Did the Israelites hope for a life beyond the grave? I have been reading through some of the Psalms with this question in mind, and am struck by the number of places where the Psalmist expresses hope for life after death. For example, Psalm 23, the last phrase of the Psalm is translated:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (leorech yamim). (Psa 23:1 ESV)
Some expositors take issue with the word “forever” and think it would better be translated “the rest of my life”. While the the Hebrew phrase leorech yamim literally means ‘length of days’ and therefore does not necessarily mean forever, it often does refer to eternity. They further argue that the Israelites viewed death with finality and despair. The souls of the dead inhabit a shadowy underworld where none of the pleasures of this world are known or experienced. This view is typified by Assman,
In fact, not only was there no meaningful afterlife in the Old Testament world, but also no sacred space of duration in this world, such as the Egyptians achieved by means of stony monumentality. The divine and death were kept as far apart as possible, man was close to the divine only during his earthly existence, and all the accounts of righteousness had to be settled in this life; there could be no talk of immortality, yet the life of the individual was surrounded by a mighty horizon of recollections, by a promise that extended not into the afterlife, but into the chain of generations.” (Jan Assman, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt 11)
Lets say, for the sake of argument, that the Psalmist only hoped for a blessed existence during the days that he lived on the earth. Already he is conceiving of his days on earth in terms of a metaphor that sounds very much like the Christian view of heaven. He wants to be with God – in his temple. (cf Psalm 15) It is absurd to think that the Psalmist then envisions that when he dies, he enters the shadowy world of Sheol.
Moreover, there is good reason to think that the Psalmist is referring to more than just the days of his life on earth. The final two clauses of Psalm 23 are in parallel, with the 2nd clause building on the first. The goodness and mercy of the Lord experienced in this lifetime (all my days) becomes the all surpassing hope of dwelling with the LORD in his house forever (length of days). This is how must translations understand it, but it is nevertheless surprising how many commentators go with Gesenius. [See Note 1]
The hope expressed in the last clause of Psalm 23, ‘I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever’, makes for an interesting contrast with the tomb Shebna built for himself as ‘a dwelling in the rocks’. The word Isaiah uses for ‘dwelling’ is ‘mishcan‘ – the same word used for the Temple. Shebna built an impressive tomb to dwell in – a perfectly reasonable thing to do if one believes, like the Egyptians did, that the tomb was an important staging point for the soul on its journey to the afterlife. But Israelite belief and ritual gives no place for a cult of the dead.
I have heard it said, “There is no resurrection in the Bible!!! None!” with an added caveat about Daniel, which is late. While it is true that the resurrection of the body is not made explicit in the OT – belief that the dead will go to be with the LORD is expressed clearly and directly in a number of places. One could argue that this is the central idea behind the temple – it is the stairway that connects heaven and earth. Many of the Psalms that express hope for life after the grave relate this hope to the temple – as Psalm 23 does.
It is interesting that, in light of these OT references, the Lord Jesus referred to heaven as ‘my Father’s house’.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (Joh 14:1-3 NIV)
(1) Gesenius argued that ‘I will dwell in the house of the LORD’ should be translated ‘I will frequent the house of the LORD’. Hengstenburg responds, “… it is impossible that the expression can be applied to literally abiding in the external temple, and it is altogether arbitrary to substitute, as Gesenius does, frequenting, instead of abiding. Moreover, the possibility opened up by God of frequenting the temple, if occurring at all in a Psalm which extols so well what is great and glorious in God, is least of all to be expected at the conclusion, where there ought to have come in some comprehensive significant expression, and where it serves no other purpose except to weak the impression of the whole. As parallel to goodness and love follow me all the days of my life, the words, I dwell in the house of the for ever, sound exceedingly feeble and cold, if they relate to a frequenting of the sanctuary.” (Hengstenberg, E. W. (1842). The Psalms. Edinburgh, T & T Clark.)
(2) Forevermore (leorech yamim) in the OT:
Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore (leorech yamim). (Psa 93:5 ESV)
He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days (orech yamim) forever and ever. (Psa 21:4 ESV)
The phrase also appears in Akkadian texts,
I will give you long days and eternal years in the City, O Essarhaddon, in Arbela, I will be your good shield. (Esarhaddon and Ishtar of Arbela, Foster 2005, 814)