A Study of Psalm 139
One of the writers I follow is Joel Rosenberg, who is an expert on what’s happening in the Middle East, both in Israel and in the Islamic world. He tells a story he researched, and which I believe, of two Christians driving a car full of Bibles down a mountain in a remote area of Iran. It was a distant, bleak Iranian location. The steering wheel suddenly jammed, and they had to bring their car to a stop. Suddenly an old man began knocking on the car window, asking where the books were. The two men in the car were confused and asked what books he wanted, and he told them he wanted the books about Jesus.
They began talking to the man and learned an angel had recently appeared to him in a dream or vision and shared the story about Jesus. The man later discovered that everyone in his village had experienced the same dream. They had all believed in Christ as much as they could, but they needed more information. That’s when the old man had another dream in which he was told to walk down the mountain and stand beside the road, and somebody would bring him books about Jesus. The man did so, and here came the supply of Bibles in a car that came to a sudden stop in the road. The Bibles were in the very language spoken by the village.
One of the reasons I believe that story is because there are so many reports coming from so many sources of God speaking to Muslims through dreams.
But there’s another lesson, which these two men in the car discovered for themselves. Wherever we go, the Lord Jesus is already there. He has gone ahead of us. He goes before us geographically. He goes before us in terms of time. He goes before us in terms of His work. He is everywhere, and even if we go to the ends of the earth, we’ll find He has been there all along.
That’s the wonderful message of the second paragraph of Psalm 139. This podcast series is a study through this Psalm. In the first episode, we looked at the overarching nature of Psalm 139. I said: “Psalm 139 tells us our powerful God is very personal; and our personal God is very powerful. He is both limitless and He is loving. He is infinite, but intimate. He is the one who knows you best, and He’s the one who loves you most. His universal attributes intersect with your personal situations on a constant basis. His divine traits converge with your daily trials, and He knows how to care for you. No one ever cares for you like Jesus.”
The 24 verses of this Psalm divide into four parts. The first six verses, which we looked at last time, talk about God’s omniscience and you. God knows everything, and He knows everything about you and me, and, as I said, the One who knows us best loves us the most. Let me read those verses from the Living Bible:
O Lord, You have examined my heart and know everything about me. 2 You know when I sit or stand. When far away You know my every thought. 3 You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment You know where I am. 4 You know what I am going to say before I even say it. 5 You both precede and follow me and place Your hand of blessing on my head. 6 This is too glorious, too wonderful to believe!
Now today we’re coming to the second paragraph, which has to do with God’s omnipresence and you—God is everywhere and we can never be anywhere in which He is absent. That’s verses 7-12, which say:
7 I can never be lost to Your Spirit! I can never get away from my God! 8 If I go up to heaven, You are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, You are there. 9 If I ride the morning winds to the farthest oceans, 10 even there Your hand will guide me, Your strength will support me. 11 If I try to hide in the darkness, the night becomes light around me. 12 For even darkness cannot hide from God; to You the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are both alike to You.
Let’s just take that passage, one wonderful line after the next.
I Can Never Be Lost To Your Spirit!
Verse 7 says in the English Standard Version: “Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence?”
These are rhetorical questions because the answer is “nowhere.” But there are two aspects of this. There may be infinite aspects of this, but when it comes to the quality of God’s nearness and pervasiveness, there are two clear dimensions to it.
J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, in their book, God’s Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology, made a point I’d never considered exactly as they put it. They point out there is a difference between God’s omnipresence and God’s presence.
We often use the prefix omni- to describe some of God’s attributes. The word “omni” means “all,” so His omnipresence is His presence everywhere. But Duvall and Hays say there is a difference between God’s presence and His omnipresence.
In my own thinking, I had more or less considered those terms as synonyms. God’s presence is everywhere, and He is omnipresent. But let me quote from these two scholars:
[There is an] important distinction between God’s presence and His omnipresence. The Old Testament, for example, certainly does affirm God’s omnipresence, but on the other hand, Moses does not remove his sandals and fearfully hide his face in front of every bush that he encounters in the wilderness. There is something spectacularly special and unique about that particular bush in Exodus 3, because God is present in a very intense way in that particular flaming bush.
Likewise, while God’s omnipresence fills all the mountains of the world, the one is Exodus 19 is quite different: ‘Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire….’”
In other words, there are two aspects to God’s presence. There is His essential presence, which fills Heaven and Earth. And there is His relational or personal presence, which brings Him close to us so we can know Him, draw near to Him, and live in His presence through grace.
