Tag Archives: God’s Nature

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we worked through Psalm 139 in its entirety to follow and understand the flow and contours of the psalmist’s theology and prayers. In Part 2, we explored verses 13-16 in more depth to unpack the psalmist’s theology of his own development in the womb, as well as ways in which these verses might assist devout readers in thinking maturely about scientific perspectives on, and discoveries about, a human’s origins and development.

For this post, I am delighted and honored to share with you a guest article by a friend of mine, and a neonatal nurse practitioner, Sarah Bylsma. Sarah shares with us her perspective on Psalm 139:13-16, a perspective that occurs for her at the intersection of her Christian faith, her scientific training, and her professional involvement in caring for newborns, including experience working in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Sarah, I welcome your voice here, and at this moment offer you my sincerest thanks.


“Faith and Science in Neonatal Practice: A Reflection on Psalm 139”
By Sarah Bylsma

First, a little about me. I graduated with a B.A. in Biology from Lipscomb University in May 2005. I then went to Belmont University and graduated with a B.S. in Nursing in December 2006. In January 2007, I began working as a nurse in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While working full time as a nurse in the NICU, I attended graduate school at the University of Alabama Birmingham from 2009 to 2011. I obtained a M.S. in Nursing with a Neonatal specialty in May 2011. I have been board certified as a neonatal nurse practitioner since September 2011. I currently work full time as a neonatal nurse practitioner. I am also a full-time mom to three little ones ages 5 and under. I have been a Christian since 1990, with evolving beliefs as my worldview has changed, but never questioning the existence of our God.

As I read Psalms 139, the author seems to insinuate three things in verses 13-16: (1) that God is creator, (2) that life begins in utero, and (3) that God knew every detail of that life the moment it began.

I believe that God is creator of all things. My education and experience have shaped HOW I view God as creator, but they most certainly do not change the fact that He is behind the existence of all life.

As a scientist and medical professional, I know that human life forms from two human cells, the egg from the mother and the sperm from the father. Once the egg is fertilized by a single sperm cell, a zygote is formed. The zygote will undergo mitosis, a process a cell undergoes to form two new cells. DNA, our unique genetic code, is replicated in this process. It is here in mitosis, as the zygote grows and divides to become an embryo, that the development of human life can first go awry. Errors during mitosis can result in chromosomal errors ranging from too many / not enough chromosomes to extra / missing pieces of chromosomes — all of which can create a wide variety of syndromes, cancers, and death.

Often, when embryos are created from cells with abnormal chromosomes incompatible with life, a mother will miscarry. This raises a question about life and its beginning. Is an embryo with genetic information incompatible with an earthly life still a life? Conception had occurred and genetic information exists, but no life will be formed. With my scientific knowledge, I believe that life begins in utero, but not at conception. My reading of Psalm 139 does not dispute this. The author understands that life began in his mother’s womb, and the scripture does not explicitly state a time-frame. I believe you would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in neonatology that would dispute that life begins in utero.

God knowing every detail of each life the moment it begins is different than God choosing every detail for that life. This is because God gives us choices (free will). You may be asking questions like: How does that play into embryologic development? What about when the formation of life goes wrong? If God is creator, how can that go wrong? No one chooses how our babies are formed in utero, right?

God has given us free will, and that freedom to make our own choices can and does affect others. This includes the developing fetus. Sometimes these can have devastating effects on the fetus. As Daniel pointed out in Part 2, the psalmist clearly understood that the mother and father played a role in the human-making process. Their role is not just one of providing the cells to be fertilized, but also to create an environment in which proper development can occur. The psalmist describes being knit together in his mother’s womb. Choices help determine the kind of knitting that occurs.

Daniel has already discussed how the materials used in the knitting process affect the end result. Embryonic development and postnatal health is most certainly affected by the parents’ individual choices and environmental factors both before and while the mother is pregnant. Choices from our past can impact our bodies or the environment, which in turn impact embryonic development. The mother and father’s choices (both before and during pregnancy) on lifestyle, nutrition, drug use, sexual activity, etc., can alter fetal development. For example, sexually-transmitted diseases, particularly when acquired during pregnancy, can be especially harmful to a developing fetus.

