The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. Psalms 9:17 (KJV)
The wicked will return to Sheol –all the nations that forget God. ~ Psalms 9:17 (CSB)
Jefferson Vann compares two versions of Psalm 9:17, explaining which better reflects the Hebrew.
Going back to Sheol
The most common Old Testament word describing the fate of the lost is Sheol. The popular misconception about Sheol is that it is a synonym for hell. The idea is that it is a place where bad people go to suffer eternally after they die.
The King James translators are partly to blame for this ongoing misconception because they translated the word as “hell” a few times.1
These mistranslations suggested that the wicked immediately go to a place of fiery punishment as soon as they die. Lexicographers added to this misrepresentation of Sheol by listing words like “the underworld”, “hell”, and “wicked sent there for punishment” as options for the semantic range of the term. Preachers preached hell as the place where God will punish sinners forever, and heaven as the only alternative.
The vast majority of the times when Sheol appeared in the Old Testament, even the KJV translated it as “the grave” or “the pit”. The word never refers to a place where souls are consciously tormented. It always refers to the state of being dead — being silent in a cold, dark grave. It never refers to final punishment at all. It refers to an intermediate state where people wait to be resurrected, judged and then punished— or rewarded. It is not used exclusively of the wicked. Even the righteous will go to Sheol.
Notice— for example— how a modern translation renders Psalm 9:17. Instead of saying that the wicked will be turned to hell (KJV), it asserts that they will return to Sheol.
The wicked will return to Sheol — all the nations that forget God. ~ Psalms 9:17 (CSB)
Why is that a better translation?
First, it fits the context of Psalm 9. In that psalm, the wicked are described as perishing before God (3), being destroyed by him, and having their names erased for ages and ages (5). They have come to permanent ruin, their cities have perished, and their name has been erased for ages and ages (6). God will not forget the righteous (18). He will remember the prayers of his children (12), but will forget those who have chosen to forget him (17).
Where are these wicked people whom God has chosen to forget? They are in Sheol. They are lying in their graves, reduced to an unconscious state. Justice has occurred— not because the wicked have entered a time of punishment in hell, but because they chose to forget God while they were alive, so God chooses to set them aside and forget them for ages in Sheol.
This is not the final punishment. Judgment Day has not occurred yet. Sheol is not hell. It is a waiting place in between this life and judgment.
A second reason that the modern translations of this text render it better than the KJV is that they choose to transliterate the word Sheol. This avoids technical problems. Sheol has no exact English translation equivalent. Hell is misleading because that word generally refers to final punishment, not the intermediate state. The grave and the pit are better translations, but Sheol properly refers to the state of being dead, not the place where the dead are buried. The closest proximation in English would be something like gravedom.
Sheol reflects the imagery of going down to the grave.
Genesis 37:35 (CSB)
All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said. “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” And his father wept for him.
Numbers 16:30 (CSB)
“But if the LORD brings about something unprecedented, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them along with all that belongs to them so that they go down alive into Sheol, then you will know that these men have despised the LORD.”
1 Kings 2:9 (CSB)
“So don’t let him (Shimei) go unpunished, for you are a wise man. You know how to deal with him to bring his gray head down to Sheol with blood.”
A third reason that the modern translations are better has to do with their rendering of the verb Shuv as return, rather than turn (which the KJV uses). Shuv refers to going back to somewhere you have already been. In Genesis 8, the word was used to describe the dove Noah sent out from the ark, who kept coming back when he found no dry land to rest upon. Finally, it did not come back (Shuv) because the land had dried up. In Genesis 18, the LORD promised to come back to where Abraham was in a year’s time. The verb he used was Shuv.
The word is found in Genesis 37:29 which says that Reuben returned (Shuv) to the pit and saw that Joseph was not there. It was used of Joseph, who in Genesis 42:24 turned away from his brothers and wept. Then he turned back (Shuv) and spoke to them. I could cite many more examples, but it is clear from these that Shuv carries the idea of returning to someplace you have already been. So “return” better translates the word in Psalm 9.
But in popular pagan eschatology, the wicked go to hell when they die, but they don’t come from there. So, how can they return to it?
Here is where we have to unlearn pagan eschatology before we can see what the Bible teaches about death.
The first step in doing this is to revisit what God said about human creation.
Genesis 2:7 (CSB)
Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.
God made the man (Adam) from inanimate matter and breathed life into him. Human beings came from dust: unconscious soil.
Genesis 3:19 (CSB)
“You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.”
After the fall, humans had lost their opportunity for immortal life in the garden. The only other place to “go “ is back to the dust — back to unconscious inanimate matter. That state of returning to pre-creation nothingness is Sheol.
Psalms 90:3 (CSB) You return mankind to the dust, saying, “Return, descendants of Adam.”
Psalms 104:29 (CSB) When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.
Psalms 146:4 (CSB) When his breath leaves him, he returns to the ground; on that day his plans die.
Ecclesiastes 3:20 (CSB) All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.
Wait… doesn’t the Bible say our sprits go to heaven?
Ecclesiastes 12:7 (CSB) and the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
The word rendered spirit refers to that breath that God have to animate his creations. It (God’s breath) returns to him, but we return to the dust.
Everybody returns to Sheol.
In fact, we all do. Bad people do not go to hell when they die, and good people don’t go to heaven when they die. Everybody returns to Sheol. Psalm 9 did not assert that the wicked return to Sheol but the righteous go somewhere else. No, the psalmist’s point was that no matter what trouble or persecution or trials the righteous face at the hands of God’s enemies, it is all temporary. Sheol will equalize everything.
The gospel points us to realities who go beyond the message of Psalm 9: Christ’s return, the resurrection, judgement day, eternal life for the saved, the second death for the lost. But the gospel message never contradicts what is taught in this psalm. If the gospel taught that bad people go to hell as soon as they die, it would contradict this passage. But the gospel adds a new promise to the old. It affirms that God will cause all his enemies to sleep in Sheol. Then, it promises that God will ultimately destroy them after their fair judgement by Christ.
- 1 Deuteronomy 32:22; 2 Samuel 22:6; Job 11:8; 26:6; Psalm 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 55:15, 86:13, 116:3, 139:8; Proverbs 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; Isaiah 5:14; 14:9, 15; 28:15, 18; 57:9; Ezekiel 31:16,17; 32:21,27; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Habakkuk 2:5.