Nu. 22:24). In post-biblical Hebrew ša‘al means the ‘deep’ of the sea. If this derivation is correct, the original sense will be the hollow, or more probably deep, place.[2]

b. Another view that it is derived from the root שָׁאַל (š’l) meaning ‘ask’ or ‘enquire’. In this case it may have been originally the place of enquiry, where oracles could be obtained.[3] Jastrow found 28 times where š˒l is used of consulting oracles including references to consulting the spirits of the dead in Deut 18:11 and 1 Chr 10:13. [4]

2.2. Other Designations for the abode of the dead in Hebrew Bible

There are other designations used for the abode of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. They are mostly used as semantic equivalents to Sheol. They are found in similar context and imagery. They are

a. מָוֶת (māwet): “Death,” like Sheol, is often used to refer to the realm of death (Ps 6:6; Prov 7:27) as well as to the personified chthonic power behind death and to all that is associated with it such as disease, sterility, drought, etc. (Hab 2:5; Job 18:13–14; 28:22; Isa 28:15, 18; Hos 13:14; Ps 49:15; Cant 8:6).

b. שַׁחַת (šaḥat)and בּוֹר (bôr): šaḥat (Ps 16:10; Job 17:13–14; Isa 38:17–18; Jonah 2:3–7) and bôr (Isa 5:14; 38:18; Ezek 31:16; Pss 30:4; 88:4–5; Prov 1:12) both refer to the abode of the dead as the “Pit.”

c. אֲבַדּוֹן (˒ăbaddôn): This is usually translated “Perdition” or “(place of) Destruction” <˒bd, “to perish” (Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12; Prov 15:11; 27:20). The personification of Abaddon can be seen in both Old Testament and New Testament. (Job 28:22, Rev 9:11). [5]

2.3. Similar Usages in the New Testament and Translations

a. Hades : In the Septuagint (LXX), Sheol is often translated as Hades. In the Greek Mythology, “Hades is the lord of the dead and ruler of the nether world, which is referred to as the domain of Hades or, by transference, as Hades alone.”[6] The same idea occurs in the New Testament (Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15, Matt 16:18, Rev 1:18. In the New Testament Hades appears in the personified form too (Rev 6:8). Sometimes all the dead seem to be in Hades (Acts 2:27), but otherwise Hades is just the abode of the wicked (Lk. 16:23; Rev. 20:13-14). The forces against the church is described as the forces of Hades (Mt. 16:18). Christ preaches in Hades (1 Pet. 3: 19ff.) and he has the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). [7] Hades in New Testament derives meaning from Sheol but goes beyond it to adequately include the Greek mythical notions.

b. Abyss : The underworld is also often described in the New Testament as the “Abyss” (άβυσσος), often translated “Bottomless Pit” (Luke 8:31; Rom 10:7; Rev 9:1–2 ; 17:18; 20:1, 3)[8]

c. The Greek term denoting a place of punishment is Gehenna, used 12 times in the New Testament. Gehenna or Gê Hinnom, is the “Valley of Hinnom,” is a valley running south of Jerusalem. In this valley the Israelites sacrificed their children to Molech in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Ki 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6). In the New Testament the word gehenna (“hell”) falls many times from the lips of Christ in most awesome warning of the consequences of sin (Matt. 5:22, 29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). [9] However, Gehenna, is not to be confused with Hades or Sheol.

d. The translations of Sheol include grave, hell, and pit. They are poor and inadequate translations of the word, because they cannot contain the imagery of Sheol in its fuller sense. In the same way, earlier times there were attempts to identify Sheol with the popular Christian notions of limbo, purgatory, or hell. Although all of these notions contain partial meaning of Sheol, they are not the same. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible stands as antonym of the life and the abode of the dead.

