A Study of Psalm 139
Today we’re finishing our five-part study of Psalm 139, so I’ll take a moment to review it all for you. In an earlier installment, I suggested we can write these words over Psalm 139: “What God Thinks of Me.” This is one of the Bible’s best passages for dealing with self-image and self-esteem.
There are only 24 verses here, but the personal pronouns words “I” and “me” and “my” occur 48 times. The words “You” and “Your” occur 28 times. This is a very intimate Psalm, yet the writer frames everything around four of God’s almighty attributes.
In Psalm 139, David shows how these four of God’s infinite qualities intersect with our most personal lives. First, he focuses on God’s omniscience—God’s total knowledge of everything that exists, including you and me. In the Living Bible, David said in verses 1 through 6:
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!
The One who knows us best loves us most.
In the next six verses, David deals with God’s omnipresence—with His constant presence around us. Verses 7 through 12 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.
God’s omnipresence fills the universe, but His relational presence is closer to us than we can imagine. We can practice the presence of God day and night.
In the next six verses, David deals with God’s omnipotence, with His creative power. Verses 13 through 18 say:
13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit them together in my mother’s womb. 14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! It is amazing to think about. Your workmanship is marvelous—and how well I know it. 15 You were there while I was being formed in utter seclusion! 16 You saw me before I was born and scheduled each day of my life before I began to breathe. Every day was recorded in your book! 17-18 How precious it is, Lord, to realize that you are thinking about me constantly! I can’t even count how many times a day your thoughts turn toward me. And when I waken in the morning, you are still thinking of me!
To paraphrase: “Lord, You made me as a unique person, and whether I’m sleeping or away, You are still thinking about me! You have a specific plan for my life.”
Now today, we’re coming to the last six verses, Psalm 139:19-24, which deal with the attribute of quality of God’s righteousness. There is a dramatic shift here that seems jarring to us. I think you’ll sense that. Let me read it, and then we’ll discuss it.
19 Surely you will slay the wicked, Lord! Away, bloodthirsty men! Begone! 20 They blaspheme your name and stand in arrogance against you—how silly can they be? 21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you? Shouldn’t I be grieved with them? 22 Yes, I hate them, for your enemies are my enemies too.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. 24 Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
It seems these verses provide the occasion or the reason for David’s writing this Psalm. He was being attacked or criticized or tormented or threatened by some people who are described here as wicked, bloodthirsty, blasphemers, arrogant, and enemies of God. David was upset and anxious. He was beside himself. Perhaps the nation of Israel is under attack by the armies of an enemy who wants to wipe out Israel. Or perhaps this was a personal attack.
Slay the Wicked
In any case, David prayed, in the words of the New International Version: “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty.”
As I’ve been studying this passage, I’ve also been watching the heartbreaking and maddening news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began at the end of February 2022. Is hating leaders who commit such atrocities wrong? Well, I pray for Vladimir Putin’s salvation, but I’m offended with what I think is righteous indignation by his arrogance, wickedness, cruelty, oppression, loathsome attitude and actions. I hate what he is doing with all the hatred I have within me. His evil is terrifying to watch, and it leads to the pitiful destruction of many innocent people. If people of such evil can escape the justice of God, something is wrong.
David isn’t quite sure why God is allowing it. He said: “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty.”
They Speak of You with Evil Intent
Verse 20 goes on to say in the New International Version: “They speak of You with evil intent; Your adversaries misuse Your name.”
The Psalmist is saying, “These enemies are not so much attacking me as they are attacking You, Lord.”
And that’s true. The evil we see in our world is the result of rebellion against God. The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge related his conversation with Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of Josef Stalin. Muggeridge and Svetlana were working together on a BBC project. According to Svetlana, as Stalin lay dying, plagued with terrifying hallucinations, he suddenly sat halfway up in bed, clenched his fist toward heaven, then fell back upon his pillow and was dead.
There is an iron cable of evil that pierces through and links all the evil dictators and despots of history. It also runs through us, but the blood of Jesus Christ dissolves it and sets us free. When people reject the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, they’re left with nothing but this impaling iron cable that drags them down into hell and into judgment.
I Hate Those Who Hate You
In verses 21-22, David brings this idea of hatred right up to the surface, saying, “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 as my enemies.”
At first glance, this seems to conflict with the teaching Jesus gave in His Sermon on the Mount, where He told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who despitefully use us.
Many years ago, I visited a man who wasn’t yet ready to give his life to Christ. One of his objections was that somehow he had opened the Bible to the book of Malachi, which begins with these words: “I have loved you, says the Lord. But you ask, how have You loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? Declares the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.”
This man could not understand a God who would love one brother but hate the other. He didn’t want to follow a God who hated people.
I can understand that objection, but it underestimates the perfections of God. If God does have the capacity to hate, His hatred would be as pure and perfect and good and appropriate as His love.
When we think of hatred, we think of personal emotional animosity and resentment. We think of personal scorn and spite. That may not be the best way to define the word “hate” as it relates to Almighty God.
In his theological dictionary, Geoffrey W. Bromiley describes this word, as it relates to God, as not “emotional hate but a disowning of evil and those who commit it.”
In the case of Jacob and Esau, there is no sense that God had an emotional preference for one over the other. But one of the boys and not the other was chosen to be in the lineage of the Messiah based on how God knew they would turn out.
There’s a book called Hard Sayings in the Bible, written by a series of brilliant Bible scholars including Walter Kaiser and F. F. Bruce. In their comment on Malachi 1, they said: “When Scripture talks about God’s hatred, it uses a distinctively biblical idiom which does not imply that Yahweh exhibits disgust, disdain or a desire for revenge. [But] there are clear objects meriting God’s hatred including [evil], all forms of hypocritical worship, and even death itself.”
