Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands...  1 Timothy 2:8

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June 2024

Meditations on Psalm 139, Part 2

Psalm 139:1-6

A MEDITATION ON GOD’S KNOWLEDGE OF HIS OWN

Is it Me, or What?
I must confess to a personal abhorrence toward the self-obsession that saturates our current culture. This attitude has been a thing with me for as long as I have been a Christian. Self-obsession is a poison. I hate the way it blinds people to others’ needs and suffocates their ability to empathize. My knee-jerk reaction is to react in loathing. I must force myself to dial my prejudice back and show pity toward such people instead. I say this as a confession because ground zero for Psalm 139 lies in the middle of “me.” Look at how it begins: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me.” If we stop here, we might assume that the psalm will come off like yet another you-make-me-feel-so-good-about-myself meditation—sappy and dripping with self-adoration. Except that it isn’t. Yes, David mentions himself throughout. But his meditation is not about himself. It is about God and God’s knowledge of him. The prayer is a statement of wonder toward the LORD, who knows him completely, who keeps him faithfully, and who loves him intimately.

The Structure of the Psalm
The psalm falls into four roughly equal sections. The first three explore the deepening layers of God’s knowledge, while the fourth records David’s reactions to what he realizes. The four parts of the psalm are:

  • The first dimension: God’s factual knowledge concerning David
  • The second dimension: God’s inescapable presence
  • The third dimension: God’s wisdom in crafting his frame before birth
  • Conclusion: David’s response in worship

The First Dimension: God’s Factual Knowledge Concerning David
The psalm begins,

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.

--Psalm 139:1-6

The first thing to notice is that God’s factual knowledge of David is more than a mere passive byproduct of God’s omniscience, or his knowing everything. It is purposeful. It exists because God has searched him, and in searching has come to know him. It is also detailed knowledge. It covers David’s actions and thoughts (verse 2). It covers his habits (verse 3). It is deeper than even David’s own self-knowledge (verse 4). Finally, God’s knowledge extends beyond his awareness about David. It protects him from both self-destruction and outside harm (verse 5).
God’s knowledge leaves David in a state of wonder (verse 6).

The Second Dimension: God’s Inescapable Presence
If the first stanza of the psalm grows out of God’s omniscience, his knowledge of all things, the second stanza moves to his omnipresence. In simple terms, God is inescapable.

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.

--Psalm 139:7-12

This section of the psalm connects God’s Spirit with presence. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence.” When David speaks of the Spirit’s presence, however, the language moves beyond the concept of physical place. It moves to realms—heaven; Sheol; the sea; darkness. If David wanted to flee from God, where could he go? Assuming that David could flee to these places, God would still know him. Notice how David ticks off the options one at a time. Verse 8 eliminates both heaven and Sheol. Heaven is God’s abode, unapproachable by human effort. Likewise, Sheol, or the Grave, is the place of the silent dead, where human thought and activity cease (see Psalm 6:5). Though they are inaccessible by mortal men, God’s Spirit is present throughout. In a similar manner, verses 9-10 speak of the sea. In the Hebrew mind, the sea was a source of chaos. For example, in another Psalm, Asaph writes these words concerning Israel’s Red Sea crossing:

Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

--Psalm 77:19-20

The book of Jonah gives us a literal example of the futility of taking our flight to the sea. In chapter 2, after he tells the sailors on board the ship bound for Tarshish to throw him into the sea for their own sakes, Jonah prays to the LORD from the belly of the fish.

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.

--Jonah 2:2-3

Part of the irony in Jonah is that his seafaring trip to Tarshish, “away from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3), is futile. Jonah learns in real time what David understands intimately. God’s Spirit is everywhere. He catches up to him, not only on the seas but under the sea. In the end, he drives him back to the calling that he put on him in the first place, to warn Nineveh about his coming judgment. Jonah’s descriptive terms suggest that he may have died by drowning, only to be raised back to life through the fish’s intervention. Regardless of whether we interpret Johah’s language literally or figuratively, the resemblance to Psalm 139 is evident. But back to the psalm. Verses 11-12 moves to the realm of darkness. The Bible speaks both of physical and spiritual darkness. The first shrouds deeds in secrecy, while the second speaks in absolute terms. When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, he appears to have both dimensions:

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

--John 3:19-20

David writes that darkness is futile because before God, darkness is as bright daylight. Physically and spiritually, God is inescapable.

 

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