2.4. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible

Before analyzing the notion of Sheol in the book of Psalms in particular, it is imperative to know the notion in the broader Hebrew Scriptures. In the majority of cases in the Old Testament, Sheol is used to signify the grave, a place to which one ‘goes down’ (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num 16:30, 33; 1 Sam. 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6; Job 14:13; 17:13, 16, etc.) [10] It represents the lowest place imaginable (Deut 32:22; Isa 7:11) often used in contrast with the highest heavens (Amos 9:2; Ps 139:8; Job 11:8). Sheol is often associated with various water images as in Jonah 2:3–6, which couples sheol with numerous terms for the chaotic waters including Sea (yām/yammı̂m), River (nāhār), breakers (mišbārı̂m), waves (gallîm), waters (mayîm), and the deep (tĕhôm).[11]The images of the gates of Sheol (Isa 38:10; Pss 9:14; 107:18; Job 38:17; Jer 15:7) and the “bars” of the underworld (Jonah 2:7, Job 38:10; Job 17:16) have to do with the imprisoning power of Sheol and its impassable nature, which prevents escape (Job 7:9). Another key characteristic of Sheol is darkness (Job 17.13). Sheol is also characterized by dust (Job 17:16; 21:26) and silence (Isa 47:5).[12]

In the Hebrew Bible just like in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures Sheol is also personified. Sheol, like Death, is described in the Hebrew Bible as having an insatiable appetite (Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; Prov 27:20; 30:15b–16). Sheol also swallows people (Prov 1:12). Twice in Hos 13:14 Yahweh is described as ransoming Ephraim from the grasp of personified Sheol and Death. Sheol is also the personified king of the kingdom of dead (Is 14:9). Similarly, in Hab 2:5, the personified Babylonian empire is compared to Sheol. [13] But these personifications are purely political and in no place any deity is attested to Sheol.

The inhabitants of Sheol are called Rephaim. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is commonly the abode of the dead. But in many biblical passages this is the place for the wicked.[14] “In the later Jewish literature we meet with divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny ( Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the imagery of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk. 16:19-31.”[15] By the end of the Old Testament period, there was even hope that one would finally be delivered from Sheol (Jb 14:13–22; 19:25–27; Pss 49:15; 73:23–28; Dn 12:1–2). [16]

3. Sheol in the Book of Psalms

The imagery of Sheol is very strong in the book of Psalms and it possesses a variety of information regarding the nature of Sheol.

3.1. Place where You cannot Praise God

Psalmist does make it clear that those who are in Sheol cannot praise God. “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise (Ps 6:5)?” There are other Psalms which carries the same meaning. Psalm 115:17 says “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence. King Hezekiah’s prayer in the book of Isaiah is another coinciding passage: “For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness (Is 38:18).” In these passages Sheol and death are spoken almost synonymously. Thus it becomes clear that only the living can praise God (cf. Is 38:19, Ps 88: 10-12).

3.2. Place of Forgetfulness

Since Sheol is a place of inactivity its inhabitants cannot remember the great deeds of the Lord. That is why the psalmist compares Sheol with the land of forgetfulness (Ps 88:12). Another reason why The Psalmist calls it a land of forgetfulness is because God does not remember those who are here. “…like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand (Ps 88:5).

3.3. Place of Silence

“Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol (Ps 31:17).” In this passage the psalmist wishes that the wicked go dumbfounded to Sheol. At another place, the psalmist says that if the Lord had not been his help, his soul would soon have lived in the land of silence (Ps 94:17). Psalm 115:17 also expresses the same understanding. It is also probable that being a place where one cannot praise God, it becomes a land of silence.

