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Posts Tagged ‘Psalm 139’

Today is our fourth and final installment in our series on Psalm 139. There’s more that we could look at, but we end today with the topic of how we are formed by God from vs. 13-16.

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 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 were none of them.”

 Let me begin with some –

Notes on these verses  

– that help us to understand them. 1. Notice the shape of this passage. This has to do with the parallels that form the structure of these verses.

a. formed– For you formed my inward parts;

b. needle work/womb – you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

c. wonderful – I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

c.1 wonderful Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

b.1 needle work/womb – My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

a.1 formed– 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 were none of them.

Notice, it begins and ends with a word for “formed.” And in b and b1 we have both a form of needle work and a reference to the womb (as we will see). And also in the middle we have two statements about “wonder”

2. Two things are formed in these verses, although they are connected (a and a1). The main focus, and our focus, is the formation of the unborn child in the womb. The second is the formation of the days for this child before they existed in v. 16. I will just say a word about this in a minute.

3. There are several words used for an unborn child in these verse, or for different aspects of an unborn child.

  • “inward parts” – v. 13 literally means “kidneys,” or as it is usually translated in English – “heart.” But here this is taken as a part, standing for the whole, that is, the heart standing for all the inward parts.
  • “frame” – v. 15 means bones or bodily frame.
  • “unformed substance” – v. 16. This word is only used here in all the Old Testament. It can also be translated as fetus or embryo. The NIV says, “unformed body.”

So all of these are ways David is speaking of the developing child and it shows what the emphasis of the passage is about.

4. Notice a strange phrase in v. 15. What does it mean when David says, he was made “in the depths of the earth”? Well this is poetic. It stands in parallel with “womb.” And in one ancient version of the Bible it is rendered as “womb” (Aramaic Targums).

“The depths of the earth” is a phrase that often means “Sheol” – the realm of the dead. So perhaps there is a poetic linkage here between the womb and Sheol, both of which are places of darkness? Or, perhaps Sheol is seen as similar to a womb in that this is where people are while they await for the resurrection. And the emergence from Sheol on the day of resurrection is like emerging from the womb at birth. Not sure . . . (note)

5. Let’s remember the point of these verses in context. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. And in vs. 1-18 he’s saying, God knows everything about me. Nothing is hidden from God. In our verses he’s saying, God has seen me from the time that he formed me, to the end of my days, which he formed for me.

  • “my frame was not hidden from you” – v. 15
  • “your eyes saw my unformed substance” – v. 16

The point is that God knows all about David’s commitment to him. At no point has he been able to hide from God. God knows that David has been loyal.

But this passage also presents a point of view about God and about unborn children that we must not miss. First of all, this passage shows us that –

It is God who forms the unborn child

v. 13 makes this clearyou formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”

Now this isn’t just true for David. We find similar language in Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you . . ..” So God formed Jeremiah in the womb. And Job says the same thing about himself in 10:11. God forms all of us in the womb.

The imagery that is used here is that of needle-work.

  • v. 13 – “you knitted me together”
  •  v. 16 – I was “intricately wovenor embroidered

This metaphor is also found in Job 10:11, where Job says to God, “You . . . knit me together with bones and sinews,” perhaps in reference to how the muscles and tendons look woven over the skeleton.

Now, this is poetic language for sure. God doesn’t literally do needle work in the womb. And, of course, we know that there is a biological process that takes place, with DNA and cell growth and so forth. But our Scripture teaches us that God is involved in this. Not just setting up the laws of nature and letting nature take its course. God is actually, somehow, mysteriously involved in the making of each unborn child. We ought not get caught in the trap of having to choose between a biological explanation or a divine explanation. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

God forms us. And what an amazing thing that is! This is something that my half of the population can’t experience,  to have God working in you to form a child. What a blessing and special privilege to experience this!

Well, not only does God form us –

Already as an unborn child, we are a wonderful work of God

The last part of v. 14 makes this point, “wonderful are your works.” The first part of v. 14 says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In both of these David is speaking as an adult, but he’s referring to when he was made in the womb.

