Here is Psalm 139:
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,Psalm 139 (NRSV)
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
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 perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139: 1-6 says God knows you very well
When I was in college, someone went around to dorms posting signs on the doors of bathroom stalls. The picture on the sign involved a famous actor in your bathroom activities. Sorry if you don’t appreciate low-brow humor, but I am going to show you the sign.
Listen, it is dumb. I know it’s immature. The first time I saw it as a 19 year old, I thought it was a little funny, though. A little creepy, too. Reading Psalm 139, it sounds like Jeff Goldblum isn’t the only one who is watching you.
The writer of the psalm says God is “acquainted with all [their] ways.” Of course, it only stands to reason that God would be acquainted with all of their ways. Not just the ways we’d like to think of, but all of the ways.
Alan Watts shares an anecdote that is remarkably to the Jeff Goldblum sign I’ve so graciously shown you. He tells the story of a catholic woman that he knew, who he describes as having a good sense of humor. This woman placed a reference to Genesis 16:13 next to her toilet. When she or her guests were using the facility they would read “Thou God seest me” while they were at their business.
Acquaintance with acts and thoughts
What does it matter, really? Is it bothersome to us that the creator of the universe might be acquainted with all our ways, including bathroom habits? It may feel a bit uncomfortable, and it gets a little more so. In fact, it is even more than just our habits and ways. According to the psalm, God knows our thoughts, not just our actions.
That is a deep awareness. It brings to mind what Augustine had to say about God when looking back at this life, “you were closer to me than I am to myself.” That sounds like knowledge that is too high to attain. More on that in due course, let’s look at what else Psalm 139 has to say.
Psalm 139: 7-12 says there is nowhere God is not
“There is nowhere God is not.” That sounds like an awkward phrase. I think it works better than the more straightforward “God is everywhere.” There is a lack of intimacy to say it like that. A loss of intimacy would be a big loss for this psalm, too. The way the writer of the psalm describes their experience it sounds more like wherever you are, God is there.
The writer asks rhetorically where they could go where God would not be present. The implied answer is nowhere. They go to the highest mountain and God is there. The deepest pit can’t escape the presence of God. Every single place the writer of the psalm visits, they find God leading, guiding, and sustaining them.
If we were to say simply, “God is everywhere” that feels more abstract than what the writer of the psalm is saying. They are saying God is every single place they go. Regardless if the depths of hell (sheol) or furtherest reach of heaven, God is the same loving presence.
It reminds me of a little pointer I got from a spiritual director and pastor once. The pointer was a sentence with case and punctuation removed. It went like this: “GODISNOWHERE”. Depending on how you read it, it either says “God is now here” or “God is nowhere”. Thanks to a little help from the English language we have a tantalizing little situation.
The truth of that little pointer is deeper than a matter of perspective. There is more there than just how one person reads it versus how another might. In other words, it doesn’t boil down to personal preference. The pointer holds space for two truths.
On the one hand, read like “God is now here” the psalm says something very close to what the psalmist says when they go to the highest height and lowest pit. On the other hand, “God is nowhere” says something a little different. God is in all those place, but no place in particular. This is similar to the sense behind the writer’s rhetorical question, “Where can I go from your spirit?” Nowhere. God is universal in a way that is still particular.
A coincidence of opposites
In that way, the vision of God is being described using a coincidence of opposites. This coincidence is reminiscent of the speechless speech of heaven and earth in Psalm 19. This is a paradoxical way of describing something that can’t be captured in description. It communicates a depth that is almost nonsensical. The last part of verses 7-12 move this way, too.
Who can say what it means when the writer of the psalm says “darkness is as light to you.” How do you think of a night that is as bright as the day, or a darkness that is not dark. Certainly, “God sees where others can’t” is one reading. That would be consistent with the rest of the psalm.
I’m not sure that captures the depth of the poetry, or the reality it is trying to express. Bringing unity to opposites is a wonder of God. You could even hear atonement in it, if you can bring that kind of reconciliation outside of the moral/legal way of thinking.
This coincidence of opposites isn’t limited to this stanza. The next group of verses takes us outside the realm of known experience, and contains a similar coincidence.
Psalm 139:13-18 – Unstitched and unformed
Up until now, the psalm has focused on experiences that are more or less familiar. They are at least imaginable. This section of the psalm moves into more uncharted territory. These are experiences beyond our comprehension. Maybe this is where the writer moves into knowledge “too wonderful” for them.
The section opens where the last left off, with the reason it is impossible to escape the knowledge of God. God is inescapable because it was God is the maker, according to the psalm. The psalm probably doesn’t seem too mysterious until you get to verse 16.
Verse 16 starts off with “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” This is where things take a little bit of a turn. Contemplating God’s creation of human life in the womb is moving. Thinking about making the frame of the human in the secrets of the earth is perplexing. However, it isn’t beyond all comprehension.
Pregnancy is miraculous in the sense that life is forming, but it isn’t completely mysterious. The human frame, and how the earth has put forth such a creature, is more mysterious, but the mind can go there. “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,” on the other hand, where do you begin with that? You don’t even need to get to the end of the sentence to see the impossibility.