3.4. Place of Darkness

The Psalmist says, “For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead (Ps 143:3). In Sheol there is no light (88:6,12). It is also considered the abode of the Raphaim (shades) (88:10-12) which is an allusion that Sheol is a place of darkness. Job says “…before I go whence I shall not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness (Job 10:21-22).” There are other passages in the Bible which suggest Sheol as a place of darkness (Job 38:17; 17:13). According to Theodore J. Lewis, “Darkness is a key characteristic of netherworlds and this holds true for Sheol as well. It occurs in parallelism with ḥōšek, “darkness” (Job 17:13; cf. Lam 3:6; Job 18:18) as does ˒ereṣ, “underworld” (Pss 88:13; 143:3).”[17]

3.5. Place of all the Dead

As in the other books of the Old Testament, the book of Psalm also contains the idea that Sheol is a place of all the dead. “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol? (Ps 89:48). Like in other places of Old Testament, there are differences of opinion in the book of Psalms too concerning who will go down to Sheol. Although the above passage indicate that all the dead, both the righteous and the wicked would go down to Sheol, there are a few passages which think that only the wicked will go there (Ps 9:17). Probably, the idea of Sheol as being the place of all the dead has undergone a change in the course of history. From the place of all the dead, it later became a place for the wicked. Such a contrasting view is tried to reconcile in the later Jewish literature. The book of Enoch makes divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny ( Enoch 22:1-14).[18]

3.6. Land of Shades or Shadow of Death

Sheol is the place of theרְפָאִים (rephaim). The original meaning of the word is uncertain. It is often translated “the shades below” (cf. Ps. 88:11; Job 26:5; Isa. 26:14). These are dead people who dwell in “the depths of Sheol” (Prov. 9:18), where they live together in “the assembly of the dead (rephaim)” (Prov. 21:16). This understanding of rephaim seems to have been widespread in ancient Syria-Palestine.[19]

3.7. Sheol as the Pit

(Ps 30:3). יְֽהוָ֗ה הֶֽעֱלִ֣יתָ מִן־שְׁא֣וֹל נַפְשִׁ֑י חִ֜יִּיתַ֗נִי )מִיּוֹרְדֵי־](מִיָּֽרְדִי־[בֽוֹר׃

O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit (Ps 30:3). The text is a form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism wherein the second part of the verse simply repeats and enforces the thought of the first. Therefore it becomes clear that in this verse, Sheol is synonymous with the Pit. In Hebrew the word Pit (בֽוֹר) is used 37 times. At least in a few instances, the word is used to mean the “pit” which becomes one’s grave (Ps. 55:23, “pit of the grave”). The word is also used to mean a place where one exists after death (Ps. 69:15). [20]

3.8. Place of Sorrows and Troubles

There are enough indications that Sheol is the imagery of the place of sorrows and troubles. The Psalmist in his distress feels that he is entangled by the cords of Sheol. “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me (Ps 18:4-5).” This verse has a parallel in the 2 Samuel 22:6. “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish (Ps 116:3).” In both these examples, Sheol is having a deep relationship with death itself. It is a place of deep sorrow in which one suffers distress and anguish. And when the psalmist life is full of troubles, he feels that he is near to Sheol (Ps 88:3). One thing to notice in all these psalms which uses the imagery of Sheol as a place of sorrows is that it is an expression of the deep sorrows and troubles of this life itself and not of a life after death. The psalmist feels that the sorrows and troubles of this life have brought him to Sheol.

3.9. Personification of Sheol

Sheol is depicted as having powers to entangle one. Only God can save one from the power of Sheol (Ps 49:15; 18:5; 116:3). In Ps 49: 14-15, Sheol is depicted as a home of the foolhardy as well as their custodian. Such personifications help us to understand that only God can help one from the clutches of death. The personification of Sheol can be found in other places of the Bible too as was explained earlier.

3.10. Descending to Sheol as a Form of Punishment

The wicked go down to Sheol alive as a form of punishment. Such an idea is also found in the book of Numbers. The rebellious Korah and his people go down to Sheol as punishment (Num 16:30-33). We have the parallel passage in Psalm 55:15. “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts (Ps 55:15). The Psalmist prays that a person may be punished with death so promptly that he will be as if buried alive.[21] According to Psalm 141:7 the wicked will be punished their bones will be strewn at the mouth of Sheol (Ps 141:7).

