This Psalm is rightly regarded as one of the finest of all the Psalms. It ranks with the 23rd Psalm and the 53rd chapter of Isaiah as one of the best-known and best-loved parts of the Old Testament. It is in the highest and best sense of the word, ‘theological’ – it teaches us about God. Such an emphasis is at a premium today. ‘The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of him – and her.’ (Tozer)

David meditates on three inter-related aspects of his relationship with God:-

  1. God knows me, vv1-6
  2. God is with me, vv7-12
  3. God made me, vv13-18

Thus, three divine attributes are dealt with (omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence; – God’s knowledge, presence and power), but all in an intensely personal and experiential way.  Boice quotes Alexander MacLaren: ‘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.’

An alternative outline (based on Allen, WBC):-

  1. Scrutiny, 1-6
  2. Confrontation, 7-14a
  3. Concern, 14b-18
  4. Vindication, 19-24

‘Psalm 139 is arguably the most radical statement in the Old Testament of God’s personal relationship to the individual.  Personal pronouns and possessives occur in the first person (I, me, my) forty-six times and in the second person (you, yours) thirty-two times.  Further, the basis on which God knows us intimately (verses 1-7) and attaches himself to us so that we cannot escape from him (verses 7-12) is that he formed us in the womb and established his relationship with us then (verses 13-16).’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 144f)

Longman suggests that the tone of the psalm is not so reassured and reassuring as is often thought.  There is, rather, an ambivalence running through it: the very intimacy of God’s knowledge, presence, and power can feel threatening and even oppressive.  Reading the psalm in this way helps to make sense of the otherwise inexplicable outburst at the end, vv19-24 – ‘Lord, you know me much better than I know myself; you know that you can number me among the upright, not the wicked.’

Some commentators, looking especially at the way the psalm ends, have suggested that the psalm was written when the author (David, according to the ascription) felt he was surrounded by much wickedness, godlessness, and faithlessness.  Possibly certain charges had been unjustly brought against him (Allen, WBC), and he seeks vindication from the One who knows him through and through.  He seeks to steady his nerve by turning his thoughts God-ward, thinking through the implications for him, as an individual, to be known, surrounded, and made by God.  He concludes by distancing himself from the evil-doers, and finding peace with God.

Mays, noting the inclusio formed by the psalm’s opening declaration and concluding prayer, suggests that this defines the focus of the entire psalm: God knows me, and in knowing me he searches and tests me.  How will I stand under such intense divine scrutiny?

Mays points out that ‘virtually every line’s syntax contains a “you” or “your” and an “I” or “me” or “my.” God is thou to the psalmist’s I.’

See 1 Sam 16:7

For the music director, a psalm of David.
139:1 O LORD, you examine me and know.
139:2 You know when I sit down and when I get up;
even from far away you understand my motives.

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me – Though others may misunderstand me and misrepresent me, you, O God, know me as I really am. Here is a truly staggering thought: you might suppose that God was fully occupied with keeping the mighty stars and planets in their orbits to spare even a passing thought for a mere mortal. But no: he takes time to scrutinise the thoughts and actions of each of us. What a contrast there is between God and me! And yet he has searched me and he knows me, 1 Sam 16:7; Ps 56:8; Mt 10:29-31; Heb 4:13.

‘Note how the psalmist makes his doctrine personal: he saith not, “O God, thou knowest all things;” but, “thou hast known me.” It is ever our wisdom to lay truth home to ourselves. How wonderful the contrast between the observer and the observed! Jehovah and me! Yet this most intimate connection exists, and therein lies our hope. Let the reader sit still a while and try to realise the two poles of this statement, – the Lord and poor puny man – and he will see much to admire and wonder at.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

‘God is as perfectly and entirely employed in the scrutiny of the thoughts and actions of an individual, as in the regulation of the most important concerns of the universe.’ (Henry Kirke White, Q by Spurgeon)

‘”God knows me” is different from “God is omniscient;” the latter is a mere theological statement; the former is a child of God’s most precious possession.’ (Oswald Chambers)

‘I think that most Christians would be better pleased if the Lord did not inquire into their personal affairs too closely. They want him to save them, keep them happy and take them to heaven at last, but not to be too inquisitive about their conduct or service. But he has searched us and known us; he knows our downsitting and our uprising and understands our thoughts afar off. There is no place to hide from those eyes that are as a flame of fire and there is no way to escape from the Judgment of those feet that are like fine brass. It is the part of wisdom to live with these things in mind.’ (Tozer)

‘In the divine omniscience we see set forth against each other the terror and fascination of the Godhead. That God knows each person through and through can be a cause of shaking fear to the man that has something to hide—some unforsaken sin, some secret crime committed against man or God.’ (Tozer)

The noted atheist Christopher Hitchens put it much more strongly: ‘“Religion is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life.’

