Isaiah 14:10-11: Maggots and Worms

They will all respond and say to you,
'Even you have been made weak as we,
You have become like us.
Your pomp and the music of your harps
Have been brought down to Sheol;
Maggots are spread out as your bed beneath you
And worms are your covering.'

— Isaiah 14:10-11 (NASB 1995)


In chapter 14, Isaiah gives a prophecy of the deliverance of "Jacob" and "Israel" from slavery and captivity. When this deliverance comes, they will recite (or perhaps sing?) a "taunt against the king of Babylon", who has died. ʏʜᴡʜ has ended the rule of this wicked king (v. 6) and his former subjects rest and rejoice after being freed from his tyranny (vv. 7-8).

Then, in the taunt, there is an eerie scene in which the once powerful king arrives at Sheol — the Hebrew word for the grave — and the spirits of his conquered foes rise up also to mock him. The mighty king of Babylon, who once believed he was above all men, now shares their fate in death and has become as powerless as they are. He who awed the world with his pomp and music, now lays in the dirt, his decomposing body eaten up by maggots and worms.

Personally, I do not believe that the image of the heckling of the spirits in this passage was meant to be taken literally, but rather to emphasize in a poetic and haunting way that the king of Babylon will be brought low and share the same fate as other mortals. The Bible does, however, teach more about the afterlife in other passages, so do not take this as an endorsement of unbiblical teachings such as soul-sleep and annihilation.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary (TBKC) argues that the king of Babylon here should be identified as the proud tyrant Sennacherib (705-681 BC). He was actually an Assyrian, but the Assyrians ruled over the Babylonians for a time, and Sennacherib was crowned king of Babylon in 728. See TBKC for more dates and other historical and Biblical details.

Hebrew Features

The word חֻלֵּיתָ in verse ten means "to be made weak" (see HALOT). Here, obviously, the king is weak because he is dead, but the word generally carries the idea of being weak from fatigue or illness.

The word "Sheol" in the NASB transliterates the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל. This is generally the approach taken in modern translations due to the difficulties and controversy of knowing how the word should be translated generally or in specific passages. The KJV, for example, translates the word as "grave" in verse 11, but in other places translates it as "hell". Harris, in TWOT, asserts that the afterlife is dealt with in the OT, but that the word Sheol is always referring to the grave, that is, the destination of the dead body. Many passages demand a translation of "grave", while other passages are inconclusive. He argues that if we understand Sheol to refer only to the destination of the body, this removes the theological difficulities attendent with trying to understand the word in other ways, leading to the artificial two-compartment view, or an undifferentiated underworld, or soul sleep, or annihilation.

On the other hand, there is a recent paper in Bibliotheca Sacra from Dunham [Bibliotheca Sacra 178 (January-March 2021): 14-13 "Not Abandoned to Sheol"] making an energetic argument that we should understand Sheol to be referring exclusively to the destination of the spirits of the ungodly, unbelieving dead. In this view, "hell" would always be an appropriate translation, except that there might potentially be some confusion with the lake of fire from the book of Revelation. The argument is based largely on (1) passages describing Sheol as an unpleasant place and a destination for wicked people, and (2) evidence from passages in Psalms and elsewhere that the godly hoped to avoid entering Sheol and that no godly person is explicitly described as having entered Sheol. This view is appealing, but a weakness of the paper is that it often simply assumes passages such as Isaiah 14:11 and the words of Jacob (Genesis 42:38) are referring to the spiritual underworld, rather than explaining why they could not be understood as references to the grave, as Harris asserts.

The word translated "pomp" in the NASB 1995 is גָּאוֹן. In HALOT, this verse is listed as an example of sense 3(b), "presumption". Sense 3(a) is "pride" and other senses are "height" and "eminence". BD gives only two senses for the noun form, namely "exaltation" or "pride, arrogance". "Pomp" is the translation preferred by most English translations, including the NASB 1977 and the NASB 1995, but in fact the NASB 2020 switched over to "pride". The NET Bible uses "splendor".

It is not clear exactly why "the music of [his] harps" is mentioned here, but likely the music was used as part of an ostentatious display of wealth and majesty, and perhaps there was also some pagan religious significance. It is interesting to try and probe the question of exactly what instrument the word נֵבֶל (here נְבָלֶ֑יךָ) is referring to, translated "your harps" in the NASB versions, but the information available is limited and confusing. TWOT (1980) claims, referencing Josephus, that this was a twelve-string instrument, "the Greek equivalent of a harp or lyre", and that it was larger than the kinnôr ("lyre") with a deeper tone, and that we do not know what the shape of the instrument actually was. It also mentions that some would equate it with the very large Egyptian harp, "a zither-type instrument with a wooden sounding box and with ten to twenty strings, standing up to four yards high". The Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible (1986), in the entry on Musical Instruments, briefly mentions it to be an instrument with not more than ten strings, but that some scholars believe it was an instrument made of skin, like a bagpipe.

The KJV gives "the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee", but modern translations generally render the first word רִמָּה as "maggots" (properly it is singular, "the maggot"). Both HALOT and TWOT agree with this identification.


The king of Babylon in this passage was a man of enormous power and influence whose cruel domination troubled and devastated many nations and peoples. And that power was flaunted arrogantly before his subjects. But even the mighty king of Babylon went the way of all men. Death is the great leveler. We are mortals, under the curse of God for our sin, and we go back to the dust — to the maggots and the worms.

Probably most of the people reading this are not rulers of mighty empires, or even people of great power and influence. Nevertheless, there are many people, especially young people, who think they are immortal. Perhaps you are healthy and have a happy life, and you think that death is something that only other people have to face. Or you just don't think about it at all. And so you live your life however you want, arrogantly, assuming that you can do or believe anything that you want, and that there won't be any kind of end to face, or any evaluation or judgment for how you used your limited time on earth. But the truth is that our bodies go to the worms, and then on the other side of death, we have to face our Maker and Judge.

But Christ came to deliver us from death, or rather to remove the sting of death — to rob death of that which makes it so painful and frightening. Those who place their trust in Christ — who believe in him — have eternal life. Their mortal bodies may waste away, but nevertheless they live forever in joy with the Christ who died for them. And as Christ died and was resurrected from the dead, likewise those who trust in Christ will be raised from the dead with new bodies — bodies that are incorruptible and that do not waste away.

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. — Jesus Christ, John 5:24 (NASB 1995)

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. — Paul the Apostle, 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 (NASB 1995)

This work © 2024 by Christopher Howard is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

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Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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