And we also have to understand that this is not just any work of God that we are talking about – a tree or a cat, which can be wonderful in their own way. There is a biblical background here that informs these verses. This is humanity, the highest of all of God’s creation. And what is being formed in the womb is in the image of God. This is what gives the language of fearfully and wonderfully made its full force.

Here’s another point that is subtle, but I want you to notice.

There is a continuity of identity in a person between unborn child and adult

v. 13 – “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” The same “me” covers both David as unborn child and David as adult, who is now speaking. v. 14 – “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The same pronoun “I” covers both unborn child and adult.

There is a continuity of identity in David’s language here between himself as an adult and himself as an unborn child. This would not be true if the child only has identity at birth, if he only became David at birth.

And in Jeremiah 1:5 we learn that this continuity is not just from David’s perspective. It is also from God’s. God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Who we are, our identity, is known to God (here it says) even before he forms us in the womb!

And then finally from this passage we learn that –

God has a plan for the unborn child’s days

This comes out clearly in v. 16 – already in the womb God knows ‘the days formed for us’, when as yet there were none of them.

Now, sin can disrupt this, but the point is that God has a plan for the unborn child. God’s will for their days is already set out. (Also Jeremiah 1:5). Already in the womb, God has a purpose and a plan for us.

Now let me share two reflections as we end –

Fearfully and wonderfully made” is not the same as perfection

  • Yes, God forms each unborn child, but we all have weaknesses and defects
  • Yes, God forms each unborn child, but some have life-altering or life-threatening disabilities
  • Yes, God forms each unborn child, but some pregnancies will end tragically with miscarriage. 16% of known pregnancies end this way.

All of these are fearfully and wonderfully made and all are not perfect.

God forms each of us, but he does so in the context of the sin and brokenness of this world and this age. To see perfect humanity we have to look to the original creation. And to experience it we have to wait for the resurrection. For only in the resurrection will we be both fearfully and wonderfully made and perfect. This is when God “will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things (will) have passed away.” – Revelation 21:4.

A second reflection –

We need to welcome unborn children

22% of pregnancies end in elective abortion – anywhere from 1.2 to 1.5 million a year in the US. I say we here because this is a Christian problem. According to the statistics, of all US abortions (2008) 37% were undertaken by those who identified as Protestant, and 28% were undertaken by those who identified as Catholic. So over half are performed on those who view themselves as Christian.

This leads me to say that we need to teach more clearly why unborn children should be celebrated, not aborted. There are a number of reasons for this. For instance, children are a gift of God (Psalm 127:3); we are to be like Jesus in welcoming and blessing little children (Mark 10), and we are to love and care for the weak and helpless.

But certainly what we find in our verses are core reasons:

  • It’s God who forms an unborn child and so abortion is a destroying of this work of God.
  • God’s works are “wonderful” and the unborn child is fearfully and wonderfully made. An unborn child is certainly not just a piece of tissue that can be disposed of. What’s being made by God is in the very image of God.
  • An unborn child already has an identity known by God and in continuity with who they will become as an adult. Abortion destroys one that is known by God.
  • An unborn child has already been given a plan for their life from God. But abortion takes this away.

We need to learn this, so that when there is an unintended, or crisis pregnancy, we can move beyond the inevitable difficulties (and we ought not minimize these) and welcome the child nevertheless. And we need to learn and practice this if we are to be a witness to the rest of the world regarding the blessing of bringing unborn children to birth.

Also we need to provide support for those who have unintended or crisis pregnancies, both in our own Christian communities and for those in the world.

Almost 50% of those who choose abortion do so because they feel unready for a child or feel that can’t afford to raise a child. When we provide support this can give great encouragement in these difficult situations to welcome the unborn child. One way to do this is to help out with a crisis pregnancy center. And as well you can be open to adoption.

