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Psalm 139 is a familiar and precious Psalm to many. You may even have part of verse 14 memorized: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Verse 14a) You may even have a coffee/tea mug somewhere in your house with it. However, I wonder if in our familiarity and making of cute mugs we may have domesticated and trivialized some parts of this Psalm?
Having read this Psalm afresh during the pandemic, I believe this Psalm has more for us than our cursory readings may have gleaned. It may bring us to wrestle honestly with more than we might have first perceived. As is usually the case with many of the Bible’s passages that have become decorations for Christian paraphernalia, sometimes we can be surprised afresh when we stop to consider its words carefully.
So let's take a fresh look at this Psalm together... (it'd be helpful to have your Bible open to the Psalm as we track through it) Or you can also view the Drop-In Bible Study on this Psalm I led at my church.
The Psalm starts off with the declaration of God’s thorough knowledge of the Psalmist - and by extension, us! The Lord has searched and known me (v. 1). Not just known of me, but searched and known me. The verb in verse 3 translated ‘observe or search’ comes from the Hebrew root ‘zarah’ which means “measure”. This knowledge extends to the totality of our actions (when I sit down and when I rise up, my path and lying down, acquainted with all my ways), and our thought life (even before a word is spoken He knows it). This is not a passive omniscience but an active and engaged type of knowing.
How amazing that our God, who dwells in the heavens, is not too far off to be intimately engaged in knowing us so thoroughly? Indeed, He even knows the number of hairs of our head (Luke 12:7).
Verse 5 uses the Hebrew verb ‘beset’ which normally means “to besiege” in a hostile sense, however, here it is used in the sense of being surrounded in a protective sense. Literally, “back and front, you enclosed me.” The ESV translates the phrase as being “hemmed in, behind and before” - which is a good way to get the sense of what’s meant.
In a time of increased isolation and loneliness, it is good to be reminded that our God is not far off and aloof, but rather remains our all-encompassing and surrounding Heavenly Father who intimately knows us through and through. After contemplating these glorious truths, the Psalmist exclaims that being known in such an intimate way by the Lord himself is “too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (v.6). It seems too good to be true!
Perhaps after contemplating being encircled by God’s searching knowledge, the Psalmist’s mind wondered if there was any escape from the Lord’s vigilant eyes. Walter Elwell comments, “His companionship is unbroken; even the occasional attempt to hide from God is frustrated.”
Perhaps many of us find ourselves in that place during these days. The social isolation has maybe tempted us to think that no one sees us and we’re alone. Maybe it has even led to some unhealthy hidden sins as we seek comfort and solace from our cherished idols or glowing screens. We’ve said, with the Psalmist, “surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night.” The Hebrew verb translated “cover” has the sense of “crush, or bruise” elsewhere in the OT (e.g. Gen. 3:15; Job 9:17) - perhaps for you, the darkness has felt more crushing and despairing.
However, even the darkness is as the day to our Lord. His presence is inescapable. Whether we were to fly to the highest of heights or sink to our lowest of depths, God’s presence and caring hand of guidance and protection still are with us. And perhaps for the weary, sin-worn saint, this reminder of His omnipresent care would bring loving conviction and repentance to find His grace already present in our darkest hours.
How far back do your closest relationships go? Perhaps some have known you for most of your life? Your mom has known you since you were in her womb. But the Lord has “knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew text translated “my inward parts” literally means “kidneys”, but the sense is that even our inward details have been formed by our loving God. The best of our human relations can significantly shape and form us in profound ways, but ultimately it is the Lord who has made us for His praise.
This is why the use of this verse as a caption on a teenage selfie post to draw attention to oneself seems cheap. The point of the Psalmist isn’t to draw attention to himself, but to extoll the God who formed and created him. Note the emphasis in verse 14:
“I praise YOU, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are YOUR works…”
We flip this verse on its head if we make it about ourselves.
Every Day Written For Me
Verse 16 hit me like a ton of bricks as I read these words in the middle of my sulking and moping around during the COVID-19 restrictions, lockdowns and inconveniences. It’s so easy to get caught up in the frustrations of the current situation. We’re annoyed that our freedoms and happier days are being erased by technocrats and politicians. But are they?
Verse 16 says,
“in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Every. One. Of. Them.
Really? Even today? Even this year? But what about the days of isolation, limitation of freedoms, loved ones dying alone, virtual weddings and funerals, missed graduations, media fear-mongering over case counts, estrangement from family, concerns over government overreach and overspending? What about the days of truncated church gatherings, ZOOM fatigue, small businesses crashing while big box stores make a killing, fake news, political unrest, racial tensions, mask mandates, curfews, collapsing economies, injustice in the streets, grocery lines the length of a failed socialist state, and hypocritical jet-setting vacationing bureaucrats?
Even these days. They were formed for me. Written in His book!
Before we say another “but what about…”, let that sink in a little.
Sometimes we complain as if we were victims of blind and pitiless fate - but that’s an atheist’s dilemma not a Christian’s! Sometimes our grumbling is actually the result of a heart of unbelief that forgets that every single day, every single detail, every single hardship and trial, blessing and joy - all of them were written and formed for me - for you - by the hands of that same loving, intimately concerned, inescapably caring Heavenly Father of the last 15 verses of this Psalm.
Could it be that as we vent our frustrations to the atmosphere, grunting our exasperation at the invisible fates we blame, that we’re actually saying, “I don’t like the story you’ve written, God. I wish you’d write another one.”?
