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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 139

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This writer’s love of this psalm is enhanced by his remembrance of the frequent reading of it in the chapel services of Abilene Christian College by Dean Henry Eli Speck in the years of 1923-1924.

Scholars have exhausted their vocabularies extolling the glory and greatness of Psalms 139. “This poem is not only one of the chief glories of the Psalter, but in its religious insight and devotional warmth, it is conspicuous among the great passages of the Old Testament.”(F1)

Regarding the authorship, it is ascribed to David in the superscription, and as Barnes bluntly stated it, “There is no reason to doubt it.”(F2) Counting the Aramaisms is a favorite device of critics, but as Kidner said, “Aramaic influence is no proof of late dating.”(F3)

This writer has lost patience with the type of thinking that seems to count the contradiction of something in the Bible, even if it is only a superscription, as some kind of a climax in human intelligence! The following quotation from Charles Haddon Spurgeon expresses perfectly our own views on this question:

“Of course, the critics take this composition away from David on account of certain Aramaic expressions in it, but, upon the principles of criticism now in vogue, it would be extremely easy to prove that John Milton did not write Paradise Lost. Knowing to what wild inferences the critics have run in other matters, we have lost nearly all faith in them. We prefer to believe that David is the author of this Psalm from internal evidences of style and matter, rather than to accept the opinions of men whose modes of judgment are manifestly unreliable.”(F4)

As John Jebb stated it, “I cannot understand how any critic could assign this psalm to any other than David. Every line, every thought, every turn of expression and transition is his, and his only.”(F5)

The paragraphing of the psalm is quite simple. It falls into four strophes or stanzas of six verses each.(F6)

In Maclaren’s paragraphing, he assigned “omniscience” to Psalms 139:1-6, and “omnipresence” to Psalms 139:7-12, and Rawlinson assigned the word “omnipotence” to Psalms 139:13-18.(F7) Strangely enough, none of these four-syllable words appears in the versions! One great beauty of the psalm is the simplicity of the language.

Verses 1-6


“O Jehovah, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine uprising; Thou understandest my thoughts afar off. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, And art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, But, lo, Jehovah, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, And laid thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain unto it.”

“And laid thy hand upon me” There is something very personal to this writer in this line. He suffered from spinal stenosis, unable to walk a step, and within a few months, following all kinds of “remedies,” his normal health returned. Dr. Deane Cline, a very distinguished Houston physician, was asked, “What do I tell people who inquire as to what helped me to get well.?” He pointed heavenward and said, “My medical opinion is that the Great Physician above laid his hand upon you.” The tears of gratitude to God from this writer water the page as he writes this. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

“Too wonderful for me” When what is written here is understood of merely a single individual, it is “wonderful,” but when it is multiplied by all of the individuals who ever lived on earth or who may yet live upon it, the immensity of this “wonder” is astronomically increased, surpassing all the laws of geometrical progression. There is an infinity of knowledge here that denies any human ability to comprehend it.

Verses 7-12


“Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: ff I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, And thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall overwhelm me. And the light about me shall be night; Even the darkness hideth not from thee, But the night shineth as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

“Whither shall I flee from thy presence” This line is parallel to the preceding one, the thought in both being, “How can one hide from God? He is everywhere!” In an old fashioned, one-teacher schoolhouse, an atheistic teacher wrote on the blackboard


Whereupon a sixth-grade girl walked up to the blackboard and gave the inscription this treatment


and as she sat down, she said, “Teacher you forgot to put in the space”! The astounded teacher made no further remarks.

Attempting to hide from God has been the chief business of the human family ever since Adam and Eve hid themselves in the Garden of Eden! Think of the myriads of ways in which men try to hide from God. They forsake all attendance of religious services. They become alcoholics, workaholics, dope addicts, or assume any lifestyle available in which they may hope to hide from the “all-seeing” eyes of God. What a vain and futile exercise of human folly! People cannot hide from God!

The omnipresence of God was the basis of the remarkable exhibition which the Moody Bible Institute displayed at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The exhibition stressed an amazing deduction from this element in the character of God.

Since God is everywhere simultaneously, He is still seeing everything that has ever happened in the whole universe! Just as people can see the light of the constellation Andromeda which began its journey to earth two million light years ago, God’s presence as an observer is not limited either by time or space. His presence is eternal regarding all events, past, present and future!

“In Sheol… behold, thou art there” This teaches that death itself cannot hide people from the knowledge and ultimate judgment of God. “The psalmist is aware of God’s presence even in Sheol.”(F8)

“The wings of the morning… the uttermost parts of the sea” The opposites mentioned here are the east and the west, symbolized by “the wings of the morning,” and “the uttermost parts of the sea,” the latter being a reference to the far western end of the Mediterranean. These are some of the most beautiful lines in the literature of the whole human family. True to the antagonist spirit of criticism, some interpreters allege that this image is borrowed from ancient mythology which describes the goddess of the dawn riding forth on the “wings of the morning.” This writer has read extensively the mythology of Greece and Rome but cannot remember any such myth. Helios did not ride “the wings of the morning” but “a chariot.” In case there actually existed some such terminology in ancient mythology, which we seriously doubt, “There is no reason to assume that the psalmist here accepted any such mythological notions.”(F9)

“Thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” The bringing together in this verse, of God’s `hand’ and his `right hand’ is an undeniable earmark of David’s authorship, as is the case in the preceding Psalms 138:7. AS Jebb said, there are a dozen such earmarks in this psalm.