Know for sure that God smiles on all who do these kinds of things. You are embodying the very heart of God.

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We are back in Psalm 139 today. I want us to cover the last two verses, vs. 23-24. We looked at the prayer request in v. 19 last week and drew some conclusions about it. Well, here we have a very different kind of prayer request – one that, I think, requires courage to pray.

But before we get to this, I want to think more generally for a moment on David’s relationship with God. The depth of his relationship with God is evident in this Psalm. He certainly was a person after God’s own heart, as Scripture says (2 Samuel 13:14).

The Psalm itself is one long prayer; one long and detailed conversation with God. You can see how he is aware that God is an intimate part of every aspect of his life, and he invites this.

This depth of relationship with God comes out in many of the Psalms. Here are some examples of this in prayers to God:

  • “Be not far from me (God), for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” – Psalm 22:11.
  • “(God) You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” – Psalm 56:8 (NLT).
  • “(God) You have turned for me my mourning into dancing . . . and clothed me with gladness” – Psalm 30:11
  • “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for (God) you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
  • “When the cares of my heart are many, (God) your consolations cheer my soul.” – Psalm 94:19

You can see in these, and so many more, that when there’s a problem the psalmist asks for help, complains while trying to understand what’s going on, seeks closeness and finds strength in God. And when there is joy, the psalmist shares it with God through praise. This is really a picture of God as companion, or God as best friend. There is a relationship of intimacy and caring between God and the writers of the Psalms.

This, then, leads me to ask, ‘What about us?’ Or more specifically, ‘How good is your relationship with God?’ Are you aware of God being involved in every part of your life? Do you have a sense of closeness with God? Is God an intimate companion?

Certainly the prayer we are looking at today is a part of this, so let’s move on to –

The prayer of Psalm 139:23-24

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Remember with me, the flow of the Psalm as a whole. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. This is the background. And so he responds.

  • In vs. 1-18 he appeals to God, ‘God, you know everything about me; you know my commitment to you.’
  • Then in vs. 19-22 he makes his loyalty to God clear. ‘God, I hate evildoers.’ He shows himself to be on God’s side.
  • And this lead us to our verses where he gives an open-ended invitation, ‘God, continue to search and know me’ – just in case there is anything to the accusation.

Now, let’s break the prayer down, so we can understand it. First of all, it continues the theme of the Psalm as a whole of God searching and knowing David. In v. 1 David notes that God has searched and known him, but here he invites God to continue to search and know him. And the focus is squarely on what’s within him.

The two phrases, “search me . . . and know my heart” and “try me and know my thoughts” are slightly different ways of saying the same thing. They are parallel to each other. He wants God to look inside of him, his inner person, so that God knows what is in his heart.

I do have a question about this prayer. If we pray this prayer are we praying, lead us into testing/temptation?? (David does pray for this elsewhere – e.g. Psalm 26:2). The word in v. 23, “try,” can mean examine, prove, tempt, or test. The word usually does mean testing in the sense of trials and temptations (again, Psalm 26:2).

If it does mean this, then we would have to modify this prayer to bring it in line with what Jesus has taught us about prayer. He taught us that we are to pray that God not lead us into testing, since we might fail and dishonor God’s name. It comes from a sense of humility and an awareness of our weakness.

I take the word “try” here as a further expansion of the word “search” in the first line (basically parallels). So I don’t think it’s asking God to test us, or to allow Satan to test us. Maybe the translation “examine me and know my thoughts” would be good. The idea, again, is that God is looking into the depths of his soul to see what is in him.

The word in v. 23, “thoughts,” can be translated as “disquieting thoughts” or “anxious thoughts” and perhaps these phrases are in your Bible translations. (This is a different word for thought than the word used in v. 2 and v. 17). But it is probably best to see it in parallel with the word “heart” as I said before, and simply translate it, as it is here – “thoughts.” David seems to be saying in different ways, know my ‘inner person.’ He doesn’t seem to be focusing on a particular category of thoughts, but on all that is in his heart and thoughts.

The problem that David is concerned with; what he wants God to look for is “any grievous way.” The phrase means literally a “way of pain in me.” It can be translated as a hurtful, vexing, or sorrowful way.

David is praying, “God look for anything in me that causes pain.”

  • Are there sinful thoughts, intentions, brokenness or failings that cause you pain God?
  • Are there sinful thoughts, intentions, brokenness or failings that will cause me to hurt others?

Now there is good reason to pray this. Jeremiah 17:9-10, a passage that shares the same theme and some of the same vocabulary (search, test) as Psalm 139, says, among other things, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” There is much for God to find and know in each one of us. There are many grievous ways that need to be rooted out.

“Lead me.” David wants God to know him and then to show him any grievous way, so that it can be dealt with. This is how God leads him. The phrase, “in the way everlasting” can also be translated, “the ancient way.” In either case, I believe the meaning is the same. We are talking here about ‘the way of God,’ or ‘the way of righteousness.’ So the request is that God help him not to walk in a grievous way, but in the way of God.

Summary: This prayer is asking for three things:

1. “God, look in my inner person”

2. “Find anything that would cause you or others pain” and show me these things.

3. “Lead me in your path of righteousness.”

The title today is –

I dare you to pray this

I say this, because if you understand this prayer, it takes courage to pray it. It takes courage because you are inviting God to show you your sins, your weaknesses, your defects. And that’s not an easy thing to have to see.

Usually, we want to hide all this stuff. We don’t like to have to see our sins and weaknesses, think about them or dwell on them. We don’t want God to see them (although he does). And we certainly don’t want others to see them.

Often we respond by living in denial, to keep us from having to look at these things. And then, if God or someone brings something up we get defensive. You know how it works, ‘Well, I’m better than so and so,’ or ‘It’s not that bad,’ or ‘It’s justified.’ We minimize.

But not only this, it takes courage to pray this prayer because you are inviting God to correct your issues, so that you can walk in his paths. And it can be hard work to have to do this.

I’m sharing this with you because, as hard as this might be, this is the way to grow in your Christian life. It’s only when we fully open ourselves up to God that he can show us our problems, things we are often blind to. And it’s only when we become aware of these things that we can begin to receive help to overcome them.

And remember, God already knows all your “grievous ways,” and probably a lot of other people do as well; more than you think. So instead of living in denial and being defensive, ask God for help. Don’t run away from God with your struggles, run to God.

I encourage you to pray this, and to continue to pray this, and to listen to what God has to say, and to have the faith to allow God to lead you in the way everlasting.

Let’s take a moment in quiet right now. If you are willing, pray this prayer. I believe that God will speak to you even now.

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The literary structure of Psalm 139

We’re back again in Psalm 139. Last week we covered the first 18 verses highlighting the theme that God knows all about us. The first thing I want us to do today is step back and take a big picture look at the Psalm as a whole – all 24 verses. And I want us to think about why it was written, or what the point of the Psalm is.

You have a handout that shows how it’s put together. I won’t go into this, but I do invite you to keep this at hand as we look at

The purpose of Psalm 139

Let me give you the situation that I think is going on here right up front. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. Why? I don’t know. Maybe someone thought he was too sympathetic to someone they saw as a wicked person. Just a speculation.  In any case, there’s an accusation and it’s one that David considers false. And from reading this Psalm, this accusation  must have been a painful thing for him to deal with.

What does he do? He takes it up in prayer with God:

  • 1 – “Lord, you have searched and known me.”
  • 2-3 – God knows all that he does and thinks, his thoughts and ways.
  • 4 – God knows all his words.
  • 5 – God is all around, with his hand on him.  God knows all that goes on in his life.
  • And then in v. 6 – he pauses to ponder such knowledge that is beyond him.
  • In vs. 7-12 – he points out that even if he wanted to “flee” and hide somewhere and secretly sin, he can’t. God would see and know him everywhere, for God is everywhere.
  • In vs. 13-16 – he points out that God formed him and his days from beginning to end. Nothing is hidden from God.
  • In vs. 17-18 – he again pauses to ponder the amazing sum of God’s thoughts

– So in all this, in vs. 1-18, David offers up an appeal to God, God you know whether I am loyal or not.  You know all about me, right? You know my commitment to you.

– And then starting in vs. 19-22 David offers up several expressions of his loyalty to God. This section is key to understanding this Psalm because it’s here we see that his loyalty has been challenged.

First in v. 19 – he prays, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” And he says, “O men of blood, depart from me!” Then we have the words of the wicked in v. 20, which obviously disgust David – “They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain!” And then we have some clear statements of David’s loyalty to God in vs. 21-22 – “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

We’ll talk in a moment about his language, but the point here in context is that – “Hey God, I’m on your side.” I hate evil and I love the good. From his point of view there is no question about his loyalty to God.

– And then finally, in vs. 23-24 he gives an open ended invitation for God to keep searching and knowing him. He wants to make sure that he’s right before God in his heart and actions; that he’s not guilty of the accusation made against him; that he’s not missing something.

So the purpose of the Psalm is David’s prayerful working through of an accusation made against him. And as we see at the end, even though he’s open to God’s searching, he believes that his loyalty is clear. And let me just say that this is a good practice for us to emulate – processing things in prayer with God: accusations, difficulties and hardships – whatever we are facing. We see this all the time happening in the Psalms as the writers struggle with God and find faith and peace.

This brings us to what I’m calling –

The problem of Psalm 139: David’s prayer of hatred

It’s David’s expressions of loyalty to God, and specifically his prayer in v. 19, so central to the Psalm, that cause Christians discomfort. And, I believe, rightly so.

The prayer is straight forward, v. 19 – “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” Kill them, God. And this prayer springs forth from his heart-felt and self-confessed hatred of God’s enemies, found in vs. 21-22 – “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

Now, this is certainly not the only place in Scripture or in the Psalms where there are expressions of hatred for enemies and calls for God to judge enemies. Let me give one other brief example from Psalm 109:8-9. David prays this concerning his enemy, “May his days be few . . .. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!” He prays for his enemy’s death. Then he prays that the man’s children, now orphans, would be beggars and that no one would help them. And he goes on to pray that all his resources would be seized by creditors, and that the man’s parents would be judged by God. I could give you more examples, but this will do.

The problem for Christians in all this should be clear:

  • We are called not to curse, but to bless – Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9
  • We are called not to condemn, but to give mercy – Luke 6:36-37; Romans 2:1-5
  • We are called not to hate, but to love enemies – Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:20
  • We are called not to return harm for harm, but to return good for harm – Romans 12:17, 21; 1 Peter 3:9

We are agents of God’s grace, not judgment.

So this raises several very specific, and practical questions for us: What should we think of Psalm 139:19-22? Can we pray the prayer of v. 19 as it stands? And how should we pray regarding enemies?

Let me share several reflections with you:

It’s right to oppose evildoers and injustice. As we saw, in context, what David says is an expression of loyalty to God, “I’m on your side, God. I want what’s right.” This sentiment is correct. In this case David is speaking of people who are murderers, “men of blood” (v. 19). They despise God, possibly even using God’s name to accomplish their evil by swearing oaths to deceive people or to bear false witness against the innocent in court (v. 20).

It’s also true that in the end Evildoers must be judged, if God’s peace and justice is to be established. Those who refuse God’s grace cannot be allowed to continue to do evil indefinitely. There has to be a time of reckoning. The innocent must be rescued. Justice must be established.

