Psalm 139 – Praise and Prayer to the God Who Knows All and Is Everywhere
This magnificent psalm is titled For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. It does not surprise us that such a significant psalm came from David’s pen, who was “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1). The Chief Musician is thought by some to be the LORD God Himself, and others suppose him to be a leader of choirs or musicians in David’s time, such as Heman the singer or Asaph (1 Chronicles 6:33, 16:4-7, and 25:6).
“Let the modern wits, after this, look upon the honest shepherds of Palestine as a company of rude and unpolished clowns; let them, if they can, produce from profane authors thoughts that are more sublime, more delicate, or better turned; not to mention the sound divinity and solid piety which are apparent under these expressions.” (Claude Fleury, cited in Charles Spurgeon)
A. The greatness of God touches my life.
1. (1-6) The all-knowing God knows me.
O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
You have hedged me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.
a. You have searched me and known me: David prayed to Yahweh, understanding that He had personal knowledge of him. Pagans often thought that their gods were hostile or indifferent to men and women; David knew that the true God cared enough to have searched and known each man and woman.
· It’s not just that God knows everything – He knows me.
· It’s not just that God is everywhere – He is everywhere with me.
· It’s not just that God created everything – He created me.
i. “Any small thoughts that we may have of God are magnificently transcended by this psalm; yet for all its height and depth it remains intensely personal from first to last.” (Kidner)
ii. “All my postures, gestures, practices…whether I sit, stand, walk, lie; thou searchest and knowest all. Some search, but know not; thou dost both.” (Trapp)
b. You know my sitting down and my rising up: David used this proverbial phrase to say that God knew everything about him, even the most everyday things. As Jesus would later say, God knows the number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30).
i. “Even these inconsiderable and casual things are under thy continual notice. I cannot so much as take a seat, or leave it, without being marked by thee.” (Clarke)
ii. VanGemeren points out that when looking You know (verse 2) and You covered (verse 13) in the Hebrew grammar, the emphasis is on You. “This section continues the emphasis on divine involvement by an emphatic use of ‘you’.”
c. You understand my thought afar off: God not only knew the smallest aspects of David’s everyday life; He also knew his thoughts. God knows our words before we speak them, and there is nothing of us hidden from the all-knowing God. As David wrote, You are acquainted with all my ways.
i. “Divine knowledge is perfect, since not a single word is unknown, nay, not even an unspoken word, and each one is ‘altogether’ or wholly known.” (Spurgeon)
ii. The fact that God knows every word on my tongue should affect my speech. Those who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ, yet use profanity or impurity of speech, should remember that God hears and knows every word.
d. You have hedged me behind and before: The normal sense of a hedge in the Bible is of a protective barrier. God hedged David on every side, so that nothing could come to David unless it first passed through God’s permission. What was true for David is true for all who trust in the LORD.
i. It can be very uncomfortable to know that you are always being watched. We may get nervous if we see video cameras monitoring us at all times. Yet our unease is based on the fact that we doubt the good intentions or good will of those who watch us. The child is comforted that a loving parent watches over him; when we are confident in the love and care of God our Father, His constant knowledge of us is a comfort rather than a curse.
e. And laid Your hand upon me: As with the hedge, this was an expression of God’s love and care for David. This was not the hand of oppression, but the hand of grace.
i. “This statement of omniscience is characteristically vivid and concrete: not formulated as a doctrine but, as befits a psalm, confessed in adoration. This divine knowledge is not merely comprehensive, like that of some receptor that misses nothing, capturing everything alike. It is personal and active.” (Kidner)
f. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: David understood that God knew him better than he knew himself, a wonderful and humble place to be. We sometimes reject what God and His word say about us and our condition; we should recognize that He knows us better than we know ourselves.
i. Too wonderful for me: “I cannot grasp it. I can hardly endure to think of it. The theme overwhelms me. I am amazed and astounded at it. Such knowledge not only surpasses my comprehension, but even my imagination.” (Spurgeon)
2. (7-12) The all-present God is with me.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
a. Where can I go from Your Spirit: David considered the truth that God is present everywhere, and there is no corner or dimension of the universe hidden from Him. Heaven isn’t too high and hell isn’t too low; God is everywhere.
