A Study of Psalm 139
The other day I took a pencil and wrote these words over Psalm 139 in my Bible: “What God Thinks of Me.” Try that for yourself, because it’s truly the theme of this glorious chapter.
The entire subject of self-esteem has dominated popular psychology during my lifetime, and much of our self-esteem is based on what we believe our authority figures think of us. What does my dad or mom or coach or teacher think of me? Well, nothing will deepen your sense of self-worth like studying Psalm 139 and learning about what Almighty God thinks of you.
Psalm 139 is a very personal Psalm. There are only 24 verses, but the words “I” and “me” and “my” occur 48 times. The words “You” and “Your” occur 28 times. Yet the writer never gets away from God’s almighty attributes.
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, 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.
Today I want to look at phrases in verses 1 through 6, using the Living Bible. Let me read it for you:
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 wonderful, too glorious to believe!
You Have Examined My Heart and Know Everything About Me
Verse 1 says, “O Lord, You have examined my heart and know everything about me.” Literally, “You have searched me.” The Hebrew term means to explore, to probe, to discover, to search out. This basic term was used to send spies to search out and explore a city.
Dr. Douglas Fields is a neurobiologist and the senior investigator of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He’s been writing for many years on issues related to the human brain. His newest book is titled Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better.
In his preface, he wrote about visiting a laboratory developed by two trendsetting neuroscientists.
I know that by using their sophisticated instruments, they can eavesdrop on electrical transmissions flashing through my brain. The most intimate details of my mind are theirs to see. They can read my thoughts before I have them. They can watch my brain learn. They can glean my intelligence, my propensity for adventurism, identify telltale signatures of mental illness and neurological disorders, and predict my ability to learn specific types of material. These deeply personal insights into my mind are available to them and other brain scientists who are propelling a revolutionary leap in neuroscience that will transform our world.
The kind of advancing technology Dr. Fields describes is both exciting and disturbing, depending on how it’s used. We don’t know where the technology of neuroscience is going, but we do know that Almighty God is already there. He remembers every thought you have ever had, including all the ones you’ve forgotten.
His omniscience penetrates and permeates the electrical circuitry of your brain. Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
Sometimes, I get discouraged with myself. Why am I glad if someone else fails or falls? Why do I lose my temper? What motivates me? I don’t understand the complexities of my own attitudes.
The Lord Jesus takes one glance, and He knows everything totally, instantly, intuitively, and perfectly.
O Lord, You have searched me and You know me.
That may seem frightening, but to David it was wonderful. Let’s say you’re convinced you have some disease. You know something is wrong with you, but you’re not sure what. Is it cancer? Is it my heart? Is it a strange disease? Is it neurological?
What if you had a doctor that knew exactly what was wrong with you the moment you walked through the door, and who also knew how to treat that problem and restore your health? That was David’s attitude about the Lord as he wrote this Psalm. He was saying, “Oh, praise the Lord! He is the one and only person who really knows me, who really understands me, who has me all figured out. Even when I’m all confused about myself, He knows how to help me.”
You Know When I Sit or Stand
Second, the Lord Jesus knows, not only what we are thinking, but what we are doing. Psalm 139 goes on to say: “O Lord, You have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit or stand.”
This is literal, detailed knowledge. The Voice translation says: “You even know the small details like when I take a seat and when I stand up again.”
But this phrase means something more. The Hebrew phrase, when I sit or stand, was a figure of speech indicating the totality of life. Scholars call it a merism, which is a rhetorical device in which two contrasting parts of a whole refer to the whole itself. We have this same pattern in English. I lost a credit card the other day and I searched high and low for it. In other words, I searched in the high places, in the low places, and everywhere in between.
So when David said, “You know when I sit or stand,” he means that God was fully aware of every single detail of every single thing he did from the time he left his chair to the time he returned. He had total knowledge of David’s total life.
No detail of your life is hidden from God.
When Far Away, You Know My Every Thought
The next phrase in the Living Bible is: “When far away, you know my every thought.” The English Standard Version says: “You discern my thoughts from afar.”