But there are some differences between how David prays and how we should pray:

Difference #1 – Christian prayers must be governed by love. David’s prayer was rooted in “complete hatred” of enemies, as he himself says. Our prayers must be rooted in love for enemies. And this is really a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is Jesus – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This is the Old Testament. “But I say to you, love your enemies” – Matthew 5:43-44. This is the new. In the Old Testament, God commanded love for neighbors, fellow people of the covenant. But not God’s enemies. In the New Testament, God tells us to have perfect or complete love – that is, love that includes everyone; the good and the evil, the just and the unjust, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:45. Our prayers must reflect this love and mercy for all people.

And since this is true, this leads us to Difference #2 – Christian prayers shouldn’t ask for non-redemptive judgment. What’s this? The clearest example of non-redemptive judgment is when God takes someone’s life. Because when this happens there is no more grace, no more chance to be redeemed. This is what David prayed for. I do not believe that Christians can pray for this. This would be an expression of harm for harm, hatred, cursing and condemnation – not love.

Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples for this when they sought to call down fire on the Samaritan town that rejected Jesus in Luke 9:54-55. As Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Why then should we seek their destruction in prayer? And also, how could we ask for this since we are only able to stand before God by his grace? Can we ask God to act one way with others and another with us? Destructive judgment for others, mercy for us? Certainly not.

If we can’t pray for non-redemptive judgment, I do believe that we can pray for redemptive judgment. This is God’s judgment, but it still allows the person a chance to change. It’s judgment, but it’s also an act of grace, to wake them up to repentance, if they are willing. So yes, I can and have prayed that God would judge and stop an evildoer in this way. Maybe God would take away their political power, or use the legal system, or put difficult circumstances in their lives that cause them to stop. I believe that this is in accord with both God’s mercy and God’s justice.

But beyond this we have to leave things in God’s hands. Only God can decide when the time of grace is up and it’s time for non-redemptive judgment – in an individual’s life and for the world as a whole.

Let’s end with a responsive reading from –

Romans 12:14-21

– that demonstrates how we are to live our lives as followers of Jesus.

L: 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

P: 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

L: 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.

P: 17Repay no one harm for harm, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.

L: 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

P: 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

All: 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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We’re beginning a series today on Psalm 139. There is so much in this amazing passage! Today we begin with how this Psalm teaches us that God knows all about us.

I encourage you to read this Psalm and meditate on it, let it permeate your thoughts and life, as we work through it together. Let’s begin by hearing Psalm 139:1-18.

God’s knows all about David

God’s knowledge of David is a central theme in verses 1-18. We are told that God knows him several times and in several different ways. And that God searches him, sees him, discerns him and is acquainted with him.

In the first part of the Psalm, vs. 2-3 we learn that God knows David’s thoughts and ways. In his own words,

  • God knows “when I sit down and when I rise up” – v. 2.
  • God knows “my thoughts” or it can be translated “intentions” – v. 2.
  • God knows “my path and my lying down” – v. 3, likely meaning, when I go somewhere and then come home and rest
  • And God is acquainted with v. 3 – “all my ways,” that is the kind of life I lead, even in private.

And then, we learn in v. 4 that “even before a word is on my tongue, behold . . . you know it altogether,” which is not a problem since as we just saw, God knows our thoughts.

But not only this, we learn in verses 7-12 that God can see and know him wherever he might go. He asks in v. 7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” The answer is, “Nowhere!” He gives several examples of this.

  • v. 8 – “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” Heaven is the highest place in creation, the abode of God. Sheol is the lowest place in creation, the place of the dead. God is in both places. And if he is the extreme limits of height and depth, he is easily everywhere in between.
  • Another example, v. 9-10 – “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea . . .” that is, fly through the sky from the East to the farthest point West, “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” God is in the remotest places. He is both in places that are near, and those that are far, far away. And God is everywhere in between, so that he can see and know David.
  • And finally, vs. 11-12 – “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” God can see and know him even in the darkest place. So God can see him and know him in places that have light, and also in the darkest places, and everywhere in between.

And if this weren’t enough we learn in vs. 13-16 that God has seen and known him from his beginning to his end. v. 13 says, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” v. 16 says, “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 were none of them.” God has seen and known him, from the time that God formed him in the womb, to all the days formed for him that are written in God’s book. God sees and knows him from beginning to end.