3.11. YHWH’s Presence in Sheol

Even though Sheol is considered as the place of forgetfulness in which the inhabitants are like the like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom God remember no more, for they are cut off from God’s hand (Ps 88:5), it is not away from God’s presence. God’s omnipresence pervade over even the deep darkness of Sheol. The psalmist says he cannot run away from the presence of YHWH. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps 139:8). Such an idea is present in the other texts of Old Testament too (cf. 1 Sa 2:6; De 32:22; Job 14:13; 26:6; Pr 15:11).

3.12. Deliverance from Sheol

The eternal presence of YHWH even in Sheol suggests that in death God’s people remain under His care, and the wicked never escape His judgment.[22] Therefore it is only apt that God delivers the righteous from the shackles of Sheol which is the synonym of death and in which they cannot praise God. The power of God can deliver the psalmist from Sheol (Ps 16:10; 49:15; 86:13). Thus God restores the psalmist to life (PS 30:3). The idea that God delivers the righteous and the god fearing from Sheol is found also in other books (Pr 15:24; Hos 13:14). Thus it becomes clear that YHWH is the ruler of Sheol. This is a major difference from other Ancient Near Eastern traditions in which the ruler of the netherworld is another God.

3.13. Sheol as the Synonym of Anti-Life

From the above analysis it becomes clear that Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the book of Psalms, is a strong imagery for death and all that is anti-life. The meanings that emerged from our analysis clearly point out towards this fact. Sheol is first of all the abode of the dead where there is no praise of God. Even God does not remember those who are in Sheol. It is the place of silence and darkness. Sheol is rightly considered as the land of shades and the shadow of death pervades over it. No one can escape from the clutches of Sheol unless YHWH delivers him. The Psalmist in his distress and suffering feels that he is going down to Sheol. Even those who are alive feel at some moment the forces of death as very powerful. The wicked people live in darkness and do not like the light. They indulge themselves in anti-life activities and therefore the psalmist says that like Korah they will go alive to Sheol. YHWH who is the source of life, will deliver the righteous from the clutches of Sheol. He will not allow them to go to Sheol. In Psalm 116, we see that the psalmist was distressed and sorrowful because, as he puts it, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish (Ps 116:3).” Obviously the psalmist was quite concerned that he’d lose his life in this situation, but the LORD ultimately delivered him and that’s why he exclaims in verse 8: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” The psalmist knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, the world of the dead where life is as good as death. Because the LORD delivered him, he states in verse 9: “I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” If life in this world is “the land of the living” then it stands to reason that Sheol is the land of the dead or “the world of the dead” or “the world of the anti-life.”

4. Sheol and Contemporary Life

The powers of Sheol can be found in the contemporary culture. In all the aspects of our life, we see the cords of anti-life activities. People feel the absence of God in the social, religious and personal lives. Where God is neither praised nor remembered Sheol becomes a reality. When people love darkness of hatred and immorality more than the light of love and Godliness, Sheol will entangle them. The imagery of Sheol brings to our mind al the atrocities that take place against life. Wicked people bring Sheol to their own lives as well as to the other’s lives. The contemporary culture with all its wickedness, atrocities against the weak, poor, minorities, women and children do bring to our mind the imagery of Sheol. When one acts against the life, one becomes an advocate of Sheol. Sheol is the anti-thesis of life. But God as the Supreme authority and author of life will strongly condemn such anti-life activities and bring deliverance to the righteous.

5. Conclusion

The above study of the imagery of Sheol brings to our mind certain points.

1. Sheol is the abode of the dead often synonymous with death itself.

2. Sheol represents all that is anti-life.

3. Sheol is a place of silence where there is no praise of God.

4. Although the presence of God is not felt in Sheol, it is not outside YHWH’s jurisdiction.

5. Everyone experiences this Sheol (whether in this life or after death), God will deliver the righteous from its cords.

Sheol as the anti-thesis of life is the natural place of the wicked who act against the life. If anyone resists the life, he is in Sheol. Therefore as righteous and god-fearing persons, it is an invitation for us to live life. In a world which is so much anti-life oriented, we must become prophets of pro-life. Even though at times we might feel the absence of God in our lives, we need not worry. When one feels distressed and sorrows, one must remember that God as the Supreme author and authority of life can save one from the clutches of death and Sheol. As Christians the resurrection of Jesus, is a proof and surety for us God will not allow his faithful ones to remain in Sheol. Let us praise the Lord in the land of the living so that we will be able to say with the Psalmist, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit (Ps 16:10).”