It’s clear that bad choices can have an effect on development. But there are other choices that can impact it also, such as age at conception: older mothers have a higher chance of chromosomal errors. Sometimes we do not know why something goes wrong in the development process. There are many intricate steps involved in creating a human life, and thus many places for the process to go wrong. Research has shown us that unknown diseases, illness, hormones, and genetics can all impact a growing fetus. Despite all of the scientific advances, sometimes we do not know why the process goes amiss. Sometimes the process is going normally but gets interrupted, resulting in premature birth.

So we know that embryological development can go wrong, regardless of how it goes wrong. In my line of work, I see so many ways in which the development went awry or was interrupted. I don’t always know how it happened or why. It is our tendency to see these as abnormalities and imperfections, something to be feared and less-than-desired. How can God create a life like that? But I see God in these babies the most. I watch these babies grow and mature, and I know their lives still have purpose and meaning. I see God in that baby who is missing parts of his brain, who can still walk and talk and amaze healthcare professionals with his progress. I see God in that premature baby born 4 months too soon, who through medical advancement and technology is able to grow and develop into a perfectly healthy infant.

Occasionally I see babies that do survive but have severe lifelong and debilitating complications. Why does God allow these babies to survive? WE see these as imperfections, but to our God they are perfect, just like the rest of us. Their lives have purpose, even when we fail to see what that is. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s eyes.

Often I see these babies live and thrive, but sometimes, they don’t make it. Sometimes, they are simply born too early. Sometimes, their development was affected so greatly that life outside the womb isn’t possible. The complexities of human development sometimes allow life to persist in utero, but not after birth. Why does God allow these lives to exist throughout the duration of a pregnancy, but not long enough to have a life on earth? I have struggled with this question. I have shed many tears over the losses of a life gone too soon. I do not have the answers. Even while writing this, I have spent hours and hours thinking about it, trying to come up with an answer. Science can answer many questions about life, but sometimes…often…you just need to have faith and know that our God has a plan, even when we do not understand it.

Withdrawal Symptoms: A Communion Meditation

A Communion meditation following and building upon a sermon by Dan Cooke, minister of Station Camp Church, on January 1, 2017 (listen to sermon). Credit goes to Dan Cooke for the selection of Genesis 2 and Luke 5 as material on which I reflect below.


In concluding its first creation story, the book of Genesis describes God resting “from all the work that he had done” (2:2 NRSV). Though we might rightly wonder what God did the day after he rested, for now we observe that God takes a break from work. In so doing, it seems that God positively affirms the value of living a life and engaging in work in ways that include rest from work. There might always be more things to work on — and worthwhile things, at that — but to live and work without rest is to keep oneself and one’s identity tied to work and production. For humans, experience teaches us that this kind of life is unsustainable. For God, even if such a pace is sustainable, God does not affirm work and production as the only indicators of a life worth living.

In the story of Jesus, it is not uncommon to find reports of Jesus taking time to “withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16). That is, we see Jesus resting from the work that he does. The one who claims in various ways to be Israel’s Messiah is a king who rests from work. If this king’s subjects choose to imitate his way of life, then this kingdom affirms the value of rest. The value of rest for all people finds affirmation in Genesis 2:1-3. Luke 5 has a way of narrowing the focus, affirming the value of rest for followers of Jesus — yes, even rest from doing God’s work.

The themes on which we now focus are (1) withdrawal and (2) listening to God. In fact, we can even think of these themes in terms of “withdrawal symptoms”: what we have before us are good kinds of withdrawal, and the good symptoms that follow.

In Luke 5, Jesus’ withdrawal is an individual withdrawal for individual prayer. When churches gather, they are engaging in a kind of communal withdrawal for communal prayer — to listen to God together. Indeed, at his last Passover meal, Jesus withdraws together with his apostles in the midst of a city, in an upstairs guest room (Luke 22:7-13). Even so, this particular communal withdrawal serves as preparation for work: bread and wine nourish Jesus as he prepares to give his body and blood for others, starting with these twelve men and including his betrayer. Jesus has given himself to you, to me, to those who love him, and to those who hate him. His withdrawal to his table prepared him to give.

