Psalm 139 is a doctrinal and devotional classic. It bristles with theologically rich ideas and it hums a lullaby of divine care. Oh yes, it also shocks with its infamous ending; “if only you would slay the wicked, O God!” But for all its familiarity, Psalm 139 is hard to describe. Is it a hymn of praise, or a prayer of contrition, or an individual lament/complaint, or a wisdom psalm? Various scholars posit each of these, but none of those categories seem to fit exactly.
Perhaps the problem is that nearly all scholars, indeed, nearly all Christians, are so uncomfortable with verses 19-22 that they avoid them when trying to understand the Psalm. But could it be that those verses are, in fact, the hermeneutical key that unlocks the entire Psalm? If that is true, then Psalm 139 is a prayer for the vindication of an innocent person, identified in the superscription as David. My enemies say I’m guilty of terrible sins, but I’m not. So, O God, search me and know me and see if there is any wicked way in me. Clear my name and lead me in the way everlasting. Let’s see if this reading of Psalm 139 stands up to close investigation.
The Psalm consists of four poetic paragraphs of 6 verses each, and each section is concluded with a couplet that elaborates on the theme of that unit. It’s almost like a carefully argued brief that steadily and increasingly builds a case for innocence. Verses 1-6 introduce the theme: God knows me completely. “You have searched me and you know me.” But the Psalmist isn’t content to say that just once; indeed, he uses 6 different words for knowledge here. And he uses the literary device of antitheses to describe the extent of God’s knowledge: sit and rise, going out and lying down, conscious and unconscious, spoken words and unspoken words.
God knows me so thoroughly that I can’t comprehend his knowledge; it is “wonderful.” The Hebrew there is a word often used to describe God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel, the miracles he performed in redeeming them. God’s comprehensive knowledge is in that category of miracle. If there were any sin worthy of condemnation in me, God would know it.
But God doesn’t just know me from afar, like some giant mind in the sky. In verses 7-12, the Psalmist goes on to describe how close God is. Surveying all of space, the Psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Again using the literary device of antitheses, the Psalmist goes to the perimeters of life to explore God’s omnipresence, not as an abstract doctrine, but as a comforting truth. He considers the vertical dimension of existence; “if I go up to the heavens or make my bed in the depths, you are there.” And then he goes horizontally to the ends of the earth: “if I rise on the wings of the dawn (the east) or settle on the far side of the sea (the west), your right hand will hold me.”
God is everywhere, so there is nowhere for me to hid in my sin. Indeed, says the Psalmist in a surprising twist, God is even in Sheol (that is the Hebrew word in verse 8b translated “depths”). Sheol was the realm of the dead, where according to most Psalms God was not present. God is not only in the heavens where he has his house and his throne, but even in Sheol, where there is no existence at all. The words of Jacob in the Old Testament reading for today capture the unlikeliness of this thought. At Peniel, Jacob has a vision of that ladder stretching from earth to heaven and he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and was not aware of it (Genesis 28:16).” There is no place where God is not. So I cannot hide my sin from him.
In verses 13-18, the Psalmist moves from space to time. The Lectionary omits these verses, as well as 19-22. That is most unfortunate, since verses 13-18 are the culmination of the Psalmist’s plea of innocence, and verses 19-22 reveal the reason for that plea. In verses 13-18 the Psalmist goes beyond the borders of our earthly lives. Even before we were and even after we are not, God was, and is, and will be there. Our entire existence is encompassed within the reality of God.
Using language that tugs at the heartstrings, David says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb… when I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed substance.” Then David boggles the mind as he soars to the heights of theological mystery. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” He acknowledges the incomprehensibility of such thoughts. When he tries to think about the majesty of God’s mind and the mystery of God’s plan, he grows weary and falls asleep. But when he wakes up, there is God again in all God’s inscrutability.
At least that’s how the NIV translates the last part of verse 18. But the Hebrew of that verse suggests a different thought, a thought more in keeping with the gist of this part of David’s innocent plea. “When I come to the end of my life, you are there.” You were there before my life began and you will be with me when my life ends and you are with me in every intervening moment. All the days of my life have been authored by you, O God. You know absolutely everything about me. So you know that I am not guilty of the things my enemies accuse me of.