Faith without pretending

‘David declares, in the outset of this Psalm, that he does not come before God with any idea of its being possible to succeed by dissimulation, as hypocrites will take advantage of secret refuges to prosecute sinful indulgences, but that he voluntarily lays bare his innermost heart for inspection, as one convinced of the impossibility of deceiving God.’ (Calvin)

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar – he knows my every action, and reads my every thought. See Ps 56:8; Mt 10:29-31

‘My most common and casual acts, my most needful and necessary movements, are noted by thee, and thou knowest the inward thoughts which regulate them…Sitting down to consider, or rising up to act, we are still seen, known and read by Jehovah our Lord.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

See 1 Cor 4:5; Heb 4:12-13

‘Before men we stand as opaque bee-hives. They can see the thoughts go in and out of us, but what work they do inside of a man they cannot tell. Before God we are as glass bee-hives, and all that our thoughts are doing within us he perfectly sees and understands.’ (Henry Ward Beecher, Q by Spurgeon)

‘The first clause declares the perfect intelligence God has of every posture, gesture, exercise, pursuit, state and condition of man. The second declares his perfect acquaintance with every emotion, feeling, conception, thought, aim, doubt, perplexity and solicitude of his creatures.’ (W.S. Plumer)

139:3 You carefully observe me when I travel or when I lie down to rest;
you are aware of everything I do.

You discern… – Wherever I go, God knows where I am going, and why, and with whom. The word translated ‘discern’ suggests the idea of ‘winnowing’ – of separating the wheat from the chaff, the useful from the useless. See Mt 3:12

‘The original signifies not only surrounding, but winnowing and sifting. The Lord judges our active life and our quiet life; he discriminates our action and our repose, and marks that in them which is good and also that which is evil. There is chaff in all our wheat, and the Lord divides them with unerring precision.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

‘God takes notice of every step we take, every right step, and every by-step. He knows what rule we walk by, what end we walk toward, what company we walk with.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

139:4 Certainly my tongue does not frame a word
without you, O LORD, being thoroughly aware of it.

Before a word… – God hears every word I utter; but more than that, even before I open my mouth, he reads my thoughts. How needful, then, to pray that both words and thoughts would be pleasing in his sight, Ps 19:14 141:3. See Jas 1:26

‘How needful it is to set a watch before the doors of our mouth, to hold that unruly member of ours, the tongue, as with bit and bridle. Some of you feel at times that you can scarcely say a word, and the less you say the better. Well, it may be as well; for great talkers are almost sure to make slips with tongue. It may be a good thing that you cannot speak much; for in the multitude of words there lacketh not sin…You may often repent of speaking, you will rarely repent of silence.’ (J.C. Philip, Q by Spurgeon)

The remarkable thing about the way in which people talk about God, or about their relation to God, is that it seems to escape them completely that God hears what they are saying. A man says, “At the moment I have not the time or the necessary recollection to think about God, but later on perhaps.” Or better still a young man says, “I am too young now; first of all I will enjoy life and then.” Would it be possible to talk like that if one realized that God heard one? (Kierkegaard)

139:5 You squeeze me in from behind and in front;
you place your hand on me.

You hem me in – I am besieged, surrounded, by God! Everywhere I turn, I come face to face with him. Now the fact is of course, that we do not always feel God’s presence with us, Job 23:3,4,8-10. ‘Beset’ (AV) = ‘Besiege, hem in, or closely surround.’ (J.A. Alexander)

‘As though we were caught in an ambush, or besieged by an army which has wholly beleaguered us the city walls, we are surrounded by the Lord…He not only beholds us, but he besets us; and lest there should seem any chance of escape, or lest we should imagine that the surrounding presence is yet a distant one, it is added, – “And laid thy hand upon me.”…God is very near; we are wholly in his power; from that power these is no escape…Shall we not alter the figure, and say that our heavenly Father has folded his arms around us, and caressed us with his hand? It is even so with those who are by faith the children of the Most High.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

‘One who finds the way blocked up turns back; but David found himself hedged in behind as well as before.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

You have laid your hand upon me – Though we may not feel it or even know it, God has his hand upon every one of his children: to lead us in the path that we should take; to protect us when in danger; to support us when we stumble; to correct us when we fail; to encourage us when we are in despair; to comfort us when we are afflicted. ‘To rule me, to lead me, to uphold me, to protect me, to restore me, in my growth, in my walk, in my failures, in my affliction, in my despair.’ (Thomas Le Blanc, Q by Spurgeon)

139:6 Your knowledge is beyond my comprehension;
it is so far beyond me, I am unable to fathom it.

Such knowledge… – ‘God knows me’ – he knows me perfectly. Our proper response to this is humble adoration. One of our greatest sins is intellectual arrogance: imagining that we can outthink God. There are many things we do not know. But we know enough to live lives that are pleasing to God, Deut 29:29; Job 26:14; Ps 131:1; Rom 11:33-36.

