“For Christmas one year we bought our children what was called, ‘Ant City.’ This consisted of clear plastic plates on either side, filled with sand and ants. From our vantage point outside and above, we could see what these busy little creatures were doing underground. We watched as they tunneled their way underground, leaving a maze of trails. In a similar fashion, God scrutinizes our paths. From where we are, tunneling along, all we see is the sand immediately ahead, behind and beside us. But from His vantage point, He can see exactly where we’ve been and precisely where we’re going.” (“The Mystery of God’s Will” by Chuck Swindoll)
New Years is usually the time when we stop to take a look at the paths and tunnels we have been digging over the previous year and look forward to what we’ll be doing in the next. We examine our lives, looking back on our journey, and see places we wished we could have gone to and some that we know we shouldn’t have. And maybe you’re feeling like it’s time to make some adjustments. Maybe even throw out the Biblical phrase “back on ‘the straight and narrow”.
Today I want to look at Psalm 139 which is all about the God who knows everything; the God who carved the “straight and narrow path”. The God who shows it to us, writes it in our hearts, and then gives us the freedom of choice to walk it or not.
Some, will be encouraged by this psalm, while others are going to be angered by it. Some people are drawn to worship, while others are disturbed. Some find peace, protection and comfort in it, while others feel a sense of foreboding paranoia in which they find no comfort, but feel exposed, spied on, intruded upon by a malevolent force, which they reject.
This psalm is divided into six different sections. Each section has a different emphasis, supporting and expanding the rest of the whole, culminating in the final passage at the end of the journey.
God Only Knows
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139:1-6)
Verses 1 to 6 begin, first and foremost, with a declaration of truth. There is nothing in this first part that speaks to why God is watching, only that He does. Words like, “know, search, perceive, discern, familiar with, know completely, hem me in”, and even verse six where the knowledge is called, “too wonderful” and “unattainable”, describe the depth of the knowledge God has about us, not the reason or motive for having that knowledge. The whole concept at the beginning of this psalm is about how absolutely and ultimately God knows us.
God, sees much more than we do. Sure, we have a sense of intuition that goes a little beyond the physical, but anyone who has been lied to knows how limited our powers of perception are.
God’s knowledge is absolute. The Hebrew word for “KNOW” used in this section is a common word that is found in the Bible about 1000 times, it’s the Hebrew word YADA.
YADA and is the word that is used for many different types of “knowledge” in many different contexts. It’s used for merely seeing something, but also for having an intimate knowledge of something or someone – Adam yada’d Eve. It is used to describe when someone knows something well enough to take care of it, who has examined it very closely, like scientific research. It is used when someone understands something or even experiences something. It’s used of people who have experienced the presence of God.
When used of God, YADA encompasses all of these, speaking of a special kind of knowledge that we could call complete, divine discernment. God knows us intimately, scientifically, experientially, completely.
Take a look at verse 2-3. He knows when we sit and rise (where we go and what we do), our thoughts (our motives), the path we are living on (our past and future) and where we will lie down (when or where we will die). That’s a lot of knowledge!
Two Reactions: Peace or Paranoia
Now, here’s my point for this section: the depth of this knowledge, as I said before, will give you one of two reactions. It will either give you comfort, or make you paranoid.
Consider for a moment the concept the psalmist uses when he says he is “hemmed in” in verse 5. Some people find comfort in this. They are safe, taken care of, given boundaries, protected – to them, God’s knowledge feels like the guardrail keeping them from falling into the Grand Canyon.
Others will read this exact same phrase and feel great discomfort. They feel trapped, walled in, as though their freedom has been taken away. How dare God want to “hem me in”! How dare He “lay His hand upon me”! It’s like almost like a psychological test.
So, the first question I have for you, and the answer to this question will help you understand your relationship with God: What is happening inside you when you read verses 1-6 – that God knows you so intimately, has set up walls for your life, and is scrutinizing every step you take along your path? You reaction will really affect how you read the next section.
Nowhere to Hide
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 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, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:7-12)
There are two very different ways to read and understand this part. It’s like when a psychiatrists hold up the inkblots and asks to see what you perceive in them. It is supposed to tell them about what is going on in your subconscious mind. So, the question is, what is going on in your mind when you read this?
Is the author trying to flee and hide himself from God? When you read “Where can I go from your Spirit?”, or “no matter how high I go or how deep I go, You are there!” Verse 9 is a poetic way of saying, “no matter how far East I go” (“the wings of the dawn” where the sun rises), or how far West I go (“the far side of the sea”, which is the Mediterranean that bordered the land to the West), even there I will find Your hand holding me.” Verse 11 gives another extreme. “If I find the darkest place in the world, and crawl inside, I will be found there too.”
