Are there passages in the Old Testament indicating that the men and women of ancient Israel entertained a heavenly hope?
It is a mistake to suppose that God’s people had no heavenly hope in Old Testament times. Genesis 5:24 records that, after a godly life, Enoch was taken away (lāqaḥ) by God—with the clear implication that from that time on he was in God’s presence (Hebrews 11:5 confirms this: “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up” [NASB]. Enoch therefore never died but went directly to God’s presence.)
Despite his moods of deep discouragement, the patriarch Job still showed confidence when he said, “After my skin has been destroyed, yet in [from the vantage point of] my flesh I will see God [just previously referred to as Job’s Redeemer (gōʾēl) in Job 19:25]” (Job 19:26). (The rendering “without my flesh I shall see” runs counter to the usage of the preposition min [“from”] wherever else in the OT it is used with the verb “see,” whether ḥāzāh, the one used here, or with the more common rāʾāh. Everywhere else min refers to the vantage point from which the looking is done.)
In the Psalms, David and his successors offer many intimations of future life with God. Even the assertion in Psalm 1:5 that ungodly men and sinners will “not stand in the congregation of the righteous” implies a final judgment either to condemnation or to acquittal and acceptance—terms that would be meaningless if moldering skeletons were all that remained after this earthly life is over. Psalm 16:10 mentions the hope of the bodily resurrection (clearly applied to the resurrection of Christ in Acts 2:27, 31), and is followed by a strong affirmation: “In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forever” (Ps. 16:11). “Forever” here is neṣaḥ, a term that can hardly be shown elsewhere to mean simply ‘the rest of my earthly life’ but that clearly suggests permanence beyond the grave. Again, Psalm 49:15 reads: “God will redeem me from the power of the grave, for He will receive me [lāqaḥ, or ‘take me away’].” This sounds like an assurance that God will not simply keep the psalmist from dying prematurely but rather that he will ever live on with God—in contrast to the spiritually foolish and wicked, whose ultimate home will be Sheol (Ps. 49:10–14). A similar confidence is expressed in Psalm 73:24: “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward [ʾaḥar] receive [lāqaḥ] me to [or “with”] glory.”
Turning to the Prophets, we find that Isaiah has a remarkable passage on this theme in Isa 25:8: “He will swallow up death in victory, and the LORD Yahweh will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; for Yahweh has spoken.” And again, Isaiah 26:19: “Your dead ones will live, My dead bodies will arise; those who dwell in the dust have awakened and they shout for joy … and the earth will give birth to the shades [of the deceased].” Compare this with Daniel 12:2: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (NASB) (quoted by Jesus in Matt. 25:46, in a beyond-the-grave context). Daniel 12:13 contains this blessed promise to Daniel personally: “You will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age.”
There can be no question, in the light of the above, that the Old Testament contained very definite teaching concerning the life of the believer beyond the grave in the care of—even in the presence of—the Lord God Himself.
Therefore the New Testament is abundantly justified in Christ’s affirmation that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Christ’s coming to earth (John 8:56), and that he looked for a heavenly city “whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). But it should be added that apart from a few exceptions, like Enoch, Moses, and Elijah, it may well have been that the general congregation of redeemed believers were not exalted to the full glory of God’s presence until the price of their redemption had been actually paid at Calvary (see. Matt 27:52; Eph. 4:8; Heb. 11:39–40). It was therefore appropriate for the more detailed and glowing descriptions of the saved rejoicing in heaven’s glory to be reserved for the pages of the New Testament.