Bibliography

Bromiley, Geoffrey W. et al., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. Revised. 1986. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Elwell, Walter A and Philip W. Comfort, ed. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Harris, R. Laird. “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts.” No pages. Cited 13-12-12. Online: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bets/vol04/4-4_harris.pdf.

Unger, Merrill Frederick et al., ed. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. 3. 1966. Repr., Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.

Kittel, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 10 vols. electronic ed. 2000, c1976. Repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1964.

Lindemans, Micha F. “Hades.” No pages. Cited 12-12-12. Online: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hades.html.

Toorn, Karel van der et al., ed. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd Extremely Rev. Ed. Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill: Eerdmans, 1999.

Vine, W. E. et al., ed. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. 2 vols. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1996.

Wood, D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, ed. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Youngblood, Ronald F. et al., ed. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Rev. ed. of: Nelson’s illustrated Bible dictionary. 1986. Repr., Nashville: T. Nelson, 1995.


[1]Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ABD 2:101.

[2]D. K. Innes, “Sheol,” NBD 1092.

[3]Innes, NBD 1092.

[4]Lewis, ABD 2:102.

[5]Lewis, ABD 2:104.

[6] Micha F. Lindemans, “Hades,” n.p. [cited 12-12-12]. Online: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hades.html.

[7]Joachim Jeremias, “Hades,” TDNT 1:148

[8]Lewis, ABD 2:105.

[9]Merrill Frederick Unger, “Sheol,” NTUD.

[10] Unger, NTUD.

[11]Lewis, ABD 2:102.

[12]Lewis, ABD 2:103.

[13]H. M. Barstad, “Sheol,” DDD 769.

[14] Lewis, ABD 2:103.

[15]Innes, NBD 1092.

[16], “Sheol,” TBD 364.

[17]Lewis, ABD 2:103.

[18]Innes, NBD 1092.

[19]D. K. Stuart, “Sheol,” ISBE 4:440.

[20], “Sheol,” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words 1:178.

[21] R. Laird Harris, “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts,” n.p. [cited 13-12-12]. Online: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bets/vol04/4-4_harris.pdf.

[22], “Sheol,” NNIBD.

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Messiah in the Semitic Literature

The Influence of Semitic Literature on the New Testament

The theme of the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Kingdom has been very vital for the Jewish society and its literature. The theme runs throughout the Old Testament and can also be traced in more than convincing way in other Jewish literature, which is often called as the Pseudepigrapha, due to its attributed authorship to gain acceptance. This theme has been very central to the Christian teaching as the Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah and in him the Messianic kingdom is realized. But we must also remember that the Jews, who are the original inheritors of the TaNaK, still lives in the expectation of the Messiah.

In the book of Jubilees (31:18-19; 23:26-31), Isaac blesses Judah and says that one of his sons will become the prince of Israel. Though no active role of this prince is mentioned, some authors consider it as the earliest instance of the establishment of the kingdom of Messiah.

II Baruch points towards the establishment of the kingdom of Messiah at the end of the sphere of corruption. This kingdom is not eternal, but a temporal one. At the close of this temporary kingdom the Messiah will return to heaven and the righteous shall rise to a blessed life, 30:1.[1] Messiah will also be a judge (40:1), he will summon all nations, and slay some and spare some (72:2). The book also refers to Messiah as the lightning shone exceedingly so as to illuminate the whole earth (53:9). This might be well reflecting on the coming of the son of man as in Matt. 24:27.