To this point the Psalmist has carefully argued his case about his innocence, based on God’s encyclopedic knowledge of him. Now he turns to his accusers and snarls out his bitter feelings against them. We could argue that David identifies so closely with God that he sees their opposition to him as opposition to God. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord.” This isn’t petty personal hatred based on his own pain. This is holy anger against those who rebel against the covenant Lord of Israel by rejecting his chosen King.
The Lectionary leaves out this part of Psalm 139 in our reading for today, probably because it doesn’t seem very Christian. Didn’t Jesus specifically say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. (Mt. 5:44).” And didn’t Jesus’ brother say, “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires (James 1:20).” Those verses and many others like them suggest that we should not take the words of Psalm 139:19-22 as a model for Christian prayer or behavior. But to omit them entirely from our consideration both denies the reality of such feelings in even the godliest of God’s people and leaves the prayer of Psalm 139 unexplained.
It is simply a fact that we sometimes find ourselves in the very situation that led to the writing of Psalm 139. We are falsely accused and it hurts terribly. And while the Psalm gives voice to our bitterness, it also, and primarily, shows us what to do with our wounded innocence. We should go to God and ask him to vindicate us. In effect, Psalm 139 says to both accused and accusers, “As God is my witness, I am innocent of the crimes of which you accuse me.” That is what the Psalmist is asking God to do. Be a witness for me. Search me. Examine me. Test me. And in your complete knowledge of me, vindicate me.
As I wrestled with this interpretation of Psalm 139, I wondered how many Christians would be able to relate to it. You can help your people get into the Psalm by imagining David running for his life from the mad King Saul. He had been nothing but loyal to Saul, but Saul harbored demented suspicions of David. Saul’s persecution may have been the Sitz im Leben for Psalm 139.
Or remind your folks about poor Job, whose friends were absolutely sure that anyone who suffered that much must have committed some terrible sin. His comforters became his accusers, and he bitterly protested his innocence to God. Here was a man who had done nothing wrong. Even God says so. And the accusations of his friends made Job plead with God, as David does here. Indeed, many scholars see parallels between Job’s speeches and David’s poem.
Or think about Paul’s persecution by the Judaizers and the super apostles. They were sure he was guilty of blasphemy and heresy, while he knew he was simply preaching what God had revealed to him. In letter after letter, he protests his innocence, defending his gospel, and appealing to God for help. I Corinthians 4:3-4 have the same tone as Psalm 139. “I care very little if I am judged by you or any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”
And most of all, consider Jesus and his unjust condemnation by people who did not know what they were doing. He was completely innocent of all sin, but his accusers, prodded into action by the Accuser, nailed him to the tree as a damnable sinner. But rather than snarl at them as David does here in Psalm 139, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them….”
The kind of knowledge and presence of God described in Psalm 139 can be either a comfort or a threat to people, depending on where they are with God. If we are trying to flee from God’s presence (verse 7), God’s omniscience and omnipresence will seem oppressive. If we are resting in the hollow of God’s hand (verse 5), we can take deep comfort from the words of this Psalm.
We can preach Good News from Psalm 139. The God who knows us this completely is not the Unknown God of today’s Athenian philosophers (Acts 17). The Lord to whom David appeals has made himself known in Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18).” The God to whom David prays for vindication is the God who sent his own Son “to be sin, so that in him we might become righteous of God (II Cor. 5:21).”
Knowing God this way gives new meaning to the end of Psalm 139. David is sure of his innocence, so sure that he calls God as his witness. But then he ends with a hint of vulnerability in his protestations of innocence. “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I might not be correct in my sense of innocence. And indeed, I’m not. So, Lord, lead me in the right way, the way that leads to Christ, the way that brings everlasting life to those who find their righteousness in him and him alone.
The words of Jesus in John 10:27 and 28 collect all these thoughts into one place and one person. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
There is an ambivalence in our society about being known. On the one hand, 94% of respondents to a recent poll said, “Nobody really knows me.” While that might be a comfort to some, I’m guessing that most of those who answered that way were speaking from a place of deep loneliness and longing. On the other hand, most of us are very uncomfortable with the fact that our computer use makes us vulnerable to being known by absolute strangers, even sinister predators. With a few clicks of a mouse, a clever criminal can know embarrassing and dangerous things about you. The thought of being searched and known through your computer is deeply unsettling. What a comfort to know that Somebody really knows me and that this Somebody is the Savior who entered my space and time in a body to save me from my sins.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 23, 2017
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 Commentary