Sometimes, we, like Jesus, need individual withdrawal for individual prayer. Today, we, like Jesus, withdraw communally to this room, to this table — his table — to pray communally, and to prepare for work. May this bread and cup nourish us as we prepare to give ourselves for others, starting with each other and including those who betray and hurt us, those who love us, and those who hate us, those who love Jesus, and, moreover, those who hate him, for love conquers hate. May we help each other listen to and hear God more clearly so that we can discern how to work and how to prepare for our work, and that we may know when to rest from our work.

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 2)

Continued from “Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 1).”


In Part 1 of our exploration of Psalm 139, we worked through the psalm in its entirety, pausing enough along the way to think with it about its theology and its prayers. In this post, we camp out a little longer at verses 13-16 to begin exploring how this psalm might open up ways to think theologically and scientifically about the same dimension of life. It has been my own experience that this passage provides a helpful lens for a person of faith to see certain kinds of scientific insights and claims.

First, we set Psalm 139:13-16 in context. The psalmist has proclaimed how wondrously and extensively God knows him (139:1-6), and how God is present everywhere the psalmist could hope to go (139:7-12). He goes on to pray these words on which we will direct our focus for thinking theologically and scientifically:

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

God forming. The psalmist credits God with forming him in his mother’s womb. The verb translated here as “formed” (qānāh) is used elsewhere to describe God as “maker” of heaven and earth (Gen 14:19, 22), but also to describe a woman “producing” a baby (Gen 4:1). Much as God is the maker of heaven and earth, God is the maker of the psalmist, but not in a way that excludes the role of the psalmist’s mother (and father) in the making process.


Much as God is the maker of heaven and earth, God is the maker of the psalmist, but not in a way that excludes the role of the psalmist’s mother (and father) in the making process.


Of course, the psalmist knew this. We have no reason to think that the psalmist had no mother and father who made a choice to try for a baby. We have no reason to think that it was not his mother’s body that formed him from start to finish. (1) The mother forming him and (2) God forming him are not mutually exclusive ways of talking, but are two dynamic and different ways of seeing the same event: the origin of the psalmist. God is responsible for the origin of the psalmist, but so are his mother and father.

In response, we learn that a theological view of origins does not exclude a natural view of origins. As we are beginning to see, neither does a theological view of agency exclude a natural view of agency. (1) God acting and (2) nature acting are two legitimate descriptions of the same event — for a person of theological belief, at least.

God knitting. Several aspects of knitting make it an apt metaphor for the psalmist’s development in utero. He does not say which aspects are and are not part of his choice to use the metaphor, but we can still think through it. For starters, knitting takes time: it does not yield an instant result. Knitting is a process: each maneuver relates to the ones that came before and influences the ones that will come after. Knitting uses available materials: the final outcome (its shades, patterns, durability) depends on the properties of the material itself, as well as how that material is knitted together.

Even though it is God that the psalmist here credits with knitting him together, he certainly knew that his mother’s body did the knitting. He would have known that a baby’s development takes time and is a process. He also would have known that the mother and father played parts in supplying and working with the material, though we do not know for sure how he thought it worked out step by step. Some biblical language and evidence from other ancient cultures indicate that some people in antiquity thought that the father supplied the material, and the mother incubated it as it grew (Lamoureux, 2008, pp. 138-42). It is possible that the psalmist thought in these ways.

We might wonder how the psalmist would respond to the ability to learn more about how babies were knit together in their mothers’ wombs. Would he resist knowing more about the time, the process, and the material, or would he welcome such insights? And, secondly, why might he respond one way over the other?

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

This well-known verse expresses the psalmist’s wonder at himself as a creation of God. Perhaps it is the things that make him unique — his individuality — that elicit his wonder here: how set apart he is from every other human creation (Goldingay, 2008, p. 634). Then again, mention of his “inward parts” (literally “kidneys”) in verse 13 may show that he simply marvels at how all the unseen physical components of his body function. However much or little he knew about the unseen workings of his body, he knew that a lot had to go on, and go on properly, for his life to keep going. The fact that unseen things of such importance worked properly for him was, in his case, cause for him to pray out of wonder and gratitude.

