Psalm 139 says Leslie C Allen, takes theology from the “realm of theory, and turns it into news we can use.” It turns all those attributes of God that speak of God’s transcendence in a way that make God seem “far away”, like eternal, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence (always, all knowing, all powerful and all present) and brings God close, as the Psalmist experiences the reality of God surrounding him. In a prayer for vindication in the face of false accusations, his faith and hope is not in a God who is simply omni this or that, but who sees, and knows, who is with, where ever we may go, and who is mindful of us, a God who seeks us out and who leads and guides.
It is what makes Psalm 139 such a magnificent Prayer, one of the most beloved in the book. We usually forget about the last section as people are not quite sure about the emotional outburst against the wicked in verses 19-22. It’s headed up ‘of David’ and if it was written by David like many of the Psalms we don’t know which part of his life it relates to. In Ancient Near Eastern wisdom if bad things happened to you, it was thought to be a consequence of something you had done wrong which had angered a deity. This thinking underlines the Psalms motivation. In Job, Job’s friends come to him and call him to repent of what he has done wrong, and part of Job’s suffering is this anguish over maintaining his innocence. Not that he is morally perfect, he’s never done anything wrong, But he is, like the psalmist pretty sure he has not done anything that deserved this. Jesus dealt with the same thinking in Luke 13 when he is asked about people killed by Romans in a horrific way and others who dies when a tower collapsed. His response is to call all people to turn to repent, we all need to know God’s forgiveness and grace, likewise in Psalm 139 the psalmist finishes by wanting to be totally transparent before God, so he can know the God who knows him so well.
Let’s have a look at the Psalm. Traditionally its seen as being in four sections or stropes.
For the psalmist God’s seeing and knowing is a source of comfort and hope. AS we saw last week when we looked at Psalm 113, God’s seeing is aligned with his compassion, God stoops down to see and he acts and lifts the lowly and poor. From beyond the cross and resurrection we see God’s knowing takes on a whole different level of love and grace, that in Christ the word became flesh and lived amongst us, experienced human existence. As it says in Isaiah 55 became a man of sorrow acquainted with grief, and carried the sin of many, hat we might be reconciled with God. For the Psalmist the truth is that God’s knowing is comforting because of what he knows of God’s character, that God is all loving as well. He can be trusted to lead and to guide. “ as sure as water will wet us and fire will burn, So an all knowing God, will perceive, understand, bless, guide and judge.”
For the person who wishes to run from God, like the prophet Jonah, this was a source of great fear, but for the Psalmist it is a matter of reassurance. It speaks of the sovereignty of God over all the heavens and the earth and because of God’s love and concern it means wherever God can lead and to guide. For us as followers of Christ, we have the promise of God’s Holy Spirit having been poured out on all those who believe and dwelling within us. God is within us and with us. Be it in the dawn and joy of new things or in the depth of depression when it all feels dark, God is with us. In the near and familiar and in the disorientation of the distant and unfamiliar. The Spirit of God is there to lead and guide, to comfort and enable.
When the Psalmist tries to comprehend how great are God’s thoughts about him, we find his only response is wonder. Wonder which is the starting point of both Philosophy, trying to comprehend and understand, and of our worship, the adoration of God.
Then the psalmist turns to respond to God’s presence and knowing. In verse 19-22 he expresses his disdain for those who do not keep God’s ways. Maybe for many of us caricature of the loud angry fundamentalist who defines himself by who he is against crops up here. It is hard to comprehend the switch from wonder to wrath, and justify the jump from worship to waging war. Here perhaps we hear the pain and sorrow and suffering the psalmist has endured as his name and reputation has been assassinated in public. The good thing is that God’s response to this is not to agree and to answer the psalmists wishes, rather we know God response is with grace, a giving of himself in Jesus Christ to allow us all to turn from going our own ways be reconciled with God. In the end the Psalmist also opens himself up to the scrutiny of God, with great courage he invites the God who knows him so well and from whom nothing is hidden to reveal any wicked way in him. Maybe that emotional outburst is the first thing on the table.
In the 1920’s and 30’s there was a big revival in East Africa, and many people came into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, in places like Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. Its effects were felt right up into the 1970’s and beyond with strong local churches. One of the things that people involved in the revival talked about was living in a house without walls or a roof. Being totally open and transparent to God and to each other. So that things were not hidden and if they were wrong attitudes or actions to take root and grow or fester. This is the attitude that the Psalmist takes as well. To be God’s change agent in the world we must open ourselves up to the God who knows us so well to change us.
Part of that knowing ourselves is knowing how we are wired to connect with God. God’s knowing of us, and his making us individuals means that God speaks to each of us in different ways. That we are wired to know and experience God’s presence in ways that are specific to us. While there are spiritual practises that are universal, like scripture reading and prayer, there are different ways that we feel close to God, knowing those ways and developing them can strengthen that knowing God. They are like natural gateways for each one of us. In education they talk of seven different kinds of smart… some people are academically smart, which is valued in our school system, others are musically smart, or practically smart, they know how to fix things, others are relationally smart, they know about interpersonal stuff, emotionally smart. Gary Chapman has written a very useful series of books called the five languages of Love that speak of how we are wired to give and receive love… when we know those things it helps our relationships to grow in depth.
Well there are also what are called devotional pathways. That is ways we are wired to connect with God. It may not be exhaustive but people have identified seven different devotional pathways. A relational pathway. That you find it easiest to connect with God when you are with other people, and being told to do private bible study or prayer doesn’t do it for you, you want to be part of a small group and discuss and interact. The intellectual Pathway, that you need to Engage with your mind, you don’t want emotional fuelled spiritual experiences. For you reading a solid theological book just draws you closer to God. The Serving pathway, when you are helping people or caring for people then you fell closest to God. A contemplative pathway, it’s when you are alone and you flourish in private prayer and solitude and silence. The Activist pathway, you feel closest to God when you have a cause to champion an injustice to right, I wonder if the Psalmist wasn’t an activist and that loathing of injustice was behind that outburst. The creation pathway, its when you are out in the middle of what God has made is when you feel closest to God, and can pray. The Worship pathway, you just love singing and music, that’s one of the way’s I’m wired and I have to balance that by knowing many others are not. I went on a week long silent retreat and about half way through I had to go and find some worship music to play and sing along to, to feed my soul. By understanding which are the one or two ways you are wired and making time for that it will help you to grow to know the God who knows you so well. (material gleaned from Viv Coleman's Devotional pathways)