But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me. Selah Psalm 49:15 NASB
Receive – If the Tanakh really doesn’t have a clear concept of Heaven, then what can this verse mean? Doesn’t it imply that there is redemption from Sheol? Doesn’t it suggest that God “saves” us from the eternity of the grave? That seems to be what the translation says, but what about the original Hebrew text? Let’s take a look.
אַךְ-אֱלֹהִים–יִפְדֶּה נַפְשִׁי, מִיַּד-שְׁאוֹל כִּי יִקָּחֵנִי סֶלָה
Psalm 49:16 in the Hebrew text
We’ve already examined the verb pādâ (פְדֶּה – ransom, rescue, deliver). Now we want to look at the phrase “power of Sheol” (מִיַּד-שְׁאוֹל). The key here is the noun yād (coupled to the preposition min, contracted). You will quickly recognize yād as the Hebrew word for “hand,” but its range is much broader than simply a description of the human appendage. Idiomatically it is used for the interactive power of God, authority (to be under someone’s hand), victory over someone or something, power, strength (e.g., the right hand of God), possession (to be in the hand), submission (to give into one’s hand), rebellion (a high hand), and other idioms. The choice of translation depends entirely on the context, and in this case, on the theological assumptions of the translator. If we remove the assumption that this psalm is about being “saved,” i.e., redemption from Hell, then we won’t conclude that it is an indication of an afterlife. In other words, since the Tanakh says virtually nothing about reward and punishment in the next life, we should read this statement in the context of the 9th century B.C.E. when the ideas of Heaven and Hell were not yet developed. In that case, what does it really say?
This psalm is about the apparent status of the rich and powerful. It is an indictment of the arrogance of pride, suggesting that there is no reason to fear or envy the rich and powerful because they will experience the judgment of God. Even if all men die, the psalm tells us that the power of Sheol won’t reign over those who are followers of YHVH. Essentially, this means that those who serve YHVH have no reason to fear death. In the 9th Century B.C.E. there might not have been a clear conception of Heaven and Hell, but death was obviously a threat. The psalm simply reminds that reader that death is of no real consequence as far as the followers of YHVH are concerned. Life and death are entirely in God’s hand, and God will receive the righteous when He chooses. Therefore, you have been rescued from the power (the hand) of Sheol. That does not mean you won’t die. It means you don’t need to fear dying. This verse really says nothing about what happens after you die. Its context is the present—now, while you are alive.
Does this mean Heaven and Hell are just myths? No, I don’t think so. It means that prior to the rabbinic period and the influence of Hellenism, neither Heaven nor Hell were of much concern. The focus was on living, not dying. Maybe that’s a good lesson for us too.
Topical Index: Heaven, Hell, Sheol, redemption, hand, yad, power, Psalm 49:15