In terms of His essential presence or His omnipresence, God’s essence fills the seen and unseen realms and beyond. King Solomon said, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You.”
One of the most important verses in all the Bible on this subject is Jeremiah 23:23-24: Am I only a God nearby, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Who can hide in the secret places so that I cannot see them? declares the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth, declares the Lord.
It’s that last phrase I want you to think about. The Lord tells us that He fills heaven and earth. Heaven refers to the invisible realm, of which we know only a little, only what the Bible tells us. It’s invisible to us at the present moment. It’s the world of angelic beings and heavenly hosts, and it’s the realm of New Jerusalem.
The seen realm, that which is visible to us, is our current physical world and universe.
Stephen Charnock in his massive book about God said, “By filling heaven and earth is meant therefore a filling it with His essence. No place can be imagined that is deprived of the presence of God and therefore when the Scripture anywhere speaks of the presence of God, it joins heaven and earth together.”
This is a great mystery to me, and I don’t understand much about it. It has to do with the incorporeality of God. God is not a material body, but rather he is spiritual. God is spirit, and His spirit fills Heaven and earth, the unseen and the seen realms.
That is God’s omnipresence or His essential presence filling all reality.
But Jeremiah 23 also talks about God’s personal presence, His relational presence. He is a God who is nearby.
Going back to Duvall and Hays,—they would say the relational presence of God is the underlying theme of Scripture. They begin their book like this:
Our basis thesis is that the Triune God desires to have a personal, encountering relationship with His people and enters into His creation in order to facilitate that relationship. Thus the Bible begins with God’s presence relating to His people in the garden (Genesis) and ends with God’s presence relating to His people in the garden (Revelation). This holy, intense, powerful presence of God appears to Moses in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai, and then enters into the tabernacle (and later into the temple) so that God can dwell among His people. Indeed, the presence of God dwelling among His people is foundational to His covenant with them…. Jesus, Immanuel (God with us) appears. The incarnation brings to a climax the relational presence of God… In Acts, after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each believer, just as the holy presence of God dwelt in the tabernacle or temple… The entire story culminates at the end of Revelation, where the presence of God is once again in Jerusalem (the New Jerusalem) and in the garden, relating to His people. This ‘megatheme” drives the biblical story.
To the Psalmist in Psalm 139, this is very wonderful. He exclaims, 7 I can never be lost to your Spirit! I can never get away from my God!
I wrote an entire book about this, entitled Always Near: 10 Ways to Delight in the Closeness of God. In one chapter, I wrote about the famous evangelist Dwight Moody. What was the secret of his power? At his memorial service in 1899, a friend said, “He walked with God, and so did not have to turn out his way to speak to Him. I have been driving with him off on some retired road about Northfield. We would be talking together, when, suddenly, he would pause for a moment and speak to God just as naturally as he would speak to a friend.”
That’s what the Psalmist meant when he said, “I can never be lost to Your Spirit! I can never get away from my God.”
If I Go Up to Heaven, You Are There
The next verse, Psalm 139:8 says, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there.” Perhaps David was thinking, if I travel as far as I can see—which is into the realm of the stars—you will still be with me.” I don’t know if David had that in mind, but it certainly comes to our minds these days when people – even tourists – are going into space. Perhaps you know that when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to walk on the moon, they did something secretly—something very special—moments before they did so. Buzz Aldrin unpacked a little package of bread and wine that had been prepared by his church. Before stepping out of their lunar lander, Buzz read from John 15, and took the cup and the wine. The first food ever consumed on the moon was the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Even on the barren surface of the moon, which no human footprints had ever touched until that day, the Lord was already there, present, waiting on them.
But perhaps David also had in mind His eternal Home when He said, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there.” In Psalm 23, he said, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” And yet he knew that when he died, while his spirit would wing upward, his body would be entombed in the earth until the resurrection day. So he wrote, “If I go down to the place of the dead, You are there.”
The Hebrew word “sheol” is used here. It was the common Old Testament word for the afterlife.
In other words, the presence and the omnipresence of God was a comfort to David when he thought about living and when he thought about dying. When the end of his earthly life came, his fellowship with God would continue because God was already on the other side. This is the point the apostle Paul made when he talked about being absent from the body and present with the Lord. According to Paul, who had more biblical and revelatory knowledge and who lived and taught after the resurrection of Jesus, leaving this world as a Christian tremendously enhances our awareness and enjoyment of God’s presence. Absent from the body—present with the Lord!
