Good morning! Today with Psalms 88 and 89 we get a glimpse of two eternals, and the temporary in between them, fraught with inexplicable suffering. Finite human lives are all the more precious when juxtaposed with the realms of heaven and Sheol.
That word “Sheol” appears throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the name of the underworld. Psalm 88 gives us greater context to understand the ancient Hebrew theology of the afterlife. As I understand it, Sheol is a place of shadows—also here called “the Pit” or “Abbadon”—where all souls go after death. There are no greater or lesser parts of Sheol that would correspond to greater or lesser human merit (as in popular conceptions of “heaven” and “hell”). Because the afterlife is one of unending and bleak sameness, the only chance to make a difference or experience divine blessings is before death. “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?” the psalmist asks. “Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” Of course the implied answer here is “no”. Therefore, experiencing abundance and longevity in this life is the only way to discern between blessings and curses from God. A Hebrew understanding of heaven where righteousness is rewarded (such as Jesus had) evolves in the centuries between the Old and New Testaments, as recorded in books known as the Apocrypha.
The other eternal reality—before and beyond existence itself—is God’s celestial court, described at the beginning of Psalm 89. This “place” is described already at the beginning of Job and we will see it again when the prophets get a glimpse of heaven. God is not the only Being in “the assembly [or council] of the holy ones”. Other “heavenly beings” exist, even the gods of other civilizations, but the Hebrew God is more powerful and dominant, a different class of deity altogether. God is the Creator of everything else, including the raging seas, heavens and earth, mountains like Tabor and Hermon, and even directions themselves. God’s eternal existence is the constant from which everything temporary emerges for a season.
In between the heavenly and the hereafter is this terrestrial world and human lives. The second half of Psalm 89 considers what constitutes good living on this limited human plane. God has created an unmatched covenant with David such that even though there are punishments for disobedience, God will not cease loving David and his lineage. But the psalmist also gives voice to confusion because the sufferings of Israel are so great as to call into question God’s faithfulness to the covenant. There is no time to wait for a better day—blessings must come now or never. “Remember how short my time is”, the writer pleads. “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” Only God has such power, as the creator of all that is, and so the psalm finishes this lament with a blessing for God in spite of trouble. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Psalms 90-94. Thanks for reading!