Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2018
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 Commentary
A little more than half a year ago (July 17, 2017), I wrote a sermon starter on the first and last parts of Psalm 139 on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website. Since I spilled a lot ink on the entire Psalm there, I’ll merely highlight some of those comments here and add a few that are relevant for this Second Sunday after Epiphany.
One might wonder what this text has to do with Epiphany. We get a clue when we consult the other Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading for today. The call of Nathanael in John 1:43-51 was, for Nathanael at least, a mini-Epiphany. Jesus’ intimate knowledge of this man whom he had never met convinced Nathaniel that Jesus was, indeed, “the Son of God… the King of Israel.” The call of Samuel in I Samuel 3:1-10 anticipates the call of Nathanael, and echoes the claim of Psalm 139 that God knows us from our earliest days, even from the womb. Further, those beautiful words in Psalm 139:13-18 about God’s careful creation of our bodies has ties to the reading from I Corinthians 6:12-20, which calls us to “glorify God in our bodies.”
God’s extensive and intensive knowledge of every detail of our bodily existence is an epiphany of God’s glory. Such knowledge, says the Psalmist in verse 6, is “too wonderful for me….” All we can do in the face of such knowledge is adore our glorious God.
The main point of Psalm 139 is that God’s knowledge of us is not merely intellectual; it is relational. The frequency of the pronouns “I” and “you” highlight that relation. God is not an idea or a force, an “it.” God is a person who can be addressed personally, a “you.” And the Psalmist is not merely a faceless cipher, one of a billion grains of sand. Each of us is, to God, a distinct person, an “I.” God knows us, not “from a distance” (as the old song put it), but as a lover. The main word for “know” here is the Hebrew yadah, which can mean everything from simple recognition to sexual intercourse. The many other words for “know” (5 more of them) in this Psalm suggest how intimately God knows us.
The God who knows us is not the unknown God of the Athenians (Acts 17). This God is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, who has not only hinted at his own existence in a series of private mystical mini-Epiphanies, but has also taken Israel by the hand and revealed himself in a series of very public historical acts. In other words, the God we are to adore is not an idea to be comprehended, but a person who has acted in concrete physical events. Yahweh is known by his deeds, and he calls us to trust and obey and adore.
Though the relationship between God and his people is intimate, it is not equal. We can never know God in the way God knows us (but cf. I Corinthians 13:12). Yahweh knows our words before we even speak them (verse 4). Indeed, he even knows our thoughts before we think them, if that is the meaning of “you perceive my thoughts from afar” in verse 2. If we are free creatures and can change our minds whenever we choose, how can God know our thoughts before we form them? We certainly cannot know the mind of Yahweh in that way (Romans 11:34).
As further evidence of the inequality of our relationship with Yahweh, verse 5 says that God “hems” us in—“behind and before.” There is much disagreement about the meaning of that phrase. Is it prohibitive, in the same way that walls and fences hem in prisoners? Or is it protective, in the same way that a baby’s crib keeps her from falling into trouble? Being closely watched and guarded can be a threatening reality, or a deep comfort.
The Psalmist suggests that he means the latter with his tender language about God’s knowledge of his life even before it began and after it ends (in verses 13-18). Accordingly, perhaps the sense of “you have laid your hand upon me” is “you have blessed me by laying your hands on me,” or even “you hold me in your hands” the way a mother cradles her infant.
At any rate, God hems us in, but we can’t hem God in. We are dependent; God is completely independent. He is, after all, Yahweh, the great “I am what I am.” That difference makes the intimacy of God’s covenant with us all the more glorious. That the eternal self-sufficient ruler of the universe should commit himself to us is beyond comprehension.
The Psalmist details God’s deep involvement in his life with these famous words about being “knit together in my mother’s womb.” As “precious” (verse 17) as that thought is to the Psalmist, some of what follows is problematic to some contemporary Christians. For example, the pro-life use of verses 13-16a in the battle against abortion causes some pro-choice folks to question whether those verses actually prove the personhood of the fetus. At the very least those verses prove that conception and gestation are not merely natural processes. God is intimately active in the creation of each human being. That fact, of course, makes every human being worthy of love and respect and dignity, regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity, health, preferences, class, or politics. These verses provide the foundation for a kind of biblical bill of rights.
Another example of the difficulty some Christians have with verses 13-18 centers around that word “ordained” in verse 16. Any talk about ordaining, especially if it is pre-ordaining, or pre-destination, is anathema to those who stand for the free will and self-determination of humanity. While I can appreciate the desire to preserve the importance of human choice, this verse is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the notion of God’s sovereignty. From the beginning, when God decided to create everything, to the end, when God will bring everything to a happy conclusion, the Bible emphasizes that God is actually in charge of human existence.
That clear biblical emphasis, however, does not answer the question about how God exercises his sovereignty over against or in cooperation with human choice. When the Psalmist says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be,” that doesn’t tell us exactly what God wrote in his book. Does that mean simply the length of our lives? Or does it mean every single detail of each day? Did God decide what each day would hold? Or does God simply know what I will do?
This is a great mystery about which both Christians and non-Christians have argued for millennia. At the very least, the Psalmist is telling us that our lives are not random bits of dust floating in the cosmic wind of a mindless universe. We are the unique creation of the Master of the universe. He knows each of us intimately from the heights to the depths, from the east to the west, from birth to death, and even before birth and after death. The Psalmist doesn’t claim to understand such knowledge. All of the debaters in this ancient argument about God’s sovereignty would do well to adopt the posture of the Psalmist. “How precious are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand!”
The last sentence of our reading is ambiguous. “When I awake, I am still with you.“ That might mean, “when I wake from the exhausted sleep brought on by my efforts to comprehend God.” Or that might mean, “when I awake from death.” Either way, my frail efforts to understand God and my fragile life on earth will end the same way. “I am still with you.” Nothing can break the covenant that you have made with me. Think of Romans 8:38, 39.
Completely comprehending God is not the key to life. God’s knowledge of me is the key to life. Or to put it differently, the knowledge that brings life abundant and eternal is the kind of relational knowing that Psalm 139 is all about. As John 1:18 puts it, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Not as an idea, but as a person, a person who was knit together in his mother’s womb and was born to trouble at the hands of mockers (Psalm 139:19-22). “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).”
In these days of deep loneliness and isolation, it is comforting to be assured that we are known in a way we cannot comprehend. When we wonder about God’s involvement in our troubled lives, Psalm 139 shifts our focus, so that “suddenly we find ourselves no longer questioning the limits of God in our lives, but considering our own limits in the context of the life of God.” (Carol A. Miles)
The kind of knowledge explained in Psalm 139 can stir fierce scholarly debate, but it can also create deep personal comfort. One of my grand-daughters was just diagnosed with an electrical blockage in her heart. At the age of 14 Molly might need a pacemaker for the rest of her life. I asked my daughter–in-law how she was doing with this disturbing turn of events. She confessed to being sad and worried, but, she said, “God has already written the story of Molly’s life.” And that gave her great comfort, because she believes that God knit her daughter together in the womb and has hemmed in her life with hands that are nail scarred.
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