Psalm 139 - You have searched me and known me

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To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
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;
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,
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 (NRSV*)
9th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, verses 1-5, 19-24
6th Sunday of Lent - Liturgy of the Passion, verses 9-16
Holy Saturday, verses 9-16
5th Sunday of Easter, verses 1-5, 15-16
Proper 4, Sunday between May 29 and June 4, Year A, verses 1-5, 19-24

"If you read this psalm every day for a month, it will change your life." So I heard from a significant teacher, who had heard it a generation before from one of his significant teachers.[1]

Psalm 139 is particularly introspective and personal. It reaches deep: into our individual origins as persons, into our emotions and psyche, and into our relationship with a God whose presence is both intimate and immense.

This unequal relationship is not inherently comforting. We know from studying the development of children that even close, loving, caring and supportive bonds between mother and child also have pain, anger, fear. How much more so with a God who knows my every action, who discerns my thoughts from far away? Can't I get some privacy!?

The prayer tells of two parallel experiences of God, both born of deep familiarity and God's powerful presence. One, which we tend to hear in a good light, acknowledges God's great knowledge of and care for us: "It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb." Yet just as a child can be frightened of, and rebel against a parent's great power over them, God can be seen as a stalker, who will just not let us be. You hem me in, you lay your hand upon me, there is nowhere I can flee from your presence?

We might read this as a sign of wanting to hide our guilt. But we might also take it as a biological response to the immensity of God and the fragility of our small souls. "If you read this psalm every day for a month, it will change your life." It will certainly help you engage with just where and who you are in relation to the God who beheld my unformed substance and knit me together in my mother’s womb. For we know that the One who was so involved in bringing us into being may still be at work. Even our mature being is in need of further "knitting" and formation.

It is certainly clear that this prayer is very conscious of the vast differential between who God is - immeasurable and uncountable - and who we are - distinctly finite.

The examination of "my inward parts" takes a sudden turn at verse 19. Having described their personal unease with God's power, the experience of being hunted by God, and seeming to come to peace with that reality.

Then - "O that you would kill the wicked, O God!"

It seems to come out of nowhere. Yet these words come only after this intimate reflection(?), monologue(?), preparation for and preface to the fierce feeling that now emerges. "Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?... I hate them with perfect hatred!"

This degree of emotion may erupt suddenly. We do not always see what is underneath it, what has fed it. This psalm does not provide a context, just as we often do not know why someone is raging at us or even where our anger is rooted. And if we do, that does little good, because it is real and immediate. Our anger always feels justified.

Yet it is seldom insensible. Here it emerges after this open reflection about self in relation to God. One good thing about anger - it hits us where we live. It may not be the most important thing in our lives - but it lives very near those things which are dear.

"If you read this psalm every day for a month, it will change your life." I love the poetry of the early verses, which range the corners of the earth and into the deep of the womb and the soul. It is a statement of faith that "even the darkness is not dark to you," that the Lord God does not disregard any, not any person or portion of creation.

But here is where the psalm gets really interesting, in that dialogue between the one who prays and the one who listens. After this very personal soliloquy, and just after he (or she) attempts to be united with the Lord in hatred, the penultimate ask of the prayer is "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me."

Having conducted even an 18-verse examination of myself... I know the answer. Of course, there is wickedness within me.

I depend on God to help me in my distress. Sixteen verses ago I was worried about God being in my business. Now I seek it, for God knows me better than I do, and God can do more with me than I can myself. Since I know that all is not right within me, I can pray with all my heart can muster the real point of this prayer: "Lead me in the way everlasting."

Photograther unknown, Daughter. Public domain (CC BY 1.0).
* New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Rev. Dr. James Forbes, who received this from Dr. James Muilenburg. I cannot now recall whether the counsel was to read the psalm or pray the psalm. It could have been either. Put the words in your mouth and in your heart, any way that makes sense.


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