Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2024
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 Commentary
It may be somewhat understandable that the Lectionary would have us stop short of this psalm’s sudden shift in tone starting in verse 19. A poem that had been 100% a lyric reflection on the abiding presence of God somehow briefly morphs into a full-throated imprecation against the wicked. This seems to come up like an out-of-the-blue really bad burp and even the psalmist stops himself before the end, shakes off this spurt of rage, and then asks God to help him with his own problems and not fret over the problems of others.
One can see, therefore, why the Lectionary stops us up short at verse 18. But skipping the middle part of the psalm in verses 7-12 seems a little odd since that is a clear extension of what comes up in the first half-dozen verses and that continues then in verse 13. In this commentary I am going to take into account all of Psalm 136:1-18.
As preachers like Tim Keller and Neal Plantinga have pointed out in their sermons on Psalm 139, it is a good thing that the psalmist so fully trusts and loves his God because otherwise the sentiments expressed here could come off as being a little creepy. Keller once invoked the Franz Kafka novel Das Urteil / The Trial because the protagonist in that novel lives in a world where the government seems somehow able to know his every move. He is being watched. Carefully. Constantly. Neal Plantinga mentioned the Tom Cruise movie The Firm in which a freshly minted lawyer seems to land a plum job with a prestigious law firm only to discover eventually that the firm was involved in organized crime and as a result kept a close eye on its every lawyer. The house they had provided to this man and his wife turned out to be full of hidden microphones recording their every conversation, every TV show they watched, their lovemaking. Everything. Creepy.
So also here. God knows us. God has searched us. He sees everything and knows everything apparently down to every last word we utter even before we think to utter it. When in verse 6 the psalmist says “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,” what he is essentially saying is, “You know me better than I know my own self, O God!”
And although there is no indication here that the psalmists wants to escape this all-pervasive divine gaze, he goes on to say in verses 7-12 that he could not escape God if he tried. High places, low places. Obvious locations and hidden locations. Day and night, forwards and backwards God is there. As the old spiritual has it, God is so high you can’t get over him, God is so low you can’t get under him, God is so wide you can’t get around him. God is permanently here. God is permanently there. God is permanently everywhere (to invoke a great Beatles song “Here, There, and Everywhere”!).
But this is not creepy news in Psalm 139 but profoundly good news because this is a loving and caring God. This is a God who has our best interests at heart. As Luke Powery once said in a sermon, this is the God who was before was was. And this same God was before we were created and not only was God present at our conceptions, God oversaw the whole formative process. Today we would say God was with us from the zygote stage on.
Of course let’s admit that if we knew another person who seemed to have something akin to this level of knowledge about everything we think, say, do, dream about, fantasize about, we would live in fear that this person would spill the beans on us one day. We might even avoid such a person at all costs. We would find it difficult to endure their gaze without averting our eyes in embarrassment and shame.
The fact that God has this level of knowledge of us but does not wipe us out or punish us as we deserve is a mark of this God’s lovingkindness and grace. “While we were yet sinners God loved us” Paul writes in the New Testament but this is true not just in the past tense but all the time. While we are still the hot messes and screw-ups and pieces of work we can all be sometimes, God in Christ loves us. We can fool other people and can say of other people, “If they really knew who I was, they would think differently of me.” But we cannot say that of God. And the Good News of the Gospel is that neither do we need to say that.
Like Mr. Rogers, God loves us just the way we are. Oh, that doesn’t mean God is not invested in helping us be better people. God wants us to conquer our addictions and resist those sins that seem so habitual for us. God knows us fully but loves us too much to let us hurt ourselves or others. Even so, God is patient with us and yes, God does love us. Such knowledge really is almost too wonderful for us. All of this points to the mystery of divine love as much as to anything else. What Psalm 139 conveys boggles our minds. But thankfully it also blesses our hearts.
As I have likely mentioned before in a sermon commentary on Psalm 139, a great children’s sermon to give on the day you preach on this psalm is Margaret Wise Brown’s classic little book The Runaway Bunny. Try though he may, the little bunny in the story cannot escape the reach of his mother’s love. The book is a delight for young and old alike (as all good children’s books are!). And when in the end the little bunny just relaxes into the all-encompassing reach of his mother and of her love, she responds simply, “Have a carrot”. What else would a loving mother say!?
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