Psalm 139 Commentary: God’s Pervasive Presence, Intimate Knowledge, and Faithful Comfort
Psalm 139 is one of the more well-known and well-beloved psalms—and for good reason. This psalm speaks of the pervasive presence of God, and his intimate knowledge of us, which offer us an outsized measure of hope and comfort in the face of adversity and trial. But what does the psalm mean and how are its four poetic movements connected?
W. Dennis Tucker and Jamie A. Grant provide insight into the meaning and composition of this magisterial psalm in their new commentary Psalms, Volume 2 (NIV Application Commentary). This Psalms commentary, which is part of the NIV Application Commentary Series, helps readers learn how the message of the Psalms can have the same powerful impact today that it did when they were first written. It helps bring both halves of the interpretive task together—the passage’s original meaning and contemporary application—explaining not only what the Psalms meant but also how they speak powerfully today.
Tucker and Grant coordinate both tasks in their commentary on Psalm 139. At the start, they offer a unifying thread that serves as an interpretive key:
As in Psalm 138, the writer of Psalm 139 announces the threats that befall him and pleads for God’s action (Ps 139:19–22). In this poem, however, the psalmist’s hope rests entirely with the God who knows him, the God with whom he is in relationship. The verb yada‘, “to know,” occurs seven times in the poem (vv. 1, 2, 4, 6, 14, 23 [2x]), thereby repeatedly reinforcing the “I-Thou” relationship between the psalmist and God. This “I-Thou” relationship serves as the “unifying thread” throughout the psalm. (914)
This “I-Thou” relationship, and the accompanying pervasive, intimate presence of God, roots the psalmist’s hope and comfort—as well as our own. Keep reading for an insightful portrait of this powerful psalm.
The Four Poetic Movements of Psalm 139
As the NIV’s translation suggests, Psalm 139 can be divided into four strophes: verses 1–6; 7–12; 13–18; and 19–24. Tucker and Davis offer an overview of these four movements:
The language adopted in the first two strophes underscores the dominance of the “I-Thou” relationship in the poem. In the first strophe “you” serves as the subject of nearly all the verbs, while in the second strophe, “I” dominates throughout. The first three strophes praise God for his comprehensive knowledge of the psalmist, the fullness of his presence in the world, and his power as Creator. The final strophe, however, shifts both in focus and tenor. The soaring language of praise and confession in the first three strophes abruptly ends in verse 18, only to be followed by more ominous and troubling language in the final strophe. (914–15)
Before exploring the meaning of this passage in detail, here is the whole psalm for your consideration from the NIV:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Commentary on Psalm 139
There has been considerable debate about the precise genre of this psalm. “The hymnic nature of the first eighteen verses seems to support the claims of Hermann Gunkel and Claus Westermann” (915). Others insist the psalm is a prayer of an unjustly accused person, given the final strophe, while some have suggested it is a complaint uttered by a psalmist in the midst of hostility. Others still highlight the wisdom themes present and prefer a “meditation” or “wisdom meditation” label. Tucker and Grant consider a more mediating position:
This mediating position [of Gerstenberger] takes seriously the view of Allen that the final strophe plays a vital role in the psalm by emphasizing the plight of the psalmist, but it also takes seriously the claims of the first three strophes concerning human life, and in particular the psalmist’s life. (916)
The supplicant David, then, blends wisdom themes with a complaint in offering his psalm of prayer and worship before the Lord.
God’s Examination of the Psalmist (139:1–6)
Opening his psalm, the poet captures the fullness of God’s knowledge through what the authors note is several examples of merism. As they explain:
A merism is a poetic technique that expresses a totality by mentioning two parts, typically polar opposites … Poetically speaking, a merism provides vivid images that are meant to replace more abstract concepts such as “all,” “every,” or “always.” Given this intended usage, a merism is meant to be understood figuratively or metaphorically, but not literally. (916-17)
They offer a few examples of merism: “when I sit” and “when I rise” (v. 2a), “my going out and my lying down” (v. 3a), and “behind and before” (v. 5a). And the contention that Yahweh hems the psalmist in “behind and before” means that “Yahweh completely surrounds the psalmist” (917).
These merisms follow the Lord’s searching of the psalmist, where thereafter he knows him. “The verb ‘to search’ (haqar) can refer to searching out land (Judg 18:2) or searching out a city (2 Sam 10:3), but often, especially in the wisdom literature, the verb means ‘to search’ in the sense of ‘to examine’” (917). What’s more, the psalmist uses four verbs of perception, reflecting Yahweh’s attentiveness to the fullness of the psalmist’s life: “to know” (yada‘); “to perceive” (bin); “to discern” (zarah); and “to be familiar with” (sakan).
Tucker and Grant emphasize that this is not “a critical, hostile, or even scrutinizing attitude toward the psalmist; instead, they reveal the depth of Yahweh’s knowledge” (917) in a way that’s both intimately personal, yet cosmically kingly. This knowledge is firmly in view through the rest of this first strophe, where the reach of Yahweh’s knowledge extends to even the psalmists thoughts (v 4). And he is so close and intimate that he hems him in.
