Reflections on Psalm 139 —
I recently completed John Grisham’s novel “The Broker“. Grisham admits he knows very little about the CIA, the FBI, and the prevailing spyware technology out there, but he does a good job of freaking you out with his detailed descriptions of their spying techniques, the vast network of personnel and electronics at their disposal. We are stunned each time Grisham pulls back the curtain to show how our hero’s movements or conversations have been monitored, recorded, and analyzed. It reminds me of George Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984. Michael Radford’s movie rendition of that book gives me the creeps just thinking about it.
What if someone could see into my private world? What if the choices I made in the last 48 hours were played back in front of thousands?…simply horrifying.
Yet when I read in Psalm 139 that God watches me wherever I go, reads my mind, and knows what I will say before I say it…I am somehow OK with that. Why the contradiction?
It’s because the God of Psalm 139 is kind and helpful, not impersonal nor condemning. He is not a nitpicking killjoy nor a disinterested critic, but an active mentor and guide.
The author of Psalm 139 was familiar with God. His words are not contrived. They are well-informed and sincere, wrought from years of personal study and experience. The conviction behind his words gives them power and meaning. They cannot be easily dismissed. Yet many people, even Christians, become incredulous and defensive when confronted with the God of Psalm 139. They cannot accept a God that looms so large.
The author of Psalm 139 did not feel this way. He had an uncommonly familiar relationship with God. To him, the knowledge of a Big God was liberating and reassuring. His wonderfully crafted poetry in Psalm 139 is essential reading for those who are serious about seeking God, and desire value, purpose, and peace in this life. His application at the end is both practical and sound advice.
The following sections are a walkthrough of this masterful work, highlighting the benefits of believing in such a Big God.
I Can Be Honest
It is clear from the beginning that the author of Psalm 139 is very familiar with God. He speaks of God tenderly and adoringly, as if describing a close friend. The first thing he describes is God’s omniscience. I am amazed at the agreeable way the author speaks about his utter exposure before God…
O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. 3 You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
The author must have been reflecting on his morning, understanding that God watched him as he fumbled out of bed, tied on his sandals, grabbed his coffee, and sat on the sofa. He casually reflects how God sifts through his soul, exposing every hidden agenda, every bad habit, every dark secret, as if it were nothing.
Perhaps the author is so accepting of this invasion of privacy because he believed that God not only sees through him, but also created him. Later in Psalm 139, he thankfully acknowledges that he is not a random collection of cells, but rather the skillful work of God’s creative hands…
13 For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.
Like any master artisan, God admires the craftsmanship with which He made every one of us. The author appreciates being on the receiving end of such admiration…
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
It is an amazing thing that the God of the Universe has time to study us as we go through our day. The author has clearly bought into this truth, and understands its implications–if this God cared enough to skillfully weave him together, and if this God thinks about him constantly, more times than the number of grains of sand on a seashore, then this God must also highly value him.
This God, the God who highly values the people He has created, suddenly becomes a lot less scary. It is no wonder the author has no reservations about God’s invasive and penetrating gaze through his soul.
The takeaway for me is that I can live as though there is nothing to hide. God sees right through me anyway and He cares about me. He is the ultimate “safe place” where I can speak freely. I am free to admit when my thoughts are sour, my motives self-serving, and my attitude discontent. God is never surprised by these things, never shocked by my wicked thoughts, so I let loose and allow my Creator to have at it in the dark recesses of my mind. I am free to be completely honest with Him without fear of condemnation.
There is something about that kind of transparency that is freeing. When I am straight up with God, I am more confident because I am consistent. I’m not living a double life. I’m not trying to look good on the outside while denying the bad stuff going on inside.
I like knowing that God is carefully assessing where I’m going today, what I’m doing, who I’m meeting with. I like it that God is studying me. That tells me He is interested in what I’m doing and not too busy to bother. With God, I feel understood, and that has a calming effect. We pay big money for counselors to study us, explain why we’re messed up, and give us corrective tips. The whole process is a little frustrating, however, because no one has time to study me and know exactly what I need. But God actually does study me and knows everything about me. I can tell Him everything and trust that He won’t misinterpret me, won’t give me bad advice. The best part is that God’s counsel is free, and as I explain next, I can see Him whenever I want to because He’s always there.
I am Never Alone
Not only is the author aware of God’s omniscience, he has also bought into God’s omnipresence, the notion that God is everywhere, fully present, at any given time. Once again, rather than be intimidated by this truth, the author sees this as a positive thing. He is comforted by the fact that no matter where he goes, God is there…
8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.
The author has learned from reading and experience that there is no place where God is not. He uses a bit of hyperbole to make his point–God fills the heights of heaven and lowest places on earth, and everywhere in between. This truth was so ingrained in the author’s mind, it is no surprise his famous son Solomon believed it as well. Solomon is the one who exclaimed to God, “the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You…!” at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple (I Kings 8:27). Rather than being taken aback by the notion that there is no escape from God’s presence, the author is fondly approving of it. He is comforted by God’s hand.