What we do not know is how this psalmist thought about occasions when a human body does not work the way it should. What we do know is that we, as readers of this psalm, have to wrestle with this very complexity. (I would not assume that the psalmist didn’t wrestle with this issue.) To put the question pointedly: Is every human body “fearfully and wonderfully made,” regardless of how well it functions? And, to address the theological concern lurking here: What does a not-fully-functioning body suggest about the God who is credited with forming and knitting it? How should we think about God’s design and workmanship in such cases?

For now, we continue following the psalmist as he describes God’s relationship to his earliest development. Now, God is not so much forming and knitting, but watching:

15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

The psalmist expresses the way in which he, like every other baby, developed out of plain sight from everyone, except for God. The making, the weaving, the “unformed substance” — God watched the whole thing come together. As we intimated earlier, we also wonder here how the psalmist would respond to discoveries that would enable him and other humans to watch (and even take photos and videos of) this hidden, secret process unfolding? Would he resist or welcome such abilities, and why would he respond one way over the other? And how might he receive knowledge gained by such means?

It is also interesting what the psalmist says about the location of development. He knew that he was knit in his mother’s womb (v. 13), so why mention being woven “in the depths of the earth” (v. 15)? As one Old Testament scholar (Goldingay, 2008) suggests: “There is a sense in which earth is our mother, so our mother can be spoken of as if she were the earth. It is from the earth that humanity is made (Gen. 2:7). A converse way of thinking has us returning to our mother’s womb when we die (Job 1:21)” (p. 635). The psalmist relates his own biological origin to the earth itself.

[16] In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

The psalmist seems to suggest that God knows (and has written down) how many days the psalmist will live. Indeed, each day of his is “formed for” him. He does not elaborate, and thus does not answer all of our (understandable) questions about predestination. One thing is for sure: the psalmist has a very big God in view here, a God whose sovereignty extends to intimate details of individual lives. Perhaps also the psalmist ponders an intimate connection between the development process and a person’s total life:

“There is a sense in which the person’s shaping in the womb also determines the person’s life. It decides how clever they are, how strong they are, what weaknesses they have, and so on, and how long they will live. Environmental factors and personal decision making enter into the outworking of this, but they cannot evade the constraints of what goes on before birth” (Goldingay, 2008, p. 635).

Psalm 139 and Scientific Knowledge

Along the way in this treatment of Psalm 139:13-16, several questions have arisen that I draw together here for a condensed look at how the psalm might relate to scientific knowledge. What I am pressing for here is for devout Bible readers to think carefully about their posture toward scientific inquiry, discoveries, and claims. To be clear, I write what follows from a positive, welcoming view of science and what its modes of inquiry have taught us.

1. Origins. Psalm 139:13-16 addresses the origin of the psalmist from a theological point of view. The psalmist knew that he had a natural origin as well. Is there a necessary reason why learning more about the natural origin of babies would be a threat to the psalm’s claims about God? — Only if one takes a very closed, limited view of God. Is there a necessary reason why describing the origin of babies in natural terms should take away from believing that God still relates to that origin somehow?

2. Agency. Psalm 139:13-16 focuses on the agency of God. The psalmist knew that his mother and father were agents in his origin and development. Is there a necessary reason why devout Bible readers should feel threatened by descriptions of the world that stress the agency of nature instead of the agency of God? Is there a necessary reason to feel threatened by people detecting natural patterns and looking for natural explanations according to natural causes? Many Christians seem confused when science proceeds without invoking God’s name, but that is not the job of science.

3. Development. Psalm 139:13-16 uses metaphors that imply time, process, and materials. Is there any necessary reason why it is a threat to learn with greater precision about the amount of time, the specific processes, and the materials involved in the development of babies? We have in view here, for instance, such sciences as embryology and genetics. If Christians join the ranks of those who receive and benefit from knowing more about embryonic and fetal development, then are they being inconsistent when they reject scientific knowledge that they dislike, find inconvenient, or find disorienting for previously-held beliefs? The same types of scientific inquiry yield both kinds of results, the ones that people welcome and apply, and the ones they reject.


Are Christians being inconsistent when they reject scientific knowledge that they dislike?


