"Inescapable God" Bible Study on Psalm 139:1-18
January 14, 2021, 1:07 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Psalm 139:1-18 (New Revised Standard Version).

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
     that I know very well.

15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

Accoring to Richard J. Clifford, there are four main genres (types) of psalms: hymns; individual petitions, community petitions; indiviual thanksgivings.  And, of course, hymns can take the form of praise, confession, and lament.

Richard Clifford interprets Psalm 139 as an individual petition in the form of a poem that is a request for guidance from a powerful God.  It voices an individual's experience of God, first as an intimidating outsider (Psalm 139:1-12), and then as a nurturing insider (Psalm 139:1-13).

In verses 1-6, Yahweh, the omnipotent and omnipresent, the all-knowing, all-seeing God, knows everything about every single human being.  Yes, all our thoughts, even the words we will speak.  We will never be able to wrap our heads around that kind of knowledge.

Verses 7-12 demonstrate just how all-powerful and ubiquitous God is in all of the creation that we can observe: the heavens; the grave; the farthest limiits of the sea; the shadows of darkness; the brilliance of light.

With verse 13, the psalmist shifts from knowledge of the sovereign, infinite God to the intimate, relational, nurturing, insider God.  This God can see inside the human womb, can see a person being formed, knows about who each of us will be even before we are conceived.  The psalmist's own creation is as wondrous as the other great deeds of the LORD (verse 14).  No longer feeling alone and judged, the psalmist knows God is near and has been so from the beginning.  God's great power and omnipresence (verses 1-12) are complemented by God's nearness and personal care (verses 13-18).

Another Hebrew Bible scholar, Nancy deClaisse-Walford, classifies Psalm 139 as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.  She writes: "In this genre, singers praise God for God's goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations, such as illlness, oppression, enemy attack, etc.  Here, the psalmist celebrates the creative good of God in verses 1-18, and provides a glimpse of the oppression that occasioned the composition of the psalm in verses 19-22:  

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil![b]
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.

The psalmist seems to desire absolute innocence from any thought or inclination that might justify the sentiment of those who mock God or speak evil or rise up in hate.

deClaisse-Walford also underscores the importance of how the psalmist addresses God directly in verses 1-6, using the personal name of Israel's God, Yahweh (verses 1, 4) and then employs second person and first person pronouns to establish a realtionship between God and the psalmist: "You have searched," "you know," "you discern," etc.  In addition, the psalmist refers to self thirteen times: "you have search me and known me," "when I sit down and when I rise up," "my thoughts," "my path," etc.  Thus, Psalm 139 reflects the profound relationship of the "I" and "You" (or, "I" and "Thou") in ancient Israel.  Walter Brueggemann describes this unique relationship by saying, "The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You.  This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter."  

In his book, Tales of the Hasadim, Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, offered this poem concerning the relationship between God and humankind:

Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

The close relationship between the psalmist and God is not only emphasized in the language of "I' and "Thou" in Psalm 139, but also in the repetition of the verbal Hebrew root word, yada' (to know), which occurs seven times (verses 1, 2, 4, 6, 14, and twice in 23, the last verse of the psalm).  Some form of yada' occurs sixty times in the Psalter, emphasizing that the concept of personal "knowledge" is a critical element of meaningful relationship.  We are to know God, just as God knows us.  As the psalmist says, "It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13).

Verse 14 uses two sometimes misunderstood words, especially in the context of popular, contemporary culture: "fearfully" and "wonderfully."  "Fearfully" is derived from the Hebrew verbal root word yara'.  Unfortunately, in today's culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate as we witnessed in recent national events.  Yet yara' encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor.  It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonymn for "love."  At its root, the word denotes obedience to the Divine Will.  Thus, a better translation of the word in verse 14 might be "reverently."  The word "wonderfully" comes from the Hebrew verbal root pala' which means to be different, striking, remarkable -- outside the power of human comprehension.

The reference in verse 15 to being shaped in "the lowest parts of the earth" echoes the creation story in Genesis 2, where we read, "then the LORD God formed the human ('adam') from the dust of the ground ('adamah)" (Genesis 2:7).  Thus, we are creatures inextricably bound to the earth -- earth creatures.

The word translated as "unformed substance" in verse 16a is the Hebrew word gomli, which is found only here within the Bible.  In Babylonian Aramaic, the word is used to designate a formless mass or an incomplete vessel.  The Syriac word galma means "uncultivated soil."  To translate the word as "embryo," as some translations do, is overspecific and misleading.  And while verse 16 cannot be used to solve questions such "When does life begin?", the whole of Psalm 139 affirms the sacredness of life.  The second and third phrases of verse 16 (16b and 16c) are as puzzling as 16a.  A more literal, but less elegant translation could be: "and upon your scroll all of them were written, the days that were meant to be, when not one of them was "

So how could Psalm 139 shape our everyday living? 

The singer of Psalm 139 acknowledges that God holds all life in God's hands.  As the Common English Bible puts it in verses 17-18: "God, your plans are incomprehensible to me! Their total number is countless! If I tried to count them -- they outnumber grains of sand! If I came to the very end -- I'd still be with you."

God knows (yada') humanity inside and out, and therefore discerns our every act and thought.  Each of us was formed and framed by God.  God's eyes beheld our unformed substances.  Each of us was reverently, wondrously, strikingly, remarkably, differently made -- in ways that are beyond human explanation.  In any time, in any place where the faitfhful face wickedness, bloodshed, and deceit, the words of Psalm 139 provide comforting assurance of God's sovereign creation of, and care for, each person.  For the grandeur of God in creaton and in each of us is an ongoing process that continues to unfold with each day of life.  And we will never be able to catagorize that kind of everlasting Presence and Power.

In short, God is inescapable!

I close with the opening lines of Francis Thompson's poem, "The Hound of Heaven."

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind;
and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter,
Up vistaed hopes I sped and shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.”

Blessings on God's Continuing Pursuit of Us,

Pastor Greg Rupright



01-14-2021 at 9:58 PM
Par May
I really liked the last poem quote!
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