Probably the I Enoch had a great impact on the Messianic expectations and doctrines found in the New Testament. The Messianic kingdom in I Enoch is both sensuous like that of this world (1-36), and also spiritual and blissful as that of the other world (91-104). The parables in the book apply different titles to Messiah which is later taken up in the New Testament. These are ‘Christ’ or ‘the Anointed One’ (48:10; 52:4), ‘the Righteous One’ (38:2; 53:6), ‘the Elect One’ (40:5; 45:3–4; 49:2, 4; 51:3, 5), and ‘the Son of Man’ (46:2, 3, 4; 48:2; 62: 5, 7, 9, 14; 63:11, etc.) These titles are used for Jesus throughout the New Testament. Thus we can see that the I Enoch has greatly influenced the New Testament.

In 4 Ezra, we see that the Messianic age is to follow the Messianic woes (4:56–5:13 a, 6:11–28). This is an apocalyptic writing which sees that the Messianic heralds would appear, though apparently no sign of a Messiah is said about in this. The political understanding of Messiah is also a prominent theme in this book. Wickedness is concentrated in godless imperial Rome1 and the judgment will be effected when Rome is destroyed by the Lion of Judah, i. e. the Messiah … who shall spring front the seed of David (12:32).[2] But this political understanding is rather in juridical terms than in kingship. Messiah was described primarily as acting in legal terms rather than in military ones; his coming as king was not expected. [3] The author also uses the title Son of Man while describing his visions. This text would be a translation of either, בן or עבד. בן would refer to a Jewish titling of the Messiah as “son of God” while עבד would invoke the “servant” language about him. Just like in 2 Baruch, the heavenly pre-existence of Messiah is discussed in this book too (cf. 12:32; 14:9; 2 Bar. 30:1). The Psalms of Solomon sees the Messiah as the anointed of the Lord (17:36). He gathers the dispersed of Israel (17:28-31), judges the tribes (17:48), and pure them from sin (17:41).

The Testament of Judah also speaks of the various qualities of Messiah in detail. The chapter 24 of the book is as follows.

1And after these things shall a star arise to you from Jacob in peace, and a man shall arise [from my seed], like the sun of righteousness, walking with the sons of men in meekness and righteousness; and no sin shall be found in him. 2And the heavens shall be opened unto him, to pour out the spirit, (even) the blessing of the Holy Father; 3And He shall pour out the spirit of grace upon you; and ye shall be unto Him sons in truth, and ye shall walk in His commandments first and last. 4[This Branch of God Most High, And this Fountain giving life unto all.] 5Then shall the sceptre of my kingdom shine forth; and from your root shall arise a stem; 6and from it shall grow a rod of righteousness to the Gentiles, to judge and to save all that call upon the Lord.

The Testament of Joseph is another book where the Messianic coming is said very clearly as we see in the New Testament. The chapter 19, verses 8 and 9 read as follows. “8And I saw that [from Judah was born] a virgin [wearing a linen garment, and from her] was born a lamb, [without spot]; and…9 And because of him the angels and men rejoiced, and all the land.”

Messiah is thus seen in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as the one who comes from Judah (Test. Judah 24:5–6) and Levi (Test. Reuben 6.7-12). He was to be free from sin (T. Jud. 24:1); to walk in meekness and righteousness (T. Jud. 24:1); to establish a new priesthood under a new name (T. Lev. 8:14), and also be a mediator for the Gentiles (T. Lev. 8:14, emended); likewise he was to be a prophet of the Most High (T. Lev. 8:15); to be a king over all the nation (T. Reub. 6:11, 12; T. Lev. 8:14); to war against Israel’s national enemies and against Beliar and the powers of wickedness (T. Reub. 6:12; T. Lev. 18:12; T. Dan 5:10), and deliver the captives taken by him, even the souls of the saints (T. Dan 5:11); to open Paradise to the righteous (T. Lev. 18:10; T. Dan 5:12), and give the saints to eat of the tree of life (T. Lev. 18:11). Moreover, he should give the faithful power to tread upon evil spirits and bind Beliar (18:12), who should be cast into the fire (T. Jud. 25:3), and sin should come to an end (T. Lev. 18:9).[4]