The verb “to hem in” (tsur) or “to bind” is an equivocal term that can mean Yahweh makes him secure, but in some contexts also means “laying siege.” So which is it? The authors don’t believe a dichotomy of meaning is warranted. Instead, they point to Goldingay here: “‘the person who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear of Yhwh’s binding or the touch of Yhwh’s hand’ [Psalms 3, 630]. Yahweh is indeed close enough to bind him up (in support) but also ‘to lay siege’ to him, should doing so be warranted” (918).
The Psalmist’s Thoughts on Fleeing from God (139:7–12)
The psalmist continues the theme of God’s pervasive presence: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (v. 7) he begins. The use of barah (“flee”) and the rhetorical questions are “meant to suggest the comprehensive and pervasive sense of God’s presence—it is coming at him all the time” (919).
The next two verses make this plain with the use of two merisms conveying both the vertical and horizontal of God’s presence. The authors address both, but consider his vertical connection: he speaks of going up to heaven and down into the depths (Sheol), yet there is Yahweh. “Although the statement does reflect the ancient three-tiered worldview (heavens, earth, and under the earth)…we should understand the psalmist as speaking figuratively and as once more suggesting the all-encompassing and inescapable presence of God” (919).
Regardless of where he flees—going up to heaven or down into the depths, traveling east or west—“he can escape neither the grasp nor the notice of Israel’s God” (920). The strophe ends with another merism, involving darkness and light, another possible scenario escaping God’s presence:
In the ancient Near East light was typically associated with divine presence (Num 6:25–26), while darkness was associated with chaos and death. The writer of Psalm 139 suggests that if he were in the darkness, the place of chaos and death, the place that is absent of light, then perhaps finally he would find a place apart from God. The psalmist quickly recognizes the fault in his own logic, however, because “even the darkness will not be dark to [God]” (v. 12). The darkness quickly ceases to be darkness because of the radiant light of God. His very presence casts out all darkness (John 1:5). (920)
Opening with a set of rhetorical questions followed by a series of hypothetical questions, the psalmist offers insight into the fullness of God’s presence in the world. He continues with a full-orbed look at that presence from birth.
God’s Presence from the Beginning of Life (139:13–18)
The presence of God in one’s life is truly inescapable, beginning with birth. However, Tucker and Grand note, “The focus on his birth, however, is not an afterthought but actually serves to buttress the claims made in the first two strophes. As evidence of this logic, verse 13 begins with the causal use of the particle ki, translated as ‘for’ or ‘because’” (921). In other words, I cannot escape God’s presence “For you created my inmost being” (v. 13). The authors also note the unusual use of “created.”
Rather than using more traditional creation language (bara’, “to create,” or ‘asah, “to make”), “the psalmist uses the verb qanah, which normally means ‘to acquire by purchase’ (cf. Gen 47:19; 49:30; Lev 22:11; Jer 32:7). Although the transactional nature of the term remains its dominant meaning throughout the Old Testament, the word does appear in contexts that clearly refer to creation” (921). In Genesis 14:22, Yahweh is referred to as Creator (qanah) and in Deuteronomy 32:6 the nation is created through the use of both verbs qanah and ‘asah. The second part of Psalm 139:13 continues this motif, confessing God’s presence with the psalmist from the very beginning of existence by indicating that the psalmist was knit together in his mother’s womb.
“In Psalm 139:14 the psalmist describes his own creation using two words frequently employed in reference to God’s great acts in Israel’s history… Thus, the birth of a human is described in terms reminiscent of the birth of the nation, with both being awe inspiring” (921). “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” he declares. The emphasis here is not on workmanship, but on the mystery of creation itself. “The psalmist acknowledges that human creation, from its beginning, is a mystery and a wonder known only to God” (921). And by beginning he really means beginning—as in the embryo stage!
Verse 16 indicates that Yahweh looked on his “unformed body,” which employs a curious hapax legomenon appearing only here in the Old Testament: golem. “In Babylonian Aramaic, the term refers to a formless mass or an incomplete vessel. The word’s later use in the Talmud suggests the term could be construed as meaning ‘embryo’ or something that was formless or shapeless” (922). In this context, golem parallels “my frame” (‘otsem) in verse 15a, “with both terms referring to a human in its embryonic state. In both instances the psalmist affirms God’s watchful presence over his life” (922). This connects well with the rest of v. 15, where the “secret” place and “depths of the earth” likely refers to the depths his mother’s womb. Even there, God is present in his life.
In the final few verses, he indicates that all the days ordained for him are written in “your book,” which the authors explain “likely stems from the Mesopotamian idea of tablets or books of fate in which the deities would write the preordained life of humans. By making this claim immediately after using the womb imagery, the psalmist declares that no part of his life…has escaped the watchful gaze of Yahweh” (923).
And he marvels at this, confessing a sense of awe at the vastness of God’s thoughts about him. Although “he cannot know the vast sum of God’s thoughts, he does know that God is with him, whether at the end of his inquiry or the end of his life” (923).
