For the Chief Musician. A Psalm by David.
“For the Chief Musician” (Hebrew: menasseah––leader). In the psalms, this word is often used to mean the music leader.
A Psalm by David. This is one of a number of psalms that include a superscription concerning David. Readers through the centuries have interpreted “A Psalm of David” to mean “A Psalm written by David,” but a number of scholars question that interpretation today. There are a number of reasons, including the fact that “several Davidic psalms refer to the ‘temple’ (e.g., 5:7, 27:4; 65:4; 68:29” (Broyles, 28)––but the temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, and was not in existence during David’s lifetime.
The issue of Davidic authorship of the psalms is sufficiently complex that I can’t do it justice. For further study, see Craig C. Broyles, New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms, pages 26-31 and A.A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms (1-72), pages 43-45.
PSALM 139:1-6. YOU HAVE SEARCHED ME, YOU KNOW ME
1 Yahweh, you have searched me,
and you know me.
2 You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 For there is not a word on my tongue,
but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in behind and before.
You laid your hand on me.
6 This knowledge is beyond me.
I can’t attain it.
“Yahweh, you have searched (Hebrew: haqar) me, and you know (Hebrew: yada) me” (v. 1). The psalmist acknowledges that Yahweh has searched (haqar) him and known (yada) him. The word yada has various meanings. In this context, the psalmist is saying that Yahweh knows him relationally––experientially.
It makes sense that Yahweh would know the psalmist. Yahweh created him. He designed him from scratch and brought his design to completion. Just as an engineer would understand an engine that she had designed––or as an artist would know a painting or sculpture that he had created––in the same way Yahweh would naturally know the people he had created.
But this verse takes it a step further. The psalmist says that Yahweh has searched him. He has made a deliberate effort to know him.
“You know my sitting down and my rising up. You perceive my thoughts from afar” (v. 2). Today with surveillance cameras and tracking devices, it no longer seems odd that someone might know our sitting down and rising up. But for most of human history, people didn’t know each other’s movements to that extent unless they were living in the same house. Even then they would spend most of the day independently. But Yahweh knows even more than our sitting down and rising up. He knows our every movement hour by hour and day by day.
And he knows even more. He knows our thoughts from afar. However, Yahweh is never far from us. Elsewhere the psalmist says, “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). He is not describing an occasional presence, but one that is ongoing and enduring.
“You search out (Hebrew: zarah) my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways” (v. 3). Note that the Hebrew word translated search in this verse (zarah) is different from the word translated searched (haqar) in verse 1.
The word hagar in verse 1 means to search or to seek. It has a winsome character. Yahweh has taken the initiative to know the psalmist in depth, which sounds like a lover seeking to understand the beloved. One image that comes to mind is a mother tending her child. Hers is a 24/7 job, at least while the child is small. Unless the child is asleep or confined to a play pen, she must know minute by minute where the child is and what he/she is doing.
The word zarah in verse 3 means to measure or to scrutinize. It is more analytical and less emotional than hagar, and is therefore less winsome––less charming.
We might think of hagar and zarah as reflecting the right brain/left brain dichotomy. The right brain is usually associated with creativity, and that better fits hagar. The left brain is usually associated with logic and mathematics, and that better fits zarah.
Is hagar superior to zarah? Not really. Both are powerful ways for the lover to know the beloved. We can be grateful that Yahweh loves us enough to use both ways to understand us.
“For there is not a word on my tongue, but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether” (v. 4). Now the psalmist pulls back from the panoramic view of Yahweh’s love to focus on one detail. Yahweh knows, not only what the psalmist expresses in words, but also the thoughts of his mind. Nothing is hidden from Yahweh’s vision.
“You hem me in (Hebrew: sur) behind and before. You laid your hand on me” (v. 5). The word sur (hem me in) usually means to besiege. The psalmist feels surrounded or trapped. Yahweh is in front of him and at his rear. The psalmist has no escape. Yahweh comes close enough to lay his hand on the psalmist.
But Yahweh is not an enemy set on the psalmist’s destruction, as would normally be the case in a siege. Instead, Yahweh has set boundaries around the psalmist to protect him from the dangers and temptations that come to us from every corner.