They went on to say, “God does not experience psychological hatred with all its negative and sinful connotations.”
Here is Psalm 139, David never says that God hates anyone. David is wondering why the Lord is still allowing those whom David hates to live. He said, “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Do not I hate those who hate you, Lord? I have nothing but hatred for them.”
The lesson for us in all this is to find the balance of the Lord Jesus Christ in the way we deal with people who are evil and who are fostering even on others and on our planet. They are invading our righteousness and they are violating the righteousness of God.
Jesus said we should love our enemies. He said that in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”
But later in the same message, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in Your name drive out demons and in Your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers.”
As far as I can process it, this is the balance. God loves people. He loves everyone, and so should we, even when they do wrong things. We should love them, praying they will repent. But if they will not repent, at some point the righteousness of a just God will repel them backward, right into judgment. Evil will not win the victory. Wickedness will not prevail. Sin and suffering will not endure.
We can love people, and yet be zealous in our hatred of evil. We can fight as hard as we can, in the strength of the Lord, to keep the righteousness of God aflame in our lives. We can strive by God’s strength to maintain our personal holiness—and to help us, David ends Psalm 139 with one of the most practical and important prayers in the Bible. The entire Psalm comes down to this. Let me read verses 23 and 24 from the New International Version:
Search Me, O God
“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.”
I had a friend in Bible College who looked unusually disconcerted one day, and I said, “Steve, what’s wrong?” He said, “I prayed the prayer at the end of Psalm 139 and asked God to shine his spotlight on whatever was wrong in my life, and I am overwhelmed with what I’ve seen. I think I’m going to have to pray, ‘Lord, shut it off! Shut it off!”
Well, I don’t think Steve ever prayed for God to shut it off, because he went on to become a powerful Christian leader. I think he always wanted God to assess him and help him. But it does honestly take some courage to offer this prayer.
Recently, I summoned up my courage and have been praying this. What I’d like to do as we end our study is to walk through this prayer so we glean as much of its meaning as we can.
Verse 23 says, “Search me, O God.” Here the Psalm comes full circle with its four segments. The last one about God’s righteousness and its prayer brings us right back to the beginning. Look at verse 1: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.”
This is not a one-time prayer. It’s the constant prayer of the believer. It’s like having our annual physical. I’ve gone back to my same doctor year after year and said, “Doctor, examine me and see if there’s any sign of disease or illness, and help me stay as healthy as possible.” It’s a regular routine and rhythm in my life, and I will go so far as to say I might not be alive today otherwise.
Our Great Physician who knows us best, who loves us most, who created us in our mother’s wombs, who is thinking about us constantly—He wants to keep you as emotionally, spiritually, and even physically healthy as possible. And this is a prayer for ongoing spiritual health.
Search me, O God, and know my heart.
Christians should never suffer from heart disease—and I’m talking about our innermost hearts, our spirits and souls and psyches. Spin up your courage and pray this: Search me, O God, and know my heart.
The next phrase says, “Test me and know my anxious thoughts.” David has been suffering from anxiety. His nation was facing invasion, or he was facing pressure from these evildoers—we don’t know the specifics of the background of this Psalm—but he was having some panic attacks. He was anxious.
The word used here in the Hebrew is the same as Psalm 94:19, which says, “When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought me joy.”
God doesn’t want our hearts overwhelmed and ruled by anxious thoughts. So we need to say, “Lord, search me. See what’s wrong with my faith. See what’s wrong with my heart. Study my anxious thoughts. Yes, I do have the wicked, the bloodthirsty, those with evil intent, those who hate you. Yes, Lord, there are urgent and terrible problems. But anxious thoughts are not the right response to it all. Lord, show me how to recover my trust, my peace, my strength, my poise, and my focus on You.”
But, of course, there’s more than anxiety that can sicken our hearts and spirits. There is sin in all of its subtle forms. And so the Psalmist goes on to pray in verse 24: “See if there is ANY wicked way in me.”
That could involve our thought lives, it could be unrecognized pride, unrealized bitterness, undetected greed, misguided priorities. There can be things wrong with us without our knowing it.
It’s possible that right now you or I have some level of disease in our bodies but we don’t yet know it. But the sooner we find out, the greater our likelihood of survival and good health.
There can be a lot of things wrong with our personalities that we can’t detect without the skill of the Great Physician, and so we say: “Lord, see if there is any offensive way in me.”
The implication is—Lord, please help me correct anything in my life that is harmful or not pleasing to me.
And the Psalm ends by saying, “And let me in the way everlasting.”
Let me paraphrase that: “Lord, let me walk in utmost spiritual and emotional health along the pathway you’ve given me through this earth to Heaven.”
When I was in Bible College, a great church historian came to our campus to lecture. His name was J. Edwin Orr. I later learned that in 1936, Dr. Orr had been involved in a series of Gospel meetings in an island of the South Pacific, off the coast of New Zealand. Prayer meetings proliferated across the area, many students were coming to Christ, and the area began overflowing with the testimonies of those being saved and renewed in Christ.
One day Dr. Orr heard four Aborigine girls sing a beautiful song entitled “The Song of Farewell,” the first words being, “Now is the hour when we must say goodbye.” Unable to get the lovely Polynesian tune out of his mind, Dr. Orr began singing it to himself using words from Scripture, from Psalm 139. These words he jotted them down on the back of an envelope while standing in the post office, and they were first published in his book, All You Need.
His words and that music became a well-known 20th-century hymn. I’m not going to sing it for you, but I encourage you to look it up and learn it from your music app. The words say:
Search me, O God, and know my heart today,
Try me, O Savior, know my thoughts, I pray;
See if there be some wicked way in me;
Cleanse me from every sin, and set me free.
Thanks for digging into the Bible with me, and may God be with you until we meet again.