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.