‘How great is human ignorance when brought into comparison with divine knowledge. No man knows a millionth part of the propositions which constitute universal truth…The greatest are but as children, 1 Cor 13:11f. Men have but broken fragments of truth in this life.’ (W.S. Plumer)

‘Here we have a case which ought to instruct and sober those, who, in their shallow philosophy, demand a religion without mystery. It would be a religion without God; for “who by searching can find out God?”‘ (J.W. Alexander)

‘This divine knowledge is not merely comprehensive, like that of some receptor that misses nothing, capturing everything alike. It is personal and active: discerning us (2b); sifting us (3a…); knowing our minds more closely (“altogether”) than we know them ourselves (2b,4;…); surrounding us (“beset”), handling us (5). If one’s first reaction to this is the wonder of verse 6, one’s second may be the urge to escape, which appears to animate the next stanza.’ (Kidner)

Boice speaks of the ‘threat’ of God’s omniscience.  He quotes Tozer: ‘In the divine omniscience we see set forth against each other the terror and fascination of the Godhead. That God knows each person through and through can be a cause of shaking fear to the man that has something to hide—some unforsaken sin, some secret crime committed against man or God.’

Noted atheist Christopher Hitchens used to refer with some anger to the notion of a ‘snooping’ God, who reads every thought and understands every motive.  George Orwell personified such a notion as ‘Big Brother’ in his novel 1984.

139:7 Where can I go to escape your spirit?
Where can I flee to escape your presence?
139:8 If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there.
If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be.
139:9 If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn,
and settle down on the other side of the sea,
139:10 even there your hand would guide me,
your right hand would grab hold of me.
139:11 If I were to say, “Certainly the darkness will cover me,
and the light will turn to night all around me,”
139:12 even the darkness is not too dark for you to see,
and the night is as bright as day;
darkness and light are the same to you.

Where can I go… – God’s presence is inescapable. See Am 9:2-4. ‘God is neither shut up in nor shut out of any place.’ (George Swinnock). ‘A man may hide God from himself, and yet he cannot hide himself from God.’ (William Secker).

And yet, how many are like Jonah, (Jon 1:3) trying to flee from God?

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.

(Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven)

‘We must be, whether we will it or not, as near to God as our soul is to our body. This makes it dreadful work to sin; for we offend the Almighty to his face, and commit acts of treason at the very foot of his throne.’ (Spurgeon)

‘The impulse to flee from God’s face (the literal meaning of “they presence”) is as old as the Fall. Admittedly the talk of flight may be a purely literary device to dramatise the fact of God’s ubiquity; but there seems to be at least an ambivalent attitude to him here, like that of a child running from its parents.’ (Kidner)

For some, God’s presence is a troublesome, worrying burden; but to those who know him and love him, it is life’s greatest blessing, Ps 23:4.

‘I consider that David prosecutes the same idea of its being impossible that men, by any subterfuge, should elude the eye of God.  By the “Spirit of God,” we are not here, as in several other parts of Scripture, to conceive of His power, merely, but His understanding and knowledge.  In man, the spirit is the seat of intelligence, and so it is here in reference to God, as is plain from the second part of the sentence where, by “the face of God,” is meant His knowledge or inspection.  David means, in short, that he could not change from one place to another without God seeing him and following him with His eyes as he moved.  They mis-apply the passage who adduce it as a proof of the immensity of God’s essence for, though it be an undoubted truth that the glory of the Lord fills heaven and earth, this truth was not, at present, in the view of the psalmist, but the truth that God’s eye penetrates heaven and hell so that, hide in what obscure corner of the world he might, he must be discovered by Him.  Accordingly, he tells us that, though he should fly to heaven or lurk in the lowest abysses, from above or from below all was naked and manifest before God.  “The wings of the morning” or, of Lucifer, is a beautiful metaphor for, when the sun rises on the earth, it transmits its radiance suddenly to all regions of the world as with the swiftness of light.  The same figure is employed in Malachi 4.2.  And the idea is that, though one should fly with the speed of light, he could find no recess where he would be beyond the reach of divine power.  For, by “hand,” we are to understand “power,” and the assertion is to the effect that, should man attempt to withdraw from the observation of God, it were easy for Him to arrest and draw back the fugitive.’ (Calvin)

If I go up to the heavens… – There is no height – spatial, intellectual, social, or moral, where we can escape God’s all-seeing eye, or where we can escape our solemn responsibilities to our Maker, Ob 3-4.

If I make my bed in the depths… – Likewise, there is no depth to which we can descend in order to escape the Lord. ‘The depths’ is Sheol, the abode of the departed. But note: we do not escape God, even in death. Nor would the believer wish it so, for he knows, with Paul, that to die is to ‘be with Christ, which is better by far’. (Php 1:23)

‘The gospel has given the second line of the present verse a wholly new flavour, first in that Christ descended into Sheol on our behalf, and secondly that for us Sheol has become Paradise. David’s exclamation, “thou art there!” loses all its ambiguity with Paul’s eager phrase, “With Christ, which is far better”.’ (Kidner)

‘”Hell” in some places in Scripture signifies the lower parts of the earth, without relation to punishment…By “heaven” he means the upper region of the world, without any respect to the state of blessedness; and “hell” is the most opposite and remote in distance, without respect to misery.’ (Joseph Caryl, Q by Spurgeon)

