Everywhere today one hears of those who are passing through an identity crisis., That is a fancy way of saying what people have been asking for a long time, “Who am I?” We all ask this question occasionally but perhaps it is asked more frequently today because of the prevailing scientific view of the universe. That view tells us that our earth is but a tiny speck in a vast universe, and we are struggling mortals on an obscure planet located in a second rate galaxy among billions of other galaxies in a great universe. Such an outlook tends to make us feel most insignificant. It contrasts sharply with the biblical view of man and especially the view which deals with man in relationship to God. This 139th Psalm describes a man who is thinking about himself and his relationship to God. If you are struggling with an identity crisis and you are not sure just who you are then I suggest you read carefully as we look together at this marvelous psalm.
It is divided into four paragraphs of six verses each. It is easy to follow the outline for it is already structured for us in the RSV. In each paragraph the psalmist faces a question about himself in relationship to God.
In the first paragraph he asks, “How well does God know me?” The first sentence gives us his answer:
O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! (Psalms 139:1 RSV)
The Hebrew word for “searched” is the word, “to dig.” Literally what this man is saying is, “O Lord, you dig me!” Now that is how up-to-date the Bible is! The word means, “You dig into me and therefore you know me.” It is not surprising that the word dig has come to mean in English, “to know or to understand.” This is the way the psalmist begins, “Lord, you dig me!” In what way does God understand?
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
thou discernest my thoughts from afar. (Psalms 139:2 RSV)
That is, “Lord, you understand and know me in my conscious life. You know when I sit down (my passive life) and when I rise up (my active life). When I am resting or when I am acting, you know me. And you know me also in my subconscious life — that level of life from which my thoughts arise. You understand them even before they get to the surface. You know how I think and what I think about. You even understand the thoughts which come unbidden, in a constant flow to my mind.”
Then there follows the awareness of God’s knowledge of habits and choices.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down.
and art acquainted with all my ways. (Psalms 139:3 RSV)
You know the way I choose to go, and you know the habits of my life. “You know me, Lord,” says this man, “intimately — inside and out.” Then in verses 4 and 5 he contemplates the fact that God is concerned about him.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. (Psalms 139:4 RSV)
That is, “You understand my language. Every word that I utter you know and understand.”
When I was a boy in northern Minnesota I lived for a time in a Swedish settlement. The Swedish Christians used to tease the rest of us, saying, “You know, we Scandinavians are going to have a wonderful time in heaven while all the rest of you are learning the language!” I used to resent that until I discovered that God knows more than Swedish; He also knows English, Afrikaans, Hebrew, and all other languages of earth. That is what impresses the psalmist: “Even before I utter a word, Lord, you know it. You understand my language, you communicate with me.”
Then God is active, the psalmist discovers, in his past, his future, and his present.
Thou dost beset me behind[the past] and before[the future],
and layest thy hand upon me[now, the present].
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain it. (Psalms 139:5-6 RSV)
He is simply overwhelmed by the fact that God knows him better than he knows himself, better than anyone else knows him. That is amazing, is it not? God knows me better than I know anyone else, no matter how hard I have tried to communicate to him, and better even than I know myself. For God knows me in the subconscious, the unexplorable part of my life, as well as in the conscious. What a wonderful revelation this is of God’s understanding of each individual human being. How desperately we need, in this day of depersonalization, to remember that though science tells us how vast the universe is, and thus how great is the power of God, it takes God’s self-revelation to tell us how important we are to Him and how well He knows us.
In the second paragraph the writer is exploring the question, “How near is God to me?”
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit,
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? (Psalms 139:7 RSV)
How many times we have asked that of ourselves “Lord, how can I get away from you? Is there any way in my guilt that I can escape?” This is the psalmist’s answer.
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! (Psalms 139: 8 RSV)
No destiny can separate me from the fact of God. If I go to heaven, God is there, of course. And even though I go to hell I still will not escape God. Of course, other Scriptures make clear that there is a vast difference between the experience of God for one who is in heaven and for one who is in Sheol, or hell. In heaven we shall experience to the full the love, compassion, glory and warmth of God; the positives of God. In hell it is the other way around There men experience the absence of God’s love, the dark side of it, the wrath of God; his negatives. But it is still God, that is the point. God owns and runs his universe and there is no escaping his presence.