Verses 9-10 says, “If I ride the morning winds to the farthest oceans, even there Your hand will guide me, Your strength will support me.”
King David was probably imagining being able to be airborne like a bird, flying on the winds that blew from the east and which would take him as far as anyone could imagine over the endless—or what to David seemed endless—waters of the Mediterranean Sea, which formed Israel’s western border.
What David could only vaguely imagine, we now do on a regular basis—ride in the vessels of the sky, sometimes to the ends of the earth.
If I Ride the Morning Winds
Verses 9 and 10 say: If I ride the morning winds to the farthest oceans, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your strength will support me.
Author Laura Thomas is a noted Christian fiction writer, a wife, and a mother. She grew up in the United Kingdom, but her father brought her whole family as emigrants to Canada. She said,
We emigrated from the UK to Canada, which is now unbelievably 25 years ago. A new life in a new country on a new continent. My dad gave us these verses [Psalm 139:9-10] as we ventured off chasing our dream ‘on the far side of the sea’ with our toddler in tow and many unknowns ahead of us.
And even a quarter century after the fact, when I read these words [Psalm 139:9-10] I still feel a flutter of butterflies in my belly. They evoke memories of our courageous days and how we trusted God completely to provide a job and a home and a community for us to embrace. And He did. Of course, He did. He is always faithful.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this verse brought the sweetest comfort on both sides—to us as we journeyed into our brand-new life and to our families as they bid us farewell. It was not only reassuring for us to remember God was with us and would be our Guide always, but it also gave tremendous peace to the family we left behind knowing our Heavenly Father would be watching over us even as we were out of their sight….. Travel is not an issue for the omnipresent One.
Now as parents of three grown kids in their twenties who have all moved away to follow dreams of their own, I appreciate these verses afresh knowing God sees them, guides them, loves them.
As I read Laura’s testimony about this, I felt frustrated, a little cheated, that I had not also learned these verses in childhood. What a blessing for every child to memorize and take into life with them the powerfully assuring words of Psalm 139:9-10:
In the English Standard Version, these verses say: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me and Your right hand shall hold me.
Even if we are as far from home as we can ever imagine, on the side of the nation or on the other side of the world or on the other side of the stars—God has two hands around us. One is guiding us and the other is holding us.
Now, let’s finish this paragraph with verses 11-12:
If I Try to Hide in the Darkness
The Psalmist said: 11 If I try to hide in the darkness, the night becomes light around me. 12 For even darkness cannot hide from God; to you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are both alike to you.
The word “hide” in the Hebrew is actually the word “bruise” or “overwhelm.” If the darkness tries to bruise me or overwhelm me—if I am overwhelmed in the darkness, the night becomes light around me.
Rick Hamlim is a great devotional writer who served for many years as executive editor of Guideposts. He said that a number of years ago he ended up in the hospital for two weeks with a mysterious lung infection – this was long before COVID. The doctors were baffled, and his hospital room was filled with specialists of all kinds. Rick was having great difficulty breathing, and it was hard to answer all their questions between gulps of air. He became very frightened and discouraged.
But the one thing I remembered, as I drifted in and out of a fitful sleep, was my twenty-five-year-old son, Timothy, reading the words of a psalm by my bedside.
Timothy left the second week, heading to South Africa for ten months of mission work. Fortunately, I came home at the end of that week, my fever gone, my lungs able to function again on their own, my energy returning. The doctors still couldn’t give me a diagnosis, but that was all right. “They kept me alive,” I told friends. “Prayers healed me.”
I still wondered, thought, about that prayer by my bedside…. Had it even happened. I emailed Tim, “Did you read a psalm to me in the hospital?”
“Yes, Dad,” he replied.
It seems the words that had lodged in Rick’s mind were: “Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, the night is bright as the day; for the darkness is as light with Thee.”
There are times when the darkness can overwhelm us, whether it’s sickness, loneliness, depression, fear, or whatever it is. But God’s presence is with us; His omnipresence is around us; and even the night becomes as bright as the day.
It’s really summed up in a verse David knew very well. He was a great student of the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament. And there at the end of Deuteronomy was the famous verse given to Joshua, as it’s put in the old King James Version: “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, He it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
We’re halfway through Psalm 139, and we’ve learned something about how the omniscience and omnipresence of God intersects with our lives. Next week, we’ll look at God’s omnipotence—His limitless power and might, as we study verses 13-18.