The Threat of Enemies (139:19–24)
The final strophe abruptly shifts from hymnic language to more petitionary language. Through his petitions the psalmist aligns himself with God and asks for God to redress his present circumstances.
The psalmist describes the enemies as the “wicked” and the “bloodthirsty.” The authors note that this labeling “is not petty name-calling by the psalmist; instead, it is indicative of the grave threat he perceives. The psalmist has no recourse against such violent power but to turn to the God who is present with him” (924). And he petitions God to act because they are against him, God himself. “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord?” the Psalmist asks. Although hate can refer to emotion or feeling, “‘hating’ does not connote a negative emotion but, instead, a lack of relationship,” which connotes the hater’s position in regards to God. They’ve abrogated any relationship with God. “Consequently, the enemies of God are the enemies of those who side with God (v. 22)” (924).
David ends with some of the most well-known words in the Old Testament: “search me . . . and know me”—my heart and my anxious thoughts. Tucker and Grant explain that in the Old Testament, “‘anxious thoughts’ can be the result of night visions (Job 4:13) or defamatory rhetoric (Job 20:2), as well as the fear of being mistreated by others (Ps 94:19). In Psalm 139 the psalmist’s anxieties are due to the threat posed by the enemies mentioned in verses 19–22. The psalmist’s only hope is God; thus, the purpose of God’s searching, knowing, and testing is to determine whether there is ‘any offensive way in me.’” Why? “Because the psalmist desires the presence of God, he seeks to eradicate anything in his own life that might vitiate that life-giving relationship” (925).
Bridging the Contexts
Although some readers who come to psalm 139 often infer propositions of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, Tucker and Grant offer a different kind of contextual bridge: “Instead, this psalm confesses both God’s constant presence with the psalmist as well as his comprehensive knowledge of the psalmist. The psalm is intimately personal, as is the God to whom the psalm testifies” (925). And they note that this presence and knowledge seems to evoke both “flight and fascination” in the psalmist, both comfort and fear.
Tucker and Grant note several verses that seems to suggest the weightiness that comes with the nearness of God’s presence in offering comfort:
- In verse 5 God is said to “hem in” the psalmist, and in verse 7 he queries, “Where can I flee from you presence?” Both images (being hemmed in and fleeing) nearly always carry a negative connotation.
- Similarly, the reference to Yahweh’s “grasp” of the psalmist in verse 10b leaves open whether this action is positive or negative, a comfort or cause for fear.
- Yet as the poem draws to a close, it is the psalmist’s nearness to God (v. 18b) that gives him cause for hope even in the face of impending threats.
Then there are the images of God’s hand that further illustrate this “flight and fascination” with God’s presence in the psalm:
- In verses 13 and 15, the poet invokes images of knitting and weaving to explain the care with which God created him.
- Earlier in the poem the hand of God is said to guide the psalmist (v. 10a), thereby suggesting once more the formative work of God in his life.
- Yet in verse 5 he confesses that God laid his hand upon him. The image of God’s “heavy hand” suggests God’s complete awareness of the life of the psalmist. No reason is provided or justification offered for the divine hand that has befallen the psalmist. He simply understands that even God’s corrective action is expressive of his pervasive presence.
This tenuous balance between “flight and fascination” exists throughout Scripture. As the authors note, “Because God is pervasively present, the comfort of his presence is juxtaposed with the very threat of the same. The God who appears to Israel on Mount Sinai in a theophany is the same God who exacts judgment moments later at the base of that very mountain. The God who calls David from the fields to be his anointed king is the same God who chastens David for his pursuit of Bathsheba” (926).
And there is the “challenge,” so to speak, of worshiping a God who is intimately personal with his creation. “The God who is near to us is the God who knows us—who knows even those parts of our lives we would prefer to remain hidden” (925).
Psalm 139 reflects on the human condition, and specifically God’s interaction with the individual human experience. Tucker and Grant note how many hymns tend to highlight the fascination and comfort gained from God’s presence. However, “Rarely do hymns remind us of the kind of pervasive presence of God in our lives that might prompt a sense of holy fear. We are content with having God near us, but preferably not too near” (927). There is a better way.
As the psalmist was given pause by the thought of God’s pervasive presence, we too should be inspired and taken aback. Here’s why:
The God who has known us from our very beginnings is the God who has watched us all along. He has seen our comings and goings, our faithfulness and faithlessness. Yet he has remained present with us (v. 18). Because God has known us, fully known us, we can trust in him when the world goes awry and seems to be in open rebellion against his ways (vv. 19–22). And because God has known us, fully known us, we should be compelled to ask God to search us to see whether there is any offensive way in us (vv. 23–24).” (927)
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
“By living in the tension between comfort and fear, we acknowledge anew the presence of God; we acknowledge anew our desire to walk in ‘the way everlasting’” (927).
Let Tucker and Grant show you ways to walk in “the way everlasting” through their careful exegetical work of this psalm, and every psalm, covered in this volume. Add Psalms, Volume 2 to your library today and you will grasp the original meaning, exegetical context, and contemporary significance of these precious biblical poems, hymns, and prayers.