Tag Archives: God’s Presence

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).”

Atheism by a Different Name

A sermon from Psalm 14 and Luke 15:1-10 (preached on September 11, 2016).


I remember sitting in a college and young adult church class years ago when the topic of atheism was put into conversation with Psalm 14:1, “Fools say in their heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (NRSV). I don’t recall details of the discussion, but at that time in my life, I think I viewed this verse as a slam against atheists and atheism. Those fools! I didn’t understand why people would say that there is no God. Growing up in church, faith in God made sense in my life and made sense of my world. Why did some people reject what, for me, was so obvious?

I now believe that Psalm 14 is not speaking against atheism, despite how the words “There is no God” may strike us. My understanding of this psalm has changed for a few reasons. First, in ancient Israel’s immediate context, so far as I understand it, all people believed in a god or gods of some kind. They might believe in one god and not believe in another, but I am not aware of any total atheists in ancient Israel’s immediate setting. Thus, I cannot imagine the words “There is no God” meaning that the person did not believe in any god at all.

Second, the rest of the words in Psalm 14 influence how we should understand the meaning of “There is no God.” The fools of this psalm are “corrupt, they do abominable deeds” (14:1b); “there is no one who does good” (14:1c, 3); humans “have all gone astray” (14:3); “evildoers . . . eat up my people as they eat bread” (14:4); they “would confound the plans of the poor” (14:6). In light of the entire psalm, it sounds like the fools are not people who refuse to believe in God, but are people who believe in God and think that God must approve of the way they are treating other people, since God is not interfering to stop their actions.


The fools … are people who believe in God and think that God must approve of the way they are treating other people, since God is not interfering to stop their actions.


Such theology works as follows: God gives me free will to act; if, in my freedom, I start to do something that God does not like, God will stop me from doing it; if God stops me, then I was wrong; if God does not stop me, then he approves of my actions. When we put this theology on paper, we can identify problems with it. But how many people who believe in God take every action as if the action either made God more present or more absent as a result? How many actions done by people of faith are so intentional? How many believers practice the presence of God in every action, and how many practice atheism by a different name?

Now, this application is broader than the situation to which our psalm seems to speak. Yes, the psalm sees a comprehensive problem: “The LORD looks down . . . on humankind” as a whole, and “there is no one who does good” among them (14:2-3). That is, all humans (including Israel) who believe in any god do wrong. If this is so, then Israel contributes to the larger human problem, when they were meant to address that problem.

But then the psalm gets more specific about the problem: “the evildoers . . . eat up [the psalmist’s] people . . . and do not call upon the LORD,” the God of Israel (14:4). This suggests that the fools and evildoers may be a neighboring culture who believes in other gods and does not think that Israel’s God is powerful enough or caring enough to stop them from harming Israel. What we have here are different theists (with correlating nationalities) operating within their theologies and drawing conclusions about their actions and their gods as a result of their interactions with each other. In particular, the foreign antagonists with their foreign gods “say in their hearts, ‘There is no God,’ ” meaning “There is no god in Israel who is stopping us and our gods from what we are doing, either because he will not or he cannot.”

The psalmist considers this belief foolish: Just because our God is not stopping you does not mean that he is not able or with us. The psalmist will go on to express hope that the LORD, the God of Israel, would deliver them and restore their fortunes (14:7), but I cannot help but believe that his theology would not crumble if the deliverance he preferred to see never took place. Someone who does not think that God has to keep harm from coming to him is in a logical position to think that God does not have to make his situation the way he wants it to be. To base one’s faith on the requirement that God orchestrate the world in a way that conforms to one’s own vision of how the world should be is arguably, yet again, atheism by a different name. It is a refusal to let go and let God be who God is, to trust that God knows what he is doing.


Someone who does not think that God has to keep harm from coming to him is in a logical position to think that God does not have to make his situation the way he wants it to be.


And so, it turns out that Psalm 14 is about atheism, but not in the ways we might be tempted to think. The Church should not march out of its buildings for name-calling: calling atheists, agnostics, and skeptics “Fools!” For my part, I have developed a healthy respect for many atheists, not least those atheists who deny God because of the shallow, pathetic versions of God they have seen expressed and worshiped by many people of faith. That is, I think the Church is implicated often enough in pushing people to the position of atheism.


The Church is implicated often enough in pushing people to the position of atheism.


But Psalm 14 was written by Israel for Israel to address their life from their point of view. For the Church, then, the psalm becomes a prophetic mirror, reflecting back our view of God to us and asking us about our beliefs. I can imagine several applications here, and I think you can, too. For instance, when the psalm implies that Israel is part of the larger “humankind” among which “there is no one who does good,” can we identify the ways in which we contribute to the larger human problem?—and not so much pointing out flaws in other Christians, but being able to identify attitudes and actions in ourselves that make the world a place where it feels more and more like “There is no God.” How are we promoting atheism by a different name?


Can we identify attitudes and actions in ourselves that make the world a place where it feels more and more like “There is no God”?


Or when the psalm implies that God’s power and presence are not determined by Israel being protected from all harm, does our faith get shaken up when harm comes to us or to people we love? Christians elsewhere in the world are much better positioned to address this question—those Christians who are harmed precisely because they are Christians. Nevertheless, hostilities abound in our world, and not infrequently in the name of a god. When those hostilities occur, am I tempted to believe that “There is no God” in those places and events? Can God be God when the carnage and wreckage of human violence litter the landscape all around him?

Is there no God where airplanes are seized and skyscrapers destroyed? Is there no God where diseases become epidemics and cancers evolve novelties that frustrate us? Is there no God where the abused become the abusers and prolong the cycle of violence? Is there no God where wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes destroy human homes and human lives? Or is God there in all of those places and events in ways that both comfort us and haunt us?


Or is God there in all of those places and events in ways that both comfort us and haunt us?


In Luke 15, and perhaps contrary to the beliefs of the Pharisees and scribes, God was there “welcom[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them” (15:2). Jesus calmed storms, but he did not calm all storms and recreate a world without storms. Jesus healed people with diseases, but did not transform the world into a place where disease was no more. Jesus multiplied loaves and fish, but he did not force a society or world where the poor would always be fed. When a sheep was lost, God was there in the effort to find it. When a coin was lost, God was there in the search to recover it. God was there at a meal with sinners, rejoicing when they repented in response to someone actually caring enough to enter their world, their house. On the flip side, God was not there in the efforts to stand apart from tax collectors and sinners and criticize and judge them.

Where is God today? The God who is there where hostility and harm occur, permitting these things to happen, is the same God who permits us to do good in our world, and who is there in those efforts. It is not tidy, but it places tremendous dignity on us and how we choose to use our lives in this world. In a world where people have lots of reasons or motives for saying “There is no God,” may we enact the life, character, and image of God by our words and deeds.