Is God in hell?  Referring to the teaching of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and specifically the writings of Archbishop Hilarion, Ben Myers argues that ‘the universal scope of Christ’s work…means that even hell itself is no longer a place of separation from God. Christ has penetrated into the depths of hell, flooding its darkness with the light of love. Hell has become a site of divine activity, a venue of divine love. “If I make my bed in Hades, you are there” (Psalm 139:8). Thus the torment of hell can only be understood as the torment of love. Hell’s power is abolished – but someone might still reject God to such an extent that even love becomes a torment, an unbearable “scourge”.’  There may be some truth in this, but it is also misleading, since (to say nothing about riding roughshod over the poetic nature of the present verse) it confuses ‘hell’ as the abode of the dead with ‘hell’ as the place of eternal punishment.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn… – I might rise at dawn, and speed with the wind to the remotest place, but God would have arrived before me!

Even there… – We are tempted, as the psalmist was, to run from God and to hide from him.  The next two verses indicate how persistent we may be.  We forget, perhaps, that ‘God’s long arm is moved by love’ (Mays).  This is a wonderful comfort to the distressed soul, Ps 73:23-26; Isa 41:10.  Then again, Amos 9:2ff describes, in words the echo the psalmist’s, God’s determination to seek out and find those who would hide from his justice.

Surely the darkness… – There are two things to note about the night: (a) it is often used as a cover for evil deeds; (b) it is a time of fear for many people. But God sees everything, Job 22:12-14. ‘The foulest enormities of human conduct have always striven to cover themselves with the shroud of night. The thief, the counterfeiter, the assassin, the robber, the murderer, and the seducer, feel comparatively safe in the midnight darkness, because no human eye can scrutinise their actions.’ (Edward Hitchcock, Q by Spurgeon)

And if God sees the wicked, he also regards the plight of the wicked, Job 34:21-22; Ps 10:1,10-12,14.

139:13 Certainly you made my mind and heart;
you wove me together in my mother’s womb.
139:14 I will give you thanks because your deeds are awesome and amazing.
You knew me thoroughly;
139:15 my bones were not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret
and sewed together in the depths of the earth.
139:16 Your eyes saw me when I was inside the womb.
All the days ordained for me
were recorded in your scroll
before one of them came into existence.

For you created… – Here the Psalmist focuses his meditation, in a remarkable and beautiful way, on his own growth and development in his mother’s womb. Job 31:13-15 uses similar language to underscore the essential unity of all human life before God.

‘Verses 13-16 reveal what transpires in the secret workshop where nothing is concealed from the Maker who knows all about man because he created him. The primary thought is that every birth is a Divine creation, and the language used of such is both delicate and beautiful.’ (Lockyer)

Denis Lamoureux (Four Views on the Historical Adam) finds a parallel here between our own origins in our mother’s wombs and the origins of all living things:- ‘I have yet to meet a Christian who believes that while in the womb the Lord came out of heaven and literally attached an arm or a leg to their developing body. Instead, we all believe that embryological development is a natural process that God providentially maintains during pregnancy…Our creation in the womb is proof that the Creator uses physical mechanisms to create life. Similarly, evolutionary creationists believe that biological evolution is an ordained natural process that God has sustained throughout eons of time.’

I praise you… – There is considerable variation in the way this verse is translated:

  • ‘I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.’ (AV)
  • ‘I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well.’ (RSV)
  • ‘For all these mysteries I thank you: for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works.’ (JB)
  • ‘I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful. I know it with all my heart.’ (GNB)

Broyles says that the word ‘made’ is not in the original.  Following some of the ancient versions, he thinks that the phrase should probably read: ‘You are fearful and wonderful.’

How little David could have known about human anatomy and physiology compared with us! And yet he knew enough to know that his own body was a miracle of divine workmanship. We, who know so much more, should be at least as inclined as him to praise God for his incredible wisdom and power. God is pleased from time to time to bestow miracles of various kinds; but here is an everyday miracle that we take too much for granted – the wonder of life itself.

‘All God’s works are admirable, man wonderfully wonderful…What infers he on all this? Therefore “I will praise thee.”…O that we knew the sweetness of that doth swallow up all earthly pleasures! They sing honour and glory to the Lord. Why? Because he created all things: Rev 4:11. When we behold an exquisite piece of work, we presently enquire after him that made it, purposely to commend his skill: and there is no greater disgrace to an artist, than having perfected a famous work, to find it neglected, no man minding it, or so much as casting an eye upon it. All the works of God are considerable, and man is bound to his contemplation.’ (Thomas Adams, Q by Spurgeon)

‘The Psalmist had scarcely peered within the veil which hides the nerves, sinews and blood-vessels from common inspection; the science of anatomy was quite unknown to him; and yet he had seen enough to arouse his admiration of the work and his reverence for the Worker.’ (Spurgeon)

‘These parts of my frame are all thy works; and though they be home works, close under my own eye, yet are they wonderful to the last degree. They are works within my own self, yet are they beyond my understanding, and appear to me as so many miracles of skill and power. We need not go to the ends of the earth for marvels, nor even across our own thresholds; they abound in our own bodies.’ (Spurgeon)

In A.D. 399 Saint Augustine said, “People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars-and they pass by themselves without wondering.”

