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Ps. 139: Entering Psalm 139

This psalm brilliantly expresses the beauty and complexity of one’s relationship with God. Overall, the psalm recognizes God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but does the psalmist have mixed feelings about this divine power and presence? The first half of Psalm 139 seems to depict this power as intimidating and even overbearing. God is a mighty force imposed on the psalmist from the outside, observing her “from afar” (verse 2), “hedging” her in (verse 5a), “setting a hand” on her (verse 5b), and “grabbing hold” of her (verse 10). Such scrutiny leads the psalmist to consider escape (verses 7-10) and concealment (verses 11-12), even though she knows both are impossible. 

The psalm shifts in verse 13, as the psalmist reflects on the divine presence not as the imposition of an outside force but as an inner reality tied to her very being. God is no longer observing from afar, but with her in her mother’s womb, fashioning her “innards” (verse 13), “bones” (verse 15), and “formless body” (verse 16). God’s power is no less awesome when viewed from the inside out; indeed, the repetition of the Hebrew root pl’ in verses 6 and 14 demonstrate that both experiences of God are “wondrous.” But the shift in perspective reveals that wonder as a profound intimacy rather than intimidation. 

The combination of these two perspectives in one psalm highlights the need to keep both in balance. Seeing God only as an omnipotent power outside of ourselves may begin to feel stifling, but seeing God only in ourselves may lead to solipsism. Psalm 139 affirms that God is both outsider and insider, and relationship with God involves holding the two realities in tension. This balance is expressed in the psalm’s very structure: not only in the two halves (verses 1-12 and 13-24) already discussed, but also in its alternation of divine subject (verses 1-6 and 13-18) and human subject (verses 7-12 and 19-24). The alternation reveals the need for mutuality in our relationship with God, both accepting God’s power in our lives and responding as active participants in that relationship.

The psalm’s ending (verses 19-24) seems abrupt. Having reflected on God’s intimate knowledge of her, the psalmist now seeks the destruction of God’s enemies. The key seems to lie in verse 23, which repeats two earlier verbs: “examine” (verse 1) and “know” (verses 1, 4, 14). The psalmist is determined to differentiate herself from those who oppose God’s ways because she knows that such opposition is a path to destruction. In the end, she trusts that divine knowledge and justice will vindicate her and vanquish anyone or anything that stands in the way of God’s desire for life and wellbeing for God’s creation and people.

            Key Hebrew Terms:

kilyōtāy (verse 13) literally means “my kidneys” but more generally can denote innards or the deepest part inside someone. Sometimes God examines the kidney to determine someone’s character (hence, NJPS’s “conscience”). The word marks the psalm’s shift in verse 13 from external action to internal character.

śn’ (4x in verses 21-22), often translated as “hate.” In biblical Hebrew “love” and “hate” denote concrete action more so than mere feeling, particularly in making choices. For example, to “love” YHWH is to choose God rather than an idol; to “hate” YHWH is to reject him and his commandments (Exodus 20:5-6). Thus, in Psalm 139 the psalmist states that she rejects those who reject God, seeking to act in concert with God and against those who would oppose YHWH.

 

Questions for Reflection:

1. Are there particular words, phrases, or images in this psalm that call to you?

2. To what extent (if at all) does the imagery in this text of God’s presence—both an external force and an internal reality—reflect your own life experiences?

3. How do you respond to verses 19-24 in the psalm? Do you think it should be included in liturgical contexts? Are there useful ways to work with the language of “enemies”—internal or external—as presented in this text?

4. What would you change (if anything) if you were to write your own version or interpretation of this psalm? 

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ לְדָוִ֣ד מִזְמ֑וֹר יְ֜הֹוָ֗ה חֲקַרְתַּ֥נִי וַתֵּדָֽע:

ב אַתָּ֣ה יָ֖דַעְתָּ שִׁבְתִּ֣י וְקוּמִ֑י בַּ֥נְתָּה לְ֜רֵעִֽ֗י מֵֽרָחֽוֹק:

ג אָרְחִ֣י וְרִבְעִ֣י זֵרִ֑יתָ וְכָל־דְּרָכַ֥י הִסְכַּֽנְתָּה:

ד כִּ֚י אֵ֣ין מִלָּ֣ה בִלְשׁוֹנִ֑י הֵ֥ן יְ֜הֹוָ֗ה יָדַ֥עְתָּ כֻלָּֽהּ:

ה אָח֣וֹר וָקֶ֣דֶם צַרְתָּ֑נִי וַתָּ֖שֶׁת עָלַ֣י כַּפֶּֽכָה:

ו פְּלִ֣יאָה (כתיב פְּלִ֣אָיה) דַ֣עַת מִמֶּ֑נִּי נִ֜שְׂגְּבָ֗ה לֹֽא־אוּכַ֥ל לָֽהּ:

ז אָנָ֣ה אֵלֵךְ מֵֽרוּחֶ֑ךָ וְ֜אָ֗נָה מִפָּנֶ֥יךָ אֶבְרָֽח:

ח אִם־אֶסַּ֣ק שָׁ֖מַיִם שָׁ֣ם אָ֑תָּה וְאַצִּ֖יעָה שְּׁא֣וֹל הִנֶּֽךָּ:

ט אֶשָּׂ֥א כַנְפֵי־שָׁ֑חַר אֶ֜שְׁכְּנָ֗ה בְּאַֽחֲרִ֥ית יָֽם:

י גַּם־שָׁ֖ם יָֽדְךָ֣ תַנְחֵ֑נִי וְֽתֹ֖אחֲזֵ֣נִי יְמִינֶֽךָ:

יא וָאֹֽמַ֗ר אַךְ־חֹ֥שֶׁךְ יְשׁוּפֵ֑נִי וְ֜לַ֗יְלָה א֣וֹר בַּֽעֲדֵֽנִי:

יב גַּם־חֹשֶׁךְ֘ לֹֽא־יַחְשִׁ֪יךְ מִ֫מֶּ֥ךָּ וְלַיְלָה כַּיּ֣וֹם יָאִ֑יר כַּֽ֜חֲשֵׁיכָ֗ה כָּֽאוֹרָֽה:

יג כִּֽי־אַ֖תָּה קָנִ֣יתָ כִלְיֹתָ֑י תְּ֜סֻכֵּ֗נִי בְּבֶ֣טֶן אִמִּֽי:

יד אֽוֹדְךָ֗ עַ֚ל כִּ֥י נֽוֹרָא֗וֹת נִ֫פְלֵ֥יתִי נִפְלָאִ֥ים מַֽעֲשֶׂ֑יךָ וְ֜נַפְשִׁ֗י יֹדַ֥עַת מְאֹֽד:

טו לֹֽא־נִכְחַ֥ד עָצְמִ֗י מִ֫מֶּ֥ךָּ אֲשֶׁר־עֻשֵּׂ֥יתִי בַסֵּ֑תֶר רֻ֜קַּ֗מְתִּי בְּתַחְתִּיּ֥וֹת אָֽרֶץ:

טז גָּלְמִ֚י | רָ֘א֚וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וְעַל־סִפְרְךָ֘ כֻּלָּ֪ם יִכָּ֫תֵ֥בוּ יָמִ֥ים יֻצָּ֑רוּ וְל֖וֹ (כתיב וְלֹ֖א) אֶחָ֣ד בָּהֶֽם:

יז וְלִ֗י מַה־יָּֽקְר֣וּ רֵעֶ֣יךָ אֵ֑ל מֶ֥ה עָֽ֜צְמ֗וּ רָֽאשֵׁיהֶֽם:

יח אֶסְפְּרֵם מֵח֣וֹל יִרְבּ֑וּן הֱ֜קִיצֹ֗תִי וְעוֹדִ֥י עִמָּֽךְ:

יט אִם־תִּקְטֹ֖ל אֱל֥וֹהַּ | רָשָׁ֑ע וְאַנְשֵׁ֥י דָ֜מִ֗ים ס֣וּרוּ מֶֽנִּי:

כ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֹֽ֖מְרוּךָ לִמְזִמָּ֑ה נָשׂ֖וּא לַשָּׁ֣וְא עָרֶֽיךָ:

כא הֲלוֹא־מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֥ה | אֶשְׂנָ֑א וּ֜בִתְקֽוֹמְמֶ֗יךָ אֶתְקוֹטָֽט:

כב תַּכְלִ֣ית שִׂנְאָ֣ה שְׂנֵאתִ֑ים לְ֜אֹֽיְבִ֗ים הָ֣יוּ לִֽי:

כג חָקְרֵ֣נִי אֵ֖ל וְדַ֣ע לְבָבִ֑י בְּ֜חָנֵ֗נִי וְדַ֣ע שַׂרְעַפָּֽי:

כד וּרְאֵ֗ה אִם־דֶּֽרֶךְ־עֹ֥צֶב בִּ֑י וּ֜נְחֵ֗נִי בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ עוֹלָֽם:

 

NJPS (New Jewish Publication Society) Translation

1 For the leader. Of David. A psalm. O LORD, You have examined me and know me.

2 When I sit down or stand up You know it; You discern my thoughts from afar.

3 You observe my walking and reclining, and are familiar with all my ways.

4 There is not a word on my tongue but that You, O LORD, know it well.

5 You hedge me before and behind; You lay Your hand upon me.

6 It is beyond my knowledge; it is a mystery; I cannot fathom it.

7 Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too.

9 If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon,

10 even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely darkness will conceal me, night will provide me with cover,”

12 darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same.

13 It was You who created my conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.

15 My frame was not concealed from You when I was shaped in a hidden place, knit together in the recesses of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book; in due time they were formed,  to the very last one of them.

17 How weighty Your thoughts seem to me, O God, how great their number!

18 I count them—they exceed the grains of sand; I end—but am still with You.

19 O God, if You would only slay the wicked— you murderers, away from me!—

20 who invoke You for intrigue, Your enemies who swear by You falsely.

21 O LORD, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries.

22 I feel a perfect hatred toward them; I count them my enemies.

23 Examine me, O God, and know my mind; probe me and know my thoughts.

24 See if I have vexatious ways, and guide me in ways everlasting.

 

NIRV (New International Reader's Version) Translation

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

1 Lord, you have seen what is in my heart.

    You know all about me.

2 You know when I sit down and when I get up.

    You know what I’m thinking even though you are far away.

3 You know when I go out to work and when I come back home.

    You know exactly how I live.

4 Lord, even before I speak a word,

    you know all about it.

5 You are all around me, behind me and in front of me.

    You hold me safe in your hand.

6 I’m amazed at how well you know me.

    It’s more than I can understand.

7 How can I get away from your Spirit?

    Where can I go to escape from you?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there.

    If I lie down in the deepest parts of the earth, you are also there.

9 Suppose I were to rise with the sun in the east.

    Suppose I travel to the west where it sinks into the ocean.

10 Your hand would always be there to guide me.

    Your right hand would still be holding me close.

11 Suppose I were to say, “I’m sure the darkness will hide me.

    The light around me will become as dark as night.”

12 Even that darkness would not be dark to you.

    The night would shine like the day,

    because darkness is like light to you.

13 You created the deepest parts of my being.

    You put me together inside my mother’s body.

14 How you made me is amazing and wonderful.

    I praise you for that.

What you have done is wonderful.

    I know that very well.

15 None of my bones was hidden from you

    when you made me inside my mother’s body.

    That place was as dark as the deepest parts of the earth.

When you were putting me together there,

16     your eyes saw my body even before it was formed.

You planned how many days I would live.

    You wrote down the number of them in your book

    before I had lived through even one of them.

17 God, your thoughts about me are priceless.

    No one can possibly add them all up.

18 If I could count them,

    they would be more than the grains of sand.

If I were to fall asleep counting and then wake up,

    you would still be there with me.

19 God, I wish you would kill the people who are evil!

    I wish those murderers would get away from me!

20 They are your enemies. They misuse your name.

    They misuse it for their own evil purposes.

21 Lord, I really hate those who hate you!

    I really hate those who rise up against you!

22 I have nothing but hatred for them.

    I consider them to be my enemies.

23 God, see what is in my heart.

    Know what is there.

Test me.

    Know what I’m thinking.

24 See if there’s anything in my life you don’t like.

    Help me live in the way that is always right.

 

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. Please share your thoughts on Twitter using #PsalmSeason or post in a comment on our Facebook page.

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