The Land of the Living is a phrase that we find scattered in the Hebrew Bible, but the concept of it carries on well into the New Testament. Living on land, of course, is what we do. We were never meant to settle in the sky or settle under the sea. Life is connected to land. We eat off of it, we build out of it, and we are buried in it. But where is the real land of the living? Is it on earth? Is it in heaven? And who lives there?
Earth: The Land of the Living
In many ways we get the sense that the land of the living is right here on earth. And that makes sense. YHWH created the earth to host the living. The earth is His land and we were created to live in it.
David knew where he was. He was in the land of the living, but he was not alone in it. God was there with him:
[David:] When my spirit felt weak within me, You knew my path.
In the way where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. Look to the right and see; for there is no one who regards me favourably; there is no escape for me; no one cares for my soul.
I cried out to You, YHWH; I said, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living [b-erets ha-khayim].
Give Your attention to my cry, for I have been brought very low; rescue me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.
Bring my soul out of prison, so that I may give thanks to Your name; the righteous will surround me, for You will look after me.”
David felt that he was imprisoned in the land of the living, but YHWH would rescue him, loosen the chains, and allow him truly live.
Job reflected on the fact that the land of the living did not hold the root of wisdom:
Job 28:12-14, 20-23
[Job:] “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?
Mankind does not know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living [b-erets ha-khayim].
The ocean depth says, ‘It is not in me’; and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
…“Where then does wisdom come from? And where is this place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living creature, and concealed from the birds of the sky.
Abaddon and Death say, ‘With our ears we have heard a report of it.’
God understands its way, and He knows its place.
YHWH was the root of wisdom. Death had only heard rumours about it; they could not pinpoint its location, but God knew its place because it resided with Him. God’s dwelling place was at the heart of this phrase. The land of the living was where God resided. He was the God of life. His enemy was the commander of death. God’s enemies could go to death and take people with them, but they would not enter the dwelling place of YHWH.
There is no living in Sheol
One thing was made clear… there was no dead in the land of the living. After dying, you went elsewhere. Those who have turned away from their Creator could not abide with Him.
[David to Saul:] Why do you boast in evil, you mighty man? The faithfulness of God endures all day long. Your tongue devises destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, lies more than speaking what is right. Selah
You love all words that devour, you deceitful tongue. But God will break you down forever; He will snatch you up and tear you away from your tent, and uproot you from the land of the living [meh-erets khayim]. Selah
The righteous will see and fear, and they will laugh at him, saying, “Behold, the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and was strong in his evil desire.”
To be uprooted from the land of the living, meant going to the land of the dead:
For this is what the Lord YHWH says: “When I make you a desolate city, like the cities which are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you and the great waters cover you, then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I will make you remain in the lower parts of the earth, like the ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I will put glory in the land of the living [b-erets khayim]. I will cause you sudden terrors and you will no longer exist; though you will be sought, you will never be found again,” declares the Lord YHWH.
The land of the dead was in a pit where you no longer exist, where you could never be found again. Simply, it’s the opposite of the land of the living.
According to the prophet Ezekiel, the Assyrians, the Elamites, the hordes of Meshech and Tubal, the Edomites, the chiefs of the North, the Sidonians, and the Egyptians were all terrors to God’s people in the land of the living. These enemies, who made no covenant commitment to God, were surrounded by their own graves. The pit of nothingness awaited them:
“Assyria is there and all her company; her graves are all around her. All of them killed, fallen by the sword, whose graves are set in the remotest parts of the pit, and her company is all around her grave. All of them killed, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living [b-erets khayim].
Elam is there and all her hordes around her grave; all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, who inflicted their terror on the land of the living [b-erets khayim], and bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit. They have made a bed for her among the slain with all her hordes. Her graves are around it, they are all uncircumcised, killed by the sword (although their terror was inflicted on the land of the living [b-erets khayim]), and they bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit; they were put in the midst of the slain.
Meshech, Tubal, and all their hordes are there; their graves surround them. All of them were killed by the sword uncircumcised, though they inflicted their terror on the land of the living [b-erets khayim]. Nor do they lie beside the fallen heroes of the uncircumcised, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war and whose swords were placed under their heads; but the punishment for their wrongdoing rested on their bones, though the terror of these heroes was once in the land of the living [b-erets khayim]. But in the midst of the uncircumcised you will be broken and lie with those killed by the sword.
There also is Edom, its kings and all its princes, who despite all their might are laid with those killed by the sword; they will lie with the uncircumcised and with those who go down to the pit.
There also are the chiefs of the north, all of them, and all the Sidonians, who in spite of the terror resulting from their might, in shame went down with the slain. So they lay down uncircumcised with those killed by the sword and bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit.
These Pharaoh will see, and he will find consolation regarding all his hordes killed by the sword, Pharaoh and all his army,” declares the Lord YHWH. “Though I inflicted the terror of him on the land of the living [b-erets khayim], yet he will be laid to rest among the uncircumcised along with those killed by the sword, Pharaoh and all his hordes,” declares the Lord YHWH.
This was the point: all who made no covenant commitment to YHWH and who reigned terror on YHWH”s land of the living would go to the place where there was no life. They would go to the grave disgraced, and enter the pit of nothingness.
The fear of being annihilated from God’s kingdom was a deep seeded fear for the Ancient Near East followers of YHWH.
When king Hezekiah became gravely ill, his life hung in the balance. After he prayed sincerely for healing, God restored his life. In his prayer of thanksgiving, Hezekiah gave thanks to YHWH for saving his soul from the “pit of nothingness”:
This is a writing of Hezekiah king of Judah after his illness and recovery:
I said, “In the middle of my life I am to enter the gates of Sheol; I have been deprived of the rest of my years.”
