When my son and his wife showed me the ultrasound image of my first grandchild, the words of Psalm 139 immediately came to mind:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (vv. 13-14)
That would probably be my choice for a “key verse” for this exquisitely-crafted psalm. Through remarkable descriptions of the God who is infinite and intimate, it expresses how all of creation, in existence and purpose, is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” English has words for these attributes of God, all starting with the prefix “omni,” from the Latin for “all”: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. Those words suggest an outline for the psalm’s first three sections, with the final one inviting us to self-examination. But the simplicity of its structure defies the jewels that could be mined from this psalm that expresses God’s extravagant Being and love for us.
OMNISCIENCE (VV. 1-6)The first two words already provide a stopping point: “O LORD.” This term of address not only establishes it as a prayer, but it emphasizes God’s high and revered essence through use of His holiest name, “YHWH,” which English translations indicate through “LORD” in small capital letters. It’s the ancient “name” of God that no pious Jew would dare write or speak out of profound reverence. David reached deeply into his native tongue to find words expressing God’s all-knowing character—ones we translate in English as search, know, perceive, discern, and are familiar with. God’s perfect knowledge includes a person’s location and subconscious life (thoughts, plans, habits, and soon-to-be-spoken words)—and all this “completely” (v. 4).
To picture God’s constant presence, David used a military expression, “you hem me in—behind and before” (v. 5). Unlike an enemy, which would hem in a city to destroy it, God surrounds us, both past and present, for our good. He is personal in His guidance: “you lay your hand upon me” (v. 5b). This expression brought me great comfort and confidence at change points in my life. When I felt besieged by circumstances and unsure of the future, being confident of God “behind” and “ahead” with His hand upon me, helped me go forward in faith.
God’s “omniscience” is so immense that we barely begin to understand it. No wonder David added: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (v. 6). We don’t know how He does it, but He does it. In response, we might say with the apostle Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
OMNIPRESENCE (VV. 7-12)I babysit my year-old grandson while his parents work, and if I’m not within his sight, he gets worried. When he wakes up from napping in his crib, he cries for that “people” connection he depends on for just about everything. Similarly, God’s constant presence should comfort us, as Paul observed in the well-known “God works for good” teaching of Romans 8. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks as a rhetorical question, listing negatives like hardships, persecution, personal deprivations, even death by an enemy. “No,” Paul adds, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through whom who loved us” (Romans 8:35, 37).
As David looks at God’s “omnipresence” or ability to be everywhere, he also touches on the sinful tendency to want to hide from God. “Where can I go from your Spirit?” he asks, “Where can I flee from your presence?” (v. 7). The answer is nowhere. God is in heaven and in the place of the dead (“sheol”). If we could travel at the speed of light (like the “wings of the dawn”), we couldn’t get away from Him. We can’t hide from Him in some dark place, for even the absence of light is no problem for Him. God surpasses the abilities of forensic law workers, who attempt to solve crimes. He sees crime when it happens. He also sees into the dark hearts of those who commit offenses. Darkness is as light to Him (v. 12).
OMNIPOTENCE (VV. 13-18)David could not have chosen a better example of God’s all-powerful hand than the miracle of creating a human life from one cell merging the mother’s and father’s genetic codes. He couldn’t know about coils of DNA when he chose the wonderfully appropriate Hebrew word sarak (“to entwine”) that more modern English translators render “knit”: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Even when hidden inside a mother’s womb (now seen in shadows via ultrasound), our growing “beings” were never hidden from God. God also “knew” the life-path for each of us “before one of them came to be” (v. 16). God has a purpose for each human being, as many other Bible verses attest. He described Jews who would return from Babylonian exile as those “whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:7). Each of us has a divinely-crafted role: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). When we go off and do our own thing apart from God, then come back, He will help us change to do “his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Against all these reminders of God’s presence and power, it’s easy to feel insignificant, especially when life’s problems dim our perception of who He is. That’s why the concluding verses of this section are so comforting. They’re a wonderful prayer for those “down days” when God seems distant: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would out number the grains of sand. When I awake [even when I waken to dread the day ahead] I am still with you [which gives me hope for the day ahead!]” (verses 17-18, my comments in brackets).
RESPONSE (VV. 19-24)The concluding section almost seems out of place after the majority of the psalm exalts God’s great knowledge, presence, and power. David expresses righteous indignation about his enemies when he asks God to slay the wicked. This seems strange unless we remember that God is holy, and all face the choice of accepting Him in all His holiness, or choosing to sin and reject Him. Sinners are objects of both God’s love and God’s wrath: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). David is also separating himself from the evil around him (vv. 21-22) as he seeks to love and serve only God.
Not only does David abhor the evil of his nation and culture, he wants all of it purged from himself:Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (vv. 23-24)
Of course, God doesn’t need to “search” because He knows all about David (and us), anyway. But David is expressing his desire to be shown his sin. As someone once put it, “Roof off to God.” Paul explained it to one of the New Testament churches, as taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians. 10:5).
A key word for this psalm is “known.” God is so great—so all-knowing, so “everywhere,” and so powerful--that we cannot “know” all that He is. Yet He knows everything about us, from the very first cells that became “us,” custom-designed for His purposes. And that brings us back to David’s awe expressed in verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”
Next: Psalm 145