139 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
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 afar. / 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, / behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. / 5 You hem me in, behind and before, / and lay your hand upon me. / 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; / it is high; I cannot attain it. / 7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? / Or where shall 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 dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, / 10 even there your hand shall lead me, / and your right hand shall hold me. / 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, / and the light about me be night,” / 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; / the night is bright as the day, / for darkness is as light with you. / 13For you formed my inward parts; / you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. / 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. / Wonderful are your works; / my soul knows it 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 saw my unformed substance; / in your book were written, every one of them, / the days that were formed for me, / when as yet there was none of them. / 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! / How vast is the sum of them! / 18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand. / I awake, and I am still with you. / 19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! / O men of blood, depart from me! / 20 They speak against you with malicious intent; / your enemies take your name in vain. / 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 complete hatred; / I count them my enemies. / 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! / Try me and know my thoughts! / 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting![i]
Both early church fathers and pagan philosophers agreed on one thing: God was ineffable. That is, God was too great to be described in words. No set of words could capture all the “Godness” of God. But pagan philosophers, as great as they theorized the Maker of the universe to be, scoffed at the notion that an ineffable creator could be known intimately.[ii] Psalm 139 holds these two aspects of God in a beautiful, poetic tension: ineffability and intimacy. One commentator writes, “Any small thoughts that we may have of God are magnificently transcended by this psalm, yet for all its height and depth it remains intensely personal from first to last.”[iii]
GOD’S ATTRIBUTES (139:1-18)
The psalm breaks into two broad parts: praise to God for his all-knowledge, his all-presence, and his all-power (1-18); and a response to God’s attributes (19-24). A striking combination of theme, mood, and motifs separates a meditation (vv. 1–18) from urgent petitions (vv. 19–24). The meditation segues into the petition by a concluding reflection as the psalmist awakes from his dreamlike reverie to the realities of his life. He abruptly cries out: “Bloodthirsty men, get away from me” (v. 19b). The mood of meditation gives way to urgency; praises to I AM abruptly shift to urgent imperatives; and God’s name I AM, the personal name of Israel’s covenant-keeping God (v. 1), is exchanged for names that signify I AM’s transcendence.[iv]
Interestingly, David shows himself to be keenly aware of the myths of Israel’s surrounding cultures. He shows himself a first-rate poet and worshipper by his allusions to the pagan myths of the sun god, the Mother Earth goddess, and the Tablet of Destinies.[v] So, we can say messiah David is arguing his case for I AM as the reality behind the legends of surrounding nations.
David could have just written, “God you know me thoroughly” and been done with it. But this is a meditation of the perfection of God’s power and knowledge. Instead of one verb to describe God’s knowledge of the heart, the author uses six. Obviously, he wants to dwell on the thought; he is not anxious to leave it. He wants the conviction to sink deeply into his soul that God knows him through and through, so he comes at the idea from a variety of angles and aspects—search and know, sitting down and rising up and lying down, paths and ways, thoughts and words.[vi]
The first thing the psalmist declares in verses 1-6 is God sees and knows absolutely everything. His description is strung together with a series of merisms (poetic opposites that include everything in between): sit down …rise up; going out …lying down; behind …before. David is contemplating God’s perfect, exhaustive knowledge of all things that happen in both time (when) and space (where). God knows every minute detail of every being in heaven, on earth, and even in hell. He never has a wrong impression, never gets his facts mixed up, never jumps to conclusions (since he decreed all conclusions), never forgets or overlooks anything, and never changes his mind.
One author writes:
God knows instantly and effortlessly all matter and all matters, all mind and every mind, all spirit and all spirits, all being and every being, all creaturehood and all creatures, every plurality and all pluralities, all law and every law, all relations, all causes, all thoughts, all mysteries, all enigmas, all feeling, all desires, every unuttered secret, all thrones and dominions, all personalities, all things visible and invisible in heaven and in earth, motion, space, time, life, death, good, evil, heaven, and hell.…
Because God knows all things perfectly, he knows no thing better than any other thing, but all things equally well. He never discovers anything, he is never surprised, never amazed. He never wonders about anything nor (except when drawing men out for their own good) does he seek information or ask questions.[vii]
This knowledge is what the psalmist is writing about in the six opening verses of Psalm 139. Verse 1 states the psalm’s theme, God’s perfect knowledge of the psalmist: “O I AM, you search me and you know me.” The next three verses develop three important aspects of that knowledge: the psalmist’s thoughts (“you consider [sift/winnow] my thoughts from afar,” v. 2); his ways (“you are aquatinted with all my ways,” v. 3); and his words (“Surely, before a word is on my tongue, I AM, you know it completely,” v. 4). David’s thoughts shift back and forth from the vertical to the horizontal axis. After this, in verse 5, he begins to anticipate the theme of the psalm’s next section, God’s all-presence, his “everywhere-ness,” since the ideas overlap.