In one sense, God is geographically centralized—as in the Tabernacle where He manifested His presence by a pillar of cloud. In another sense, God is never geographically limited. He is everywhere—which David will emphasize in the next paragraph. But here, David is thinking of God in His geographically-centralized throne room, in the Tabernacle or in Heaven. Even from afar, God discerned His every thought.
The same is true for Jesus. In His humanity, He was geographically limited. He could not be in Nazareth and Jerusalem at the same time, for He had accepted the limitations of a human body. Yet, through the insight of the Holy Spirit, He knew what was happening elsewhere.
Scholars who study Psalm 139 often think of the conversation between Jesus and Nathaniel in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John 1:47 says that when Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael asked, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
The fact that Jesus had known something Nathanael had done under a fig tree was so startling to the young man that he instantly became a follower of our Lord.
When we get to Heaven, we’re going to ask Nathanael what he was doing under that fig tree. Many scholars believe he was studying the Hebrew Scriptures, because the ancient rabbis and rabbinical students often studied under fig or olive trees. Perhaps he had come to a point of great spiritual conviction and cried out for help, for the Messiah. Perhaps he had been quite desperate in his prayer. Perhaps he had a deeply meaningful experience. He thought no one else saw him or heard him.
Yet Jesus saw and Jesus knew. When Jesus said, “I heard what you said and I saw what you did under the fig tree,” Nathaniel was instantly converted.
Charles Spurgeon said: “What (Nathaniel) was doing under the fig tree we may guess, but we cannot know to a certainty… Between Christ and Nathanael there was a common knowledge connected with that fig tree which we cannot hope to discover, and the moment our Lord mentioned that hallowed spot, its remembrances were to Nathanael so secret and so sacred, that he felt that the omniscient One was before him.”
Even when we don’t know of our Lord’s presence or feel He is far away from us, He knows our every thought.
You Chart the Path Ahead of Me And Tell Me Where To Stop and Rest
The next verse has become a favorite of mine. I’m memorizing Psalm 139 in the Living Bible, and I find some of the verses quicker to memorize than others. I memorized this one almost the first time I read it: You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment You know where I am.
The Christian Standard Bible says, “You observe my travels and my rest.”
The New American Standard says, “You securitize my path and my lying down.”
This is another example of merism. The Psalmist was saying, “You know when I start out in the morning and when I finish the day in bed.” In other words, you know everything I do. The Hebrew verb here is to winnow or sift. In other words, just like a baker will sift the wheat and not miss a single speck, so the Lord watched our every grain of sand through the hourglass of our every day.
David was saying, “You keenly observe everything I do from the time I get up in the morning and hit the road until the time I return to my bed in the evening.”
But the Lord isn’t simply an uninvolved observer. He does chart the paths of those who long to fulfill His will for their lives.
When I was in college, I adopted a slogan that was placed under my name in the yearbook. It was: “The will of God—nothing more, nothing less.” Now, looking back over a half-century, I can tell you the most exciting opportunities to minister were not ones I had planned. Much of what I myself planned didn’t happen as I expected. I’m convinced we should prayerfully plan the foreseeable future, but then we give those plans to the Lord and He almost always modifies and recalibrates them into something both less and more than we expected.
He charts the path ahead of us.
And then He shows us where to stop and rest.
I find I have to keep two calendars. One is on my phone, where my daily appointments are kept. But it’s hard for me to see my year or my season in life at a glance on the phone, so I also keep a paper calendar in my planner. I can look at it and more easily see patterns.
Last fall, I saw how busy I was until December; but in the middle of December was a free week. I decided to take a one-week trip by myself—something I’ve been afraid to do since Katrina passed away. Our favorite part of marriage was probably traveling together. It was like our hobby, and had been since her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. We decided we would travel while we could, and I’m glad we did. But now, taking a trip alone was frightening.
But I booked a room at a resort with nearby hiking trails. When I told someone about it, they said it sounded like a sabbatical—and that became my word for it. I selected the books I wanted to read, and spent the whole week hiking, resting, reading, and replenishing. I wasn’t lonely for that length of time, six days, and I came back rested.