The presence of God is not a fearful thought. The writer goes on to say that no distance can separate him from God.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me. (Psalms 139:9-10 RSV)
What do you think he means by the “wings of the morning”? This is a beautifully poetic expression. If you have stood and watched the sun come up you will have noticed how the rays of the rising sun shoot across the heavens with the speed of light and reach to the farthest bounds of the horizon. This is what he is describing. “If I could travel with the wings of the morning,” that is, with the speed of light; “if I could go with the speed of light and reach to the farthest points of earth (the uttermost parts of the sea), even there,” he says, “I would find you Lord. You have gone before me, have preceded me, and I will find you there as much as here.”
When I was about twelve years old we moved from Minnesota to Montana. The night before we left I got down by my bed and said, “Good-bye, God. We’re going to Montana.” I was sure I would not find him there, but when we arrived, there He was. I have found him everywhere since. That is what this writer is saying.
A young airman of the Royal Canadian Air Force wrote a poem which ties in beautifully with what the psalmist is saying. Killed at the age of nineteen, this is the way John Gillespie Magee described his experience of flight.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
(From Sourcebook of Poetry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968, p. 500.)
This pilot had experienced the truth that, “if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the earth,” there God has gone before.
Finally in this section the psalmist cries that not even darkness can separate him from God.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with thee. (Psalms 139:11-12 RSV)
Remember when you were little how you felt guilty and tried to hide from God by crawling under the covers or hiding under the bed, or in the closet? You thought that God could not see you because humans couldn’t. There are many grownups who are still trying to do that. They feel that if they do not think about certain things then God will not think about them either. But He does. No darkness, physical or mental, can hide us from God’s presence. He knows us and sees us no matter how dark it is. Paul reminded the Athenians that God is not far from any one of us. Whether we know Him or not, He is but a touch away.
In the third paragraph the psalmist is telling us how he knows all this. Someone might say, “Well, this is certainly beautiful poetry, all this about God’s knowing me and being with me, but how do you know it is true?” “All right,” says the psalmist, I’ll tell you.” First, because of deduction from the design of the body.
For thou didst form my inward parts,
thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalms 139:13-14a)
The RSV says:
I praise thee, for thou are fearful and wonderful. (Psalms 139:14a RSV)
but there is very shaky ground for that translation. It should be as the Hebrew reads:
I praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,
Wonderful are thy works! (Psalms 139:14)
Here he is examining himself, and he is amazed at the vitality and complexity of the forces in his own body which are essential to life, but over which he obviously has no control, yet they are essential to his life. “That,” he says, “shows me there is something outside of man that is regulating and running me. I live within the limits of that force or Being, whatever or whoever it is.”
Have you ever stopped to think how much of your life is dependent upon forces at work in you? If any one of them stopped you would die very quickly. You are dependent on something that you have no control over. Your heart is thumping away right now, and it would be terrible if you had to control it with your mind or will. How would you like to have to keep saying to yourself now as you are listening, “Now thump. Now thump. Now thump. Now thump.” Or if you had to say to your diaphragm, “Now dia, now phragm. Now dia, now phragm.” No, it is wonderful, is it not? Someone else is running our lives, that is obvious from the design of our bodies.
This is what has struck the psalmist. He says, “Thou didst knit me together in a most amazing way in my mother’s womb. I praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Then he is struck by the progress that is necessary in the forming of a human being.
Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee, (Psalms 139:14b-15a RSV)
The frame is the foundation of the body, the bone and muscle system. That is where the body begins to be put together, with the frame. Without a frame we would be but rolling balls of gelatin. Some of us are getting that way anyhow!
…my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. (Psalms 139:15 RSV)
That phrase, “intricately wrought” is one word in the Hebrew. It is really the word for “embroidered.”
You ladies know what embroidery is, the little fancy stitches that are added to cloth. I don’t know how you do it; we men never understand embroidery, but it adds beauty and is especially fancy. That is the word used here.
It describes the delicate embroidery of the body, the things that tie us together so that one organ supports another. The lungs need the heart, and the heart needs the lungs; the liver needs the kidneys, and the stomach needs both; all the parts are amazingly embroidered together.