“The darkness shall overwhelm me” The marginal reading here is “cover me” for the last two words. Despite the fact that darkness cannot hide from God, wicked men still prefer the nighttime for their deeds of criminality. The New Testament takes note of this in such terms as “the works of darkness” (Romans 13:12; Ephesians 5:11).

Verses 13-18


“For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. My frame was not hidden from thee, When I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance; And in thy book were they all written, Even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: When I awake, I am still with thee.”

“Thou didst form… me… in my mother’s womb” In this division, “The psalmist praises the miracle of conception and birth as a marvelous work of the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God.”(F10)

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” There is no more wonderful work of God in the whole universe than a human being. Each human body has trillions of cells falling into some five classifications, and recent research into the mysteries of the DNA, the effective element in conception, has added almost incredible dimensions to the wonder which men already had identified, but which is a million times more wonderful than anyone ever dreamed it was until recent discoveries by such noted medical doctors as Dr. Elton Stubblefield, a director of such research at the M. D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.

He recently declared in a public address that each cell (and, remember there are trillions of them) at the moment of conception is supplied with a library of one quarter of a million words commanding that cell exactly how many times to multiply, and when to die. That is the reason one’s nose is not as long as that of an elephant! In view of this knwoledge, and it is only beginning to be unraveled and deciphered, one must admit that the words that stand at the head of these two paragraphs in Psalms 139:14 are the greatest understatement on earth.

“The lowest parts of the earth” “depths of the earth” in the RSV. “This is an idiom for the darkness of the womb and does not carry any mythological implications.”(F11) Kidner agreed with this, writing that, “`Depths of the earth’ is a metaphor for the deepest concealment, i.e., in the hiddenness of the womb. Psalms 139:15 b here is connected closely in thought with Psalms 139:13 b where we have `knit together.’ Here the words `curiously’ or `intricately wrought’, take the image a bit further, suggesting the complex patterns and colors of the weaver or the embroiderer.”(F12)

“In thy book they were written… even the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was none of them” This should be read in connection with the statement of Dr. Stubblefield quoted under Psalms 139:14. Another pertinent reference is that of Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment.” There is nothing accidental about man’s mortality. If it depended merely upon chance, now and then, there would be someone to live a thousand years, but it is not a matter of “chance” at all. It is the ordained will of God for men to die.

“This passage declares that the psalmist’s days were preordained by God and visible to Him long before they had actual existence.”(F13)

Miller’s warning against any unscriptural view of rigid fatalism falsely based upon these words should be noted. “Any such view that robs man of his personal responsibility is biblically untenable.”(F14)

Concerning the foreknowledge of God, it has the same relationship to human events that the knowledge of them after those events has. Thus, a man’s knowledge of “what happened yesterday” is in no way related to those events as cause. In the same way God’s knowledge of “what will happen tomorrow” is unrelated to those events as cause.

“How precious thy thoughts… unto me” “David moves on in this verse from contemplating the nakedness of his own thoughts before God to the consideration of God’s innumerable thoughts toward him.”(F15) It should be noted here that Kidner discerned the Davidic authorship of the psalm.

“More in number than the sand” Read this verse in the light of the cellular statistics of a human body under Psalms 139:14, above. Multiply 7,000,000,000,000 cells (the estimated number in a single human body) times 250,000 words for each cell.

Verses 19-24


“Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God,: Depart from me therefore, ye bloodthirsty men. For they speak against thee wickedly, And thine enemies take thy name in vain. Do not I hate them, O Jehovah, that hate thee? And am I not grieved at those who rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: They are become mine enemies. 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.”

“And thine enemies take thy name in vain” What an indictment this is against the world’s profane swearers! It would be a shock to most of those indulging in profanity to contemplate the awful implications of this verse.

This final division of the psalm is essentially a prayer; and as Maclaren noted, the awareness of the unfathomable character of God as revealed in the first three paragraphs of the psalm make this sudden, abrupt change to prayer quite, “Natural.”(F16)

“Search me, O God, and know my heart” David’s plea here is that God may deliver him from the danger of committing sins which are unknown to him, sinful deeds which to the psalmist might not appear as sins, i.e., “secret sin,” meaning not sins that he would hide from men, but sin of which he himself is unaware. The truth must be that all people are guilty of this type of sin.

“And lead me in the way everlasting” James Moffatt’s translation of the Bible (1929) gives the true meaning of this passage in his translation, “Do thou lead me on the lines of life eternal.” Here is the answer to the question of whether or not the Old Testament saints believed in life after death. Of course, they did! That Moffatt’s translation here is correct is corroborated by Delitzsch’s comment that, “The `everlasting way’ is the way of God (Psalms 27:11), the way of the righteous, which stands fast forever and shall not perish.”(F17)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 139". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-139.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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