How does it strike you? Is the psalmist trying to hide from the God who knows him too well? Is he seeking some place where he can ‘be himself’ and do what he wants away from the prying eyes of the Almighty?
OR, is he marvelling at how closely God is involved in his life? Is he thankful for how well he is known; that no matter how high, low, near, far, light or dark his life gets, God will always be with him, fully aware of his situation? Is this a dangerous, embarrassing exposure that he must escape from, or the assurance of a safe refuge from anything this life may bring? The answer to this question will tell you a lot about how you see God, the Church, the Bible, and even yourself.
Designed with Care
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 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, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-16)
Verse 13 is a wonderful verse, and one of my favourite in the whole Bible. It begins to show the motive that we were lacking in the first sections. It shows a relationship between the knower and the knowee.
Up until this point there has been a kind of detachment in the knowledge… an almost surgical understanding, a distance between God and the human He’s observing. God is there, He knows, He sees, but He has yet to do anything. Now the picture changes completely. Verses 13 to 16 move from detached study to an intimate and personal interaction, from studying to experiencing.
As they say… “it’s one thing to read the book, but it’s another thing to actually get your hands dirty.” Medical school is great, but who would trust a doctor that has only studied the books, but has never seen a patient? Who would acknowledge someone as an expert in art that had never picked up a paintbrush? How can you practice or teach law well if you have never been in a courtroom? Can you call yourself an expert chef if you’ve only memorized all of the recipes, vocabulary and conversion table, have even supervised other chefs, but have never actually cooked anything yourself? Of course not.
The language here conveys that, even in the womb God is designing, knitting, and forming not only our physical features, but our passions as well! The words, “inmost being” are actually the single Hebrew word for KIDNEY. It says, “You formed my kidneys.” I’m sure that helps you understand this passage a great deal.
Hebrew culture saw and spoke of the kidneys in much the same way our western culture speaks of the heart. It is considered to be the center of a person’s emotions, passions and morality. When we say that a person has a “big heart”, we aren’t talking about the internal organ, but that the person seems to have a lot of love to share. I’m guessing that an ancient Hebrew would have said that a loving person had “big kidneys.”
Twins, who are identical in appearance can be remarkably different. One likes music, the other science. One is an adventurer, the other an introvert? That’s because God doesn’t just stir the DNA soup that makes up a person, but designs their personality and interests too!
Verse 16 tells us why God does that. It’s because you and I are made for a purpose. These different characteristics make us so that we can serve God in our own unique way.
The psalm says, “…in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” His “book” (as the passage calls it) has all of the schematics for who we are, how we were made, and what our life is designed to be, and will be. In it is written who you are, and what the potential for your future can be.
Consider for a moment what it means that you are known intimately, designed with care and precision, and were called and equipped for your life before you were born! Are you getting a sense for why David, and those in relationship with God, don’t have a foreboding sense of God’s intimate knowledge, but instead it causes them to worship? And when we open the rest of the Bible and it reveals how we are to live, the best way to relate to others, and shows us that God loves us so much that He was willing to save us from ourselves, by the work of Jesus Christ… can you see why we worship here this morning?
Pause to Praise
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.” (Psalm 139:17-18)
David, the author of the psalm, is overcome with what God is sharing with Him and in verses 17 and 18 he just breaks out into worship. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer volume, the loftiness, the vastness of the knowledge that God has about him — the care that has been taken in the planning of His life. He is stunned by the God who would take the time to design him to be him! The perfect Creator who designed the most wonderful things in the world, also designed him.
It reminds me of a great song I heard by David Crowder called “Everything Glorious”. In it he looks around at all the beautiful things he’s seen and then says, “From glory to glory, You are glorious, You are glorious, Which leads me to believe, You make everything glorious, And I am Yours… so what does that make me?”
He’s echoing Psalm 139 there. God is glorious. God makes beautiful things. And all that God makes is glorious and beautiful – so what does that make you and me?
God has a vast sum of plans, and designs for each of us, unique and special. The one who designed the sun, moon, planets, stars, oceans and land, took the time to create every part of who you and I are, and watches over you with great care every day!