Human nature bears its own witness: the wonder of our own creation points to a Creator, Ps 139:14. The idea of God is written on man’s heart ever since his creation in God’s image, Gen 1:26-27. Man has an intuitive knowledge of God’s existence, as seen in his incurably religious nature, woefully misdirected as it may be, Acts 17:22-23. Conscience bears witness to a divine law and to a Divine Law-Giver, Rom 2:14-15. That is why it is so foolish to say ‘there is no God’, Ps 14:1. That is why doubting the existence of God is itself evidence of man’s sinfulness and corruption, Ps 14:1; his pride and rebellion, Ps 10:4.

Ps 8:3-5

Woven together – ‘The reference here is to the various and complicated tissues of the human frame—the tendons, nerves, veins, arteries, muscles, as if they had been woven, or as they appear to be curiously interweaved. No work of tapestry can be compared with this; no art of man could weave together such a variety of most tender and delicate fibres and tissues as those which go to make up the human frame, even if they were made ready to his hand:—and who but God could make them? The comparison is a most beautiful one; and it will be admired the more, the more man understands the structure of his own frame.’ (Barnes)

The depths of the earth – A metaphor for the dark, mysterious work of the womb. ‘This figurative description heightens the feeling of mystery attaching to the birth of a child.’

‘God makes the most perfect work of all in the dark.’ (Calvin)

Your eyes saw my unformed body – God saw all the potentialities in the human embryo, before any human eye could discern them.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book… – Here God’s knowledge becomes his foreknowledge. I am designed (says David) according to a plan. The modern mind thinks, perhaps, of the genetic code – that massively detailed blueprint tucked away inside the nucleus of each cell in the body. But God’s plan is still more comprehensive encompassing not only my basic make-up, but also every experience through which I must go.

‘As all the parts of Solomon’s temple were in the original plan, so when God builds the temple of our bodies, he does it by his book, in which all is written beforehand.’ (W.S. Plumer)

Richard Hays doubts that this passage (and the similar one in Jer 1:5) has much direct relevance to the debate about abortion:

‘Such statements cannot be pressed as a way of making claims about the status of the fetus as a “person”; rather, they are confessions about God’s divine foreknowledge and care. God knows and calls us not just from the time of conception but even before conception—even from before the foundation of the world. Once we see that this is the tenor of Psalm 139:13–16, we recognize that its bearing on the abortion issue is very indirect indeed.’ (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 448)
The unborn baby is a person

John Stott:

‘The author of Psalm 139 looks back to the antenatal stage of his existence. Three words sum up what he affirms. First, creation. He seems to liken God both to a potter who “formed” his inmost being and to a weaver who “knit him together” in his mother’s womb (v. 13). Although the Bible makes no claim to be a textbook of embryology, here is a plain affirmation that the growth of the fetus is neither haphazard nor automatic but a divine work of creative skill.

‘The second word is continuity. The psalmist surveys his life in four stages: past (v. 1), present (vv. 2–6), future (vv. 7–12), and before birth (vv. 13–16), and in all four refers to himself as “I.” He who is writing as a full-grown man has the same personal identity as the fetus in his mother’s womb. He affirms a direct continuity between his antenatal and postnatal being.

‘The third word is communion, or relationship. Psalm 139 is arguably the most radical statement in the Old Testament of God’s personal relationship to the individual. Personal pronouns and possessives occur in the first person (I, me, my) 46 times and in the second person (you, yours) 32 times. Further, the basis on which God knows us intimately (vv. 1–7) and attaches himself to us so that we cannot escape from him (vv. 7–12) is he formed us in the womb and established his relationship with us then (vv. 13–16).’

These three words supply us with the essential biblical perspective in which to think. The fetus is not a growth in the mother’s body (which can be removed as readily as her tonsils or appendix), nor even a potential human being, but a human life who, though not yet mature, has the potentiality to grow into the fulness of the humanity he already possesses.

Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essays of John Stott, 294f.

139:17 How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God!
How vast is their sum total!
139:18 If I tried to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
Even if I finished counting them,
I would still have to contend with you.

How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts – NIV: ‘How precious to me are your thoughts’.  Here is true godliness, when God’s infinite knowledge and wisdom concerning me are not burdensome, but precious.

