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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 139

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-24

Psalms 139:1-24

THIS is the noblest utterance in the Psalter of pure contemplative theism, animated and not crushed by the thought of God’s omniscience and omnipresence. No less striking than the unequalled force and sublimity with which the psalm hymns the majestic attributes of an all-filling, all-knowing, all-creating God, is the firmness with which the singer’s personal relation to that God is grasped. Only in the last verses is there reference to other men. In the earlier parts of the psalm, there are but two beings in the universe-God and the psalmist. With impressive reiteration, God’s attributes are gazed on in their bearing on him. Not mere omniscience, but a knowledge which knows him altogether, not mere omnipresence, but a presence which he can nowhere escape, not mere creative power, but a power which shaped him, fill and thrill the psalmist’s soul. This is no cold theism, but vivid religion. Conscience and the consciousness of individual relation to God penetrate and vitalise the whole. Hence the sudden turn to prayer against evil men and for the singer’s direction in the right way, which closes the hymn, is natural, however abrupt.

The course of thought is plain. There are four strophes of six verses each, -of which the first (Psalms 139:1-6) magnifies God’s omniscience; the second (Psalms 139:7-12), His omnipresence; the third (Psalms 139:13-18), His creative act, as the ground of the preceding attributes; and the fourth (Psalms 139:19-24) recoils from men who rebel against such a God, and joyfully submits to the searching of His omniscient eye, and the guidance of His ever-present hand.

The psalmist is so thoroughly possessed by the thought of his personal relation to God that his meditation spontaneously takes the form of address to Him. That form adds much to the impressiveness, but is no rhetorical or poetic artifice. Rather, it is the shape in which such intense consciousness of God cannot but utter itself. How cold and abstract the awestruck sentences become, if we substitute "He" for "Thou," and "men" for "I" and "me"! The first overwhelming thought of God’s relation to the individual soul is that He completely knows the whole man. "Omniscience" is a pompous word, which leaves us unaffected by either awe or conscience. But the psalmist’s God was a God who came into close touch with him, and the psalmist’s religion translated the powerless generality of an attribute referring to the Divine relation to the universe into a continually exercised power having reference to himself. He utters his reverent consciousness of it in Psalms 139:1 in a single clause, and expands that verse in the succeeding ones. "Thou hast searched me" describes a process of minute investigation; "and known [me]," its result in complete knowledge.

That knowledge is then followed out in various directions, and recognised as embracing the whole man in all his modes of action and repose, in all his inner and outward life. Psalms 139:2 and Psalms 139:3 are substantially parallel. "Down-sitting" and "uprising" correspond to "walking" and "lying down," and both antitheses express the contrast between action and rest. "My thought" in Psalms 139:2 corresponds to "my ways" in Psalms 139:3, -the former referring to the inner life of thought, purpose, and will; the latter to the outward activities which carry these into effect. Psalms 139:3 is a climax to Psalms 139:2, in so far as it ascribes a yet closer and more accurate knowledge to God. "Thou siftest" or winnowest gives a picturesque metaphor for careful and judicial scrutiny which discerns wheat from chaff. "Thou art familiar" implies intimate and habitual knowledge. But thought and action are not the whole man. The power of speech, which the Psalter always treats as solemn and a special object of Divine approval or condemnation, must also be taken into account. Psalms 139:4 brings it, too, under God’s cognisance. The meaning may either be that "There is no word on my tongue [which] Thou dost not know altogether"; or, "The word is not yet on my tongue, [but] lo! Thou knowest," etc. "Before it has shaped itself on the tongue, [much less been launched from it], thou knowest all its secret history" (Kay).

The thought that God knows him through and through blends in the singer’s mind with the other, that God surrounds him on every side. Psalms 139:5 thus anticipates the thought of the next strophe, but presents it rather as the basis of God’s knowledge, and as limiting man’s freedom. But the psalmist does not feel that he is imprisoned, or that the hand laid on him is heavy. Rather, he rejoices in the defence of an encompassing God, who shuts off evil from him, as well as shuts him in from self-willed and self-determined action; and he is glad to be held by a hand so gentle as well as strong. Thou God seest me may either be a dread or a blessed thought. It may paralyse or stimulate. It should be the ally of conscience, and, while it stirs to all noble deeds, should also emancipate from all slavish fear. An exclamation of reverent wonder and confession of the limitation of human comprehension closes the strophe.