I said, “I will not see YHWH, YHWH in the land of the living [b-erets ha-khayim]; I will no longer look on mankind among the inhabitants of the world. Like a shepherd’s tent my dwelling is pulled up and removed from me; as a weaver I rolled up my life. He cuts me off from the loom; from day until night You make an end of me.
I composed my soul until morning. like a lion—so He breaks all my bones, from day until night You make an end of me. Like a swallow, like a crane, so I twitter; I moan like a dove; my eyes look wistfully to the heights; Lord, I am oppressed, be my security.
What shall I say? For He has spoken to me, and He Himself has done it; I will walk quietly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul.
Lord, by these things people live, and in all these is the life of my spirit; restore me to health and let me live!
Behold, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; but You have kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, for You have hurled 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.
YHWH is certain to save me; so we will play my songs on stringed instruments all the days of our life at the house of YHWH.”
There’s the pit of nothingness and there is life. Only YHWH can usher you into life eternally. It’s life or death. It’s life or nothing… and it’s up to us to decide where we want to ultimately reside.
No Longer Remembered
Jeremiah tirelessly preached to the people of Jerusalem, imploring them to turn back to God. But his gloomy repent or die sermons were not well received. He accumulated many enemies, resulting in attacks on his life:
[Jeremiah:] But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; and I did not know that they had devised plots against me, saying, “Let’s destroy the tree with its fruit, and let’s cut him off from the land of the living [meh-erets khayim], so that his name will no longer be remembered.”
Jeremiah’s enemies did not understand death under God’s domain. Death was not an end for everyone. The grave was associated with annihilation, nothingness, and the snuffing out of the soul. To be no longer remembered was the ultimate death… and for many that was what awaited them at the end of their life. But Jeremiah was part of YHWH’s family. He was a devoted child of God, and he would be remembered, even if his enemies had slaughtered him.
David, also a devoted son of God, was similarly hounded by enemies and he turned to God in prayer for salvation and rescue:
[David:] Teach me Your way, YHWH, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not turn me over to the desire of my enemies, for false witnesses have risen against me, and the violent witness.
I certainly believed that I would see the goodness of YHWH in the land of the living [b-erets khayim].
Wait for YHWH; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for YHWH.
David knew he would see the goodness of YHWH in the land of the living because YHWH dwelt in the land of the living… and where God resided, goodness resided.
But life and death was a constant battle that needed to be dealt with… one would have to be victorious over the other. How YHWH resolved the conflict was shocking and perfect.
The Messiah in the Land of the Living
1 Corinthians 15:54
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Paul wholeheartedly believed that the words perishable and mortal would be redefined for those who followed YHWH. Death would no longer chain us to the grave because Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah paid the price for redemption.
The prophet Isaiah envisioned a Messiah who would sacrifice Himself to gain victory over death. He was the angel of YHWH, the firstborn Son, the High Priest, who would become the lamb to slaughter. To defeat death, someone would have to die and face the territory of death alone… outside of the land of the living:
All of us, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but YHWH has caused the wrongdoing of us all to fall on Him.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off from the land of the living [meh-erets khayim] for the wrongdoing of my people, to whom the blow was due?
And His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
But YHWH desired to crush Him, causing Him grief; if He renders Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of YHWH will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, for He will bear their wrongdoings.
This was the stunning thing about Yeshua; He gave up who He was and took upon Himself the burden of sin, in order to open up the eternal land of the living to everyone.
[Jesus:] “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Yeshua said He was “the life” and yet He forfeited His very being and went to “the death”. In this way everyone goes to death, but those who align themselves with YHWH will not stay in the grave, but continue on to the new land of the living, where YHWH resides. The apostle Paul put it this way:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into the Messiah Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as the Messiah was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in the newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for the one who has died is freed from sin.
Now if we have died with the Messiah, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that the Messiah having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all time; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. So you too, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in the Messiah Jesus.
Yeshua changed the playing field. He took our sin to the grave with Him and left it there… and then He came back, paying our entrance fee into God’s Kingdom. He conquered the grave so we don’t have to stay there. Instead, we get to live with YHWH.
The unnamed author of Psalm 116 understood that the land of the living wasn’t tied to one particular place; the land of the living was wherever YHWH resided. While we are on earth, by His Spirit, He is with us here, but when our earthly bodies die, we will be with Him wherever He is:
The snares of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of YHWH:
“Please, YHWH, save my life!”
Gracious is YHWH, and righteous; yes, our God is compassionate. YHWH watches over the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
Return to your rest, my soul, for YHWH has dealt generously with you. For You have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before YHWH in the land(s) of the living [b-ar’tsoht ha-khayim].
For the first time in this phrase we get the plural word for land. Technically it should read the lands of the living. Whether this was intentional or not, it does help make the point that the land of the living isn’t necessarily tied solely to earth. Wherever YHWH is, is where life resides. The land of the living is where His followers dwell. This earth is the land of the living, but not all who dwell here are truly alive.
The beauty of the new heaven and new earth, described in Isaiah 65:17, Isaiah 66:22, 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, is that it will be the land of everything living. For all who are not truly alive will go to the pit of nothingness and life will be out of reach. But those who bear the image of YHWH will dwell with Him, living a beautiful life forever… and walking alongside our Creator, just as Eve and Adam did in the beginning. This is the great return from the exodus, out of the Garden and back again… back to the true Land of the Living. And it all rests on your decision. Do you want to die to nothingness, or truly live for the first time in forever?
Next week: Light of Life