[Note: These are the notes to a sermonette spoken to the United Church of God congregation in Portland, Oregon on January 11, 2019.]
How often do you think about immortal worms? If I had to guess, it is not very often. After all, few of us like to think of immortal worms gorging themselves on the corpses of the wicked unless we have a grim and all too vivid imagination. But there are people who do think of immortal worms as a sign of immortal souls. Let us turn to Isaiah 66:24, the last verse of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 66:24 reads: ““And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”” On the surface, it would appear to be a short jump from a worm that does not die, or an immortal worm as we may think about it, to the thought that the souls of the wicked who are condemned to the lake of fire are themselves immortal. Yet that is far from being the case, and the purpose of today’s message will be to explain why it is that an immortal worm, far from demonstrating the reality of an immortal soul, in fact demonstrates precisely the opposite.
We will conduct our examination of this particular verse in two parallel ways. The Bible itself provides us with two different ways of understanding the context of this verse, both of which lead us to the same conclusion. The first of these ways is for us to look at the context of this verse to understand what it is saying. The second is for us to understand what the Bible has to say about worms. Let us first look at the immediate context of this verse, which will help us to understand the purposes of this verse. Isaiah 66:22-24 reads: ““For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the Lord, “So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the Lord. “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Let us ponder the scene for a moment. Isaiah is describing the situation after the New heavens and the new earth have been established where humanity either has been clothed with immortality or has been condemned to gehenna fire. The purpose of the immortal worms is provide an eternal contrast between eternal life and eternal death, between the continuing fellowship with God and other resurrected believers that takes place in the New Jerusalem and the grim fate of the corpses of the wicked to be continual food for maggots, showing for all time the contrast between life and death, blessing and cursing.
The second way of understanding this particular verse is to look at its language and see what is meant by it. In particular, the most important word to use in understanding Isaiah 66:24 is the word worm. Words containing the Hebrew base translitered as tola, Strong’s word 8438, occur 43 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. More than thirty times, this word refers to the scarlet dye that is used for the threads of the tabernacle. For the tabernacle threads to exist, the worms that make the pigment had to die.
One of the other times the various related words that the Bible discusses a worm occurs in Jonah 4:7, in a passage that helps us to better understand what Isaiah 66 is talking about. Jonah 4:5-11 reads: “So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!” But the Lord said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”” In order to demonstrate God’s desire not to condemn a repentant Nineveh to death, God created a plant that Jonah would have compassion on and then prepared the same kind of worm to eat it that would have eaten the destroyed people and livestock of the Assyrian capital. Jonah, like some of us, was not a man known for being particularly compassionate, and yet he had pity on that plant and thus was at least theoretically able to show compassion on his enemies. Let us profit from the example, and let us remember that for the worm to live, its food must die. An immortal worm must eat something that is mortal. It was the death of the plant that allowed the worm to eat well, and so it will be in the new heavens and new earth when worms eat on the dead corpses of the wicked. Instead of proving an immortal soul, a worm that does not die means quite the opposite thing indeed.
In closing, let us ask what is the purpose of Isaiah 66:24 to us here today? What does the Bible want us to reflect upon the eternal fate of the wicked, who even after death provide evidence of God’s judgment of sin and wickedness to those who remain alive for all time. We may better understand the purpose of Isaiah 66 by looking at a passage that references this verse three times. Let us turn to Mark 9:42-48. Mark 9:42-48 gives us a reflection of the seriousness of sin in the eyes of God: ““But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched— where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched— where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire— where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” How seriously do we take our sins and the importance of living righteousness? Over and over again in this passage, Jesus contrasts what it is like to live injured and maimed and enter into eternal life with the fate of having one’s sins lead one to eternal judgment. We should, of course, recognize that it is not the parts of our body that cause us to sin, but rather the darkness of our hearts and minds. For us to live, the wickedness in us must die.