Why should the thought that God is ever with the psalmist be put in the shape of vivid pictures of the impossibility of escape from Him? It is the sense of sin which leads men to hide from God, like Adam among the trees of the garden. The psalmist does not desire thus to flee, but he supposes the case, which would be only too common if men realised God’s knowledge of all their ways. He imagines himself reaching the extremities of the universe in vain flight, and stunned by finding God there. The utmost possible height is coupled with the utmost possible depth. Heaven and Sheol equally fail to give refuge from that moveless Face, which confronts the fugitive in both, and fills them as it fills all the intervening dim distances. The dawn flushes the east, and swiftly passes on roseate wings to the farthest bounds of the Mediterranean, which, to the psalmist, represented the extreme west, a land of mystery. In both places and in all the broad lands between, the fugitive would find himself in the grasp of the same hand (compare Psalms 139:5).

Darkness is the friend of fugitives from men; but is transparent to God. In Psalms 139:11 the language is somewhat obscure. The word rendered above "cover" is doubtful, as the Hebrew text reads "bruise," which is quite unsuitable here. Probably there has been textual error, and the slight correction which yields the above sense is to be adopted, as by many moderns. The second clause of the verse carries on the supposition of the first, and is not to be regarded, as in the A.V., as stating the result of the supposition, or, in grammatical language, the apodosis. That begins with Psalms 139:12, and is marked there, as in Psalms 139:10, by "even."

The third strophe (Psalms 139:13-18) grounds the psalmist’s relation to God on God’s creative act. The mysteries of conception and birth naturally struck the imagination of nonscientific man, and are to the psalmist the direct result of Divine power. He touches them with poetic delicacy and devout awe, casting a veil of metaphor over the mystery, and losing sight of human parents in the clear vision of the Divine Creator. There is room for his thought of the origin of the individual life, behind modern knowledge of embryology. In Psalms 139:13 the word rendered in the A.V. "possessed" is better understood in this context as meaning "formed," and that rendered there "covered" {as in Psalms 140:7} here means to plait or weave together, and picturesquely describes the interlacing bones and sinews, as in Job 10:11. But description passes into adoration in Psalms 139:14. Its language is somewhat obscure. The verb rendered "wondrously made" probably means here "selected" or "distinguished," and represents man as the chef d’oeuvre of the Divine Artificer. The psalmist cannot contemplate his own frame, God’s workmanship, without breaking into thanks, nor without being touched with awe. Every man carries in his own body reasons enough for reverent gratitude.

The word for "bones" in Psalms 139:15 is a collective noun, and might be rendered "bony framework." 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. The same comparison occurs in Job’s pathetic words, "Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither." It is doubtful whether the word rendered above "wrought like embroidery" refers to a pattern wrought by weaving or by needlework. In any case, it describes "the variegated colour of the individual members, especially of the viscera" (Delitzsch). The mysteries of antenatal being are still pursued in Psalms 139:16, which is extremely obscure. It is, however, plain that a sets forth the Divine knowledge of man in his first rudiments of corporeity. "My shapeless mass" is one word, meaning anything rolled up in a bundle or ball. But in b it is doubtful what is referred to in "they all." Strictly, the word should point back to something previously mentioned; and hence the A.V. and R.V. suppose that the "shapeless mass" is thought of as resolved into its component parts, and insert "my members"; but it is better to recognise a slight irregularity here, and to refer the word to the "days" immediately spoken of, which existed in the Divine foreknowledge long before they had real objective existence in the actual world. The last clause of the verse is capable of two different meanings, according as the Hebrew text or margin is followed. This is one of a number of cases in which there is a doubt whether we should read "not" or "to him" (or "it"). The Hebrew words having these meanings are each of two letters, the initial one being the same in both, and both words having the same sound. Confusion might easily therefore arise, and as a matter of fact there are numerous cases in which the text has the one and the margin the other of these two words. Here, if we adhere to the text, we read the negative, and then the force of the clause is to declare emphatically that the "days" were written in God’s book, and in a real sense "fashioned," when as yet they had not been recorded in earth’s calendars. If, on the other hand, the marginal reading is preferred, a striking meaning is obtained: "And for it [i.e., for the birth of the shapeless mass] there was one among them [predestined in God’s book]."

