Psalm 139 – The Heart-Searching Presence of God & Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, The Abyss, and Tartarus: Images of Hell

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David.

Hades, otherwise known as the underworld, was the abode of the dead or, more accurately, of departed souls.

It is necessary to distinguish between Hades the locality and Hades the god of the Underworld, “Death”.

Hades comes from a Greek root meaning “unseen,” “hidden,” or “unknown.”

Relevant comparisons can be found in the Egyptian religion, where the equivalent of Hades is Amenti, meaning “hidden place” or “place of the hidden god,” and in the roots of the word “hell”, which had the sense of “hiding’ or “concealing.”

In mythology, Hades was located under the earth; hence the journey to Hades involved a descent.

Hades in ancient traditions was not just a place where sinful souls were tortured.

The Greeks also saw it as a gateway to a heaven-like existence.

One road in Hades led to Tartaros, where imaginative punishments were administered, the other, the right hand road, led to the Elysian Fields.

As such, Hades was a midway station, and not equal to the Christian concept of Hell.

A descent into the Underworld, the abode of the deceased, is therefore “emotionally neutral” – and this is largely how Pitt plays death.

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.

Amulet from Mesopotamia.
The back of the object shows the body of the male demon Pazuzu, his head peering over the top at the front.

At the bottom left, Pazuzu drives Lamashtu back to the Underworld, to which she is lured by offerings.

She is lured by offerings.

She is standing on her donkey, and both are in her boat on the river to the Underworld.

She holds snakes and suckles the usual animals.

2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.

3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.

4 For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.

5 Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.

7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

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

9If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.

13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

Today the Hinnom Valley is covered with green grass.
This photo was taken on the west side of the Mount of Olives near the southwest corner of the Old City walls.

An Arab family is resting in the shade of a tree while their children play in the Hinnom Valley.

The Hinnom Valley is a deep, narrow ravine located in Jerusalem, running south from the Jaffa Gate on the west side of the Old City, then eastward along the south side of Mount Zion until it meets the Kidron Valley which separates the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives on the east side of the city.

It is named from a certain “son of Hinnom” who apparently owned or had some significant association with the valley at a time prior to Josh 15:8.

The Valley of Hinnom had a very horrendous history in ancient times.

It was used as a place where the pagan worshipers did all sorts of vile and wicked things – including burning children alive as sacrifices to the idols Moloch and Baal.

One section of the valley was called Tophet, or the “fire-stove,” where the children were slaughtered (2 Kgs 23:10).

It was a place of tremendous evil for many years.

After their return from the Babylonian exile the Jews turned the Hinnom Valley into the city dump where garbage and anything deemed unclean (including the bodies of executed criminals) was incinerated.

For that purpose, a fire was kept constantly burning there.

Even though it was no longer used for evil worship, with all the filth and thick smoke it remained a very dark and dreary place.

The Hebrew name Hinnom when translated into Greek is Gahanna, from which the word and concept of hell originated.

By the time of Jesus Christ, the deep, constantly-burning Valley of Hinnom was also known as the Valley of Gehenna, or Hell, and had taken on a popular image as the place “down there” where the wicked would eventually be cast into the flames for destruction.

17 How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!

18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.

19 Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.

20 For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.

21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?

22 I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:

24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

A prayer to be delivered from the wicked.  Experiencing what it is like to live under the Lord’s light and searching.

Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, The Abyss,
and Tartarus: Images of Hell

The Psalmist declared to God: “If I make my bed in the depths of hell, thou art there” (139:8). 

The Hebrew word for “depths” is Sheol, and many translations simply leave the word untranslated.  Sheol in the Old Testament view was essentially the place beneath the earth to which the dead were thought to go. Thus, Sheol can refer to both the literal grave and to the netherworld.

As the netherworld, it is similar to the Greek Hades, the dark and sorrowful domain of the dead (as seen in Homer’s Odyssey, book 11).  In fact, it is usually translated as “Hades” in the Septuagint.

In a single verse, however, Sheol can refer both to the gated kingdom of the netherworld and to the dusty grave (Job 17:16).  In Greek mythology Hades was also a god, unlike what we see in the Hebrew Bible.

