A Commentary on Psalm 139

Here’s some commentary I recently drafted on the 139th Psalm. I’m sharing this, both to help me process through it, and in the hopes that it might be beneficial to someone down the line.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
There is Someone watching you–Someone you have never seen, but who has observed everything you’ve ever done.

David has been brought through trial and given the throne. God has searched him in all his trouble. “God, you have seen my highs and lows.” Doctrine: Divine Omniscience. God knows all. The idea is that God knows me as a miner knows the earth (Barnes). He has bored, he has dug deep, and he has uncovered what is within. “O Lord, you have mined me.” 

You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
He searches me out, when I am on the move; when I am still. God doesn’t get bored from observing me. He is well aware of all my activities.

Sitting down, rising up. All daily activity. My thoughts are known from far off–long before they arrive. Long after I forget them. My daily activity matters to God–not just the “spiritual” stuff. There is no division between the spiritual and the secular here. Jesus likewise knew what was in a man (John 2:24-25). God sifts my life and layes it out before HImself. 

Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
He knows what I’ll speak before I do. This must make me pause. 
God is aware of every word. What we say matters to God. How many careless words do we utter? God knows them fully. God will never misunderstand you, either.

You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
He is close to me. He envelops me. He is immanent. Doctrine: Immanence of God. God is also everywhere. Doctrine: Omnipresence. God surrounds us as closely and intentionally as an army besieging a city. God’s attributes are not abstract to David. God is all-knowing of me. God is all-present with me. My life matters to God.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.
I can’t comprehend how You do this, Lord. How can you know what I will do? 
David pauses. God’s knowledge makes him sit back in awe and comment on it. 

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
Here is the budding, incipient theology of the Holy Spirit. It will be fully realized in the New Testament. This is a comfort to the follower of Jesus. It is also a warning to those who want to live autonomously. God is with you, whether you believe it or not. We are as near to God as the soul is to the body (as one commentator has said). Spurgeon: “This makes it dreadful work to sin; for we offend the Almighty to His face, and commit acts of treason at the very food of His throne….” We cannot escape His view. “His mind is within our mind; himself within ourselves.” Imagine the patience of God, as we boldly declare our autonomy within His very presence!

 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
The wings of the morning–to the east. The furthest reaches of the sea–to the western end of the Mediterranean. If I were to discover come uncharted planet. There are 1,500 hundred planets within 50 lightyears of earth. If I were to leave here, go out and explore an uncharted world–I would discover that God was already there, waiting for me. I cannot escape Your presence. Were I to travel to the depths of the ocean or to the furthest reaches of space. Even there you would hold me, guide me, would be with me. We value our autonomy. So the idea that God is everywhere–there is no escape from Him–is, at first, scary. But King David says this is comforting to him. This means that God is there to guide Him. Doctrine: Human Dependence on God. We are not autonomous; we need a Guide, and God has not left us without one. My life matters to God. Doctrine: Sovereignty of God. 

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
David is afraid. The darkness will bruise him (Hebrew word here for “cover” can mean bruise, injure). He’s afraid of the dark. We have bodies, and we see through our eyes. We need light. Not so God. 

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.
God sees all and knows all. Doctrine: Divine Omniscience (God is all-knowing). I literally cannot hide from Him. God is a sure guide, because He can see in darkest night. Jesus is called the Light (John 1) for a good reason. In His light we have light. God sees clearly what is unclear to us. He is trustworthy. When He says to proceed, we can trust that. Because He can see what’s in front of us. Our lives matter to God enough for Him to guide us.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
Made=set apart. The unborn child is not identical to the mother. He or she is a separate person. DNA is unique. Soul is unique. Person is unique. Life is unique. That life matters to God. No other creature is described in such terms. Doctrine: Human life is the greatest of God’s creations. Jesus became a human being. He validated every stage of human development. And all who come to Jesus in faith will receive new life. They will be “regenerated” and given life as it was meant to be lived, in restored relationship with their Creator. 

15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
He must be able to see me–He was there with me in the womb. Doctrine: Personhood of the Unborn.  Your work, that is, crafting each human being, is astonishing. Even my insides–you made them. My “inward parts” include my soul, the seat of my emotions and will. That’s your handiwork. And you formed it along with my body. Doctrine: the unborn person has a soul, even while the body is developing. The soul is there while the body is being formed. That person in the womb is the same person as the person writing this psalm. You did not come from a fetus. You used to be a fetus. That was you. If you, as a fetus, had been killed, you would have died. That was you. And even then, you mattered to God. From conception onward.  What beautiful imagery: “the depths of the earth.” It is mysterious, dark, hidden. But revealed to God, who is there, working, creating new life in the secret place. 

