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Doesn’t Psalm 139:8 show that we either go to heaven or hell at death?

First of all, let us read this verse: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.”

This is a psalm that Church of God members will have sung many times as it features as hymn 105 in the Church’s Bible Hymnal.

In the previous verse we read: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” which shows that king David understood that God had perfect knowledge of man which is the heading of the Psalm.   God knows our very thoughts (verse 2) which means that even if we are praying silently, He still hears.   Therefore, verse 8 sums up the fact that wherever we are, God knows.

However, this verse can be seized upon by some to say that at death we go to heaven or to an ever burning fiery hell, neither of which are correct.   In fact, the Bible speaks of three heavens and for those who are not aware of these facts, or those who may wish to refresh their memories on this subject, please see https://www.globalchurchofgod.co.uk/q-a-3756/

In the Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament we read: “God, however, is omnipresent, sustaining the life of all things by His Spirit, and revealing Himself either in love or in wrath – what the poet styles His countenance. To flee from this omnipresence (away from), as the sinner and he who is conscious of his guilt would gladly do, is impossible.”

On the website https://www.bible-studys.org/ we read that “The word translated ‘hell’ here refers to ‘the grave’ or ‘the place of the dead’ rather than the place of eternal punishment for unbelievers. David asserts that God is, in fact, everywhere. Death cannot separate the believer from Him (Rom. 8:38-39; 2 Cor. 5:8). And when His people worship, they have an incredible sense of His manifest presence (22:3).”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible gives the following explanation: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there,…. No man hath ascended or can ascend to heaven of himself; it is an hyperbolical expression, as are those that follow; none but Christ has ascended to heaven by his own power, who descended from it….”

However, having got the above brief quotation correct, the Exposition then goes on to explain heaven and hell in the terms mostly accepted by mainstream Christianity today, that is heaven for the good and hell for the damned.

There are many references in the Bible to Sheol (hell) in the Old Testament, for example: Numbers 16:31-34, Job 7:7-10, Psalm 88:2-10, 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Samuel 22:5–19; Job 10:18-22, Psalm 30:3, Psalm 94:17, Psalm 143:3, Psalm 115:17, Jonah 2:3-8 and others, and this shows that a person, upon his death, does not go to hell in the way understood in mainstream churches today.

According to Sidney Brichto, a British Liberal rabbi, the early Israelites apparently believed that the graves of family, or tribe, united into one and that this, unified collectively, is to what the Biblical Hebrew term Sheol refers: the common grave of humans.

Joseph Caryl, a 17th century English writer and preacher, wrote: “Hell in some places in Scripture signifies the lower parts of the earth, without relation to punishment: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. By ‘heaven’ he means the upper region of the world, without any respect to the state of blessedness; and ‘hell’ is the most opposite and remote in distance, without respect to misery. As if he had said, Let me go whither I will, thy presence finds me out.”

To show that a Christian does not go to Heaven after death, please read the following Q&A: https://www.globalchurchofgod.co.uk/q-a-3756/

And so what is the answer?   Barnes mentioned that no man hath ascended or can ascend to heaven of himself; it is a hyperbolical expression.

Overstatement can be intentional or accidental. It’s usually considered hyperbole, but may also be used as idiomatic emphasis.

What is hyberbole?   E W Bullinger, a 19th Century English clergyman, Biblical scholar, and theologian wrote a book entitled “Figures of Speech Used in The Bible” and showed that there were over 200 different types of figures of speech, and hyperbole was one of them.   It is, put simply, an exaggeration to make the point and not to be taken literally, and when applied to Psalm 139:8 it is showing the sheer impossibility of any such action being achieved.

There are many instances of hyperbole in the Bible which we will review in the next Q&A.

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)