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Psalm 139 Study Notes


139:1-24 This psalm celebrates the attributes of God.

139:1-4 The Hebrew verbs can be interpreted as timeless truth: “You search me and you know me.” God’s attributes are not restricted to time. The words know . . . understand . . . observe, and are aware speak of God’s omniscience. The word observe comes from the Hebrew root zarah, which means “measure.” The Hebrew word for ways does not necessarily denote literal walking but daily behavior.

139:5 God’s omnipresence guarantees protection. The first line is literally “Back and front, you enclosed me.” Your hand on me denotes absolute control over the psalmist, who was subject to the Lord’s loving care and discipline.

139:6 God’s attributes of omniscience and omnipresence are beyond human comprehension.

139:7 The psalmist could not remove himself from the realm of God’s transcendence, nor could he run from God’s immanent and personal engagement with him (Jr 23:24; Am 9:2-4; Heb 4:13). The concept is both frightening and comforting.

139:8 The notion of escaping to heaven and hell finds its roots in ancient Near Eastern mythology. The OT acknowledges God’s ability to access Sheol because he is sovereign (Jb 26:6; Am 9:2), but banishment to the underworld removes a person from God’s blessing (Ps 6:5; Ec 9:10).

139:9 Live at the eastern horizon is literally “take up the wings of the dawn” (see textual footnote). The LXX renders the phrase, “If I lift my wings to the dawn,” reinforcing the concept of flying a long distance to avoid God’s presence.

139:10 Yahweh’s authority extends beyond the cosmos, and his sovereignty recognizes no limits. Every human is under the power, protection, and authority of God.

139:11 Evildoers cannot conceal their deeds from God (Jb 22:11-14; 34:22).

139:12 Light and darkness are artificial distinctions for the Lord; he transcends creation.

139:13 Humankind is the Lord’s possession and his creation (Gn 14:19,22; Dt 32:6). Inward parts (lit “kidneys”) often denote the seat of emotion or affection (16:7; 73:21; Jb 19:27).

139:14 The expression wondrously made is a forceful rendering of the text. God’s creation testifies to his power and majesty (Rm 1:20).

139:15 The phrase depths of the earth is normally associated with death (63:9; Ezk 26:20), but here it is figurative for the concealment of the womb.

139:16 The concept of the Lord’s book that records the existence of all humans reinforces God’s sovereignty over life and death (69:28; Ex 32:32-33). The Hebrew is ambiguous about what was written in God’s books: all my days or something else about my formless substance.

139:17 How vast their sum denotes the superiority of God’s knowledge in quality and quantity.

139:18 The sum of everything God knows is immeasurable (Is 55:8). When I wake up could refer to having pondered God’s knowledge all night, or to the resurrection.

139:19-22 On hate for enemies, see notes at 15:4; 109:1-31. The psalmist wished to escape the influence of wicked liars. His zeal for God and righteousness gave him a single-minded determination. Such zeal is commendable (Jn 2:17; 2Co 7:11), but in calmer times it is directed toward love and mercy (Gl 1:14-16; Php 3:6-7).

139:23-24 Concluding with an appeal for God to search me (cp. v. 1), the psalmist submitted his thoughts and motives (concerns) to the Lord’s scrutiny. He asked God to reveal any offensive way (lit “way of hardship”) in him. The Scriptures speak of two opposite ways: that of the upright and that of the wicked (Ps 1; Pr 12:28; Mt 7:13-14).