Yahweh lays his hand on the psalmist to steady him––to reassure him––to guide him––to strengthen him––not to trap him.
“This knowledge is beyond me. It’s lofty. I can’t attain it” (v. 6). The psalmist acknowledges that Yahweh understands him better than the psalmist understands himself. He realizes that the depth of Yahweh’s knowledge is beyond the psalmist’s ability to understand––now or later. Yahweh sees clearly what the psalmist sees only dimly, as if in a primitive mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12).
We should not wonder that this is so. While we might imagine that no one could possibly know us better than we know ourselves, that is far from true. We are often confused, conflicted, and short-sighted. We find ourselves doing hateful things––and failing to live according to treasured values (Romans 7:15-20).
Even an insightful human counselor can often see things hidden at our core––and bring them to the surface where we can see them too. If that is possible, why should we be surprised that the one who created us would know us better than we ourselves––and better than the best-trained counselor?
PSALM 139:7-12. WHERE COULD I GO FROM YOUR SPIRIT?
7 Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the dawn,
and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 Even there your hand will lead me,
and your right hand will hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me;
the light around me will be night;”
12 even the darkness doesn’t hide from you,
but the night shines as the day.
The darkness is like light to you.
“Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!” (vv. 7-8). Does the psalmist see God’s presence as a blessing or a curse? Does he feel supported or hemmed in?
Commentaries on this text are divided on this issue. Surely there are times when we would be embarrassed to think of God watching our every move. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), and that would include the psalmist. When we are doing something wrong, we would prefer that God look the other way.
But verses 9-12 suggest that the psalmist finds God’s presence comforting, not threatening.
“If I take the wings of the dawn, and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will hold me” (vv. 9-10). The wings of the dawn and the uttermost parts of the sea stand for incomprehensibly distant and remote places. The psalmist could see the dawning sky, but couldn’t imagine visiting it. A fisherman would be well acquainted with the sea, but would understand that the uttermost parts of the sea were distant beyond measure.
But the psalmist declares that, if he were to find himself in one of those distant places, he would find Yahweh there. Not only would Yahweh be there beside him, but Yahweh would also lead and hold him. The frightening unknowns of dawn and sea would lose their terror when Yahweh was there to sustain him.
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me; the light around me will be night;’
even the darkness doesn’t hide from you, but the night shines as the day. The darkness is like light to you” (vv. 11-12). Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for good and evil––order and chaos––security and danger––joy and sorrow––truth and untruth––life and death––salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; 9:2; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18). We find darkness frightening––even dangerous.
But the psalmist expresses his faith that, in the presence of Yahweh, there is no night––no darkness. In the presence of Yahweh, “night shines as the day.” Darkness is like light to Yahweh, because he brings the light of his presence into dark places––so we need not fear darkness when Yahweh is near.
PSALM 139:13-18. I AM FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE
13 For you formed my inmost being.
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I will give thanks to you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful.
My soul knows that very well.
15 My frame wasn’t hidden from you,
when I was made in secret,
woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my body.
In your book they were all written,
the days that were ordained for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is their sum!
18 If I would count them, they are more in number than the sand.
When I wake up, I am still with you.
“For you formed my inmost being (Hebrew: kilyah). You knit me together in my mother’s womb” (v. 13). The word kilyah means kidney or heart or internal organs. The psalmist expresses his faith that Yahweh designed and brought into being the hidden parts of his body. He affirms that Yahweh formed him in his mother’s womb, a process that remained invisible to people until the advent of modern medical imaging.
But the psalmist is saying something that transcends the wonder of the birth process. The fact that Yahweh created him makes the psalmist precious in Yahweh’s sight. The one who creates always has a special place in his/her heart for that which he/she has created––and so it is with Yahweh. The reciprocal is also true. The psalmist acknowledges that Yahweh created him, so Yahweh has a special place in his heart.
“I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully (Hebrew: yare) and wonderfully made” (v. 14a). The word yare (fearfully) means fear or reverence or to be awesome. Fearfully is a good translation here.
In our day, we see anatomical drawings in our doctors’ offices that demonstrate the intricate detail that went into the design of our bodies. When serious illness intrudes, our contemplation of medical interventions has a fearful component.
