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What are the pangs of Sheol in Psalm 116:3?

pangs of Sheol

Psalm 116, one of the Hallel Psalms, is a prayer of thanksgiving and praise in which the psalmist reflects on God’s healing deliverance from a life-threatening illness. He describes his agonizing ordeal in the throes of death: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish” (Psalm 116:3, ESV).

In the original Hebrew language, the word for “pang” means “an oppressive state of physical, mental, social, or economic adversity, distress, affliction, or anguish.” This word appears only in two other verses in the Bible: Psalm 118:5 and Lamentations 1:3.

Sheol is a transliterated Hebrew term used to refer to “the grave, the pit, or the tomb.” In Scripture, Sheol applies to the underworld or the realm of the dead (see Job 14:13; 1 Kings 2:6). Some older Bible translations incorrectly translate Sheol as “hell.” Psalm 89:48 asks, “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (ESV). Death is the destiny of every person, but hell is not. The New Testament equivalent to Sheol is hades (Greek), which also refers to “the place of the dead.”

The psalmist’s torment is so great that he believes the underworld has come to claim him. The ESV speaks of “the pangs of Sheol”; other translations have “the anguish of the grave” (NIV), “the terrors of the grave” (NLT), and “the horrors of the grave” (GW). In his terrified frame of mind and tormented physical state, the psalmist is convinced that his hour of death has arrived. Later, he declares, “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling” (Psalm 116:8).

While an ancient Hebrew cantor might say, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me,” a modern-day worshiper may sing, “Death stared me in the face, hell was hard on my heels” (The Message), or “I was wound in the wrappings of death; the terror of dying and the grave had a grip on me” (The Voice). One thing is sure: the psalmist was convinced he was as good as dead before the Lord saved and delivered him.

In the New Testament, Peter refers to “the pangs of death” in connection with Christ’s resurrection: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24, ESV). Since Jesus Christ is the resurrection and life (John 14:6, 25), death and the underworld have no hold on Him and no power to defeat Him.

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What are the pangs of Sheol in Psalm 116:3?
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This page last updated: May 6, 2024