But before he moves further into God’s everywhere-ness, David balks slightly at the thought of God’s perfect knowledge and power. 5 Behind and before—you hem me in; / you have laid the palm [of your hand] upon me.[viii] The words imply hostility, military action (hem me) and active power (palm/hand). It signifies God’s full authority and the imposition of God’s opposing will against another (Ex. 7:4; Ezek. 39:21; Job 13:21; 41:8). It’s not a statement that God is bad; rather, it’s an expression of appropriate fear of an all-powerful being who always gets his way. It’s unsettling for David (or you and me) to contemplate the fact that we can hide nothing from God and do nothing apart from him. That fact ultimately prompts David’s final plea at the psalm’s end for his secret sins to be revealed.
For an unsaved person this powerful, pervasive knowledge seems intrusive and frightening, and with good reason. God is the end-time judge with whom we must reckon. Strikingly, the ultimate response of the psalmist is not fear. He has a healthy fear when he thinks of God’s omniscience. Then, he shelters himself in God’s knowledge and marvels at it. For the psalmist, God’s knowledge is not a threat; it is a refuge.[ix]
David quickly recovers from this note of foreboding to proclaim: “Such knowledge is too wonderful [impregnable (fortress); military term] for me; / it is high; I cannot attain it [do not have the power to scale it].”[x] That’s our word ineffability. David cannot completely express nor understand the “Godness” of God. Knowledge of God’s “Godness” is a cliff too high for even the great warrior David to conquer. It’s the same note struck by the apostle Paul in Romans 11:33-36 as he breaks into praise over God’s plan of salvation:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [xi]
In verses 8-12, David imagines three areas where he could try to hide from God and dismisses all three. First, he looks to the vertical axis: heaven or hell. The highest point to which we can rise is heaven and God is obviously there, and the lowest point to which we can descend is hell (the Hebrew word is sheol) and God is there too. He is there in his judicial aspect. In fact, the thing that makes hell so terrible is that it is run by God (not the devil). What makes hell horrible is that God is present there ONLY in his wrath (and none of his grace).[xii]
Next, David looks, in verses 9 and 10, to the horizontal axis: east or west. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, the east was the place of light and life associated with the rising of the sun god. The west was the place of darkness and death In Egypt, all the temples are located on the east bank of the Nile. The burial places (pyramids and Valley of the Kings) are on the west bank. So, even if the psalmist could fly at the speed of light he could never outrun the God who is everywhere all at once. Jonah tried to do it, fleeing from Joppa (east) in the direction of Tarshish on the coast of Spain (west), but God was present even on the expansive Mediterranean Sea. God pursued him in the storm and brought him back, inside the great fish.[xiii]
Even if David rode the course of the sun into the very darkness of the west (11-12), God would see him because physical darkness means nothing to the Creator who sees and knows everything all at once. Light is God’s own creation (Gen. 1:3) and he has no need of anything he created to help him know his creatures. In verses 13-16, David’s status as a creature fleeing into the darkness leads him into thoughts of his conception and gestation in the darkness of the womb.
“The third stanza brings together and carries forward the thought of the first two: God not only sees the invisible and penetrates the inaccessible, but is operative there, the author of every detail of my being. And the dimension of time is now added to those of space”[xiv] as David’s nighttime meditation on God transitions to waking up into the reality of his hostile situation among messiah David’s (and, so, God’s) enemies.
God’s great artistic studio is in the darkness of the mother’s womb. I AM formed everything of David so that David is exhaustively known. God created his body; God knows his thoughts; God ordained all his days in his book of decrees. Only poetry allows the psalmist to praise God using oxymorons: the secret lies open (15) and God’s thoughts are both innumerable and rare (17-18). Here I AM, the personal and corporate covenant-making God of Israel, stands apart from the pagan deities surrounding Israel, and the pagan philosophies of later Greece and Rome, and the disinterested and detached god of the Enlightenment.
