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Psalm 139:8 (KJV),

8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

I am interested to know what the Psalmist meant by making his "bed in hell". It sounds like an idiom to me. Is it a metaphor for death? Does it simply mean having a low point in life?

What does "make my bed in hell" mean?

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The word "hell" in this text is from the Hebrew word "sheol" (שְׁאוֹל), and can mean grave, pit, or tomb. To make one's bed there, obviously, would be a euphemism for death or dying.

So the Psalmist is saying: "...if I go to my grave, you are there."

In effect, you are correct: it is essentially a poetic metaphor for death.

An interesting verse by which to compare it is found in Job, also using the same Hebrew word.

If I wait, the grave is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. (Job 17:13, KJV)

In this couplet we also find the concept of making one's bed there in the grave (sheol).

Conclusion

The Hebrew word for "hell" (sheol) in Psalm 139:8 is a reference to the grave, and can be a euphemism for death.

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Because the translation of the Hebrew word, "sheol" is rather controversial, most modern versions leave it untranslated. A few are brave enough to translate it such as:

  • NIV: depths
  • NLT: grave
  • KJV: hell
  • NKJV: hell
  • CEV: world of the dead
  • GNT: world of the dead
  • ISV: [place of] the dead

In the specific case of Ps 139, "sheol" is part of a series of places to poetically, and hyperbolically describe the omnipresence of God:

  • V7: Where can I flee from Your presence?
  • V8a: If I ascend to the heavens, You are there;
  • V8b: if I make my bed in the depths/sheol, You are there.
  • V9a: If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
  • V9b: if I settle by the farthest sea, (V10) even there Your hand will guide me;

This passage forms part of the true doctrine of Theology (teaching about God) that He is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, omnitemporal, etc.

APPENDIX - שְׁאוֹל Sheol

I include this appendix about שְׁאוֹל "sheol" only for completeness and how it is used in the OT Hebrew. It is simply the place where all dead people end up.

  • Sheol is the destination for both the righteous (Gen 37:35, 42:38, 44:29, 31, Job 14:13, Ps 16:10) and wicked (Ps 9:17, 49:13, 14, Ps 55:15, Prov 5:5)
  • It is possible to go alive into sheol, Num 16:33, Ps 55:15, Prov 1:12
  • There is no consciousness in sheol, Ps 6:5, Ps 31:17, Eccl 9:10, Isa 38:10.
  • In several places, "sheol" is used as a metaphor for deep, beneath the surface, Jonah 2:2, Amos 9:2, Isa 7:11.
  • God can take people out of the grave, Hos 13:14. Note that 1 Cor 15:55 quotes this verse concerning the resurrection of the righteous.
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    "It is possible to go alive into sheol, Num 16:33, Ps 55:15, Prov 1:12" — People can be buried alive, but they don't remain that way for long. These verses are about people being literally swallowed by the earth; they might be alive initially, but they'd be dead by the time they landed and the earth closed in on them. E.g. NLT translates Psalms 55:15 as "… let the grave swallow them alive …". There's no implication that they would remain alive, and in fact this is preceded by an explicit "Let death stalk my enemies". Oct 20 at 1:10
  • @RayButterworth - agreed. That is the point - one does not have to die before entering the grave. Sheol denotes the place of the dead or the grave.
    – Dottard
    Oct 20 at 1:36

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