Prison, Prisoner

PRISON, PRISONER. A place of confinement or restraint, often as a means of punishment. A person so confined.

A. Descriptive words. A variety of terms are used in the OT and several in the NT to describe incarceration. These are variously tr. in the major VSS. The following list includes most of the occurrences of significance:

1. אֲזִקִּים, H272, זִקִּ֑ים, “chains,” “fetters” (Ps 149:8; Jer 40:1, 4; Nah 3:10).




5. חָנוּת, H2844, “vaulted room” cell (Jer 37:16; KJV “cabin”).

6. כֶּ֫בֶל, H3890, “fetter” (Pss 105:18; 149:8).


8. מַהְפֶּ֫כֶת, H4551, “stocks” (2 Chron 16:10; Jer 20:2f.; 29:26).



11. פְּקֻדָּה, H7213, “guardhouse,” “prison” (Jer 52:11).

12. עֹ֫צֶר, H6808, “restraint,” “coercion,” understood in KJV as “prison” (Isa 53:8).


14. סוּגַר, H6050, “prison,” “cage” (KJV “ward”) (Ezek 19:9); and מַסְגֵּר֒, H4993, “dungeon,” “prison” (Isa 24:22).

15. שָׁבָה, H8647, “take captive,” and its derivatives may imply, but not explicitly indicate imprisonment (e.g., Num 21:1; Ps 68:18 [Heb. 68:19]; Isa 20:4).


17. ἅλυσις, G268, “chain,” “bond,” “handcuff” (Acts 12:6f.; 21:33; 28:20; Eph 6:20; 2 Tim 1:16; Rev 20:1f.).


19. οἴκημα, G3862, “cell,” used euphemistically for “prison” (Acts 12:7).

20. σειρά, G4937, “cord,” “rope” (2 Pet 2:4).



B. Nature of imprisonment. The foregoing citations indicate the different kinds of imprisonment known in Biblical times. These included incarceration in a pit, perhaps a cistern, in a military or royal building, in cells and dungeons, and occasionally in a house. Devices sometimes were used to make the prisoner uncomfortable, such as fetters or stocks. Floggings also were administered, esp. during NT times. It must be recognized, however, that imprisonment itself was not necessarily a legal means of punishment. Rather it was often a detention prior to trial, the isolation of a dangerous person, or a restraint imposed with no judicial sanction. It is observed that Ezra 7:26 provides the first clear Biblical example of imprisonment with legal sanction. Roman prisons were for detention, or to coerce those in contempt of court, but were not for the extended penalizing of free persons. Many who would have become political prisoners were allowed exile. Private prisons also existed.

C. Notable examples of imprisonment. 1. Joseph was taken by his brothers, cast temporarily into a pit, sold to traders (Gen 37:23-28), and again to an Egyp. officer (v. 36). Without legal sanction he was imprisoned in what is thought to have been a round structure, perhaps a fortress (39:20 and cf. A. 13, above), and ultimately in a dungeon (41:14).

2. Detention pending judicial decision (Lev 24:12; Num 15:34; cf. A.10, above).

3. Samson was imprisoned and put to hard labor (Judg 16:21).

4. Micaiah, a prophet, King Hoshea of the northern kingdom (Israel), and King Jehoiakin of Judah were put in security as political prisoners (1 Kings 22:27; 2 Kings 17:4; 24:15). When Jehoiakin was subsequently released he was wearing prison clothes (25:27-30). King Zedekiah received a worse fate (Jer 52:11; cf. A. 11 above).

5. Jeremiah suffered various forms of imprisonment: in stocks, in the king’s private prison, in another private prison—evidently with cells and dungeon, and in another dungeon, possibly a cistern. (See references to the Book of Jeremiah in A. 1 through 9 above.)


7. Prisons provided illustrative material for Jesus (Matt 5:25; 18:30; 25:36, 39, 43, 44; Luke 12:58).

8. John the Baptist was imprisoned (Matt 4:12 and parallels).

9. Jesus’ predictions that His disciples would be imprisoned (Luke 21:12) were fulfilled. Peter, who affirmed readiness to go to prison (22:33), was imprisoned at least three times according to Acts: the first time with John (Acts 4:3), then with other apostles (5:18), and alone (12:3f.). His miraculous release is well known.

10. Paul imprisoned others before his conversion (8:3) and afterward frequently was committed to prison for his faith, and was also beaten frequently (16:22-29; 22:23ff. etc.; 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23). In Rome he was under house arrest (Acts 28:16). His imprisonment resulted in the so-called “prison epistles”—Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Following his release, the evidence leads to the assumption that he resumed his activity for a time, but only to be imprisoned again prior to his execution (2 Tim 1:8; 2:9).

11. The abode of the departed evil is called a prison in the difficult passage (1 Pet 3:18-20).

12. The abyss in which Satan is confined during the millennium is also called a prison (Rev 20:7).