I have been in some pretty scary places in my life. One time I was returning home from a business trip in Ankara, Turkey. I was flying alone because I wanted to earn frequent flier miles on Delta, and my coworkers were flying United. I had a connection in Istanbul. It was my first time there, and I couldn’t help but feel lost and alone as I groped my way through the crowded terminal trying to find my gate. As I boarded the shuttle bus to my plane, I noticed that I stuck out like a sore thumb, the only American on the crammed bus. In those times, I find great comfort knowing that God is with me. He is with me when I am alone in the house. He is with me when I walk the dogs down our neighborhood street. He is with me in the dark alley.
For all the social media and myriads of ways we can connect with each other, we are nonetheless an isolated, lonely society too busy to slow down and enjoy relationships. My coworkers from France speak in disbelief of the American “working lunch”, our inability to prioritize sharing a meal together over productivity. It’s who we are. We value getting things done more than spending time with people. As a result, we have very few opportunities to open up and fulfill our craving for friends who listen to us, know us, and accept us.
For us lonely Americans, the God of Psalm 139 represents a tremendous opportunity to have the best friend we could ever ask for. Earthly friends have limitations. They have great intentions, but cannot always be there for us. On the other hand, there is no place I can go where God is not. He is the God who fills the heavens and the earth, and He is always there for me.
It is also true that I can never intentionally run away or hide from God, as much as I may want to. Fleshly desires have a way of convincing us that no one is looking. Thieves do their work at night using the covering of darkness to hide their misdeeds. Adam and Eve tried to escape from the presence of God by hiding in some bushes. This is foolish thinking when confronted with the ever-present God. I love the way God candidly speaks to such folly when He says to us, “can a man hide himself in hiding places so I do not see him? Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24).
The prophet Jonah had had enough of obeying God’s orders. Rather than subjecting himself to the unpleasant responsibilities God gave him, he elected to flee. He boarded a ship bound for distant seas, trying desperately to put himself in a place where it would be logistically impossible to do what God wanted. Jonah personifies our indomitable, rebellious spirit that will go to great lengths and endure countless humiliations rather than simply submitting to God. It is in Jonah’s biography that we truly see the sovereign nature of God. In that story, God sends a tempest to toss Jonah’s boat and appoints a giant fish to swallow Jonah alive and spit him back out on the shore. He causes a plant to provide Jonah shelter, and later commands a worm to devour that same plant as an object lesson. The inescapable and sovereign nature of God is clearly evident in Jonah’s life. It teaches us that when we intentionally try to wander from Him, we can be assured that we’ve never gone too far. It does not matter what we’ve done. Praise God that He is the kind of friend who keeps at it, who pursues us with passion, and is not deterred by our coolness. He is there, and He cares. We are never more than a humble prayer away from God.
This notion of God’s sovereign control clearly aligns with the author’s intent in Psalm 139. He affirms that God’s hand is leading him and His right hand is on him. Here things begin to transcend from God merely being cognizant of our actions to a God who is actively controlling them. It suggests that God is doing something far greater than serving as angelic guardian, watching us passively, giving us suggestions to help us along our way. It suggests that He actually has a grand scheme that He is carrying out, a scheme in which the author, and all of us, are a part.
I am Part of a Plan
The author has peace with God’s omniscience and omnipresence. But what does he think of the idea of an omnipotent God, a God who is always in control of all things at all times? He is quite content with that notion, casually attributing to God the ability to predict what he will say before he says it…
4 “Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it all.”
He is also OK with a God who planned out his life well before he was born…
16 “…in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”
The implication of these verses for me is this: not only does God know what I’m thinking, not only is He everywhere I go, He has also planned that I would be living in 2018. He knows how much longer I have here on earth.
This is starting to sound like my destiny is predetermined, a polarizing idea that is discounted by many. This kind of God can seem too restricting, too controlling, too much like a helicopter parent never letting his kid out of the yard. Even the author was struggling to comprehend it, yet he seems consigned to accept it as truth…
5 You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.
The author can’t quite grasp the magnitude of such a Big God, but he accepts it as wonderful news nonetheless. If the author is so accepting of a sovereign God, why is it such an unpopular concept today?
Movies like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump acknowledge destiny, but can’t quite let go of human intervention. Whether it’s Marty disrupting his parents’ first meeting in Back to the Future, or Forrest waxing eloquently from his homespun wisdom about “floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze,” we like to believe we have some control over how things turn out. But the inescapable truth of Psalm 139 is that we are planned and created by a God who has a master plan He is carrying out, and we are part of that plan.
Some discount this idea claiming that God does not want robots who have no choice but to do His will. These claim that it would be better if people were free to choose God. They argue this would show a purer form of love because it is unforced. The problem is that it implies humans have some innate goodness and ability to do God’s bidding, a concept that denies the truth that the human heart is “deceitful above all else, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). We really don’t have what it takes to “choose” God, at least not without supernatural help.
