In Psalm 139 we glimpse a new insight into God as it emerges.
Christians are often surprised when they learn that there is no concept in the Old Testament of the afterlife being divided between the two realms of a heaven and a hell. They assume that is the one consistent Biblical viewpoint. It is not.
The ancient Israelites who wrote the Old Testament had a very different idea about what faced the dying after the death. All the dead had the same fate, whether they were righteous or evil. They all entered into the underworld realm of the dead. This place bore the name Sheol. Hebrew poetry also often refers to it as the Pit.
Sheol was a gloomy, vaporous place where the dead existed (if you call it existence) in a semi-alive condition. They were shadows of their former selves, not creatures of flesh and blood, something like zombies. In this respect, the ancient Hebrews shared a parallel view of the afterlife with the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Greeks. Remember the shades of the Trojan war heroes that Odysseus meets in Hades.
The shocking thing in this ancient Hebrew belief was that in Sheol God was not present. It was a godless place, and so the dead could not enjoy any kind of relationship with God. One did not praise God in Sheol. (See, for example, Psalm 6:4-5.) Nor could one expect any succor from God. (See Isaiah 38:18-19.)
This was true for all the dead, whether they had lived good lives or bad. Religion therefore served as no opiate for the oppressed masses by promising them a better hereafter in the sweet bye and bye. A relationship with God was something one enjoyed only in this life. And the only immortality that one could hope for was the continuing of one’s seed in one’s line of descendants. This is one reason why a barren woman was such a tragedy. It meant the family line would come to an end.
This view of the afterlife is what gives poignancy to all the repeated pleas in the psalms that God will spare the psalmist from entering Sheol or going down into the Pit. (See Psalm 28:1 and Psalm 143:7.) Sometimes we find the psalmist bargaining with God, arguing that God will get no praise if God allows the psalmist to die. It is in God’s self-interest to keep the psalmist alive. (See Psalm 30:8-10.)
Psalm 88: Darkness Descending
There is no more gloomy psalm than Psalm 88. It is classic in expressing this view of death. The psalmist, for example, finds his soul full of troubles. He fears his life is drawing near to the doors into Sheol. He describes himself as one who has no help, like the forsaken among the dead. That sense of abandonment comes through clearly in verses like these:
Is your [God’s] steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
The psalm ends on one of the gloomiest notes in all Scripture:
You [God] have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
Psalm 139: A Seed of Hope is Planted
Given this pervasive belief in ancient Israel, I for one am quite startled when I read Psalm 139. This is a beloved psalm celebrating God’s constant presence with the psalmist in all circumstances of life. In a series of lines (verses 7-12), the psalmist asserts that there is no place where he can flee that he can escape God’s presence.
If [for example] I take the wings of the morning
and settle in the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
In this wonderful litany of how God’s presence goes with the psalmist wherever he goes or into whatever the conditions of his life he endures comes this unexpected note:
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. What gives here? We do not expect such a positive assertion from an Old Testament writer.
This line is no assertion of a belief in a resurrection, nor any awareness of a heaven or hell. But the psalmist does seem to sense Sheol may not be eternal finis. Maybe God has not given up on the dead. At least God is present in Sheol. For what purpose is not clear. But that very fact is a cause for hope.
The seeds of a belief in a Paradise and a Gehenna do emerge in the inter-testamental period in Judaism. They are active ideas in Jesus’ day. But they are not here in Psalm 139.
And yet in this one line in Psalm 139, we get a glimpse of how a new insight into God is emerging in the Hebrew consciousness. Sheol may just not be the end of the story. A seed has been planted. It will bloom into full flower in later Jewish literature and the New Testament.
A Note to My Readers:
There has been a long gap in my postings because of a serious family illness that I needed to care for. Now that recovery is under way, I am hoping to resume my postings on a more regular basis.