This, by the way, raises one of the unanswered questions of evolution: How an organ which is only helpful to the body when it functions as a complete and mature organ can develop in stages over a long period of time. Evolutionists have never answered that, yet it is one of the most vital questions to ask. The psalmist simply says, “I am astonished when I consider the fact that my inward parts are knit together and embroidered together, and are so necessary one to the other.”
Then he uses this phrase, in Verse 16,
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance. (Psalms 139:16a RSV)
Literally the word in Hebrew is, “my rolled up substance.” It pictures the embryo, all rolled up. People are asking questions today about when life begins. When does an embryo become a human being? When does abortion become murder? The answer of the psalmist is, “Thy eyes beheld me, not an impersonal collection of cells that wasn’t me yet, in my rolled up embryonic state.” The marvel of the human body, even at that stage of growth, has convinced him that God is with him and knows him immediately.
Some of you will remember the Alger Hiss case quite a number of years ago. Alger Hiss was accused of Communist conspiracy while he was a functionary of the government. The case brought into prominent view an unknown (at that time) Congressman named Richard Milhous Nixon. A primary participant in that case was a man named Whittaker Chambers, also a member of the Communist Party and a contact of Alger Hiss.
Whittaker Chambers later wrote a book in which he told how he became a Christian. He describes an incident. One day when he was sitting with his little two-year old daughter on his lap, his eye fell on her ear and it caught his attention. He was struck by the design of that ear. How beautiful, how shell-like it was, and how perfectly designed to catch every sound wave in the air to be translated into sound by the brain. Knowing something of the mechanics of the ear he began to think about it. He was struck by how impossible it is that anything so intricate, so complex, so beautifully designed could ever occur by chance. That led him to other lines of thought and eventually he investigated the Christian position and became a Christian. The argument from design is a great argument and it is what the psalmist uses here.
But that is not all. In Verse 16 he says,
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them. (Psalms 139:16 RSV)
He is not only impressed by the argument from design but by the evidence of determination. Evidently he had an experience similar to many of us — there came certain days in his life during which so many unrelated factors suddenly fell together to produce a circumstance or an experience that he could not help but be aware that something was causing it to happen, that it was all being brought about by a mind greater than his own. There was evidence of determinism.
We have all had something happen suddenly, something which we did not plan nor expect. It was made up of so many varied factors which all of a sudden fit together, dovetailing beautifully, that we become aware that Someone else was planning our days, and yet allowing us free will in the experience of them. That was what struck this Psalmist. It was the fact that, even before these days occurred, they were written in the book of God — they were planned of him.
This of course is the basis for all biblical prophecy. How is it that an event can occur in the life of our Lord which was predicted by the prophets 500, 600, sometimes 1000 years before — and not only by one prophet, but by several? After the passing of years, and even centuries, there comes a moment when many factors suddenly fall together and our Lord fulfills an event that was foretold long before. All this impresses the psalmist, and he is made aware of God’s knowledge of him.
The third thing that convinces him then follows.
How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
When I awake, I am still with thee. (Psalms 139:17-18 RSV)
The margin says, “Were I to come to the end I would still be with thee.” The psalmist is impressed by the abundance of revelation from God. We would never understand our lives if God did not tell us who we are. Thus even though we have the evidence of design and the evidence of determination, yet apart from this marvelous revelation of the thoughts of God which fit so perfectly with the design and the determination, we would never understand ourselves.
The present professor of nuclear physics at Texas A&M University, Dr. John McIntyre, was converted in one of our home Bible classes when he was a graduate student at Stanford. He said that the thing which impressed him about the Christian faith was the fact that the Bible was the same kind of a cohesive system as nature — that the more one examines the Bible the more complex it appears, and the deeper and more unfathomable are its thoughts. It is the same with nature. It appears rather simple on the surface, but, when one examines it, it becomes more and more complex until it staggers the mind and becomes incomprehensible in its complexity. When he found the Bible to be the same kind of thing, perfectly in harmony with the revelation of nature, he was powerfully impressed — and that is what made him listen to the Christian claims.
That is also what this psalmist says: How precious are God’s thoughts! How vast is the sum of them! How wide is the range of fact that God comments upon in his revelation. Even if you come to the end, says the psalmist, God is still more. No revelation can ever plumb the depths of God. How great, how impossibly great, are his thoughts toward us.