‘David has moved on from contemplating his own thoughts and their nakedness before God (v2), to considering God’s innumerable thoughts towards him. (cf Ps 40:5) he is not exaggerating. Even in his own body (vv13ff) there is an unimaginable wealth of detail, every point of it from the mind of God. Such divine knowledge is not only ‘wonderful’ (cf v6) but ‘precious’, since it carries its own proof of infinite commitment: God will not leave the work of his own hands (138:8c), either to chance or to ultimate extinction.’ (Kidner)

‘How cold and poor are our warmest thoughts towards God! How unspeakably loving and gloriously rich are his thoughts towards us!’ (A.R. Fausset)

How vast is their sum total! – ‘If his own thoughts are an open book to God (v 2), God’s are incomprehensible.’ (Allen)

‘Mercies are either ordinary or extraordinary our common necessaries, or the remarkable supplies which we receive now and then at the hand of God. Thou must not only praise him for some extraordinary mercy, that comes with such pomp and observation that all thy neighbours take notice of it with thee, as the mercy which Zacharias and Elizabeth had in their son, that was noised about all the country; (Lk 1:65) but also for ordinary every day mercies: for first, we are unworthy of the least mercy, (Gen 32:10) and therefore God is worthy of praise for the least, because it is more than he owes us. Secondly, these common, ordinary mercies are many. Thus David enhances the mercies of this kind, O God, how great is the sum of them. “If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand; when I wake I am still with thee.” As if he had said, There is not a point of time wherein thou art not doing me good; as soon as I open my eyes in the morning I have a new theme, in some fresh mercies given since I closed them over night, to employ my meditations that are full of praise. Many little items make together a great sum. What is lighter than a grain of sand, yet what is heavier than the sand upon the seashore? As little sins (such as vain thoughts and idle words), because of their multitude, arise to a great guilt, and will bring in a long bill, a heavy reckoning at last; so, ordinary mercies, what they want in their size of some other great mercies, have compensated it in their number. Who will not say that a man shows greater kindness in maintaining one at his table with ordinary fare all the year than in entertaining him at a great feast twice or thrice in the same time?’ (William Gurnall)

Were I to count them – When lying awake, instead of counting sheep, try counting God’s thoughts. You will find it a rewarding exercise; but you will never get to the end. But you will find rest for your soul, and when you awake, God will still be there.

When I awake – ‘It is the great advantage of a Christian, which he has above other men, that he has his friends always about him, and (if the fault be not his own) need never to be absent from them.’ (Thomas Horton)

‘A godly soul should fall asleep in God’s arms, like a child in the mother’s lap; it should be sung and lulled to sleep with ‘songs in the night’. And this will make him the fitter for converse with God the next day after. This is the happiness of a Christian that is careful to lie down with God, that he finds his work still as he left it, and is in the same disposition when he rises as he was at night, he finds it going the next morning; so is it also, as I may say, with a Christian that winds up his heart. This is a good observation to be remembered, especially in the evening afore the Sabbath.’ (Thomas Horton)

‘The thoughts of God were the first visitors David had in the morning. God and his heart met together as soon as he was awake, and kept company all the day after.’ (Charnock)

139:19 If only you would kill the wicked, O God!
Get away from me, you violent men!
139:20 They rebel against you and act deceitfully;
your enemies lie.
139:21 O LORD, do I not hate those who hate you,
and despise those who oppose you?
139:22 I absolutely hate them,
they have become my enemies!

Kirkpatrick says that for the psalmist evil is no abstract notion: it is embodied in evil persons. (Cited by Allen).

Far from being alien to the main theme of the psalm, here, in vv19ff, we reach the main thrust of the psalm.  ‘The psalmist is trying to clear his name and establish his integrity, in the spirit of the disciple Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17 RSV).’ (Allen)

‘His appeal reveals that he does not identify himself with those who are utterly opposed to God’s moral purposes. He vehemently repudiates their company and attitude. Differentiating himself from all such, he declares himself on Yahweh’s side in the cause of morality and truth. If God hates or implacably opposes the wicked (Ps 11:5; cf. Ps 5:7 [6]; Jer 12:8; Hos 9:15), the psalmist enthusiastically pledges his likemindedness (cf. Ps 26:5). So he appeals to Yahweh as his moral champion who will vindicate his integrity.’ (Allen)

This closing section (vv19-24) also gives a hint as to the life-setting of the psalm.  David was surrounded by wickedness, bloodshed and deceit.  He knows God to be good, holy and righteous.  How will he himself stand up to the scrutiny of such an all-knowing Creator?  In this last section of the psalm, his confession is, in effect: “Lord you know me.  You read my thoughts and examine my motives.  I trust that I shall pass the test.  I believe that I am truly on your side, and not on the side of wickedness.

May remarks that this final section is sometimes regarded as a crude addition, so spoiling the serenity of verses 1-18 that they are often omitted from liturgical use.  But this is a mistake: ‘In the worldview of the psalms, the wicked and their dangerous threats to those who base life on God are an important part of the reality in the midst of which faith must live. To speak of them in speaking of one’s relation to God was completely consistent, especially where the relation was to God in his judging discernment of one’s life.’

‘David’s re-entry to the atmosphere of earth creates, as we might say, an sudden incandescence. The abrupt change in the psalm from reverie to resolve is disturbing, but wholly biblical in its realism; and the last two verses emphasise the continuity of this stanza with what has gone before, transposing the truths of the opening verses into the key of willing acceptance and surrender.’ (Kidner)

‘For all its vehemence, the hatred in this passage is not spite, but zeal for God. In “the day of salvation” the New Testament will re-direct this fighting spirit, but it will endorse its single-mindedness.’ (Cf. 2 Cor 6:14) (Kidner)

‘Davidson sagely comments that the maliciousness displayed by his enemies may suggest a reason why the psalmist explored his own relationship with God, the deepest and most lasting he had.’ (Grogan)

Broyles paraphrases: “I stand with God over against the wicked.”  The wicked ‘are introduced as a foil to demonstrate the speaker’s loyalty to God.’