In the Old Testament also we find that the theme of Messiah is a very well developed one. Genesis 3:15 speaks of the seed of the women, which is then understood to be a prophecy about Messiah. Again in Genesis 49:10, the Seed of Judah and the kingship of the Messiah is mentioned. The Deuteronomic promise of a prophet like Moses is also concerning the Messiah (Deut. 18:15–19). In the book of Prophets also we find many occurrence of the Messianic prophecy. He will be born of a young woman (virgin) (Is. 7:1–17) He will be from the stump of Jesse (Is. 11:1-2) and the Herald of the King (Is 42:1-6). He will be the servant (Is. 49:1-13; 50:4-9) who will be suffering (Is. 52:13-53:12). He will be Messiah the King (Jer. 23:5–6), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). He will come riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9–10). He will be the Good Shepherd (Zech. 13:7).

The above study puts sufficient light on the New Testament understanding of Jesus as Messiah. It is to the above mentioned view of Messiah that Jesus came. T Jewish people of Jesus’ time were expecting a Messiah. But it was not a suffering servant as Isaiah had prophesized. But it was the kingly Messiah who would free them from the clutches of the Romans. Sure the Semitic writings of the time had an influence on them. The New Testament writers have also taken up various elements from these Semitic writings to address the issue of Jesus being presented as the Messiah. The effect of these writings are therefore clear when Jesus is proclaimed as the Son of Man, Son of God, the anointed, the suffering servant, the shoot of Jesse, the King of Israel, the Redeemer, the Good Shepherd, etc. Because though these titles, the New Testament writers could easily explain Jesus as the expected Messiah.

In our context too, it is important for us to know the culture and use it to explain our faith. Every religious experience has its own value. Therefore, the study of the culture and the writings will bring us to the ground reality that every religion speaks of the same reality. While Judaism has been expecting the coming of Messiah and his kingdom, Hindus are expecting the return of Ramrajya. In the history of mankind, whenever there were oppressions of the poor, there have always been some people who raise their voice against them. They have always become the Messiah in their lives. Therefore, as Semitic writings correctly put it, the kingdom of Messiah may be a temporary one, but it is the same with this corrupt world. The Son of Man will overcome this and establish the kingdom.

As a Christian, when I reflect on this theme, I understand that Messiah is a gift as well as a challenge to my faith. I have been saved and now part of the messianic kingdom. I now have the responsibility to realize it in my personal life and the community where I belong.


[1]Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament ( ed. Robert Henry Charles;Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2:479.

2 Cf. the ‘Beast’ of the Johannine Apocalypse.

3Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (ed. Robert Henry Charles;Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2:558.

4Michael E. Stone and Frank Moore Cross, Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra (, Hermeneia–a critical and historical commentary on the Bible Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 41.

5Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (ed. Robert Henry Charles; Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 2:294.

The Charism of Apostleship

The word charism has tones of graciousness, of generosity, and of a joyful liberty. Paul speaks of different charisms, their functions and proper usages in the church. A charism is a free and gratuitous gift and it is for the building up of the community. In the first letter to Corinthians, Paul discusses in detail about the various charisms. Paul also puts apostleship as one of the various charisms operative in the church. He asks, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?” (1Cor 12:29 NRSV).

The apostleship heads the list of charismata for the building up of the Church. The term apostle is derived from Classical Greek ἀπόστολος, meaning “one who is sent away”. The apostle is the one who is sent out to the world to spread the Good News and establish the kingdom of God in the name of the Lord. He or she is an emissary of the Lord. In the early church, the apostle needed to be some who has been with the Christ, starting from baptism to the time he was taken up. The Acts of the Apostles states, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” (Act 1:21-22 NRSV). The Apostle also needs to be one who is chosen by the Lord. That is why they pray to God, before deciding on Mathias to be the apostle in place of Judas. “Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”” (Act 1:24-25 NRSV)

Over the centuries, the Catholic Church understood the apostleship as an office. This office is, therefore, carried over to Bishops, who are the successors of the twelve apostles of Jesus. But if the above Biblical passage could apply to the office of the apostles, I find it difficult to understand how anyone could become an apostle today. Therefore, a broader understanding of apostleship could help us to understand the charism of apostleship.