i. “Here he argueth God’s omniscience from his omnipresence.” (Trapp)
ii. “The psalmist is not trying to evade God, but he further amplifies that God’s knowledge is beyond the ability of humans to grasp. The knowledge or discernment of God can never be limited to any particular place, because God’s sovereignty extends to the whole created universe.” (VanGemeren)
iii. “The Psalmist speaks of God as a Person everywhere present in creation, yet distinct from creation. In these verses he says, ‘Thy spirit…thy presence…thou art there…thy hand…thy right hand…darkness hideth not from thee.’ God is everywhere, but he is not everything.” (Jones, cited in Spurgeon)
b. Your Spirit?…. Your presence? David probably did not have a deep understanding of Trinitarian theology, but by the inspiration of God he spoke of God’s Spirit as an essential aspect of His being and presence.
i. From Your presence: “Mippaneycha, ‘from thy faces.’ Why do we meet with this word so frequently in the plural number, when applied to God? And why have we his Spirit, and his appearances or faces, both here? A Trinitarian would at once say, ‘The plurality of persons in the Godhead is intended;’ and who can prove that he is mistaken?” (Clarke)
ii. “The presence of God’s glory is in heaven; the presence of his power on earth; the presence of his justice in hell; and the presence of his grace with his people.” (Mason, cited in Spurgeon)
c. If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there: David did not describe what we normally think of as hell – Gehenna (Matthew 10:28 and 18:9), the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15). The Hebrew word here is sheol, which normally has the sense of the grave or by implication the afterlife.
i. Though David did not use the specific word for hell, the sense would be the same. Even in hell, God will be present because there is no place where God cannot be. Yet God’s presence in hell will radiate none of His love and grace – only His righteous judgment.
ii. “Heaven is the seat of his glory, creation the scene of his providence, and the grave itself will be the theatre of his power.” (Horne)
iii. “Thou art in heaven, in thy glory; in hell, in thy vindictive justice; and in all parts of earth, water, space, place, or vacuity, by thy omnipresence.” (Clarke)
d. Wings of the morning: This may well refer to the spread and speed of light as it fills the morning sky from the east to the west. Light itself can not outrun God’s presence and knowledge.
i. “Light flies with inconceivable rapidity, and it flashes far afield beyond all human ken; it illuminates the great and wide sea, and sets its waves gleaming afar; but its speed would utterly fail if employed in flying from the Lord.” (Spurgeon)
e. Even there Your hand shall lead me: David was so assured of the constant presence of God’s hand of love and care that not even death and the grave could separate him from God’s love – as Paul would later write in Romans 8:38-39. In fact, God’s right hand – His hand of skill and strength – would hold David no matter what may come.
i. “The piety and charity which are patiently endured in the field, and on the bed of sickness; the misery and torment inflicted by persecution in the mines, the galleys, and the dungeons; all are under the inspection of Jehovah, and are noted down by him against the day of recompense.” (Horne)
f. Even the night shall be light about me: God’s presence with David was like a constant light in the darkness. As the pillar of cloud illuminated Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 13:21), so with God’s presence the night shines as the day.
i. “Darkness may, indeed, conceal us and our deeds from the sight of men; but the divine presence, like that of the sun, turns night into day, and makes all things manifest before God.” (Horne)
ii. “Darkness is light to Him, and has no hiding place from Him.” (Morgan)
3. (13-16) The eternal God formed me.
For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
a. For You formed my inward parts: The God of all knowledge and constant presence had the care and concern to personally form the child in his mother’s womb. It speaks of the fact that God knew David from before his birth, as a child conceived and developing in the womb.
i. That fact that God knows and cares for children in the womb means that God’s concern for life begins at conception. It means that God’s people have a responsibility to also know and care for children in the womb.
ii. Some people argue for the moral right to have an abortion because the mother has the right to do as she pleases with her own body. Psalm 139 demonstrates that God sees another person in the mother’s womb.
b. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: David the son of Jesse was a remarkable man. He was a shepherd, a special forces soldier, a hero, a poet, and a king. In some respects, here he also added scientist to his accomplishments. With the mind of a trained biologist but the skill of a poet, David declared that he was fearfully and wonderfully made.
i. The workings of the human body are stunning in their design and execution. We know far more than David ever did about how we are made, and it should make us full of more awe and praise than David ever had.
ii. “Thy infinite power and wisdom, manifested in the rare and curious structure of man’s body, doth fill me with wonder and astonishment, and with the dread of thy majesty.” (Poole)
iii. “The Psalmist had scarcely peered within the veil which hides the nerves, sinews, and blood-vessels from common inspection; the science of anatomy was quite unknown to him; and yet he had seen enough to arouse his admiration of the work and his reverence for the Worker.” (Spurgeon)
iv. “The greatest miracle in the world is man; in whose very body (how much more in his soul!) are miracles enough (between head and feet) to fill a volume.” (Trapp)
v. “If we are marvelously wrought upon even before we are born, what shall we say of the Lord’s dealings with us after we quit his secret workshop, and he directs our pathway through the pilgrimage of life? What shall we not say of that new birth which is even more mysterious than the first, and exhibits even more the love and wisdom of the Lord.” (Spurgeon)
c. And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth: Here David used the phrase lowest parts of the earth to refer to any mysterious, unseen place. The process of a baby’s formation in a mother’s womb has always been as unseen and mysterious as that which happens in the lowest parts of the earth.
i. Skillfully wrought: “Hebrew embroidered; exquisitely composed of bones, and muscles, and sinews, and veins, and arteries, and other parts, all framed with such wonderful skill, that even heathens, upon the contemplation of all the parts of man’s body, and how excellently they were framed, both for beauty and use, have broken forth into pangs of admiration and adoration of the Creator of man.” (Poole)
ii. The work of God in fashioning the body of the individual has made some people wonder about the presence of birth defects, and what that may mean regarding God’s work. We should regard such birth defects as injuries to God’s original design, and even as a person may be injured out of the womb, so they can be injured while still in the womb and in the process of formation. Such injuries are the result of the fall and the corruption it introduced into the world, yet still the eye of faith can see the hand of God at work in what defects or injuries He would allow in His providence.
iii. The lowest parts of the earth: “The mysterious receptacle in which the unborn body takes shape and grows is delicately described as ‘secret’ and likened to the hidden region of the underworld, where are the dead. The point of comparison is the mystery enwrapping both.” (Maclaren)
iv. “Much of the formation of our inner man still proceeds in secret; hence the more of solitude the better for us.” (Spurgeon)
d. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed: What David (and others) could not see, God could see perfectly. This is another demonstration of his perfect knowledge and care.
i. The Puritan commentator John Trapp had a strange statement on the phrase was not hidden: “Aquinas saith that at the resurrection the bodies of the saints shall be so clear and transparent that all the veins, humours, nerves, and bowels shall be seen, as in a glass. It is sure that they are so to God when first formed in the womb.”
e. In Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me: God’s perfect knowledge did not only extend to the past, before David was born. It also extended to the future, and God knew David’s days as if they had been written in a book.
i. “The Lord’s writing in the book (cf. Psalm 51:1; Psalm 69:28) refers to God’s knowledge and blessing of his child ‘all the days’ of his life (cf. Ephesians 2:10). His life was written in the book of life, and each of his days was numbered.” (VanGemeren)
B. Our response to the greatness of God.
1. (17-18) The precious nature of God’s thoughts to me.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand;
When I awake, I am still with You.
a. How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God: David was filled with amazement and adoration by considering how God knew and cared for him. It is precious that God should think of us at all; it is beyond precious that He would think well of us and think so often of us.
i. How precious: “The root meaning of the word rendered ‘precious’ is weighty. The singer would weigh God’s thoughts towards him, and finds that they weigh down his scales.” (Maclaren)
ii. “He is not alarmed at the fact that God knows all about him; on the contrary, he is comforted, and even feels himself to be enriched, as with a casket of precious jewels. That God should think upon him is the believer’s treasure and pleasure.” (Spurgeon)
b. If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand: David used a powerful image to illustrate the idea of how often God thinks of us. We imagine standing on a shore and wondering just how many grains of sand fill the beach – yet God’s thoughts are more in number.
i. “Thoughts such as are natural to the Creator, the Preserver, the Redeemer, the Father, the Friend, are evermore flowing from the heart of the Lord. Thoughts of our pardon, renewal, upholding, supplying, educating, perfecting, and a thousand more kinds perpetually well up in the mind of the Most High.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “You know that people are very proud if a king has merely looked at them; I have heard of a man who used to boast, all his life, that King George IV. – such a beauty as he was! – once spoke to him. He only said, ‘Get out of the road;’ but it was a king who said it, so the man felt greatly gratified thereby. But you and I, beloved, can rejoice that God, before whom kings are as grasshoppers, actually thinks of us, and thinks of us often.” (Spurgeon)
c. When I awake, I am still with You: Day or night, David thought of God because he knew the greatness of God’s thoughts to him. At the waking of the day, the wonderful presence of God was still with him.
i. “He awakes from sleep, and is conscious of glad wonder to find that, like a tender mother by her slumbering child, God has been watching over him, and that all the blessed communion of past days abides as before.” (Maclaren)
ii. The thoughts about the greatness of God’s love “…are like a dream; but, unlike a dream, God’s love is real. When awake the psalmist knows that he still enjoys God’s presence.” (VanGemeren)
iii. “When I awake may therefore have its strongest sense, a glimpse of resurrection.” (Kidner)
2. (19-22) Longing for righteousness and justice.
Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God!
Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men.
For they speak against You wickedly;
Your enemies take Your name in vain.
Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
a. Oh, that You would slay the wicked: David abruptly shifted from a spirit of wonder and adoration to intense prayer against the wicked and against bloodthirsty men. It wasn’t primarily because these men opposed David, but because they opposed God: for they speak against You wickedly. David’s adoration filled him with zeal for God’s honor.
i. “The abrupt change in the psalm from reverie to resolve is disturbing, but wholly biblical in its realism.” (Kidner)
ii. “Crimes committed before the face of the Judge are not likely to go unpunished…. God who sees all evil will slay all evil.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “A faithful servant hath the same interests, the same friends, the same enemies with his Master, whose cause and honor he is, upon all occasions, in duty bound to support and maintain.” (Horne)
b. Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? David was undeniably God’s partisan. He wanted to be on God’s side, and therefore even allowed himself to hate those who hated God. In fact, David boasted I hate them with perfect hatred, regarding them as enemies.
i. David went against a spirit also evident in our day – against the idea that we can love God without hating evil. It is entirely possible for a person to be too loving, and it corrupts his claimed love for God.
ii. “A good man hates, as God himself doth: he hates not the persons of men, but their sins; not what God made them, but what they have made themselves.” (Horne)
iii. “We are neither to hate the men, on account of the vices they practice; nor to love the vices, for the sake of the men who practice them.” (Horne)
3. (23-24) A humble prayer to a great God.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
a. Search me, O God, and know my heart: David came to the God of perfect knowledge and constant presence knowing He was also a God of love, and could be trusted to search him and to know him at the deepest levels. This is also an admission that God knew David better than David knew himself, and that he needed God to search and know him.
i. David took his theological understanding of God’s nature and attributes and applied it to his own personal discipleship. The nature and attributes of God were not mere theories; they were guides to David’s spiritual growth.
ii. David knew that he could not know his heart at its depths, so he asked God to know it. “The ultimate word of Greek philosophy, ‘Man, know thyself,’ was really valuable because it brought man face to face with the impossible.” (Morgan)
iii. “Very beautifully does the lowly prayer for searching and guidance follow the psalmist’s burst of fire. It is easier to glow with indignation against evildoers than to keep oneself from doing evil. Many secret sins may hide under a cloak of zeal for the Lord.” (Maclaren)
iv. “The rejection of evil arises from the psalmist’s spirit of commitment to the Lord and not from pride. This is clear from his prayer, asking for God to discern his motives and his actions.” (VanGemeren)
v. “I call upon you to be cautious in using this prayer. It is easy to mock God, by asking him to search you whilst you have made but little effort to search yourselves, and perhaps still less to act upon the result of the scrutiny.” (Melvill, cited in Spurgeon)
b. Try me, and know my anxieties: David wanted God to examine him and look for worry. Such anxieties could be evidence of unbelief or misplaced trust.
c. See if there is any wicked way in me: David opened his soul completely before God, asking if there were any unknown or unperceived sins. This showed how much he cared for holiness in his life, and how humble he was in recognizing that there could be an unperceived wicked way in himself.
i. When prayed sincerely, this is something of a dangerous prayer – worthy, yet dangerous. “It is a serious thing to pray, because it invites painful exposures and surgery, if we truly mean it. Still it is what every wise believer should desire.” (Boice)
ii. “The [King James Version] says ‘wicked way’; but the [Revised Version] margin gives ‘way of grief.’ We may be in a way that causes God grief, even though it is not what men might term a way of wickedness.” (Meyer)
d. Lead me in the way everlasting: David ended this majestic psalm by declaring his destination – the way everlasting. Trusting the God of complete knowledge and constant presence would bring David to everlasting life. The way of holiness prayed for in the previous lines was the way everlasting.
i. “We have been going in ways of grief. We desire to go in the way everlasting – the way of eternal life; the way which we shall never need to retrace; the way that touches the deepest life possible to the creature.” (Meyer)
ii. “The final words could be translated ‘the ancient way’ as in Jeremiah 6:16 (cf. Revised Standard Version mg., New English Bible); but the majority of translators would appear to be right in rendering them the way everlasting, in contrast to the way of the wicked which will perish.” (Kidner)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org