In our hearts we wish we could write our own story, thinking we’d do a better job, and moments like these frustrate our ill-conceived notions of being our own would-be autobiographers. The concept of the Lord’s book which records the existence of every person reinforces God’s sovereignty over life and death (see Psa. 69:28 and Exo. 32:32-33). How true it is that there is no other doctrine that grates against our sinful desire for self-autonomy than the doctrine of God’s utter Sovereignty. In my grumbling, sometimes I say with my heart that I wish I were sovereign over my life.
I don’t know about you, but the realization that every day is written and formed for me by my Heavenly Father - even these days - changes the way I face them. All the above concerns and problems still exist, but it helps me to frame them differently. No longer am I functionally thinking, feeling, or acting as if I’m the victim of blind and pitiless impersonal fate - but rather reminded that even though I walk through The Valley of the Shadow of Death, He’s still there with me. And the Company that’s with you in the trials makes all the difference. Not only that, but these days were formed for me by that same God who intimately knows and loves me. If we know the character of our Sovereign God, we know that we can trust Him to write our story. And we know that He’s writing a much bigger story than just about you or me. It’s even bigger than our little place in time and space. Such is the hope and peace of a truly Christian faith.
The Vastness of His Thoughts
This section ends with an often misquoted or misunderstood verse:
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Verse 17)
I’ve heard it quoted or interpreted several times before as “how precious are your thoughts OF ME, O God!” As if, again, to make us the centre of God’s world. But, as in verse 14, the text points us back to God’s praise.
After contemplating that God has written the days of all people in His book, the Psalmist recognizes that God’s intellectual capacities are far beyond his own mortal perceptions. In fact, the Hebrew verb translated as “how precious” may mean “how difficult” - which may be preferable given that the Psalmist is exclaiming at the impossibility of understanding the totality of God’s thoughts. In effect, what this verse is saying to us is, "You want to get an idea for how vast God's wisdom is and how many 'thoughts' He has? Then go count sand!"
John Calvin comments on this verse:
“The exclamation made by the Psalmist suggests to us that were men not so dull of apprehension, or rather so senseless, they would be struck by the mysterious ways of God, and would humbly and tremblingly sist themselves before his tribunal, instead of presumptuously thinking that they could evade it. The same truth is set forth in the next verse, that if any should attempt to number the hidden judgments or counsels of God, their immensity is more than the sands of the sea. Our capacities consequently could not comprehend the most infinitesimal part of them.”
It is what the Lord declares of Himself in Isaiah 55:8-9,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I have no clue as to why our present situation is part of the story God is writing. But I do know from reading history, that empires once thought impregnable have risen and fallen and that it has often been the case that the worst of times brought about the greatest glory for God. Was it not so with the Cross? Was not the Cross the utter reversal of every expectation? Who could have written such a tragedy turned to glory but the Author of the ages himself?
We could no better write history than the One who knows all from beginning to end. How vast indeed are His thoughts and higher than our ways. Indeed, if we knew everything God does, we would change nothing. And one day, our faith that believes God to work all things for good (Romans 8:28) will be made sight and none will say to Him, “what have you done.” The only thing on our lips will be praise for His marvellous grace and unsearchable wisdom.
Well that Escalated Quickly
This Psalm then seems to take a sharp turn as we read, out of nowhere:
“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!” (Verse 19)
We get nervous at imprecatory Psalms with our modern sensibilities. They seem too crude. Too uncivilized. Too raw. Too… Biblical?
The next four verses of this Psalm, the Psalmist directs his ire against the enemies of the Lord who blaspheme and malign His Name. He hates them who rise up against the Lord and count them as his enemies.
You definitely won’t find these verses on a coffee mug… unless you’re shopping at an angry Cage-Stage Calvinist’s etsy store or something!
What’s going on here?
The Psalmist, after contemplating God’s intimate knowledge of him, persistent presence with him, intricate care and vast wisdom realizes what an immense cosmic treason it is to rebel against this Loving Sovereign. Zeal for his Lord’s Name consumes him. Listen to his words:
“They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Verses 20-22)
I wonder how many times my anger these days has been because I was zealous for God’s glory being defamed or my own inconvenience? It is easy to get angry with all that’s going on around us, and anger in itself is not necessarily sin (cf. Eph. 4:26). But how often is our indignation a righteous one directed at that which maligns the glory of our God? Are we indignant at the things today which deface and destroy God’s image (such as abortion)? Or the things that rob Him of the praise due to His Name for His continual giving of life and common grace (such as our own grumbling with lips made for His praise)?
I know my anger is often not so holy.
Coming Full Circle
It is perhaps then quite appropriate that the Psalmist ends where he began. He began contemplating God's searching and thorough knowledge of him. He ends now, asking God to search him… but not to find anything new - nothing would surprise the Lord who already knows us thoroughly. Rather, the psalmist asks for the Lord to try him and see if there is any offensive way in him to God.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Verses 23-24)
Lange comments on these verses:
“Then, after strong asseverations of his abhorrence of men who act wickedly against God and are thus deserving of punishment, he prays that he may be preserved from self-deception by the revelation of the true condition of his soul, and that he may be led in the way which excludes the danger of destruction.” (Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Psalms, p. 646)
This is where we too should go. Our temptations to pride and self-righteousness are too high and our tendencies to folly and short-sighted thoughts too frequent. We need the Lord to reveal to us the ways in which our deceitful hearts can lead us astray and ask Him to lead us in the way everlasting (v.24).
May He do this for me and you.