Sight without form
How can the eye see something formless? Even if you have a known substance, that substance must have a form to be seen. Looking at the Hebrew for the psalm doesn’t exactly clear things up. The word is galemi, and comes from the root golem (golem is fascinating by itself), and this is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where this word is said to show up.
The word is said to include embryo as a possible definition. Certainly, you can argue that there is a simple way to interpret this. God sees a complete life in a being that is unfinished. Yet is that simple?
Simple or not, it would fit with the rest of the section. God also writes the days that have yet to come for the writer of the psalm. Let’s just skip ideas of predestination, not because I am trying to say such ideas are wrong. I just want to keep an open mind. Taking this psalm as “proof” of predestination, wouldn’t help stay open.
God writing the rest of the writer’s days would be in keeping with seeing completeness in the partial. God sees a life in progress and sees the rest of its days. In other words, God sees that which has not yet come into existence. God sees what can’t be seen (has no form, has not yet happened). A coincidence of opposites.
Let’s not get self-righteous
The final section of Psalm 139 presents a noticeable departure from what has come so far. All of a sudden the writer of the psalm is showing a lot anger over “the wicked.” The psalm takes a hard turn into the juxtaposition of the writer and the wicked. There is a possibility that the psalm is itself a response to untrue accusations against the writer, which accounts for this sudden change in tune.
The writer sounds more than a little sanctimonious when they claim to “hate [the wicked] with a perfect hatred.” There really isn’t an excuse for this. It is ugly. If ever there is room to argue with the biblical text (and there ought to be), this would be a fine place to do so.
Beside all that, even for all the writer’s zeal against “the wicked,” they end up all but admitting they might be one of the “them.” The last verse admits as much in asking God to see if there is wickedness in them, and praying to be lead in everlasting ways.
A decent paraphrase might be, “The wicked are so bad, I hate them so much. I wish I didn’t have to deal with them. I might be one of them, though, so help me out.” Here, too, God is the one who sees what is undetectable, even our own hidden faults.
An invitation to reality
Even if the turn at the end truly indicates that the writer wrote the psalm to be vindicated, they manage to communicate something deep. Along there there are several verses that are pry open our view of the world. A good summation is in verse 6, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
It probably states the obvious that there are a few verses I have struggled with along the way. I hope the struggle is obvious. Struggling with these passages, might be best the way to read them. It may be the only to read scripture in the end.
Along the way, there have been several places it might have been easier to say, “This verse means X.” Whether it is the verse about unformed substance or darkness as light or any other, to rush into assign meaning would silence the psalm. That would be a pity.
It is even more of a pity to do so with the world through which God is proclaimed as present. If God is present in each every time, place, and circumstance, why not be open to the divine presence as it meets you. Even if you are in the bathroom.
While the knowledge of God’s presence and the depth of God’s knowledge may be too wonderful to attain, there is something life-giving in the promise of the presence of God. God is here in each moment. We can be attentive to those moments so filled with God’s presence. We can sit in stillness, not assigning meaning, or giving labels, or thinking it through, just paying attention. That is wonderful enough.
Psalm 23 – a walk through the valley
To a wide range of people these are familiar words. Whether you are the church-going kind or not, there are likely a few phrases that ring a bell. If you've ever heard the 1995 Coolio song, Gangsta's Paradise, you've heard a line from Psalm 23. The song opens with "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." which echoes the King James Version's "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...". In the New Revised Standard Version, the same verse gets translated as, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley...", which doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but still. Suffice it to say, Psalm 23 is a part of the common consciousness of (at least Western) culture.
Psalm 119 – A light on your way
Psalm 119 describes life as traveling a path. It is a pretty common metaphor. If you travel for any amount of time, you know the importance of having a good route in mind, so that you know where you are going. Whether that route takes the form of an itinerary, map, an experienced guide, or an actual road, it is helpful to have something or someone to help you navigate as you go. This psalm has a particular route prepared. Over and over in this psalm, the writer talks about walking in God's teaching, law, or instruction. For them, this teaching is the guide on the journey of life and a help for the turns life takes along the way.
Psalm 19 – Heaven and Earth Speak
Several years ago, I watched the sunrise over the hills of Kentucky. Cows lowed repeatedly and loudly in the minutes just before the sun's light peeked over the horizon. I was visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived and worked. It was at the end of a five-day silent retreat. My bags sat in the trunk of the car I had rented for the short drive between the airport and the abbey. Spending that much time in silence, then watching the sun come up was a funny experience.
Psalm 1 Commentary – Like a tree
One way of reading this psalm is pretty judgmental. Anything that mentions "sinners" and "righteousness" flirts with a judgmental mentality. Given how quickly we tend to judge others, reading this text as permission to think in "black and white" terms about people's lives would be easy. I'll admit that my mind went there right away. Some people are pretty happy to read the psalm that way. It had me pretty turned off by the text to begin with. Parts of it sound like the worst kind of religious sentiment. It feels both unhealthy and unhelpful to harbor and cultivate such judgmental thought.
Psalm 46 – Be Still
"Be still and know that I am God." Without a doubt, this is the verse that most people remember from Psalm 46. Most likely, more people can quote this verse than know it is from Psalm 46. The verse is beautiful. It deserves fame. Continuing to wrestle with it and live with the verse is still more beautiful. The words, though simple, don’t give up meaning easily. What does it mean to “Be still and know that [God is] God?”