Bible Commentary: Psalm 139

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Psalm 139

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In Psalm 139 David acknowledges, in great wonder and awe, God's omniscient care in guiding his life and expresses his solidarity with God against the wicked.

God has searched within David and his life and knows everything there is to know about him. He carefully investigates each facet of David's life to discern all his actions--from when he gets up in the morning to when he goes to bed at night (verses 1-2a). God is thus familiar with all David's patterns, habits, preferences and ways of doing things. Moreover, God looks penetratingly into David's heart to discern his inner motives and secret thoughts (verse 2b). In fact, God knows David so well that He anticipates his words before they are spoken (verse 4). God has an exhaustive knowledge of David-just as He has of us (see Hebrews 4:13).

The beginning of Psalm 139:3 is variously translated: "Thou compassest [i.e., encompass] my path" (KJV); "You comprehend my path" (NKJV); "You discern my going out" (NIV); "You search out my path" (NRSV); "You sift my path" (J.P. Green's Literal Translation). The latter is probably the correct sense (Strong's No. 2219). The Expositor's Bible Commentary renders the phrase as "You have winnowed me" (note on verses 1-6). The idea is apparently that God sifts all our actions, "putting them through a sieve, as it were, so as to discover every detail about them, what has motivated them, what effect they have upon me and upon others, in fact, everything conceivable about them" (George Knight, Psalms, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, comments on verses 1-6).

Yet the purpose of God's intimate knowledge of His servants is not to play "gotcha" and condemn us. Rather, as verse 5 makes plain, God's intention is to protect and guard us--to keep and hold onto us, to steady and guide us, as the objects of His care. God's all-knowing understanding and concern is just too mind-boggling for David to take in (verse 6).

In verses 7-12, David remarks on the fact that there is nowhere he can go to be out from under God's watchful oversight--for God is everywhere (omnipresent) through His infinite Spirit (see verse 7). There is no way to be concealed from Him. He can see and reach everywhere, all the time, day and night, light or dark. For some this might seem a negative thing--that is, there is no escape! But David clearly did not mean it that way, for he says that no matter where he is, God will lead him and uphold him (verse 10). He is greatly encouraged by the fact that God is all-seeing and all-knowing. Incidentally, the word "hell" in verse 8 is translated from the Hebrew sheol, meaning pit or grave, thus explaining David's statement about making his "bed" there (i.e., his deathbed). So nothing, not even the grave, will separate us from God's caring oversight of our lives--for His intervening hand will lead us even from death (compare Romans 8:35-39).

In verses 13-16 of Psalm 139, David reflects on the fact that God's care in his life was there from its very beginning, acknowledging God's oversight in his conception and prenatal development. Where the NKJV says that God "covered" David in his mother's womb (verse 13), other translations render this "knit me together" (NIV) or "wove me." The Hebrew here literally means entwined, implying weaving but perhaps the weaving of a fence or cover of protection (Strong's No. 5526). In any case, David praises the miracle of life and birth of which he is the product (verses 14-15).

In this he remarks that God saw him "made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth" (verse 15). The location here is not meant literally, but is rather a metaphor for a dark, mysterious, unsearchable and unfathomable place. Such is God's workshop in the cells of the human embryo within the womb! The unformed "substance" in the next verse is a reference to the embryo.

In the latter part of verse 16 David says that all the days prepared for him were written in God's book before these days commenced. What does this mean? Some would use this verse to argue that every day of David's life was completely mapped out in advance--and to argue that the same applies to us. This, however, violates the principle of free will and choice--which we find repeatedly in Scripture (compare Deuteronomy 30:19). Furthermore, "all...the days" does not have to mean each and every day but could mean the days taken as a whole--a lifetime. Based on this, others might argue that the verse means merely that David's lifespan was generally predetermined from his genetics since conception. While possible, is seems likely that more is intended.

Commentaries typically maintain that David used the metaphor of a book to portray God's exquisitely detailed plans for each person--plans He has in mind before a person's birth. Elements of David's life, at least in a general sense (particularly his reign over Israel), seems to have been plotted out by God ahead of time (while still allowing David free will as to whether to serve God or reject Him). And this plan may have been written in an actual spiritual record, rather than this signifying a mere metaphor. David in another psalm remarked that his tears were written in God's book (Psalm 56:8), which seems to be the same as the book of remembrance for those who fear God in Malachi 3:16. This may or may not be synonymous with another book David mentions, the book of the living (Psalm 69:28), apparently equivalent to the Book of Life, God's heavenly registry of the righteous (see Exodus 32:32-33; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 17:8; Revelation 20:12, Revelation 20:15, Revelation 20:17; Revelation 22:19). David's reference in Psalm 139 could also be to the "Scripture of Truth," the Bible of heaven as it were, wherein a lengthy prophecy of the future was already inscribed before it was given to Daniel to write down in his own book as God's written revelation to us (see Daniel 10:21).