Frankly, I’m OK with a God who makes robots, and I think God is too. He does not need people to choose Him. He is not like an apprehensive teenager desperately needing approval. As Paul says, God is not “served by human hands, as though He needed anything” (Acts 17:25). When God speaks in the book of Revelation about His future plans, He speaks with exactness–“144,000” redeemed souls, “1260 days” of tribulation, and specific events that will take place. What is His end game? To bring glory to Himself. God likes predicting the future and then making it happen. Doing so sets Him apart, proves that He is the all-powerful God He claims to be. As He says…
“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9-10)
God has a plan, and His end game is demonstrating His glory to the universe. I somehow play a part in that plan. I think that is pretty cool.
Having my life pre-planned does not deter me from living and breathing and interacting with people normally. Unlike God, I do not transcend space and time. I have to live day by day. What is exciting is that I have the opportunity every day to find my role in God’s plan. I find it liberating that I don’t have to search for meaning or value in my daily routine, an end goal that is elusive and uncertain. If I am close to God and actively seeking His will through reading His word, prayer, communion with godly advisers, and most importantly, relying on His power, I can be assured I’m doing playing my part in God’s plan even when it seems the things I’m doing are trivial or unremarkable.
I’m still culpable for my sins, and God has clearly defined the natural law of consequences for those sins, which I suffer when I get arrogant and rebellious. But I do not suffer prolonged despair if I screw up, for God can even use my sin to bring glory to Himself. Samson is a good example of a wayward dolt that God used to showcase His glory. Once in a short while God may have something big and scary for me to do…maybe befriend a lonely man, give hope to a suffering soul, or have coffee with a friend in need of advice. When He is obviously leading in this way, I better be ready to play my part.
I think there would be far fewer anxious people in this world if we bought into the Big God of Psalm 139. We get anxious when we don’t know how things will work out, and if we discount the notion of a Big God, the end is not so certain. This leads me to my last point.
I Can Deal With Anxiety
The author of Psalm 139 has clearly submitted to the concept of a Big God, one that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. He is calmed by this knowledge because he feels well-known, cared for, never alone, and part of a plan.
One last thought of his encourages me still more.
My company is undergoing an acquisition by a larger corporation. People seem calm about the whole thing, but the facade of confidence belies all kinds of hidden fears. We don’t like change, and we fear that which we cannot control. We don’t like it when we suddenly find ourselves at the mercy of some greater, uncontrollable force. We get nervous about our future, our security, our 401K. Anxiety is difficult to detect because we do such a good job of hiding it. It is only when the things in which we trust are shaken that we see evidence of anxiety bubbling up to the surface. My company’s pending acquisition is shaking my cup right now. If left untethered, anxiety can become a consuming force, overshadowing the soul like thick darkness.
However, in the middle of Psalm 139, the author says this…
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,” 12 Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.
It is always true that the things that seem like mountains to me are really quite small from God’s viewpoint. I have found it helpful to talk through things that worry me with brothers or sisters who know how Big God is. Talking about my anxieties with God-fearing people has a way of dispelling the fantastic, out of proportion issues that consume me, and whittling them down to manageable pieces.
For all the counselors, all the self-help remedies at our fingertips, all the getaway destinations that promise relaxation, there still seems to be a lot of anxious people in the world. I think that happens in part because we have lost the concept of a Sovereign God. I’m not saying that if you are anxious, you must not believe in God. All of us experience anxiety. There is a place for it. It is a good indicator that we need God. When we experience anxiety, we should take it as a sign that we need to align our thinking with the Big God of Psalm 139.
An Invitation to God
The author of Psalm 139 has grasped the magnitude of God. He closes his psalm with the only reasonable action given the conclusive evidence before him–evidence that says God is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, yet kind and helpful. That action is to offer God an invitation…
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts;
24 And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.
The author’s invitation to search and know him are rhetorical. God is already doing that. The author is simply welcoming the intrusion because He knows that God is kind and helpful. The invasive searching of God is actually a helpful thing, like the sharpening of a rusting hoe. The author is also acknowledging that he has anxieties, and he wants the calming assurance that God knows the things that frighten him. He invites God to review his pattern of life and critique it. Tell me if I’m making choices here that are going to hurt me in the long run! Finally, he concludes with an appeal for the all-seeing, all-knowing God to lead him in a way that is stable and solid.
These last two verses of Psalm 139 are perhaps the most practical definition of a healthy daily meeting time with God. On good days, my daily routine begins with a prayer that aligns with these verses. It is a prayer of open invitation. I invite God to shine a light on the dark places in my soul, and to show me what He sees. I do not dismiss His discoveries, but rather acknowledge them for what they are. I ask God to assess the pattern of my life. Am I heading in a direction that ultimately is helpful to me and those around me? I conclude with an appeal for God to open my eyes to the little things He wants me to do today. These are requests that the kind and helpful God of Psalm 139 is more than happy to grant.