Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 17, 2021
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 Commentary
An acquaintance of mine used to like to end his prayers with a half-witty, half-wry final intercession. If praying at table, his prayers were mostly typical . . . until the conclusion. “Dear Lord, we thank you for this food, for this day, for your goodness to us. Be with us as we fellowship at this table now and stay with us this evening. Slay my enemies! Amen.”
Beyond the witticism, the fact is that my acquaintance had an awful lot of Psalms on his side in praying that way. Psalm 139 is one of a handful of psalms that is lovely and lyric throughout until suddenly—almost from out of nowhere it would seem—there comes a concluding imprecation of considerable scope and violence. In truth, most of us would rather avert our eyes from such things, especially since Jesus seems to have abrogated this line of thought with his “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute” you lines. And the Revised Common Lectionary usually has us skip such passages too, as in today’s scaled-back assigned verses from Psalm 139.
The Lectionary also skips the middle part of this psalm and I am not sure why. In what follows I will basically include verses 7-12 in my reflections. But first one last note on the closing imprecation: I do agree that praying (or singing) such sentiments is inappropriate for followers of the Prince of Peace. Of course, Jesus himself had quite a few warnings about coming judgment and the like (and alas, the RCL usually cuts those out too) but there was always the sense that these were matters best left to God alone to sort out in the end. Still, in poems like Psalm 139, it almost seems as though the more lofty and awe-struck the psalmist’s thoughts about God get to be, the less tolerance this same poet has for those who mock God with their lives. There may well be a vital connection between the lyric parts of a poem like Psalm 139 and the imprecatory conclusion after all. And there may be a lesson there that we could ponder even if we resist (as we ought) wishing such violence on others ourselves.
But back to the main part of Psalm 139. Years ago Tim Keller had a sermon on this psalm in which he compared a certain perspective on these words with Frank Kafka’s novel Das Urteil or The Trial. If you have ever read this book, you know that the main character finds himself existing in a world where someone in authority seems to be able to track his every movement. Every single thing he does is known, tracked, recorded, and in the end the protagonist feels as though his whole life has become a kind of extended courtroom-like trial. He is on trial for his every decision and action and word.
Or in a more pop culture vein, think of the John Grisham novel and then later Tom Cruise movie The Firm. Mitch McDeere is a hotshot, newly minted lawyer who gets hired by a prestigious law firm that showers him with gifts and encouragement. They even buy Mitch and his wife Abby a new home. But soon it becomes clear that The Firm is involved in shady business and eventually Mitch learns a terrible truth: their entire house was bugged with hidden microphones everywhere to track Mitch’s every move. Every conversation, every sigh while making love, every private thought they shared together had been listened in on by The Firm. When Cruise whispers this to Abby, she becomes momentarily unglued, fleeing the house and running as fast as she can.
Who wouldn’t? The scenarios in The Trial and in The Firm are almost everyone’s definition of “creepy.” In his sermon, Tim Keller noted, however, that this is what the psalmist says is true of God. God knows everything. God sees every move. What’s more—in the part of Psalm 139 the RCL technically skips—you cannot do what Abby does in The Firm: you cannot run away or get away from the microphones. Go high, go low. Go wide, go deep. Walk in the daylight or try to hide in the darkness of the night. It doesn’t matter: God is there.
But, of course, in Psalm 139 this is not creepy. It is affirmed as a supreme good, in fact. The psalmist finds comfort in this all-encompassing knowledge and all-capacious presence of God. Why? How? There can be only one reason: only God can be trusted to have such knowledge about us. Only God is wise enough, compassionate enough, forgiving and gracious enough to know all of our dirty little secrets and hidden faults and yet still be able to be our faithful God.
In a remarkable line from verse 6 the psalmist even says that this level of knowledge—even about one’s own self—is “too wonderful” for even us to bear! In short, God knows us better than we know ourselves! That is downright remarkable! But once more it is testament to the trust this psalmist has for God. God can handle knowledge about ourselves that even we might find difficult to bear.
In other words, Psalm 139 is in its own way an ode to grace. It is a celebration of that #1 trait of God’s for which the psalms give the most consistent praise: God’s chesed, God’s lovingkindness. Take that away and the sentiments expressed in the 139th Psalm go back to being creepy. But given God’s native lovingkindness toward us, these sentiments end up being comforting in the extreme.
And in the end—despite the major hiccup of some of the concluding imprecations against the psalmist’s and God’s enemies, it is as though after verse 22 the psalmist comes to a full stop, takes a deep breath, moves away from worrying about other people and says to God, “But tell you what, Lord: you just search and know me, find what is wrong with me, and then help me become a better follower of you down the paths of life everlasting.” Yes, we can fret others all we want but finally God has enough work to do on each one of us to re-cast us better into that divine image God has desired us to bear since the very beginning. And since God knows each of us better than we know our own selves, God knows just what to do. Trust this God.
I have long thought that the little classic children’s picture book The Runaway Bunny makes for an excellent children’s sermon or even regular sermon illustration in connection to Psalm 139. A little bunny decides he is going to run away from home but his mother will have none of it. He can go anywhere he pleases but the mother bunny will always be there waiting for him.
In the end, the little bunny realizes he has it pretty good right where he is given how much his mother loves him. And in that little tagline to the book is hidden a lot of solid theology!
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