There are certainly more questions we could ask, but these three should provide an adequate framework for developing the wisdom needed to think theologically in response to some kinds of scientific findings. I hope you are finding Psalm 139 as rich and fruitful for the science / faith relationship as I do. I think that many biblical authors, had they lived in our day, would have taken a healthier, more well-thought-out view of science than many Christians today who use the authors’ words to take unfruitful postures toward science. It is not that science gets a free pass, or that Christians should not pose any questions to science, but instead that Christians may need to read their Bibles more slowly and carefully when deciding how to posture themselves in relation to scientific knowledge.

I am pleased that a friend and neonatal nurse practitioner has written a guest blog for us for Part 3 of this series on Psalm 139. If you find this post helpful, please like it on Facebook and share it with others. Please do the same with the blog as a whole. Lastly, you can make comments on this, or any, post to express your thoughts.

References

Goldingay, J. (2008). Psalms 90-150. Psalms (Vol. 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Lamoureux, D. O. (2008). Evolutionary creation: A Christian approach to evolution. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 1)

Psalm 139 is magnificent. It is a work of art, a Hebrew poem. It is a work of theology, expressing what the author believes about God. It is work of prayer, talking directly to God and requesting God to act. The psalm is also helpful for framing the science / faith relationship: it speaks about an area of life that can be known (and is known) scientifically, an area of life that at the same time can be expressed artistically, theologically, and prayerfully. Psalm 139 can teach us how to think theologically and scientifically at the same time about the same dimension of life, and with fruitful results.


Psalm 139 can teach us how to think theologically and scientifically at the same time.


In Part 1 of this series, before getting into the science / faith dimensions of Psalm 139, we begin looking at the psalm as a whole, to get our bearings on its message. A quick note on authorship: when the heading says “Of David,” this may mean that David wrote it, but the original (Hebrew) words can also mean that the psalm is written by someone else who writes it “for David,” “in David’s style,” etc.

1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

The psalmist speaks directly to God, and thus is praying. The fact that this prayer, like so many psalm-prayers, is written down may itself be instructive to readers: is there benefit to writing prayers down? Does the act of writing have virtue for one’s prayer relationship with God? The psalmist addresses God as LORD: Yhwh in Hebrew, and Israel’s covenantal name for God.

The first six verses of the prayer could be summarized as saying, “God, you know everything about me”: what I am doing, when I am doing it, what I am thinking, what I am planning to say. “Such knowledge” is indeed “too wonderful” for the psalmist (139:6). I hear the psalmist saying this in appreciation and joy, but perhaps also in fear. God knows the psalmist’s good thoughts and bad thoughts. God knows what the psalmist is going to say, even if he is going to say something terrible to someone.

Even if God knows what the psalmist is thinking or is going to say or do, God does not force different thoughts, words, or actions. God protects the integrity of the psalmist’s ability to think, speak, and act, even if the psalmist does not think, speak, or act the way God himself would. There is held together in view here an all-knowing God and a free-willing and free-acting person. Is the coexistence of these two things a major reason for the psalmist’s wonder? Not that the psalmist has enough power to go anywhere and do anything — he finds himself bound within some limits by God (139:5) — but within the bounds of God’s permission, he can think, say, and do enough to influence and alter his (and God’s) world.


God protects the integrity of the psalmist’s ability to think, speak, and act, even if the psalmist does not think, speak, or act the way God himself would.


7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

This next set of verses might be summarized by saying, “God, you are everywhere I do go and could go.” Does the psalmist sometimes wish things were different? Why else would he talk of the (hypothetical?) possibility of fleeing God (139:7)? God is in the skies / heavens. He is in the realm of the dead (Sheol). He is there where dawn breaks in the east, and where the sun settles over the sea in the west (from the point of view of the psalmist in Israel). God is in those places leading and holding onto the psalmist. Furthermore, God’s ability to see in the dark is great if someone needs help or wants to be found, but if someone is trying to hide or flee, he or she is unable to do so.

Verses 7-12 thus seem to assert what is sometimes called God’s “omnipresence,” God’s everywhere-ness. God’s omnipresence is at least being asserted in relation to the psalmist: “Where can I go…. If I ascend…. If I take the wings of the morning….” As interpreters, if we can extend the psalmist’s claim for himself to claim that God is present everywhere for everyone and everything, then there might be serious implications of this belief.

For instance, God is present where good is being done, but he is also present where bad is being done, even if he doesn’t stop evil from happening. God is present in places where people recover from illness, and places where they do not. God is present where animals successfully feed (see Psalm 104:27-28), but also where they go hungry (Psalm 104:29). God is present where life begins (Psalm 104:30), but also where life ends (see Psalm 104:29). These are just some of the dimensions of what it means to pray to God in praise of his omnipresence.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them — they are more than the sand;
I come to the end — I am still with you.

This section might be summarized as saying: “God, you brought me into existence and knew how long I would live (and what I would do each day?).” This will be a key section of the psalm for upcoming posts in this series. For now, let us observe that the psalmist credits God with making him, with bringing him into existence. God formed his insides (139:13a). God put him together in his mother’s womb (139:13b). The psalmist looks at himself, reflects on himself, and sees a work of wonder (139:14). Surely, “the depths of the earth” (139:15b) is a metaphor for the way in which a baby’s body takes shape out of plain sight of those who otherwise watch a mother’s abdomen grow larger during pregnancy. There was a wondrous hiddenness to this process for the psalmist.

Clearly, the psalmist is caught up, enraptured, in thinking about the action and presence of God. At the same time, we can surely ask, Did the psalmist not believe that his mother and father made him? Did he think that “God making him” meant that his parents did not make him? Or is it possible that God made the psalmist by the very act of a man and woman making the psalmist? In other words, is it possible that (1) God making something and (2) people making something through a natural act are two different ways of talking about the same thing?


Is it possible that (1) God making something and (2) people making something through a natural act are two different ways of talking about the same thing?


In my experience, the next section can strike readers as rather jarring. It can seem so out of tune with the rest of the psalm. See how the words strike you:

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me —
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Did this prayer jar you? We went from wonder-stricken praise of a God who knows everything about the psalmist, who is everywhere the psalmist might go, and who made the psalmist from conception, to a prayer that God would kill. Did the psalmist have a mood swing, an uninvited interruption of his worship? Or is this prayer for God’s vengeance deeply consonant with the rest of his prayer? Is a prayer for God’s vengeance part and parcel of wonder-saturated praise?

Clearly, the psalmist is distressed to see in his world people living in opposition to God’s ways. No doubt, there were people in his Israel who lived in opposition to God’s ways — a real tragedy, given God’s goal to bless the world through him and his people (Genesis 12:1-3), the goal for Israel to be God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation (Exodus 19:6). If the covenant people are broken, what hope has the rest of the world? I think the clue to understanding the connection between this dual prayer of praise and prayer for vengeance comes in the next verses.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Do you hear what the psalmist is doing? He asks God to search him on the inside. The God who knows everything about the psalmist (139:1-6), who is everywhere the psalmist could go (139:7-12), and who brought the psalmist into existence (139:13-18) is being asked to examine that psalmist for bad thoughts and motives, precisely because the psalmist wants God to examine other people and to destroy those whom God finds wicked and in opposition to God’s will and goals in the world.

The God who knows everything about the psalmist (139:1-6) surely has the capacity to know everything about other people, including people who damage God’s world. The God who is present everywhere the psalmist could go (139:7-12) is surely present wherever evil is being done. The God who brought the psalmist into existence (139:13-18) surely brought all other people into existence, including those who oppose God’s will and ways in the world; yes, they are his creations, too. Even so, the wonder-stricken psalmist feels compelled and emboldened to pray that God would destroy his creations that harm his other creations. The psalmist is asking (and advising?) God to manage the world in which he already knows everything about everyone, is everywhere with everyone, and has brought (and will bring) everyone into existence.

One departing question, then, is this: When God searches the psalmist on the inside, what will he find? Will he find the psalmist as pure and evil-free as the psalmist seems to expect? Or might God have a rebuttal in store? After all, the psalmist has just made the case for how well God knows him. Perhaps God knows him better — the good, the bad, and the ugly — than he knows himself.


Continued in “Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 2).”