Studying Hebrew has really brought a lot of strange things to light for me.
One of these is the grave, or Sheol. I've thought about this a lot today, because it's Easter, the traditional celebration of Messiah's victory over death and the grave, Sheol.
In my mind, Sheol has always had the connotation of a sort of grey, dusty land. Everything is one color and the spirits wander about somewhat dispassionately. But while translating Jonah this semester I learned that's a very different concept than what ancient semitic peoples would have thought of when they talked about the grave.
After Jonah has been swallowed by the fish, he says in his prayer (2:3), "I cried in my distress to the Lord and he answered favorably. From the belly of Sheol I cried for help and you heard my cry."
Have you ever noticed the personification going on there? Sheol has a belly. It's always swallowing people and things. Sheol is Death and is described in ancient semitic myth as having, "a lip to the earth, a lip to the heavens... and a tongue to the stars." He has a constant hunger for the souls of men, and Death says, "My appetite is the appetite of lions in the waste... if it is in very truth my desire to consume 'clay' then in truth I must eat it by the handfuls."
Death and Sheol are terrifying, unstoppable forces before which we are only clay. There is no way to fight, no way to escape. They reach to the stars themselves and before them we have no choice but to fall into the maw of death.
And that is where messiah comes with his good news. He has been anointed to preach good news to the poor, he has been sent to bind up the brokenhearted. He has been sent to announce freedom and a release from darkness for the captives! To proclaim the time of God's favor toward us, to comfort us when we mourn, to provide for our grief and to give us crowns of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and to clothe us in praise instead of despair.
He has taken Death's teeth. He has robbed the grave. He has destroyed terror and replaced it with his love.
"When my life felt weak, I remembered the Lord. My prayer, my God, went to your holy temple. Those who intently watch worthless vanities abandon their devotion. But I, with a voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will repay. Salvation comes from the Lord."
NOTE: If you're interested in the notes on Sheol or the quotes from Death, you should buy this book. And the text we've been using in my class to walk us through Jonah is this one.