A place of burial. The Hebrews were always very careful about the burial of their dead. Many of their sepulchres were hewn in rocks: as that of Shebna, Isaiah 22:16; those of the kings of Judah and Israel; and that in which our Savior was laid on Calvary. These tombs of the Jews were sometimes beneath the surface of the ground; but were often in the side of a cliff, and multitudes of such are found near the ruins of ancient cities, 2 Kings 23:16 Isaiah 22:16. Travellers find them along the bases of hills and mountains in all parts of Syria; as on the south side of Hinnom, the west side of Olivet, at Tiberias, in Petra, in the gorge of the Barada, and in the sea-cliffs north on the Acre. The tombs, as well as the general graveyards, were uniformly without the city limits, as is apparent at this day with respect to both ancient and modern Jerusalem, 2 Kings 23:6 Jeremiah 26:23 Luke 7:12 John 11:30. See ACELDAMA.
The kings of Judah, almost exclusively, appear to have been buried within Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, 1 Kings 2:10 2 Kings 14:20 2 Chronicles 16:14 28:27 Acts 2:29. Family tombs were common, and were carefully preserved, Genesis 50:5-13 Judges 8:32 2 Samuel 2:32 1 Kings 13:22. Tombstones with inscriptions were in use, Genesis 35:20 2 Kings 23:16,17. Absalom was buried under a heap of stones, 2 Samuel 18:17. In many ancient heathen nations, a king was buried under a vast mound, with his arms, utensils, horses, and attendants, Ezekiel 32:26,27; and the pyramids of Egypt are believed to be the tombs of kings, each having but one or two apartments, in one of which the stone coffin of the builder has been found.
It was thought an act of piety to preserve and adorn the tombs of the prophets, but was often an act of hypocrisy and our Savior says that the Pharisees were like whited sepulchres, which appeared fine without, but inwardly were full of rottenness and corruption, Matthew 23:27-29; and Lightfoot has shown that every year, after the winter rains were over, the Hebrews whitened them anew. In Luke 11:44, Christ compares the Pharisees to "grave which appear not," so that men walk over them without being aware of it, and many thus contract an involuntary impurity. A superstitious adoration of the tombs and bones of supposed saints was then and is now a very prevalent form of idolatry; and our Savior tells the Jews of his day they were as guilty as their fathers, Luke 11:47,48: they built the sepulchres of the prophets, their fathers slew them; the hypocritical idolatry of the sons was as fatal a sin as the killing of the prophets by their fathers. These worshippers of the prophets soon afterwards showed that they allowed the deeds of their fathers, by crucifying the divine Prophet who Moses had foretold. In Syria at the present day the tomb of David on Mount Zion and that of Abraham at Hebron are most jealously guarded, and any intruder is instantly put to death; while almost all the laws of God and man may be violated with impunity. Deserted tombs were sometimes used as places of refuge and residence by the poor, Isaiah 65:4 Luke 8:27; the shepherds of Palestine still drive their flocks into them for shelter, and wandering Arabs live in them during the winter. See BURIAL.
Maundrell’s description of the sepulchre north of Jerusalem—supposed by many to be the work of Helena queen of Adiabene, though now known as "the tombs of the kings,"—may be useful for illustrating some passages of Scripture:
"The next place we came to was those famous grots called the sepulchres of the kings; but for what reason they go by that name is hard to resolve; for it is certain none of the kings, either of Israel or Judah, were buried here, the holy Scriptures assigning other places for their sepulchres. Whoever was buried here, this is certain that the place itself discovers so great an expense, both of labor and treasure, that we may well suppose it to have been the work of kings. You approach to it at the east side through an entrance cut out of the natural rock, which admits you into an open court of about forty paces square, cut down into the rock with which it is encompassed instead of walls."
"On the west side of the court is a portico nine paces long and four broad, hewn likewise out of the natural rock. This has a kind of architrave, running along its front, adorned with sculpture, of fruits and flowers, still discernible, but by time much defaced. At the end of the portico, on the left hand, you descend to the passage into the sepulchres. The door is now so obstructed with stones and rubbish, that it is a thing of some difficulty to creep through it. But within you arrive in a large fair room, about seven yards square, cut out of the natural rock. Its sides and ceiling are so exactly square, and its angles so just, that no architect, with levels and plummets, could build a room more regular. And the whole is so firm and entire that it may be called a chamber hallowed out of one piece of marble. From this room you pass into, I think, six more, one within another, all of the same fabric with the first. Of these the two innermost are deeper than the rest, having a second descent of about six or seven steps into them. In every one of these rooms, except the first, were coffins of stone placed in niches in the sides of the chambers. They had been at first covered with handsome lids, and carved with garlands; but now most of them were broken to pieces by sacrilegious hands."
These dictionary topics are from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary published in 1859. Public Domain, copy freely.
Rand, W. W. "Entry for 'SEPULCHRE'". "American Tract Society Bible Dictionary".