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 afar.

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 self doubt and a negative self-image. When I got to verse 14 and read these beautiful words, I cried: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know that very well.”

During those dark days, I certainly did not think of myself as a “wonderful work,” but the psalmist helped turn my insecurity into humble confidence.

With all my flaws and failures, I know I am a 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; your right hand shall hold me fast.

There is no place where God is not.

Sometimes some 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-Redeemer-Sustainer fills every nook and cranny of creation and saturates all 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 life’s mystery:

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…

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.

Poetry, not physiology

If arguments and talking points about abortion sneak into your thinking at this juncture, please set them aside; instead simply relish the beautiful mystery of life of which the poet sings.

And remember it IS poetry, not anatomy and not physiology.

(Note the poetry about being “woven in the depths of the earth” and about a “book” that preordains our days. Psalm 139 is deeply true but not literal.)

God’s people have always had (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 life for any reason – human, plant or animal.

Consider also that our poet may be celebrating the creation of Israel.

From “nothingness,” from slavery, God knitted together a people and created, formed a beloved “son.” Within God’s “book” (covenant) is life and wisdom for the the living of every day.

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 and I am still with you.

Then there is this odd, dark interlude …

O that you would kill the wicked 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 editor added them.

I think we must take the poet (or the editor) seriously and consider what this imprecatory prayer might have 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.

It is the reputation of Israel’s God which is at stake.

Consider that these startling prayers are a way to motivate God to act righteously in the face of unrighteousness and to put the world back into its proper balance.

These prayers are eschatological, that is, the pray-ers are counting on God’s ultimate justice to one day bring all encompassing peace (Shalom) to all God’s creation.

This bold prayer 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 and he does not shy away from that awesome truth; instead he celebrates its intimacy.

And the psalmist also offers up God’s-son-Israel for this intimate (and often intimidating) 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 guiding!

O that the Church of today 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 CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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