Mays explains: ‘It is probably a mistake to take verse 19 as a real petition directed against some particular identifiable threat. The style of the wish is, rather, to be read as a form of the description of the self in relationship to God, and so in continuity with the rest of the psalm…To be willfully an enemy of God is unthinkable to the psalmist, but there the wicked are, the embodiment of another way than the fear of the LORD, conditioning and endangering the whole society by their character. So the psalmist at the conclusion of speaking to God about his relationship to God puts himself at all possible distance from them.’

Ps 64:7-9; 119:115; Isa 11:3-5; Mt 7:22-23; 25:41.

They rebel against you and act deceitfully; your enemies lie – See Ex 20:7; 2 Kings 19:22,27-28; Job 21:14-15; Ps 2:1-3.

O LORD, do I not hate those who hate you, and despise those who oppose you? –  To love God is to hate evil.

The word ‘hate’ ‘must be understood in the sense that he disapproved of their conduct; that he did not desire to be associated with them; that he wished to avoid their society, and to find his friends among men of a different character.’ (Barnes)

According to DeClaisse-Walford (NICOT), in the OT God ‘“hates” particular actions and behaviors rather than particular people.’  But the present verse, at least, argues against this: we should rather say that in the OT God’s ‘hatred’ is directed both against the persons and their deeds, and the distinction between ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ will not be clarified until the coming of Christ and his gospel.

True to Hebrew idiom, David expresses himself in black-and-white terms.  Using less colourful language, we could summarise him as saying, ‘I want nothing to do with wicked and godless people.  I want to distance myself from them, and stay close to God.’

True faith is marks not only by what it believes and does, positively, but what it disbelieves and eschews, negatively.  We must be know by what we are against, as well as what we are for.

‘It is not that hatred which is followed by malignity or ill-will; it is that which is accompanied with grief, pain of heart, pity, sorrow. So the Saviour looked on men: Mk 3:5…The Hebrew word used here, however, contains also the idea of being disgusted with; of loathing, of nauseating. The feeling referred to is anger – conscious disgust – at such conduct; grief, pain, sorrow that men should evince such feelings towards their Maker.’ (Albert Barnes, Q by Spurgeon)

‘A faithful servant hath the same interests, the same friends, the same enemies, with his master, whose cause and honour he is, upon all occasions, in duty bound to support and maintain. A good man hates, as God himself does; he hates not the persons of men, but their sins; not what God made them, but what they have made themselves.’ (George Horne, Q by Spurgeon)

‘Of this hatred he is not ashamed, but he sets it forth as a virtue to which he would have the Lord bear testimony. To love all men with benevolence is our duty; but to love any wicked man with complacency would be a crime. To hate a man for his own sake, or for any evil done to us, would be wrong; but to hate a man because he is the foe of all goodness and the enemy of all righteousness, is nothing more nor less than an obligation. The more we love God the more indignant shall we grow with those who refuse him their affection.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)

‘Even our very condemnation of what is evil requires to be tested. Does it spring from love to God? from hatred of sin? from attachment to holiness? from a desire not to countenance evil? or does it spring from ostentation? -from censorious feeling? -from hypocritical pretence? from a desire to please certain of our fellow-creatures?’ (John Morison, Q by Spurgeon)

‘The psalmist’s “hate” was not a violent, self-centered attitude; it referred to the complete rejection and detestation of the ways of those who disregard God. The psalmist could not be loyal to God and still associate with His enemies.’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

‘The term “hate” in the book of Psalms has been commonly misunderstood. While this Hebrew word does in some contexts mean “despise,” it can also mean “be unwilling or unable to put up with” or “reject” (as God toward Esau in Mal 1:3). Both are standard definitions in the Hebrew lexicons for this word. Thus when the psalmist says, “I have nothing but hatred for them” (Ps 139:22), he is expressing in the strongest possible way his utter dismay and inability to put up with those who hate God. Therefore, on this account as well there should be no presumption that the language of the imprecatory psalms violates the Bible’s teaching elsewhere, including Matthew 5:22, nor that it offers us a loophole to hate someone in the usual English sense of the word “hate.”’ (Fee & Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, p230)

2 Chron 19:1-2; Ps 15:1,2,4; 101:2-5,7-8; Mk 3:4-5; Lk 14:26; Rev 2:2,6

Nothing but hatred – ‘With no approval whatever of their conduct; with no sympathy for the evil they do; with no words of apology for their sinful acts; with entire disapprobation.’ (Barnes)

Truly, we are taught to love our enemies.  But the Bible does not always distinguish as clearly as we might like between the sin and the sinner.  This verse, shocking as it may sound to modern ears, compels us to ask: ‘Do I love what God loves, and hate what God hates?’

