Jehovah's Witnesses, Isaiah, and the state of the dead

by Luke Wayne
6/30/17

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that man has no soul or spirit that continues to exist after death. They insist that when a man dies, he ceases to exist. Nothing of his person endures. Only his rotting flesh remains. Future resurrection is not the spirit of a man returning to the fullness of bodily life, but rather God re-creating an identical person out of nothing from only His memory of the way that person once was. One of the texts to which they turn in defense of this belief is in the Book of Isaiah:

"Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of destruction, For You have cast all my sins behind Your back. For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness," (Isaiah 38:18-20).

On the surface and read in isolation, this appears to support the idea that we cease to exist when we die. Read in the fuller context, however, Isaiah gives us a very different picture.

A Little Background

The 38th chapter of Isaiah is obviously not the beginning of the book, and so it is important to note what Isaiah has already told us about death before arriving at this point. Earlier in the book, Isaiah writes:

"Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. They will all respond and say to you, ‘Even you have been made weak as we, You have become like us," (Isaiah 14:9-10).

The term for "spirits of the dead" here is the Hebrew word "raphaim," and literally means ghosts,1 and is sometimes translated "shades."2 The idea is that of an ethereal, shadowy remnant of the once living person that exists on in Sheol (the place of the dead) but is hardly an ideal existence. The biblical hope is not to remain a departed spirit, but rather to return to bodily life in future resurrection. Still, the spirits of the dead described here clearly still exist and are capable of conscious thought. A little later, Isaiah says:

"At night my soul longs for You, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently; For when the earth experiences Your judgments The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness," (Isaiah 26:9).

The soul/spirit is something within him that is distinct from his body, but part of his person. As the same chapter goes on, we read first the despairing thought:

"The dead will not live, the departed spirits will not rise; Therefore You have punished and destroyed them, And You have wiped out all remembrance of them," (Isaiah 26:14).

But afterward, as Isaiah often does, he turns the message of despair around into one of hope, declaring:

"Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits," (Isaiah 26:19).

The "departed spirits" are, again, the Hebrew "raphaim." They are the "ghosts" or disembodied souls of the dead described earlier in the book. They will one day emerge from the depths and be born again to new bodily life in the same bodies in which they died. Their corpses will rise, and they with them! Isaiah teaches that the disembodied spirits of the dead exist, albeit imperfectly, but will one day had full human life in bodies again! This is the biblical hope. It is only after clearly teaching all of this that Isaiah then tells the story in chapter 38.

Hezekiah's Prayer

The words of Isaiah 38:18-20, to which Jehovah's Witnesses appeal, are not Isaiah's own words. They are, rather, part of a prayer by King Hezekiah. It should first be noted that Hezekiah is speaking from a bodily, human perspective. This is part of a prayer recounting God's merciful healing of His illness. Earlier in the prayer, he recalls bemoaning:

"I said, 'I will not see the Lord, The Lord in the land of the living; I will look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world,'" (Isaiah 38:11).

His concern is what he will be able to do bodily "in the land of the living." He likewise concludes the prayer:

"It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today; A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness. The Lord will surely save me; So we will play my songs on stringed instruments All the days of our life at the house of the Lord," (Isaiah 38:19-20).

Giving praise to God with voice and hands through prayer and music, passing the truth of God on to children, these are practical ways that only the living can praise and honor God. Disembodied spirits in Sheol cannot do such things. So, even here, Hezekiah is not trying to make a holistic statement about all of existence and denying that there are spirits of the dead in Sheol. Instead, he is making a practical observation about earthly life and how men honor God uniquely therein.

Further, we have to realize all that Isaiah is doing with the narrative of this king. Isaiah goes out of his way to show us that, while Hezekiah was one of the more faithful kings, he was often short sighted in his thinking and focused only on the immediate. Isaiah reports, for example, that when the servants of the King of Babylon sent an emissary to him to deliver a present because Hezekiah had been deathly ill, Hezekiah took the men around the city and proudly showed them all the treasures of his kingdom, unwittingly inviting the Babylonian invasion. Even when Isaiah rebuked Hezekiah and told Him that Babylon would eventually conquer Jerusalem and carry both the treasures and the people into captivity, Hezekiah responded:

"Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, 'The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.' For he thought, 'For there will be peace and truth in my days,'” (Isaiah 39:8).

Hezekiah was a God fearing man, but one who couldn't seem to see beyond the present moment. So, when Isaiah tells Hezekiah he is going to die, Hezekiah falls reverently before God and, trusting wholly in the LORD, cries out for mercy. In this prayer, He says:

"What shall I say? For He has spoken to me, and He Himself has done it; I will wander about all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, by these things men live, And in all these is the life of my spirit; O restore me to health and let me live! Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of destruction, For You have cast all my sins behind Your back. For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today; A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness. The Lord will surely save me; So we will play my songs on stringed instruments All the days of our life at the house of the Lord,” (Isaiah 38:15-20).

In this prayer, we see Hezekiah's humble acceptance that it is in God's power and prerogative to give one over to the pit of Sheol or to withdraw them from it. Life and death, punishment and deliverance, these are in God's hands. Hezekiah knew it and humbled Himself before God in faith. God delivered Hezekiah, and this was important for Israel to see as Isaiah was preparing them for the coming exile to Babylon, an exile to which (as we saw above) Hezekiah's own failures would afterward help to contribute.

Even here, however, Hezekiah's words reflect his tendency to think only about the moment and not look further out to God's ultimate work beyond the exile and even beyond the grave. Isaiah uses Hezekiah as both a positive and a negative example. Hezekiah's words are not meant to trump Isaiah's own plain teachings. Hezekiah is, rather, an illustration of the tension that Isaiah is presenting between a grim immediate future and the promise of an ultimate future hope, both of which should serve to call Israel to repentance. Hezekiah's prayer, therefore, is not presented as a lecture on human existence after death in contradiction to all that Isaiah has already taught the reader clearly on those subjects.

The Book of Isaiah affirms the biblical teaching that men and women have enduring souls that continue to exist after they die. Indeed, it sets forth our ultimate hope that such souls will be raised again to bodily life in the age to come!

  • 1. William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1988) 344
  • 2. see, for example, the rendering in the NRSV