Assyrian demon Pazuzu, first millennium B.C.
In Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, Pazuzu (sometimes Fazuzu or Pazuza) was the king of the demons of the wind, and son of the god Hanbi.

He also represented the southwestern wind, the bearer of storms and drought.


Pazuzu is often depicted as a combination of diverse animal and human parts.

He has the body of a man, the head of a lion or dog, eagle-like taloned feet, two pairs of wings, a scorpion’s tail, and a serpentine penis.

He is often depicted with his right hand pointing upward and left hand pointing down.


Pazuzu is the demon of the southwest wind known for bringing famine during dry seasons, and locusts during rainy seasons.

Pazuzu was said to be invoked in amulets, which combat the powers of his rival, the malicious goddess Lamashtu, who was believed to cause harm to mother and child during childbirth.

Although Pazuzu is, himself, an evil spirit, he drives away other evil spirits, therefore protecting humans against plagues and misfortunes.

On the other hand, the Bible sometimes portrays Sheol as a beast with gaping jaws (Is 5:15; 14:9; Hab 2:5; NIV in each case, “the grave”).

Visions of Sheol as a fearsome site sometimes appear in prophetic judgments and warnings.  Ezekiel 31-32 includes elaborate depictions of the hordes now confined to Sheol, and this vision serve as a warning to Egypt.

Similarly, in Lk 16:19-31, Jesus recounted the parable of the rich man in Hades (NIV “hell”) as a warning to his audience to repent.

The range of meanings the word Sheol carries explains what seem to be inconsistencies in the text.  On the one hand, no one praises God in Sheol (Ps 6:5); one who is in the grave cannot testify to God’s glory before the assembly of Israel at the temple (cf Ps 51:14).

On the other hand, God is present even in Sheol (139:8, NIV, “the depths”); even the dead in the netherworld are not beyond his power.  It is significant to note that Sheol in the Old Testament refers simply to the habitation of the dead – not specifically to hell, the location for punishment of the wicked dead.

In the New Testament, especially when the reference is citing the Old Testament, Hades refers again either to the grave or to the netherworld of the dead (e.g., Act 2:27, 31), which states that Jesus was not left in Hades; NIV, “the grave”).

In Rev 20:13 Hades is the netherworld, which yields up to the dead God’s Judgment.  Another New Testament term, abyss, can also refer simply to the place of the dead (Rom 10:7, citing the Old Testament; NIV, “the deep”).

But the word usually describes a locale for the imprisoned demonic powers (Lk 8:31; Rev 9:1-2; 20:1).  In classical Greek abyss connotes unfathomable depths, such as the sources of a spring.

Looking down into the Kidron Valley from the base of the southeast corner of the Temple Mount at 2000 year old tombs cut into the west side of the Mount of Olives.

A New Testament term with Jewish roots is Gehenna, named for the Hinnom Valley south of  Jerusalem.  Because child sacrifice was carried out in this valley (2 Kgs 16:3), it was desecrated by King Josiah (2 Kgs 23:10).

Jeremiah 7:32 declared that God would judge Judah there, and thus, during the intertestamental period, the term came to be used for the domain where the wicked would receive eternal punishment. 

Jesus often spoke of Gehenna as a place of fiery punishment (Matt 5:22; 10:28; 18:9, NIV in each case, “hell”).  Also, indicating that Gehenna’s original purpose was as the site of punishment for demons, although wicked humans would also be consigned there (Matt 25:41; NIV, “eternal fire”). 

A similar word, a verb that means “to cast into Tartarus,” appears in 2 Pet 2:4 (NIV, “sent…to hell”) to describe the place where wicked angels are punished.  Tartarus in Greek literature is the deepest part of Hades and a locale of eternal punishment.

We are wise not to make to much of the origins of these words.  Gehenna has little to do with the historical Valley of Hinnom.  Similarly, the Greek words in the New Testament for the apostles imply that the Greek myths were credible.

The word Sheol, we do well to note, is pure Hebrew with no known origin or parallels in any other language.