The apostleship as a charism could explain why Paul uses the term for himself and others who are in the ministry of the word (1 Cor 4:9: 9:5; 15:9). He even uses the term to refer to Junia (Rom 16:7), who could be a possible women leader of the church. The word is also used by Luke for Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14). However, he uses this word towards the end of the book and after this usage he would always use the word apostles with elders. So probably, Luke might have noticed an increasing phenomenon of Paul and Barnabas and others being called as the apostles.

By rightly analyzing the above passages, we can very well say that, Apostleship is a gratuitous gift. It was given to the twelve apostles of Jesus as a free gift. “He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons (Mar 3:13-15 NRSV). They were called not for their own benefit and edification, but for the building up of the church. That is why apostleship can rightly be called a charism. As it is rightly quoted,

“The Apostolic office contains in itself a claim to all charismata, for the object of its ordinary working is identical with the object of these special gifts: the sanctification of souls by uniting them in Christ with God. The Apostles received the first great effusion of charismata when the Holy Ghost descended on them in the shape of fiery tongues, and they began to speak in diverse tongues. Throughout their whole missionary activity they are credited with supernatural powers by Scripture, history, and legend alike. The legend, however fanciful in its facts, is built upon the general sense of the Church. Through the Apostles the fullness of Christ’s gifts flowed on to their helpers in various measure, according to the circumstances of persons and places.”[1]

Apostleship is therefore a charism, and as a charism still continues to be freely bestowed on the individuals for the building up of the church. This charism might accompany other charisms. But anyone who is doing the apostolate of Jesus can rightly be called an apostle. That is why Mother Teresa of Calcutta is known as the apostle to poor and destitute, St. Francis of Assisi can rightly be called the apostle to the nature, etc. This apostleship also invites us to be a missionary of Jesus, to proclaim his words, even to the people who have not heard about Jesus, like St. Francis Xavier, the second apostle to India.

In my personal experience of being called to the ministerial priesthood of Jesus, I always thought about it as a free gift which is given to me for the building up of the kingdom of God. If my call was only to the priesthood, I might end up as being a mere cultic priest. Therefore, I understand that my call to priesthood is a call to be an apostle.

This apostleship can co-exist with the office. The charisms and office are often said to be in conflict. But in apostleship they can co-exist and complement each other. Having said this, I do not intend to minimize the charism of apostleship exclusively to the office or to those in hierarchy. It is a free and gratuitous gift and therefore can be bestowed upon anyone whom God choses (cf. Mar 3:13-15). God can call anyone to be an apostle. The great apostle Paul is an example of that.

Therefore, if God choses one to be an apostle, he or she should strive to be an emissary of God. This call can be to different spheres of life. One may be called to be an apostle to eco-systems, to social-service, to education, to proclamation, to service, etc. These calls are, therefore, to different apostolate. If we can give Christ to the world, we can become apostles. One needs to find out his apostleship. It calls for discernment.

Therefore, if one wants to be an apostle, he or she also needs to respond to the call very positively. As the Gospel of Mark says, “… he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.” An apostle should, therefore, have the God-experience. He or she is an emissary of God, one who brings God visible in the world.

We must understand that apostleship is a charism and as a charism it is a gratuitous gift and should be used for the building up of the community. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13 NRSV). If one calls himself or herself as an apostle of the Lord, he or she must strive to build up the body of Christ.


[1] accessed on 3 August 2012; available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03588e.htm; on Internet

* The above article is reproduced from my notes. No plagiarism purposefully intended.  

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