Now –

God doesn’t just know David . . .

The prophet Jeremiah said more generally, “’Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.” –  Jeremiah 23:24. God sees and knows all people.

And Jesus said this about God’s knowledge of each one of us – “The hairs of your head are all numbered” – Matthew 10:30. We don’t even know this, but God knows this about each one of us.

The author of Hebrews says this,  “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” – 4:13. So I can say with great confidence, sisters and brothers, that God doesn’t just know David through and through –

God knows you through and through

  • God knows all your movements, when you sit, when you rise, when you go somewhere, when you come home and rest.
  • God knows your thoughts and your intentions.
  • God knows your ways, the kind of life that you choose to live in this world.
  • God knows your words before you say them.
  • God can see and know you anywhere you might be.
  • And God has seen and known you from beginning to end.

God knows all about you! God knows all about me. God knows all about everyone who has lived. God knows all about everyone who is living. And God knows about everyone who will live. God knows all this.

Now, let me share some reflections on this insight from Psalm 139. And the first is –

1. Wow! God is amazing!

God can do this! God is truly incredible! What I am saying is that we see in these verses the greatness of God and it should lead us to praise God.

David himself says in wonder in v. 6, “Such knowledge (that is, the knowledge that God has) is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” To do what God can do; to know what God can know is beyond any of us. We can’t even begin to understand this.

Along similar lines, David says in vs. 17-18, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand.” God’s thoughts, or as it can be translated “intentions or purposes,” are so many that they are beyond counting. God is beyond us – way beyond us. We simply don’t have the capacity to grasp what God can do. We serve a great God!

2. If you are doing evil, this should cause you concern

That’s because, you can’t evade God. You can’t keep God in the dark.

  • He knows what you say and do
  • He sees right through you – inside you – and knows your thoughts and intentions
  • And he knows you from beginning to end

He knows all this about you and there is nothing you can do to stop it. There is no shield or barrier that you can hide behind. There’s no hiding from God. And that’s exactly why if you are doing evil, you should be concerned.

Finally, since God knows all about you, you can be sure that –

3. God knows your needs and can help you

Speaking of what his everyday life is like, David says to God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” – v. 5. It’s like God’s presence is in front of him and behind him and all around him and his hand is upon him. In the same way God’s presence and knowledge of us is pervasive. God is close to us and we are never off his radar. And so he is always aware of our needs and is always nearby to give us his help.

Even if you are in the most remote place, God sees and knows you. As David said, “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” – v. 10. Or if you simply feel far away from God, God sees and knows you. And if you look to God, he can lead you and hold you with his right hand.

Also, even if you are in the darkest place, God can see and know you and your needs. David said to God, “the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” – v. 12. Or if you simply feel that you are in a place of darkness – perhaps it’s depression, anxiety or loneliness. God can see you and know your need while you are in your dark place. And God can help.

Finally, God “formed you” and knows you inside-out. And so God knows your weaknesses, where you struggle, where you need help and grace to make it through – vs. 15-16.

That God knows us, his children, is a source of great comfort for us, because we can be sure that God will see us and help us in all of our lives.

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The phrase at the end of  v. 18 – “I awake and am still with you” has often been interpreted as a reference to the resurrection in Jewish and Christian tradition. The imagery of awakening is a common one for the resurrection. This is the interpretation of the LXX (Septuagint). [See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 150.]. And it is the interpretation of the Aramaic Targums – “if I should count them in this world, they would be more than sand; I shall awake in the world to come, and I shall still be with you.”

It is, however, not fashionable to read v. 18 in this way today. In fact, the word is often repointed to mean, “come to an end,” that is, the writer comes to the end of trying to count God’s thoughts and is still with God. Or the sense is given that the writer has fallen asleep, thinking about the sum of God’s thoughts, and he awakens to find himself still in God’s presence.

