Psalm 139: Ruining a Perfectly Good Psalm
There are certain Psalms that stand out because of their beautiful language and the depth of their reflection. Psalm 23 is one, Psalm 121 that we looked at last week is another. Near the top of the list would be Psalm 139. If you grew up in the church, you will likely find parts (but not all) of this Psalm familiar. I’m sure if you went to our local Christian bookstore, you would find numerous pieces of Christian art that would include one or more verses from Psalm 139.
This is not surprising as there are some powerful images in this Psalm that have impacted Christians throughout the generation. However, we may find that there is more to this Psalm than we think. There are ideas here that are important but which may make us feel uncomfortable.
God Knows Us
One of the ways that the Psalms in general get a point across is to repeat an idea multiple times in different forms. Psalm 139 is no exception. The Psalm begins with the idea of knowing us. In addition to the word ‘know,’ David also speaks of searching, perceiving, discerning and being familiar. In many ways this is the key to the entire Psalm, God’s full knowledge of who we are.
Every once in a while, we hear stories of celebrities trying to do something normal such as going to a restaurant, going for a jog or just playing with their children. They dress down, wear a ball cap and some sun glasses and hope nobody will recognize who they are. But usually, some photographer will recognize them and reveal their true identity.
God is far more capable than any photographer. He knows us inside and out. We might try to hide parts of who we are to acquaintances or even friends and families. We all have our secrets. It might be things we have done or said or it might be just our private thoughts and doubts. No matter what it is, God knows us. We are completely transparent to God.
We Can’t Escape God
Related to God knowing us is the idea of not being able to escape from or to hide from God. Why would anyone try to hide from God? We find it in the first few chapters of the Bible. Adam and Eve sinned and so they tried to hide from God because of their shame. Sometimes when we stumble into sin, we might try to hide from God. There is the temptation to stay away from church or to avoid Christian fellowship. The truth is that we cannot escape God. I don’t say that with the intention to frighten you, that God’s judgment will come upon you for the bad thing you did. Rather, as I see in this Psalm, it is in the context of God’s love. No matter what we do, God will pursue us. Francis Thompson wrote a poem called the Hound of Heaven. It begins like this:
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
I love that image of God as the hound of heaven that will not let us get away. Are you trying to hide from God? I know I have at times. God wants you, not to punish you but to embrace you, love you and heal you.
We Are Designed By God
I think one of the most powerful ideas in this Psalm is that of God designing us. We are no accident, God has made us for a purpose. Notice that David tells us that we were knit together in our mother’s womb. I’m no knitter but I know something about it. People don’t just knit for the sake of knitting. People knit something, whether it is mittens, a hat or whatever. The expectation is that whatever is knit will have a purpose.
I believe that is true for us. God has designed us for a purpose. Some people get really stressed out when they think about God’s plan for their life. Does God have a plan that we must have a certain career in a certain city and to marry a certain person? What if we make a mistake with any of these decisions? I’m don’t think that we need to stress about those details. Jesus tells us that two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbour. Do you want to be faithful to God’s plan for your life? Love God and love people.
Before moving on, I want to wrestle with a difficult question. Today is World Autism Awareness Day. I believe that there is a mainly genetic cause for autism. What does Psalm 139 say about autism and other disabilities that are genetic in nature? Does God purposely knit autism into certain babies and not others? I don’t have any good answers to this question. Like all parents of children with disabilities and people with disabilities themselves, I will have to wrestle with this question all my life.
But this Psalm tells me something that reality has also demonstrated. God has a plan for our children and everyone else with autism. I have seen over and over God using our children, because of and not just in spite of, their autism to bless many people. We can see God actively at work in their lives, bringing joy and witnessing to the love and power of God.
Honest to God
No one has ever asked me to edit the Bible, but if they did, I would be tempted to take out verses 19-22. The first eighteen verses are amazing and the final two verses are beautiful and then right in between we have all this talk about slaying and hating. Why did David have to go and ruin a perfectly good Psalm?
Not only that, how do we as Christians read this Psalm? Do we take a black highlighter to these verses? Is the Bible encouraging us to hate?
As Christians, I think we need to read this Psalm the same way that the ancient Hebrews read it and that is in context. What have we learned? We have been taught that God knows us perfectly, we cannot hide from God and that God designed us. How do those facts inform our reading?
Let’s start with the last one. How has God designed us? We are emotional beings who are meant to interact with other emotional beings. That will inevitably lead to conflict. We are also designed with free will which means we can choose to have positive or negative relationships with people as well as God. That is reality. But what do we do with this reality?
We can try and pretend that we don’t have these feelings, that we are not hurt or offended. But we have already seen that God knows us fully and we can hide nothing for him.
Of course we should aim for love for all people, no matter what they think of us or what they think of God. But I don’t see how that can happen unless we are completely honest with how we feel. This Psalm is not encouraging us to express hate or violence toward others. This Psalm is encouraging us bring everything we have, even the ugliest part of ourselves and present it to God. It is only then that we can truly pray the last part of this Psalm:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:24-25)
I love Psalm 139 because it has the power to both encourage and challenge us. There is encouragement in that God fully knows us and love us. He has designed us for a purpose we have value exactly the way we are. But we are also challenged to get real with God. Forget trying to hide that ugly part of yourself, God already sees it all. God’s knowledge of us is not an excuse to be less than honest since he already knows everything. Being honest with God is for our benefit and not for God’s. It is when we come clean with God, even about those those thoughts and feelings that we are ashamed of, that God can go deep and do the work that needs to be done. This is the truth. Honest to God.