David’s reference to being embroidered in the depths of the earth is a cultural slap to the Mother Earth myth that believed humans were formed in the depths of the earth before their birth. He is singing that the One True God is the intimate creator of all human beings, even to the point that God formed the embryo (unformed substance, 16). “In addition to shaping human personality, God predestined the psalmist’s destiny by writing the mortal’s personal diary beforehand: upon your book they [all my days] were written (ʽal sipreḵâ … yikkāṯēḇû). This imagery derives from yet another myth, the ‘Tablet of Destinies,’ envisaged as a clay tablet inscribed in cuneiform. Whoever holds or owns the tablet has supreme authority as ruler of the universe. God knows the psalmist’s full thoughts before he expresses them (v. 3) because God rules them (v. 16).”[xv]
God is not simply all-knowing and all-powerful, he is entirely present everywhere. He is intimately and unbreakably WITH his people. That is the truth that astounds David and baffles philosophers. God is with the psalmist on his bed as David contemplates the divine attributes; and, I AM is with his anointed when David awakes surrounded by God-haters bent on destroying God’s reign by destroying God’s messiah.
DAVID’S RESPONSE (139:19-24)
I awake, and I am still with you. / 19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God… 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 complete hatred; / I count them my enemies.
This is imprecatory prayer. David prays for the destruction of God’s enemies. It is a role unique to God’s anointed king. Messiah’s duty was to pray for I AM to build his kingdom by destroying God’s enemies. We don’t pray these prayers in the same way David sang them because Messiah Jesus has come and already vanquished all God’s enemies through his perfect law-keeping life, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection and ascension as we learned in Psalm 110 last week. Jesus is building, strengthening, and growing his inbreaking kingdom through the humble suffering of his saints this side of Calvary. Yet, Jesus bids us pray for the consummation of his inbreaking kingdom: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10; Lk. 11:2).
However, we can join in David’s song in this sense: David wants no part in the sinful rebellion against the perfect rule of the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Creator-Sustainer God. “This separation does not mean that David never had anything to do with sinful people; he himself was one. It only means that he did not want to be with those who were openly marked by evil or were hatching evil actions. So taken was he with the greatness of God that he wanted nothing to endanger his relationship to God.”[xvi]
The temptation for David to make himself feel more holy through his hatred of his murderous and blasphemous enemies (Lk.18:1) leads him to ask God to search the psalmist’s heart for hidden sins because, as Jeremiah will later sing:
9 The heart is deceitful above all things, / and desperately sick; / who can understand it? / 10 “I the Lord search the heart / and test the mind, / to give every man according to his ways, / according to the fruit of his deeds.” [xvii]
David prays for four things: for God to know him and expose his thoughts; for God to try, or perfect, his thoughts; for God to purge away whatever evil remains in him; and for God to lead him in the way everlasting.
Isn’t it interesting that a psalm beginning with an unparalleled declaration that God knows all things should end with the request for God to search and know the psalmist?[xviii] Is that an application any of us would REALLY want to make? Do you truly want God to expose your secret sins, the ones you hide from everyone, the ones you hope no one ever sees, the ones that would devastate your reputation?
A request like David’s is only possible where there is perfect forgivness and complete scrubbing away of our guilt. A request for revelation of the deepest sins of our hearts is only possible to pray to a God who does not despise our longings, is not shocked by our weaknesses, and does not get impatient or irritated with us – a God whose love is perfect and one-way, completely independent of our always-imperfect performance and completely in control of even our most dire circumstances; a God who displayed his unshakable love by hanging Messiah Jesus on a cross. The perfect complement to Psalm 139 is Romans 8. Let’s close with a portion of it where God’s ineffability and intimacy kiss:
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [i]
[ii] Waltke, et. al., 520.
[iii] Kidner, 500.
[iv] Waltke, et. al., 541.
[vi] Reardon, (Kindle Locations 5343-5346).
[vii] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 61–62.
[viii] Waltke, et. al., 535.
[ix] Boice, 1204.
[xii] Boice, 1204–1205.
[xiii] Id., 1205.
[xiv] Kidner, 501–502.
[xv] Waltke, et. al., 561.
[xvi] Boice, 1211.
[xviii] Boice, 1211–1212.