Now the last paragraph seems to take a rather abrupt turn:
O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God,
and that men of blood would depart from me, (Psalms 139:19 RSV)
Many have asked: Why do these psalmists seem all of a sudden to interject these bloody thoughts? Why this sudden word of passion, “Lord, kill the wicked!” This has troubled many because it seems so far from the New Testament standard, “Love your enemies; pray for those who despitefully use you; do good to those who injure you.” How shall we understand these things?
First, we need to recognize that everything that is declared in the Psalms is not necessarily a reflection of God’s will. We are listening to the experiences of believers and they do not always reflect God’s truth. They honestly mirror man’s viewpoint, and we need to understand these passages in the light of their context. In this paragraph the psalmist, having been impressed by his close relationship to God, now, naturally, comes to the place where he asks God for something. That is also what we do. When we are aware of being near to God, being dear to him, we tend to ask God for something. That is what this man does.
He asks for two things:
First, he asks God to take care of the problem of the wicked. His suggested manner of handling it is rather naive. He says, “Lord, wipe them out,” as though such a simple remedy for human ills had never occurred to the Almighty. “Lord, wipe them out, that’s all. That will take care of them.” Have you ever felt that way? I remember hearing of Mel Trotter, the famous American evangelist, who said, “There are a lot of people I know who are wonderful people. They’re going to go to heaven some day, and, oh, how I wish they’d hurry up.” We have all felt that way, have we not? One of the refreshing things about these psalms is the honesty they reflect.
There are several things we need to note about this: For one thing, this psalmist’s request falls short even of the Old Testament standard. It is the Old Testament that first says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” (Leviticus 19:18 KJV). The New Testament and the Old Testament are not opposed to one another in this matter of moral standards, not in the least. But this man has not yet learned this. In his honesty, he says “Lord, it seems to me the easiest way for you to handle this problem of evil would be to slay the wicked. Why don’t you do that?”
Notice he does not say, “Why don’t you let me do it?” He recognizes that vengeance belongs to God and that if anybody is going to do it, and do it right, God alone must do it. So he is not saying, “Lord, let me handle this.” That is what many are saying today: “Lord, I’ll wipe out the wicked; just turn them over to me. I’ll take care of them.” But this man does not say that; he is saying, “Lord, it’s your problem; why don’t you do it?”
We can understand why he is so upset by this, because Verse 20 points out he is not concerned about what the wicked do to him but what they do to God. “They maliciously defy thee.” In the Hebrew it is even clearer. Literally he is saying, “They speak of thee for wickedness,” that is, “they use your name to carry out their evil designs.” In effect, he says, “they take thy name in vain for evil.” In other words, these are religious hypocrites, and there is nothing more disgusting than religious hypocrites. The sharpest words Jesus ever spoke were against the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were using God’s name for evil.
Here is the case of a man who has felt the hatred of God against sin, but not yet the love of God for the sinner. That is why, I think, he concludes with these words:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalms 139:23-24 RSV)
Is he not saying, “Lord, I don’t understand this problem of evil. It appears to me the easiest way is for you to eliminate the evil man. But Lord, I also know that I don’t think very clearly, and I don’t often have the right answer. There can easily be in me a way of grief (that is literally what ‘wicked’ means). I have often found, Lord, that my thoughts are not right. So, Lord, in case I don’t have the right remedy for this problem, let me add this prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! See if there be any way of grief in me, and lead me in the truth, the way that leads to everlasting life!”
What a wonderful prayer. How often we should pray like this! “Lord, I don’t understand what’s going on around me, and my solutions may be quite inferior — may even be wrong. But, Lord, I’ll trust you to lead me. Reveal the wickedness that may lie undetected in my own heart, and guide me in the way that leads to fullness of life.”
Father, we thank you for this revelation of the humanity of these men of old, and how it fits our own situation today. How desperately we need to be led through the complexities of our age. Help us not to settle for simple yet wrong solutions but to be willing to let you work out your own purposes, knowing that you have taken all the factors into consideration for you know us so intimately. We thank you in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Rev. Julius Izza Tabi the founder of New Dawn Ministries is a Lecturer at Uganda Christian University Arua Campus.