The Life-Encompassing Psalm (Psalm 139)

Psalm 139 is my favorite Psalm.  It is intensely personal and relational… which is probably why it’s a favorite for many people.  I call it “life-encompassing” because it speaks of God being with us from the very moment we were conceived, to the present, to whatever comes in the future. It’s the first Psalm I remember encountering as a child, so it also has a personal longevity for me. Before you read my reflections on it, I’d encourage you to read it yourself:  Psalm 139 (NASB).

I led my Bible study in this Psalm a few weeks ago.  During our discussion, I realized that while it’s always been a comforting Psalm for me, there is a “wonderful and terrible” tension in 139 between the comfort and relief of being truly known and the shame and conviction that kind of “knowing” brings.  It completely makes sense to read the Psalm that way–after all, “Where can I flee from your presence?” has the sense of wanting to escape.  Still, as will probably become apparent as you read my thoughts below, I find even this tension comforting, because God knows me in all times and all places… and loves me anyway.  Donald Miller recently tweeted a thought that captures this feeling for me: “Character is who you are in the dark.  Grace is who you are in the dark, forgiven.”

I’m not going to go through the verses in the order that they’re written… instead, I’m going to go in order “chronologically” in terms of our lives (taking a bit of liberty to adapt that to what it has meant chronologically in my own life).  My approach will make more sense to you if you’ve already read through the entire Psalm in the order it’s intended.

(As a side note, I am purposefully ignoring v. 19-22… not because they’re not important, but because I am far from equipped to address the long-standing question of how we, as Christians, are to read the language of violence and hatred often present in the Psalms).

Disclaimers covered… here goes!  Rather than copying large sections of text, I’m including some key phrases from the verses that I refer to… it may help you to have the passage open in front of you.

You have known me from the beginning (v. 13-16a): “You wove me in my mother’s womb.  I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

          Not only has God known us from the instant that we came into existence… He knows us with the intimate and perfect knowledge of a Creator.  
          I mentioned that 139 is the first Psalm that I encountered as a child… I learned it from a song (it’s a very sweet children’s song, set to music by Steve Green).  My sister Laura heard me singing it and tried to get me to sing it for my mom.  I was five or six years old at the time, and I vividly remember shyly burying my head in a pillow on the couch and whispering the words as the song played.  I’m not sure how much I really understood the text at that point… I think, in some ways, my literal understanding as a child of “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was probably more accurate than the distant way we, as adults, approach the concept.  Either way, I’m glad that from a young age I knew that God had created me, and that I was “good” (just as He declared of His creation in Genesis).

You know everything about me. (v. 1-6): “You… are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it all.”

          I find such relief in these words.  How wonderful it is to not have to explain yourself… to know that you are immediately known and understood (indeed, probably more known and understood than you know and understand yourself!).  Again, there’s a bit of a terrifying aspect to these words, but I also find it a relief that I can’t keep any secrets from Him.  I think confessing (in terms of “naming” our sin in order to repent from it) is more important for our side of things than for His… He already knows.  And even though He knows, His active presence in our lives is secure. (“You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.”)

You are with me in every place. (v. 7-10): “Where can I go from your Spirit?… if I ascend to heaven…if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.”

         Growing up in a large family, it was easy to get lost (literally and figuratively).  So, even though in the Psalmist’s words there is a sense of wanting to flee, I was really glad to know that God was always with me.  This truth became even more real to me as I went off to college in an unfamiliar environment… four years that included a stint studying abroad in England (by myself) and being a camp counselor for a summer at a camp in New York–a camp I’d never been to and where I knew no one (both of these were wonderful experiences, but pretty scary at the outset and fraught with challenges).  As my siblings married and I found myself increasingly alone, I clung to the truth that God knew who I was and where I was.
         My literal “wanderings” were not lacking in the spiritual wanderings that the Psalmist seems to reference.  In other words, my sins were as numerous as ever, so I took solace in the knowledge that God was still there in His perfect patience and unrelenting presence, leading me “even there,” whether I was taking “the wings of the dawn” or dwelling “in the remotest part of the sea” (v. 9-10).

You are with me in every time. (v. 11-12): “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.”