16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.
He wrote about me. He composed my story. Every day has been planned. What amazing intimacy. What care! What love! What tenderness the Creator shows me. Commentators discuss how, in the Hebrew, the “fetus” is described in almost scientific terms here. Lest we view the unformed person as a “potential” life, David tells us that his or her entire story is already written. That life matters to God. My life has always mattered to God–since before conception!

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
David takes another praise break here. He just has to stop and glorify God for these miraculous truths. Think of a father, how frequently he thinks of his children. Thoughts on how to feed them, how to provide for them, to get them to sleep through the night. As they grow–thoughts of how to discipline them. To provide a quality education for them. To keep them safe. God’s thoughts are like that. Again, this is not an abstract concept. God’s thoughts are innumerable, but they are innumerable about me. My life matters to God.  

18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.
How could I possibly count all the blessings God has given me? I could study theology to learn more. God’s presence lasts longer than my studies about Him. My theologizing is temporary. Eventually I have to stop and get some rest. David seems to get lost in thought here. When I wake up in the morning, there is God! The Lord greets me every morning. He has kept me alive all night. Doctrine: the Dependence of Man upon God. One day, I will wake up and see Him face-to-face.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.[b]
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
There seems to be a sharp break here. But it flows from the previous verses. David’s devotion to God makes him love God; therefore he hates evil. I love my wife; I hate the thought of anyone hurting her. Wickedness, thirst for blood, deceitful religion, hatred of God, rebellion against Him–these are affronts to God and to His image in the people He has made. After seeing the loving care God invests in man, we see the doctrines of Human Dignity and the Goodness of God. These evildoers, whom David hates and distances himself from, reject both human dignity and God’s goodness. Hence David’s sharp reaction to them.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts![c]
David invites God to do what He has already been doing. But this is faith. It’s not just belief that God knows me. It is asking God to know me. It is commitment. David would go to the Father; Jesus says in John 14:6 that no one comes to the Father except through Him. So this must be messianic faith. It is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the God-Man, who knows His people intimately, and who, having searched them and having known their hearts, takes their sinful thoughts and hearts upon Himself, paying the penalty on their behalf and bestowing on them His own heart of righteousness. 

24 And  see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting![d]
Even his outburst of jealous love, David here submits to God for review. He offers his willing consent for the Divine Gardner to prune from him anything that is not pleasing to Him. He invokes the Good Shepherd to lead him to everlasting life. Because God is his Caretaker, David entrusts Him with everything. This is faith. Our desire is the same. And our Shepherd is truly everlasting–from before the creation of the world, to long after the story of this world is ended. We must seek everlasting life from Him; this is what He freely offers all who come to Him in faith. Because all lives are important to Him. This motivates me to glorify and love God–and to go pursue the flourishing and safety of the life of my neighbor, including (especially!) my unborn neighbor.  

 

Notes: a key theme here is that God is always present with His people. Hundreds of years later, when Jesus (the ultimate Son of David) was preparing to depart from earth and take His place on the heavenly throne, He told His disciples, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). As good Jews, they would have already known the precious promise of the Old Covenant, presented here in Psalm 139, that God is always with His people. So when Jesus said, “I am with you always,”  He was taking the promise that God the Holy Spirit had spoken through David, and applying it to Himself. It was as if Jesus was saying, “You already know that God will always be with you. Behold, I am that God.”

Ten days later, at Pentecost, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, who indwelt Jesus’ disciples and literally fulfilled the beautiful truths of Psalm 139. By His Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with His people, whom He purchased by His blood. He convicts them and leads them.

Along with David, Christ-followers may now cry to Jesus, “See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” and absolutely believe, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that He will do exactly that. 

When we follow the way of the Lord to whom our lives matter so much, we imitate Him. When we imitate Him, we defend the lives and God-given dignity of those around us. Autonomy is unacceptable, but so is apathy, when lives that God is forming are being destroyed.

*****

ESV Footnotes:

  1. Psalm 139:14 Or for I am fearfully set apart
  2. Psalm 139:20 Hebrew lacks your name
  3. Psalm 139:23 Or cares
  4. Psalm 139:24 Or in the ancient way (compare Jeremiah 6:16)

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

 

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