Consider how different you would be if you knew that you were chosen to be trained and destined for a grand purpose, perfectly suited for you, and whose work would have eternal significance. How would that change how you see yourself? How would that change how you saw God? It feels pretty good to know you are unique, gifted, important, significant, and special –your great deeds have been anticipated by the host of heaven! It’s true!
One reason we praise God is because He is the One who chose and designed us, and watches over us every moment of every day!
“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19-22)
The next verses, 19-22 give the other, natural reaction we should have to this knowledge – on one side is praise, but on the other is something understandably unpopular among us polite Canadians. Along with the response of worship, where we see God as the One who knows us intimately and designs us for a purpose, are verses 19-22 which show frustration and anger against all of those people who despise and reject their God-given potential, even insulting the One who created them with such care and precision.
This is anger against the enemies of God who refuse to acknowledge who God is, who they are because of God, and actively work against Him. David finds such comfort and encouragement in his Creator, but sees no purpose for God keeping all these wicked people around. He distances himself from them, loathes them, and even asks God to just kill them off! They are not living out their God given purpose, and are harming those who are. God has given these evil people amazing gifts – life, skills, happiness, resources, time, families, even power and wealth – but they selfishly keep it all for themselves, put their faith in it, and then use it to work against God’s plan! They worship idols and profaning their Creator’s name!
How can God keep these people around?
In verse 19 David is jealous with impatience: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!” He’s angry at the wicked, but he also seems to be frustrated with God’s patience toward them. He is frustrated with the prideful, selfish, wilful, evil people in the world, but notice that He’s not taking the situation into his own hands. No, He’s leaving the ultimate decision of what should happen with them to God. He is not worthy to deal out punishment, only God is.
It’s God’s choice (and thank God it is) to be patient, to keep knocking on the doors of their hearts, and to continuously pursue them with His amazing grace. To send another prophet, another message, another conviction to their heart, another blessing to show His love for them, another punishment to show the consequence of their sin. God is actively involved in trying to change all of them. Though, most refuse to listen.
David’s words here are actually a traditional Near Eastern pledge that kings would require of their new servants as they came under their authority. King David is pledging himself to be a servant of a higher King. They would come into the presence of the king and say, “With my friend you shall be friend, and with my enemy you shall be enemy.”
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24)
David’s pledge of loyalty goes even deeper here in the climax of the psalm as he says, “Lord, I have committed myself to you. I trust you, you are my Creator. I have looked at your enemies and made them my own, but I have also looked inside myself. I know my own wandering heart, and I know my allegiance. And so God, I invite you to test the integrity of my devotion. Look deep into my being, find anything that separates me from you, keep me true, and lead me down the path that you choose.”
What is most interesting, and unique about this last part, is that it is an invitation. The first part of this psalm is a declaration of God’s absolute knowledge of Him, this is an invitation to make the examination. Remember I talked about how the knowledge of God is going to give you one of two reactions: Paranoia or Peace? This is the reaction of a Christian.
God knows all this stuff anyway, but it an amazingly humble thing to invite God to scrutinize your soul! David says, “search me, know me, test me, check my thoughts, see if my motivations and actions are pure.”
It is no light thing to ask God to do this. The implication of this invitation is that David is looking to see how he can respond accordingly. “What if I’m NOT pure? What if I’m not on the right path? What if I am grieving the one I’m pledged to? What if my thoughts are a mess? Then God, correct me, teach me and lead me the right direction! Get me off the path of destruction I’ve chosen for myself and send me down the right path.”
This is the right response to God’s complete knowledge, His status as your Creator, and the knowledge that you cannot escape His judgement: to ask forgiveness, submit to His authority, and trust Him with your life. It require the humility of admitting that the path you have chosen is the wrong one, and that His is the right one… in other words… repentance.
This admission is quite difficult for many people. Admit that the tunnel we are digging and the path we are on is wrong, that it ends in destruction is too much for our pride to take. Yet scripture says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
To choose to follow God’s leadership and His “way” instead of our own requires submission of our wills and the admission that His way is the only one that leads to life. The psalmist admits he’s wrong and submits his will to God’s correction and direction.
My hope is that sometime over this New Year’s celebration you will take this journey through Psalm 139 yourself. Find some quiet time and go through these six sections with God. Acknowledge that God already knows you. Discover the God that you cannot escape. Be drawn you into both fear and worship. Learn that He designed you with love and purpose and praise God for it! Start hating what God hates, and let it motivate you to tell the story of Jesus’ salvation to this world. And humble yourself and give your whole being to Jesus to scrutinize and examine, that He may He lead you on the path of salvation.