The theme of one's purpose in life is a key topic in the Bible. Note what God announced to the Jewish nation in exile: "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11). Indeed, David remarks in the next verse of Psalm 139 on how precious and countless are God's thoughts toward him (verses 17-18).

The end of verse 18 then states, "When I awake, I am still with you." Perhaps the point is that David is amazed to consider that every day he wakes, he is still in God's care--returning to the thought at the beginning of the psalm of God observing His "sitting down and...rising up" (verse 2). Yet some suggest that he is speaking in a future tense of his resurrection--remarking in the context of verse 16 that after the passing of his days, he will awake from death and even still be with God.

Enraptured as he is with God's intimate and all-seeing care in his life--demonstrative of God's care for all His servants--David still can't help but think about the wicked who, despite God's wonderful intentions over which he's been musing, still cause trouble for him and all of God's people (as highlighted in the next five psalms). As he closes Psalm 139, David expresses the wish that God would justly deal with this outstanding problem. God has, in fact, already pronounced a death sentence in His law against the bloodthirsty and the blasphemous. David is here supporting the carrying out of that sentence (verses 19-20).

David then unequivocally declares that he hates those who hate God and rebel against Him, loathing them and hating them with a perfect or complete hatred (verses 21-22). Many today are disturbed at such language in light of Jesus Christ's instruction in the New Testament: "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you in and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Indeed, caring for one's enemy was also an Old Testament directive (compare Exodus 23:4-5; Proverbs 25:21).

But we should consider a number of factors here. First, as in other psalms, the hatred David is speaking of in Psalm 139 should be understood primarily in the sense of rejection and strong aversion. Note his words in verse 19 calling on the bloodthirsty to get away from him. That is, David wants nothing to do with them. He won't support them or make common cause with them. He will not befriend them or accept their friendship, for he counts them as his enemies (verse 22). This is a second point to emphasize. David's hatred here does not equate to personally taking vengeance or even mistreatment on a personal level. It equates to counting the wicked as his enemies. He opposes them. If they are God's enemies, then they are his enemies. That brings us to a third factor to note here. David is not declaring hatred for those who merely bear him personal ill will, but for those who hate and rise up against God. Of course, those who bore David animosity usually did so on the basis of opposition to God and His law--yet it was this rather than personal hurt that was the basis for David's declared hatred against them. In essence, David was declaring his complete solidarity with God against God's enemies.

None of this, by the way, precludes following the New Testament instruction to pray for one's persecutors and to do good to them. Even given the strong words David spoke, he still could and may well have followed what Christ would later explain--as he clearly did in his dealings with Saul. Indeed, we should be careful to not misconstrue Christ's teaching in this regard. Consider that praying for one's persecutors obviously does not mean praying for their success in persecution. It primarily means praying for their long-term well-being, realizing that God intends to eventually lead them to repentance. It may include praying that He will lead them to repent soon--at least of their present antagonism and offending behavior. Barring that outcome, praying for enemies could even mean asking God to exercise judgment on them to stop them from their evil and greater guilt. Doing good to persecutors, loving our enemies, does not mean supporting them in their evil plans or making common cause with them. Recall what Jehu the seer said to King Jehoshaphat of Judah for his joint operations with evil King Ahab of Israel : "Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Therefore the wrath of the LORD is upon you" (2 Chronicles 19:2). As is stated here, we are not to "love" the haters of God in this sense. Rather, we are to oppose them.

David ends with a prayer that God will search his heart and investigate his anxieties to see "if there is any wicked way in me" (Psalm 139:24). Some commentators relate his request to his declared abhorrence of God's enemies--the idea being that he is asking God to search his heart to see if his expressed thoughts are the product of a righteous stand with God or born out of personal concerns. Other commentators understand the verse as a general request that God examine him for any wickedness--that is, having discussed wickedness in others, that God check to see if there is wickedness to be dealt with in him. David deeply desires to be led out of wickedness and, as he says in verse 24, into the way that leads to everlasting life.

As a final note, if the first part of the superscription of this psalm, "To the Chief Musician," actually belongs to the previous psalm as a postscript, then the same phrase at the beginning of the superscription of the next psalm may actually be the postscript of this psalm.