But in the psalmist’s day, there were no anatomical drawings or anything that we would recognize as a doctor’s office or hospital. What those people had in abundance was mystery. They could see that they were fearfully and wonderfully made––but not a great deal more.
Your works are wonderful. My soul (Hebrew: nepes) knows that very well” (v. 14b). The psalmist has been talking about himself as an example of Yahweh’s creative endeavors, but now he broadens the scope to include all of Yahweh’s works––all of creation.
The word nepes means soul, but not in the sense that we often use that word. The Israelites thought of their bodies holistically. They would not have separated body and soul as the Greeks did. They used the word nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life. The psalmist’s life force acknowledges the wonder of Yahweh’s works.
“My frame (Heb. ‘osem) wasn’t hidden from you when I was made in secret, woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my body” (v. 15-16a). I have two sources for the Hebrew words in this verse, both of which use the word ‘osem (strength or might––or frame). However, some references say bones, which is ‘esem––not ‘osem.
Whether the proper translation is frame, bones, or strength, the psalmist is acknowledging that the core of the psalmist’s being was an open book to Yahweh even when it was being formed in secret in the depths of the earth––when it would have been invisible to anyone else.
“In your book they were all written, the days that were ordained (Hebrew: yasar––formed or fashioned) for me, when as yet there were none of them” (v. 16b). This verse states that Yahweh had foreknowledge of the psalmist’s life before he was born.
Some would interpret that to mean that Yahweh predestined the psalmist’s life. If that means that God doesn’t give the individual the option of choosing good or evil––life or death––I have a serious problem with it. That would reduce Jesus’ admonitions to prepare for his coming (Matthew 24:44; 25:13; Mark 13:35-37; Luke 12:35-40) to mean-spirited teases.
Both Old and New Testaments refer to the book of life (Exodus 32:32; Psalm 139:16, 28; Isaiah 65:6; Daniel 7:10; Malachi 3:16; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12-15; 21:27). The names of the righteous are inscribed there, and that record will prove decisive at the last judgment.
The point of this verse is that God knew all about the psalmist, including the shape that his life would take, even before the psalmist was born––even before he had experienced one day of life.
“How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is their sum! If I would count them, they are more in number than the sand” (vv. 17-18a). As a finite man the psalmist cannot even begin to understand the infinite God. He likens that task to trying to count every grain of sand. Impossible!
“When I wake up, I am still with you” (v. 18b). Does the psalmist mean awakening from sleep or meditation? Is this a subtle reference to the resurrection? We don’t know.
But we do know that the psalmist feels strongly the presence of God––a presence that he knows will always be available to him. (Also see the comments on verse 2 above.)
PSALM 139:19-22. NOT INCLUDED IN THE LECTIONARY READING
19 If only you, God, would kill the wicked.
Get away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
20 For they speak against you wickedly.
Your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Yahweh, don’t I hate those who hate you?
Am I not grieved with those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred.
They have become my enemies.
It is no wonder that the lectionary omits these verses. Christ calls us to love even our enemies––not to hate them (Matthew 5:44). However, we need to acknowledge two things about these verses:
- The psalmist is speaking out of his zeal for Yahweh. He hates those who hate Yahweh. Because they are Yahweh’s enemies, the psalmist counts them as his enemies too.
- While these sentiments are not as lofty as the rest of this psalm, they represent the honest expression of the psalmist’s heart. If we were wholly honest, we would have to admit that we harbor similar feelings occasionally––and perhaps not just occasionally. When we feel this way, we would do well to do what the psalmist has done, which is to address our concerns to God in prayer.
PSALM 139:23-24. SEARCH ME AND KNOW MY HEART
23 Search me, God, and know my heart.
Try me, and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the everlasting way.
“Search me, God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Hebrew: derek ) (vv. 23-24). While the psalmist might not understand that the feelings he expressed in verses 19-22 do not accord with Yahweh’s will for his life, he nevertheless knows that he harbors the potential for wickedness.
He makes himself exceedingly vulnerable here, asking Yahweh to use all his Godly powers to probe the depths of the psalmist’s being to expose any wickedness that he might find there. The psalmist further prays that Yahweh will guide him “in the everlasting way” (derek). The word derek means path or way. The psalmist is praying that God will show him the Godly path that God would call him to trod.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan