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Psalm 139

Running into God’s embrace

Despite deeply longing for God, we foolishly try to evade him also. So our loving God pursues us relentlessly, knowing that if we don’t embrace him, we’ll fall prey to the evildoers intent on diverting us from his path.

For the leader. A David psalm.

Yahveh, you’ve searched me and know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
You discern all my thoughts from afar.
3 Scrutinizing my every move, my every pause
you’re well-acquainted with all my ways.
4 Not a word comes out of my mouth, Yahveh
that you don’t fully comprehend.
5 You’ve hemmed me in, before and behind
and you’ve got your hand on me too.
6 Such knowledge is utterly staggering—
far beyond what I can take in.

7 Where could I go from your Spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
8 If I soar through the heavens
I find you there.
If I bed down in the underworld
there you are!
9 If I take wing with the dawn
and settle on the sea’s farthest shore
10 even there your hand guides me
and your right hand has me in its grip.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
as day fades to night around me”
12 darkness isn’t dark to you.
The night is as bright as the day
since darkness and light are one to you.

13 It was you who fashioned my inmost being
knitting me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you that I’m uniquely set apart—
how wonderful your workmanship
as I know deep down.
15 Nothing about my body was hidden from you
as I was being formed in total secrecy
woven together in earth’s inmost sanctuary.
16 You saw me before my body took shape
having already recorded every day of my life
before a single one had passed.
17 How momentous your thoughts are, God
how vast in number!
18 If I tried to count them
they’d outnumber the grains of sand…
then after waking up
I’d find I’m still with you.

19 If only you’d make an end of the wicked, God!
Get away from me, you cutthroats!
20 They use your name to legitimize what they do
but since they’re your foes
all their pious talk is empty.
21 Don’t I hate those who hate you, Yahveh
and loathe those who defy you?
22 I can’t stand anything about them
and count them my own enemies.

23 Search me and know my heart, O God
probe me and know my thoughts.
24 Make sure none of my ways offend you
and lead me on the path of eternity.

As encouraging as this psalm is, verses 19-22 shock many readers. But even in the psalm’s first sections, David surprisingly speaks of God’s being everywhere in relation to not just his gracious care for him, but also God’s inescapability. He speaks of God’s knowing everything about him—his future included—and being fully involved in his life from the very start. And David does so in terms of not just God’s understanding of and commitment to him, but also David’s inability to hide anything from God. So David seems somewhat ambivalent about God’s relentless pursuit of him.

In verse 19, David wonders why a God who knows everything, is present everywhere, and has absolute power doesn’t immediately set things right by ridding the world of evildoers. God’s not doing so leaves David surrounded by ruthless thugs determined to ensnare him in their evil ways. Despite all their pious talk, they defy God’s rule. Hence, David will have nothing to do with them: loving God, he fervently hates all they stand for.

Having recalled the evil alternative and professed his fierce loyalty to God, David’s ambivalence toward God utterly disappears. He implores God to search him thoroughly so that nothing diverts him from eternity’s path. He thus sweetly surrenders to God’s loving embrace.

Parading their false piety, Jesus, ruthless men tried to ensnare you in their evil ways. But being fully open to your Father instead, you walked the path of eternal life, of knowing and joyfully embracing God. Search me and know me, Lord. Keep me walking always on your path. Amen.

During your free moments today, pray these words:

Search me and know my heart, O God
probe me and know my thoughts.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.