Psalm 139 is a treasured, well-known, and often recited and memorized psalm in the lives of believers. Many Jews and Christians, throughout the years, have read, prayed, and clung to this psalm as inspiration, encouragement, and devotion. James Mays said, “It is a doctrinal classic because it portrays human existence in all its dimensions in terms of God’s knowledge, presence, and power. It reflects the understanding of the human as enclosed in divine reality” (Mays 2011, 425).
Psalm 139, as beloved as it may be, is sometimes read without the full picture of it’s context and the neglect of it’s lament. Tremper Longman stated, “Such a reading simplifies the psalm and ignores the final stanza, which is an intense statement of hatred towards the psalmist’s dangerous enemies and includes an appeal to God to realize that the psalmist is innocent” (Longman 2014, 452).
The psalmist begins their prayer to the Lord expressing and describing many attributes of the Lord in the psalmist’s life; a major component being the Lord’s knowing and knowledge of the psalmist. Although complete transparency and full exposure is a frightening concept for many, the psalmist almost seems to take comfort and delight in the Lord’s ability to do so. It is this same disclosure and confession that begins to build rationale and intention towards the imprecatory statements that are revealed near the close of the psalm. Mays said, “What the psalm confesses to be the case at the beginning is sought in an appeal at the end. The initial address and concluding request form a parenthesis around the whole psalm to indicate that the whole is a continuous unfolding of their one theme and concern” (Mays 2011, 426).
The major tone change that occurs with the fourth strophe (verses 19-24), reveal what the psalmist has been working towards. Walter Zorn said, “When we take the imprecatory (cursing) section seriously (vv.19-22), and we must, we realize the psalmist is really protesting his innocence throughout the psalm” (Zorn 2004, 477). Unfortunately, this tone change, though important and necessary for the overall understanding of the psalm, is neglected. Zorn said, “They are often deleted in liturgical readings in many church groups. Even in evangelical churches where the worship is more flexible, one seldom hears the imprecatory sections of the psalms” (Zorn 2004, 482). This may be because the content is viewed as “clashing” (Anderson 2000, 94) with the teachings of Jesus concerning enemies, or simply because the modern believer finds it hard to relate or communicate with God in this manner. For the Psalmist, however, this was a necessary form of appropriate prayer. Mays said, “In the worldview of the psalms, the wicked and their dangerous threats to those who base life on God are an important part of the reality in the midst of which faith must live. To speak of them in speaking of one’s relation to God was completely consistent, especially where the relation was to God in his judging discernment of one’s life” (Mays 2011, 428).
The modern believer need not shy away from the imprecatory language of the Psalmist. Although the hatred of the enemy may seem harsh and anti-Sermon on the Mount, the raw emotion reflected the Psalmist’s plea for God to make things right in the world. Zorn said, “The righteousness of God demanded justice. The psalmist wishes to uphold the righteousness of God, even if he must “curse” in the presence of the very God he is defending!” (Zorn 2004, 483). Loving one’s enemy does not mean that one must be happy with their actions and behavior, especially if it is infringing upon the wellbeing and faith of the believer. Bernhard Anderson noted, “These faceless enemies, apparently, are impugning the person’s integrity with false accusations and therefore undercutting the person’s place in the community of faith” (Anderson 2000, 95).
The modern reader/believer should find comfort and relief in imprecatory prayer language, even in its explicit nature, when directed appropriately, honestly, and with proper motivation towards “the enemy.” This enemy (sin, evil, unrighteousness, etc.) threatens to diminish or destroy one’s relationship with God, therefore, should be dealt with intensity and passion before the only One who can fully and completely make things right.
The beautiful and powerful flow of Psalm 139 is best experienced in the wholeness of the context, revealing the fullness of the intense prayer language, in relation to the Psalmist’s desire for righteousness, orientation, and an intimate relationship with the Lord. Zorn said, “For the psalmist the doctrines of the omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence of God are not just a teaching, it is a lifestyle as one walks with a holy and righteous God. Indeed, it can be fearful, and fleeing or hiding may on occasion be an instinctive desire or impulse, but ultimately “the everlasting way” can only be found with God” (Zorn 2004, 484).
Psalm 139 (NRSV)
The Inescapable God
To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.