Jefferson Vann explains a Hebrew term for hell that reflects the idea of a spoiled vineyard.
In this series of studies on hell so far, we have examined two Old Testament terms that help explain the biblical warnings about hell, and describe its nature.
We looked at the term, חרם, in the recent article “Set apart for destruction,” and found that all items or souls so dedicated were to be completely destroyed as offerings to God.
We also looked at the term אבד (Abad), the word normally translated ‘perish,’ in the article Perish the thought. We saw that it always refers to death or annihilation. It never means merely being marred and separated.
So far, we have uncovered nothing of the concept of a never-ending place of suffering. Instead, we have seen that the biblical audience would have understood these warnings as threats to their lives, so that if the words were used to describe hell, the listeners would expect hell to be a second death, an ultimate death.
Today I would like to centre our focus on the Hebrew word שחת (shachat), which can have the meaning of mar, or spoil. Could this be where people get the idea that hell is simply going to be suffering, and not ultimate death? As usual, I want to look at how the term is actually used in the Bible.
The earliest use of the term is the account of Noah’s flood. Noah’s flood is referred to in the New Testament as a type, a prefiguring of what the final judgement will be like.1
- Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with wickedness. God saw how corrupt the earth was, for every creature had corrupted its way on the earth.2
The word describes the sinful state that humanity had quickly descended to. It was as if God were a vintner who had left his vineyard on its own, and come back to find the vineyard spoiled. If we had only these verses, we might certainly conclude that if שחת (shachat) is a word floating around in the minds of the biblical audience, then warnings of hell might involve some kind of perpetual decay. But we must read on.
- Then God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to every creature, for the earth is filled with wickedness because of them; therefore I am going to destroy them along with the earth.3
You see, God goes on to pronounce the judgement of destruction upon the planet, destruction that will “put an end” to every creature. What was the verb Moses used for “destroy”? It was the same verb that had been translated “corrupt” in the previous verses. It was שחת (shachat)! A ruined, spoiled vineyard is one where the grapes have died. Such a vineyard must be destroyed and replanted.
The Greeks used the words φθείρω and καταφθείρω to translate שחת in the above verses. These words are useful because they, also have that double meaning of both “ruin” and “destroy.”
Note how φθείρω is used in the New Testament to describe the final judgement.
- If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy, and that is what you are.4
You can see the idea of spoiling the vineyard here as well, although the metaphor Paul uses is that of defiling a temple. Both ideas – that of spoiling and of destruction – are present in the same verse, and use the same word.
- But these people, like irrational animals– creatures of instinct born to be caught and destroyed– slander what they do not understand, and in their destruction they too will be destroyed.5
- But these people blaspheme anything they do not understand. And what they do understand by instinct– like irrational animals– by these things they are destroyed.6
Both Peter and Jude use the word as well to describe the ultimate destruction of false teachers. It is a helpful word because it weds the idea of a spoiling crop with the destruction of that crop to make room for a new one. That is the idea behind שחת (shachat) in the Old Testament.
The term שחת (shachat) is sometimes translated “the pit” as if describing death by referring to the grave where the dead are placed.
- to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.7
- He draws near to the Pit, and his life to the executioners.8
- and to be gracious to him and say, “Spare him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom,”9
- He redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit, and I will continue to see the light.10
The Greek words used to translate שחת in these instances were either θάνατος (death), or διαφθορά (decay). Both words show that the pit was not seen as a place where anyone goes alive.
The term שחת (shachat) is used prophetically of the fact that when the Messiah will descend to the place of the dead, he will not stay there long enough to rot.
- For you will not abandon me to Sheol; you will not allow your faithful one to see decay.11
This parallelism shows the connection between being in the grave (Sheol) and what you do there (decay). Here again, the image of a spoiled vineyard helps us to see what is being expressed. There is no concept of continued existence once a person has gone down to the pit. Death is all there is, unless God intervenes, as he will with the Messiah.
To go down to the pit is to be reduced to dust.
- What gain is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your truth?12
To go down to the pit is the opposite of living forever.
- so that he may live forever and not see the Pit.13
Isaiah uses the term with a heavy dose of that (spoiled vineyard) allusion.
- The Lord says this: “As the new wine is found in a bunch of grapes, and one says, ‘Don’t destroy it, for there’s some good in it,’ so I will act because of my servants and not destroy them all.14
The prophet expresses God’s love for his people, and his desire to rescue them from their corruption and to restore his vineyard.
What can we learn about hell from this study? We learn that hell is not what God wants. He wants his people to live and be fruitful. But hell awaits for all those who become corrupted, and are never restored to spiritual fruitfulness. It is death. It is decay into dust. It is ultimate destruction.
1Matthew 24:37; Luke 17:26.
2Genesis 6:11-12 CSB.
3Genesis 6:13 CSB.
41 Corinthians 3:17 CSB.
52 Peter 2:12 CSB.
7Job 33:18 NIV.
8Job 33:22 CSB.
9Job 33:24 CSB.
10Job 33:28 CSB.
11Psalm 16:10 CSB.
12Psalm 30:9 CSB.
13Psalm 49:9 CSB.
14Isaiah 65:8 CSB.