139:23 Examine me, and probe my thoughts!
Test me, and know my concerns!
139:24 See if there is any idolatrous tendency in me,
and lead me in the reliable ancient path!

Here in v23f, as Grogan remarks, we have an echo of the psalm’s beginning.  Previously, however, there was both admiration and ambivalence.  Now there is confidence that God can shine his searchlight into David’s heart and no sin will be found.  David’s ‘anxious thoughts’ about his enemies are calmed by his confident and reassuring thoughts about his God.

‘David does not confine his attack to the evil around him: he faces what may be within him.’ (Kidner)

Broyles: ‘Earlier the speaker’s initial response was to escape; now he chooses to draw near to the God who pursues him.’

‘What fearful dilemma have we here? The Holiest changeth not, when he comes a visitant to a human heart. He is the same there that he is in the highest heaven. He cannot look upon sin; and how can a human heart welcome him into its secret chambers? How can the blazing fire welcome the quenching water? It is easy to commit to memory the seemly prayer of an ancient penitent…The dead letters, worn smooth by frequent use, may drop freely from callous lips, leaving no sense of scalding on the conscience; and yet, truth of God though they are, they may be turned into a lie in the act of utterance. The prayer is not true, although it is borrowed from the Bible, if the suppliant invite the All-seeing in, and yet would give a thousand worlds, if he had them, to keep him out for ever.

‘…What! is there neither spot nor wrinkle now upon the man, that he dares to challenge inspection by the Omniscient, and to offer his heart as Jehovah’s dwelling-place? He is not yet so pure; and well he knows it…Many stains defile him yet, but he loathes them now, and longs to be free. The difference between an unconverted and a converted man is not that the one has sins, and the other has none; but that the one takes part with his cherished sins against a dreaded God, and the other takes part with a reconciled God against his hated sins.

‘…It is God’s love, from the face of Jesus shining into my dark heart, that makes my heart open to him, and delight to be his dwelling-place. The eyes of the just Avenger I cannot endure to be in this place of sin; but the eye of the compassionate Physician I shall gladly admit into this place of disease; for he comes from heaven to earth that he may heal such sin-sick souls as mine. When a disciple desires to be searched by the living God, he does not thereby intimate that there are no sins in him to be discovered: he intimates rather that his foes are so many and so lively, that nothing can subdue them except the presence and power of God.’ (William Arnot)

‘True faith is precious; it is like gold, it will endure a trial. Presumption is but a counterfeit, and cannot abide to be tried: 1 Pet 1:7. A true believer fears no trial. He is willing to be tried by God. He is willing to have his faith tried by others, he shuns not the touchstone. He is much in testing himself. He would not take anything upon trust, especially that which is of such moment. He is willing to hear the worst as well as the best. That preaching pleases him best which is most searching and distinguishing: Heb 4:12. He is loath to be deluded with vain hopes. He would not be flattered into a false conceit of his spiritual state. When trials are offered, he complies with the apostle’s advice, 2 Cor 13:5.’ (David Clarkson)

Barnes wryly remarks: ‘He must be a very sincere man who prays that God will search his thoughts, for there are few who would be willing that their fellow-men, even their best friends, should know all that they are thinking about.’

Jer 17:9-10.

See if there is any offensive way in me – See Ps 7:3-5.

‘In the beginning of the Psalm, the prophet had celebrated the omniscience of God, and had taught the doctrine that he was the Searcher of hearts. Here he implores the exercise of that omniscience in his own case, not because he was faultless, but because, being faulty even beyond his own knowledge, he desired the scrutiny of omniscience, that no lust might remain unmortified, no religious error uncorrected, and mo duty unknown or undone.’ (W.S. Plumer)

‘Is there one of us who can say that he has corrected his conduct up to the measure of his knowledge, and that now he must wait the being better informed before he can do more towards improving his life? I do not know how to define a higher point in religious attainment than supposing a man warranted in offering up the prayer of our text. I call upon you to be cautious in using this prayer. It is easy to mock God, by asking him to search you whilst you have made but little effort to search yourselves, and perhaps still less to act upon the result of the scrutiny.’ (Henry Melville, Q by Spurgeon)

Lead me… – See Ps 1:6; 25:8-9; 119:1,32; 143:8-10.

Contrast this with the way of the wicked, which will perish. (Ps 1:6) See also Pr 4:18.

Broyles summarises: ‘verses 1–6 concern not just divine omniscience but also divine searching (vv. 1–6). Verses 7–12 concern not just God’s omnipresence but also his pursuit (esp. v. 10). And verses 13–16 concern not just his omnipotence but also his personal craftsmanship and investment (vv. 13–16). The psalm expresses divine attributes in themselves and also divine loyalty to the speaker. They embody relational theology. The psalm is not a tranquil meditation on God; rather, it reflects the temptation to flee from him and is resolved by a reasoned surrender to God’s pursuit. It is an argument and confession for engaging in a relationship with God.’