In Psalms 139:17-18 the poet gathers together and crowns all his previous contemplations by the consideration that this God, knowing him altogether, ever near him, and Former of his being, has great "thoughts" or purposes affecting him individually. That assurance makes omniscience and omnipresence joys, and not terrors. 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. He would number them, and finds that they pass his enumeration. It is the same truth of the transcendent greatness and graciousness of God’s purposes as is conveyed in Isaiah’s "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My thoughts than your thoughts." "I awake, and am still with Thee,"-this is an artless expression of the psalmist’s blessedness in realising God’s continual nearness. 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.

The fiery hatred of evil and evil men which burns in the last strophe offends many and startles more. But while the vehement prayer that "Thou wouldest slay the wicked" is not in a Christian tone, the recoil from those who could raise themselves against such a God is the necessary result of the psalmist’s delight in Him. Attraction and repulsion are equal and contrary. The measure of our cleaving to that which is good, and to Him who is good, settles the measure of our abhorrence of that which is evil. The abrupt passing from petition in Psalms 139:19 a to command in b has been smoothed away by a slight alteration which reads, "And that men of blood would depart from me"; but the variation in tense is more forcible, and corresponds with the speaker’s strong emotion. He cannot bear companionship with rebels against God. His indignation has no taint of personal feeling, but is pure zeal for God’s honour.

Psalms 139:20 presents difficulties. The word rendered in the A.V. and R.V. (text) "speak against Thee" is peculiarly spelt if this is its meaning, and its construction is anomalous. Probably, therefore, the rendering should be as above. That meaning does not require a change of consonants, but only of vowel points. The difficulty of the last clause lies mainly in the word translated in the A.V. adversaries; and in the R.V. "enemies." That meaning is questionable; and if the word is the nominative to the verb in the clause, the construction is awkward, since the preceding "who" would naturally extend its influence to this clause. Textual emendation has been resorted to: the simplest form of which is to read "against Thee" for "Thine adversaries," a change of one letter. Another form of emendation, which is adopted by Cheyne and Graetz, substitutes "Thy name," and reads the whole, "And pronounce Thy name for falsehoods." Delitzsch adheres to the reading "adversaries," and by a harsh ellipsis makes the whole to run, "Who pronounce [Thy name] deceitfully-Thine adversaries."

The vindication of the psalmist’s indignation lies in Psalms 139:21-22. That soul must glow with fervent love to God which feels wrong done to His majesty with as keen a pain as if it were itself struck. What God says to those who love Him, they in their degree say to God: "He that toucheth Thee toucheth the apple of mine eye." True, hate is not the Christian requital of hate, whether that is directed against God or God’s servant. But recoil there must be, if there is any vigour of devotion; only, pity and love must mingle with it, and the evil of hatred be overcome by their good.

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. So the psalmist prays that God would search him, not because he fancies that there is no lurking sin to be burned by the light of God’s eye, like vermin that nestle and multiply under stones and shrivel when the sunbeams strike them, but because he dreads that there is, and would fain have it cast out. The psalm began with declaring that Jehovah had searched and known the singer, and it ends with asking for that searching knowledge.

It makes much difference, not indeed in the reality or completeness of God’s knowledge of use but in the good we derive therefrom, whether we welcome and submit to it, or try to close our trembling hearts, that do not wish to be cleansed of their perilous stuff, from that loving and purging gaze. God will cleanse the evil which He sees, if we are willing that He should see it. Thoughts of the inner life and "ways" of the outer are equally to be submitted to Him. There are two "ways" in which men can walk. The one is a "way of grief or pain," because that is its terminus. All sin is a blunder. And the inclination to such ways is "in me," as every man who has dealt honestly with himself knows. The other is "a way everlasting," a way which leads to permanent good, which continues uninterrupted through the vicissitudes of life, and even (though that was not in the psalmist’s mind) through the darkness of death, and with ever closer approximation to its goal in God, through the cycles of eternity. And that way is not "in me," but I must he led into and in it by the God who knows me altogether and is ever with me, to keep my feet in the way of life, if I hold the guiding hand which He lays upon me.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 139". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-139.html.
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