Who am I? Who are we? How can we even begin to navigate these questions?
I don’t know who needs to read these words, but I pray that they will reach many who are finding life distressing, overwhelming, and as though they are fighting a hopeless battle against despair.
This week I’ve been meditating on a prayer, Psalm 139. It is both poetry and prayer, communicating extraordinary truths about both God and us. It will be my privilege to teach Psalm 139 at Mentone Baptist Church on the first Sunday of 2023. But I thought I would preempt this upcoming sermon and share some reflections on this Psalm of David here on the blog.
I am hearing so many stories of people struggling with mental health issues, men and women trying to understand questions about personal identity and worth, and families trying to keep everything together in the midst of financial hardship.
Today, The Age headlined this story, ‘Mental health disorders increase among children as young as 18 months’. Yesterday, the media reported the dire situation facing families trying to access mental health care for their children.
There is also much anger and distrust being vented in society; much of it is justified, while some is misplaced. Far from communities becoming closer together, we are becoming more fractious.
Just as lurking behind the excitement and successes of the Football World Cup are terrible injustices and abuses, underneath the veneer of Australia’s prosperity are millions of Aussies feeling lost and searching for meaning and hope.
This is where Psalm 139 offers us insights into God and ourselves that are wonderful and necessary, poignant and so refreshing. My aim here isn’t to offer a detailed explanation of every word or sentence, but hopefully to say something of use that will encourage you the reader to ponder the words of Psalm 139 yourself, and even to share it with others.
The author of this prayer is David, the famous King of Israel. Despite his position ruling over a nation, he addresses God in a personal way. For David, God isn’t a remote or abstract Divine Being who is somewhere responsible for everything. He calls God, ‘Lord’, which is God’s special name given to his covenant people for them to address Him. To know God as Lord is to enjoy a personal connection and relationship with Him.
The Psalm consists of 4 stanzas. I’ll quote each stanza in turn, and offer a brief comment about each one.
1. God knows us intimately
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
This is a message that’s worth us getting our heads around: We are not unknown to God. In fact, David recognises how the Lord knows him better than David knows himself. We all have someone idea about our deepest convictions, desires, fears, and joys. We have some ability to hide aspects of our personality and ambitions from others. We might even successfully block out aspects of hearts from our own consciousness.
God however sees everything. He wouldn’t be much of a God if he doesn’t. David talks about how God peers into our minds and knows our thoughts. He knows what I’m going say before the words leave my tongue. This isn’t some spooky kind of trolling, but a picture of God who both understands us and who cares for us. For example, the metaphor in verse 5 of, ‘you lay your hand upon me, speaks of a gentleness and love that is active in God toward us.
I love David’s reaction in verse 6.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
He isn’t just saying that this is an intellectual absurdity and therefore cannot be true. David’s point is, ‘God, you blow my mind’. God is above him in wisdom and comprehension. Einstein and Mozart are like simpletons, compared to the mind of God. This knowledge is formidable but not scary because this personal knowing is from the God who cares for us. This knowledge brings David comfort and assurance; God understands me.
2. We can’t hide from God.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Jonah famously tried to do a runner and escape God, as though we can outstride or out-think God. As David exclaims, where can we hide from the God who made the universe? In our bedroom? In the desert? Under the ocean? What if I close my mind to God and eat the key?
Running away from God is futile and David knows it. As he considers the God of the Bible, he doesn’t want to remove God but instead rest in Him. Because God is truly God, we are safe in Him.
3. You made me
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
These verses are replete with exquisite images that fill life with meaning and awe. Take for example, the stunning metaphor in verse 13, ‘God knitted us together in the womb.’
No wonder, David’s mind is again blown away,
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
These words are true not only for David but also for every human being. This testimony has profound meaning and implications for how we view other people and also ourselves.
As the artist is devoted to his/her work and as a composer imprints their own glory in the music, so each and every human being has intrinsic value, glory and worth. Monet’s Water Lilies were no mistake and Schumann’s Piano Concerto was no misstep or blunder. You are not a gaffe or error. You are not a waste. You are not insignificant. We are profoundly known and loved by our creator God.
4. God, change me
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
I appreciate how these verses may make some of us cringe or feel a little uncomfortable. Aren’t we meant to forgive everyone? Should we not look for the best in people?
There are a number of threads appearing in this final stanza, which are each true and somehow need to be held together despite apparent tensions or even contradictions with other parts of the Bible.
- David is expressing to God how he is feeling as he reacts to enemies who are seeing his demise.
- It’s okay to long for justice and for God to punish evil. We don’t want evil to win out in the end, but for wrongdoing to be punished, whether the perpetrators are individuals or corporations or institutions. Asking God to bring justice and to judge wickedness is an entirely right and good prayer. Christians may not stop at that point, for we also long for mercy and forgiveness, but we also believe in and trust in God who is righteous and who will hold the world account.
- David’s enemies were often political, whether rebels attempting to usurp his throne or competing nations who waged war against Israel. David’s prayer reflects the system of government that existed and set the boundaries of God’s people at that particular time. This isn’t our situation today. The Church isn’t a nation-state or system of government. As we discover in the New Testament, our King is the true David, Jesus Christ. When churches are oppressed, our answer isn’t to go to war or to hunt down assassins, but “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14) and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” Luke 6:27).
- It is important to continue reading as the Psalm doesn’t end at verse 22, but with verses 23-24. David doesn’t end on a note of vengeance but with a plea for God to examine his (my) own heart.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
It seems as though David’s aware that strong emotions can be misleading, and mixed up, and that he himself might have sin lurking about in his own life. David is praying, Lord is, sift through my prayer because you know what’s true and what’s not true, and where I’m right and where I’m wrong. You are able to do this because you know me well. Where and if there’s anything offensive in me, lead away from it and to the way everlasting.
David isn’t self-righteous or strident or judgmental. His prayer is, Lord, change me. This is of course a far cry from our cultural sermons which defines change as heterodox. Our prayers today are less, ‘Lord, change me, they are more often, ‘God affirm everything about me’. Our 21st Century prayers often finish at verse 22, judge my oppressors and justify me.
No wonder our streets and suburbs are filling with growing vexation, anxiety, and melancholy. The burden we are placing on ourselves is too great.
This Psalm can speak both of wonderment and of wrong. Wonderment in God who made us and wrong in what others do and even what I have done. Our culture can’t sustain this tension. The Bible is able to both speak of immense value and worth of every human being and also remind us of profound sinfulness. Any time when we hold onto one of these truths and not the other, we are only a short journey away from an identity crisis and social catastrophe. David was conscious of both and he found resolution and peace in the fact that hope isn’t found in himself, but in a God who can be trusted.
The ultimate and final fulfilment of this Psalm is found in that little child born in Bethlehem whom millions around Australia will soon be singing about as Christmas approaches.
The book of Hebrews reminds us,
“we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:9-11)