Often the reason given for a non-resurrection reading is that there is no context in the Psalm that leads to this. Let’s look at this. The place of the dead is referenced several times prior to v. 18. The writer speaks of Sheol in v. 8, and takes the position that “you (God) are there.” This is a more positive view of Sheol. Whereas in other places it seems that God is absent from Sheol, here God’s presence would be with the writer if he dies (“make my bed in Sheol”) [Or is he is simply making a visit to Sheol? In either case God is with him.].

vs. 11-12 is also, most likely, referring to Sheol with the phrase “the darkness.” Again there is a more positive view of Sheol. The darkness is not dark to God. The writer can be seen and known by God is Sheol.

Then in v. 15 we have another reference to Sheol in the phrase “the depths of the earth.” Here the writer makes a poetic connection between the womb and Sheol (they are in parallel with each other). Both are places of darkness. But perhaps there is more. If the womb is the place of waiting while being formed for life on earth, perhaps the comparison turns on seeing Sheol as the place of waiting for resurrection life. Sheol is then like a womb – from which will come those who are resurrected.

This then leads into the writer’s marveling over the sum of God’s thoughts/intentions – God’s forming of him in the womb, God’s forming of the days for him while in the womb. And at the end of this we have v. 18. All of God’s thoughts would include God’s purpose to raise him from the dead, so that he is still with God, beyond Sheol.

Also, if v. 18 is a reference to resurrection, it fits contextually with v. 19. The prayer for God to act against the wicked would have an eschatological force. “God bring forth the final day of judgment – the resurrection of the  righteous and the judgment of the wicked.”

Finally, this emphasis would fit well with v. 24, translated as “the way everlasting.”

William Higgins

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This post has been moved – I dare you to pray this!

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This is just a sketch, and by no means a complete treatment. Feedback invited. It also serves as a footnote to the teaching on “The purpose and the problem of Psalm 139,” so you will need to look at that to understand this.

1. You can ask God to act for justice, to right wrongs done against you. The persistent woman in Luke 18 is praying for justice and in context is a model of prayer for the disciples. There is no need to think that this is teaching us to call for non-redemptive judgment. It can be seen as a call for redemptive judgment and also as a call for the kingdom to come (v. 8).

This is how I read Revelation 6:10, where the martyrs pray, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” It should be seen as a variant of the prayer – “Your kingdom come, bring forth justice! And don’t forget us, Lord!” The focus is on timing. But they are reminded to be patient and to defer to God’s timing.

But there is a tension in these prayers, as noted in the teaching on Psalm 139.

2. You can announce God’s judgment upon an evildoer. This is not you calling on God to judge someone in a destructive way, but God speaking through you to proclaim this. Here are some examples –  Jesus announcing woes in Matthew 23; Peter speaking to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5; Peter speaking to Simon in Acts 8; Paul speaking to Bar-Jesus in Acts 13.

3. A curse is involved in church discipline contexts, but it is meant to be redemptive. A formula for excommunication is taken from the synagogue context and used in the church. It goes like this – “let _____ be anathema.” Anathema means cursed. The idea is that one who is excommunicated is turned out of the community that bears God’s blessing and is given over to Satan and the world – which is a curse. But the judgment is to be redemptive, because the hope is that this very action will cause the person to wake up and turn once again to God. (See 1 Corinthians 5:5).

When Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 – “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” the phrase, “let him be . . .” is the anathema formula. He is to be seen as outside the church.

This, then, is the background for 1 Corinthians 16:22. Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” Paul is speaking of the Corinthian Christians. Here we see the anathema formula – “let him be accursed (anathema). He is saying that any believer who has no love for the Lord is to be disciplined.

This is also the case with Galatians 1:8-9 – “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” In both v. 8 and v. 9 there is the anathema formula. Paul is saying that false teachers should be disciplined and excluded from the church. This is not an invocation of a non-redemptive curse. It is redemptive because it is a part of the church discipline context

William Higgins

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