Lord willing, I plan to do something similar next December.
We need places to stop and rest—to sleep and read and pray and hike, walk, or swim.
So verse 3 has become a favorite verse of mine: You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment You know where I am.
You Know What I Am Going to Say Before I Even Say It
The Psalmist goes on to say: You know what I am going to say before I even say it. The Christian Standard Bible says, “Before a word is on my tongue, you know all about it, Lord.”
Have you ever said something stupid and said to yourself, “Why did I just say that?”
I’m not a game show fan, but I heard about a contestant on Wheel of Fortune who got the million dollar card on the giant wheel, and the answer was perfectly clear: Corner Curio Cabinet. But he bungled the words trying to say them. It was like a tongue-twister. He opened his mouth and bungled the words. His answer was disqualified and instead of being a millionaire, he went home with nothing.
I’ve never said something that cost me a million dollars, but I’ve had some pretty stupid things come out of my mouth. But the Lord knows what we’re going to say before we say it, so that gives us the ability to pray and ask for daily wisdom with our words.
I had a good friend who was asked to write a little booklet for an organization. When the editor asked his fee, Bob said something like $10,000. There was a slight pause in the conversation, and Bob added something that came to him from nowhere. He said, “…plus 25-cents a booklet royalty.” The editor agreed, and the book ended up going viral. Bob received over $250,000 in royalties, much of which he used to advance the Gospel in a restricted land.
Where did that unexpected word come from?
When we ask the Lord to guide our words, He gives us wisdom to say the right things. He is eager to help us with situations.
You Both Precede and Follow Me and Place Your Hand of Blessing on My Head
Verse 5 goes on to say: You both precede and follow me and place Your hand of blessing on my head.
The English Standard Version says, “You hem be in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me.”
The New English Translation says, “You squeeze me in behind and in front; and place your hand on me.”
The Hebrew word here was often used in military terms, of an enemy besieging or surrounding an army. But here the Psalmist is thinking of this in a positive way—of being protected by God’s presence both behind him and before him.
There’s one clear example of this in the Hebrew Scriptures David would have known, and I think this is what he would have had in mind. Remember, he was a true scholar of the early books of the Bible, and the single most dramatic story was the parting of the Red Sea. In the NIV, we read about it in Exodus 14:
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
This was surely the image that inspired David to write Psalm 139:5: “You hem me in behind and before, and You lay your hand upon me.”
The Lord goes before us in geography and in time, to guide us and prepare the way. Then He circles around and covers our rear flank, redeeming any messes we’ve made and forgiving our sins, and also blessing the efforts we’ve made for His kingdom.
The Lord is always ahead of you, like a Shepherd leading the way. But He also lingers behind, to turn all things for good and to bless the work of our hands.
This is Too Glorious, Too Wonderful to Believe
King David takes all this in and exclaims in verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” In other words, when He realizes the implications of what he has just written, he’s staggered. He’s lost in wonder.
Too many of us have lost the sense of wonder that makes our Christian faith a transcendent experience. When I was a boy, my parents took my sister and I to Atlanta, right after the construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which was one of the first hotels in the world with an open sky atrium as high as you could see and dramatic glass elevators skimming up and down like rocket ships. I was just a little fellow, but I still remember how my mouth dropped open and my finger pointed in awe of what I was seeing. It was like stepping into a scene from the future.
If I was so stunned at a hotel on earth, what will my reactions be to seeing New Jerusalem! And even now, that sense of wonder should fill my heart when I see how the Lord Jesus cares for me. It is too glorious, too wonderful to believe—and yet it’s true.
Charles Weigle was an evangelist who traveled from city to city and from church to church, preaching the Gospel. He encountered a tragedy in his life, but out of it became a song I’ve loved all my life.
I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus,
Since I found in Him a friend so strong and true.
I would tell you how He changed my life completely;
He did something no other friend could do.
No one ever cared for me like Jesus;
There’s no other friend so kind as He.
No one else could take the sin and darkness from me;
O how much He cared for me.
Audio Editing Courtney Warner
Blog Editing by Luke Tyler
Music Elijah Rowe