Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Psalm 139 is one of my favorites. I have a strong memory of a time when I was overwhelmed with a negative self-image. When I got to verse 14 and I read these words, I cried: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” At the time, I did not think of myself as a “wonderful work” and I did not know that very well. But the psalmist turned my insecurity into humble confidence. With all my flaws and failures, I know I am wonderful work of the Creator. 

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

There is no place where God is not.

Sometimes people talk as if the world is divided into sacred and secular; holy and profane. But that is not the understanding of this poet. Instead, Creator reaches into every nook and cranny of creation and saturates the world with holiness.

Wendell Berry has said:

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Psalm 139 continues with a celebration of mystery:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
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.

If arguments and talking points for or against abortion sneak into your thinking at this juncture, please set them aside. Don’t argue; just relish the beautiful mystery of life the poet sings to us.

And remember it IS poetry, not physiology. (Note the part about being “woven in the depths of the earth.” And the part about a “book” that preordains our days.) God’s people have always had – and will always have – different understandings about when life begins and ends. Life is mystery and only the Creator holds that mystery. The rest of us do the best we can holding all life as sacred – and not desecrating any for any reason.

Remember also as we read these words that the poet may well be celebrating the creation of Israel. From nothingness, from slavery, God wove together a people, a beloved “son.” And God’s “book,” Covenant, Word offers the people life.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

And then there is this odd interlude …

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

Generally when this psalm is used in a liturgical setting, these jarring words are left unsaid. Some scholars even theorize that a later edit added them in.

But I think we must take the poet seriously and consider what this imprecatory prayer meant to him.

There is a pattern repeated within the psalms where the pray-ers ask God to curse the wicked, to punish evildoers, to pay back wrongs. This may be personal,  but, within the tradition of Israel, it is more likely the poet is speaking for all the people. It is the beloved community that is threatened, disrespected and damaged.

And it is Israel’s God whose reputation is at stake.

Consider that these startling prayers are a way to motivate God to step up and BE God. To act righteously in the face of unrighteousness. To put the world back into its proper balance. These prayers are eschatological: counting on ultimate justice to one day bring peace and Shalom to all creation.

And this is a way for the poet to declare unambiguously: I am on the LORD’s side.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

The psalmist knows that he is fully known; he does not shy away but celebrates such intimacy. And the psalmist also offers God’s son, Israel, for this intimate soul searching. Such knowledge is our salvation.

O that God’s people of our own day would offer ourselves to this divine searching, knowing and leading!

O that the American Church would open ourselves up to such holy, refining, redeeming knowledge!

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at

One thought on “Psalm 139”

  1. While the author calls out for God to kill the wicked, he also asks God to search him, to see if there is any wickedness. I suspect that he knew, as with all of us, there was some wickedness within him that He implored God to kill. Which He did…on the cross. Hallelujah. “Be still, and know that I am God.”

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