          I’ve read this Psalm fairly regularly over the years, and at a few points have had it memorized.  Apart from the “hate those who hate You” verses (19-22), this section is the one section with which I didn’t have a personal connection.  I understood what the verses meant–that God’s glory far outshines our greatest troubles–but even in harder times, I knew that I hadn’t truly experienced darkness…
          …until about two years ago, when a “perfect storm” of events threatened to tear me apart.  I knew, then, that I had found darkness (or maybe darkness had found me).  The image in my mind was that I was in a pitch-black, floor-less, wall-less underground place trying to keep my balance walking across slippery pipes.  It came to a point that I felt I’d finally slipped and hit my head hard on the pipes.  Lying there, I realized that the sticky slipperiness was blood, and that I couldn’t clean it up.  I described this image to my counselor once. He responded, “You can’t clean it up.”  I couldn’t, and can’t… but there is Someone who can.  Who gave His own blood instead of mine.  To Whom even my darkness is as bright as the day.

You know even what is yet to come (v. 16b-18): “And in your book they were all written, they days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”

          Turn off your theologically analytic/argumentative side for just a minute.  You’re never going to be able to definitively “answer” the free will vs. foreknowledge question anyway.  What I want you to see in these beautiful verses is that–however all of this “works”–God knows all about you and all about your life.  Do you realize how incredibly small we are in the vast scheme of history, how insignificant we are as a few people among billions on this planet?  How amazing it is, then, that God knows who you are that your story matters enough to Him that He’s written it all down.

All of these truths continue. (v. 23-24): “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there be any hurtful way within me.  Lead me in the everlasting way.”

           These final two verses are one of those helpful prayers for when you don’t know what to say–whether you’re just drawing a blank or because your place in life right now makes it hard for you to talk to God (I think I fit into one of those two categories pretty much all of the time).  As we see throughout the Psalm, God already knows us, convicts us, and leads us… but asking Him to continue to do so makes us more aware of when and how He’s doing that.

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2 Responses to The Life-Encompassing Psalm (Psalm 139)

  1. My spiritual director assigned this Psalm to me at the beginning of Advent. The first notes I have written in my Bible are dated 12/4/12, and the final one on 2/4/13. It took me weeks to just move beyond the first stanza!

    One of my favorite verses is 5 – “Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me.” (New American Bible – Catholic Translation I imagine God, Jesus, and for me the Blessed Mother (Mary) with their arms about my shoulders, encouraging yet gently challenging me to move forward. Supporting, yet pushing me along on my faith journey. Interestingly, Blessed Mother Teresa (which is how our Church refers to her as she is moving forward toward sainthood) had a vision of Mary doing the same for her. Mother Teresa experienced what she called “such terrible darkness” in her soul, “as if everything were dead.” Her darkness and longing continued until the end of her life, but she persevered in some of the most inhumane conditions of our world. She describes her darkness as a link that united her to the Heart of Jesus. In her words – “Suffering has to come because if you look at the cross, he has got his head bending down – he wants to kiss you – and he has both hands open wide – he wants to embrace you. Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you. Suffering is a gift from God.” I have been through these dark times as well, which is why I sought out a spiritual director for guidance. It has helped me to understand some things about myself that were impeding the way on my journey. The best advice he has given me so far is to “go deep, not far” in reading and studying Scripture, in prayer and contemplation.

    I spent almost a week just pondering those final 2 verses of this Psalm. My Bible references sent me to Jeremiah 6:16 “Stand beside the earliest roads, ask the pathways of old which is the way to good, and walk it; thus you will find rest for your souls.” The footnotes here explain that this refers to history and the lessons to be learned from it. We are to look at the “manner of living of our ancestors, who were faithful to God’s will” – I spend a lot of time connecting the reference points in my Scripture reading. The daily meditations that I am reading have often linked precisely with the Scripture I am studying at the time – coincidence, I think not! One of these thoughts drew me back to verse 24, weeks after I had moved on to my current “assignment” for Lent (Jeremiah 29). It was this – During the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) Jesus was accompanied by Moses and Elijah, the Law and the prophets. We too need a balance, to draw on the wisdom that comes from both tradition and from vision. The Transfiguration provides us with a heavenly confirmation that Jesus suffering will end in glory. And through his, so will ours!

    And so, I am working on embracing suffering this Lent. At every Mass, I now look at the crucifix and imagine Jesus leaning forward to give me that kiss. As I begin working through Jeremiah I have just today arrived at the most well-known and often used verse – 11: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for you welfare, not for woe!” I pray that I can give myself totally over to His plans – they promise to be wonderful!

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is very powerful, Emily. Thank you for your words.

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