PSALM 139 OVERVIEW
One of the most notable of the sacred hymns. It sings the omniscience and omnipresence of God, inferring from these the overthrow of the powers of wickedness, since he who sees and hears the abominable deeds and words of the rebellious will surely deal with them according to his justice. The brightness of this Psalm is like unto a sapphire stone, or Ezekiel's "terrible crystal"; it flames out with such flashes of light as to turn night into day. Like a Pharos, this holy song casts a clear light even to the uttermost parts of the sea, and warns its against that practical atheism which ignores the presence of God, and so makes shipwreck of the soul.
Title. To the Chief Musician. The fast time this title occurred was in Psalms 109:1-31 . This sacred song is worthy of the most excellent of the singers, and is fitly dedicated to the leader of the Temple Psalmody, that he might set it to music, and see that it was devoutly sung in the solemn worship of the Most High. A Psalm of David. It bears the image and superscription of King David, and could have come from no other mint than that of the son of Jesse. Of course the critics take this composition away from David, on account of certain Aramaic expressions in it. We believe that upon the principles of criticism now in vogue it would be extremely easy to prove that Milton did not write Paradise Lost. We have yet to learn that David could not have used expressions belonging to "the language of the patriarchal ancestral house." Who knows how much of the antique speech may have been purposely retained among those nobler minds who rejoiced in remembering the descent of their race? Knowing to what wild inferences the critics have run in other matters, we have lost nearly all faith in them, and prefer to believe David to be the author of this Psalm, from internal evidences of style and matter, rather than to accept the determination of men whose modes of judgment are manifestly unreliable.
Verse 1. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. He invokes in adoration Jehovah the all knowing God, and he proceeds to adore him by proclaiming one of his peculiar attributes. If we would praise God aright we must draw the matter of our praise from himself -- "O Jehovah, thou hast." No pretended god knows aught of us; but the true God, Jehovah, understands us, and is most intimately acquainted with our persons, nature, and character. How well it is for us to know the God who knows us! The divine knowledge is extremely thorough and searching; it is as if he had searched us, as officers search a man for contraband goods, or as pillagers ransack a house for plunder. Yet we must not let the figure run upon all fours, and lead us further than it is meant to do: the Lord knows all things naturally and as a matter of course, and not by any effort on his part. Searching ordinarily implies a measure of ignorance which is removed by observation; of course this is not the case with the Lord; but the meaning of the Psalmist is, that the Lord knows us as thoroughly as if he had examined us minutely, and had pried into the most secret corners of our being. This infallible knowledge has always existed -- "Thou hast searched me"; and it continues unto this day, since God cannot forget that which he has once known. There never was a time in which we were unknown to God, and there never will be a moment in which we shall be beyond his observation. Note how the Psalmist makes his doctrine personal: he saith not, "O God, thou knowest all things"; but, "thou hast known me." It is ever our wisdom to lay truth home to ourselves. How wonderful the contrast between the observer and the observed! Jehovah and me! Yet this most intimate connection exists, and therein lies our hope. Let the reader sit still a while and try to realize the two poles of this statement, -- the Lord and poor puny man -- and he will see much to admire and wonder at.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Whole Psalm. Aben Ezra observes, that this is the most glorious and excellent Psalm in all the book: a very excellent one it is; but whether the most excellent, it is hard to say. -- John Gill.
Whole Psalm. There is one Psalm which it were well if Christians would do by it as Pythagoras by his Golden Precepts, -- every morning and evening repeat it. It is David's appeal of a good conscience unto God, against the malicious suspicions and calumnies of men, in Psalms 139:1-24 . --Samuel Annesley (1620-1696), in "The Morning Exercises."
Whole Psalm. This Psalm is one of the most sublime compositions in the world. How came a shepherd boy to conceive so sublime a theme, and to write in so sublime a strain? Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. What themes are more sublime than the Divine attributes? And which of these attributes is more sublime than Omnipresence? Omniscience, spirituality, infinity, immutability and eternity are necessarily included in it. --George Rogers.
Whole Psalm. Let the modern wits, after this, look upon the honest shepherds of Palestine as a company of rude and unpolished clowns; let them, if they can, produce from profane authors thoughts that are more sublime, more delicate, or better turned; not to mention the sound divinity and solid piety which are apparent under these expressions. --Claude Fleury, 1640-1723.
Whole Psalm. Here the poet inverts his gaze, from the blaze of suns, to the strange atoms composing his own frame. He stands shuddering over the precipice of himself. Above is the All encompassing Spirit, from whom the morning wings cannot save; and below, at a deep distance, appears amid the branching forest of his animal frame, so fearfully and wonderfully made, the abyss of his spiritual existence, lying like a dark lake in the midst. How, between mystery and mystery, his mind, his wonder, his very reason, seem to rock like a little boat between the sea and sky. But speedily does he regain his serenity; when he throws himself, with childlike haste and confidence, into the arms of that Fatherly Spirit, and murmurs in his bosom, "How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God; how great is the sum of them"; and looking up at last in his face, cries -- "Search me, O Lord. I cannot search thee; I cannot search myself; I am overwhelmed by those dreadful depths; but search me as thou only canst; see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." --George Gilfillan (1813- 1878), in "The Bards of the Bible."
Whole Psalm. The Psalm has an immediately practical aim, which is unfolded near the close. It is not an abstract description of the Divine attributes, with a mere indirect purpose in view. If God is such a being, if his vital agency reaches over all his creation, pervades all objects, illumines the deepest and darkest recesses; if his knowledge has no limits, piercing into the mysterious processes of creation, into the smallest and most elemental germs of life; if his eye can discern the still more subtle and recondite processes of mind, comprehending the half formed conception, the germinating desire "afar off"; if, anterior to all finite existence, his predetermining decree went forth; if in those ancient records of eternity man's framework, with all its countless elements and organs, in all the ages of his duration, were inscribed -- then for his servant, his worshipper on earth, two consequences follow, most practical and momentous: first, the ceasing to have or feel any complacency with the wicked, any sympathy with their evil ways, any communion with them as such; and, secondly, the earnest desire that God would search the Psalmist's soul, lest in its unsounded depths there might be some lurking iniquity, lest there might be, beyond the present jurisdiction of his conscience, some dark realm which the Omniscient eye only could explore. --Bela B. Edwards (1802-1852), in H.C. Fish's "Masterpieces of Pulpit Eloquence."
Searcher of hearts! to thee are known
The inmost secrets of my breast;
At home, abroad, in crowds, alone,
Thou mark'st my rising and my rest,
My thoughts far off, through every maze,
Source, stream, and issue -- all my ways.
How from thy presence should I go,
Or whither from thy Spirit flee,
Since all above, around, below,
Exist in thine immensity?
If up to heaven I take my way,
I meet thee in eternal day.
If in the grave I make my bed
With worms and dust, lo! thou art there!
If, on the wings of morning sped,
Beyond the ocean I repair,
I feel thine all controlling will,
And thy right hand upholds me still.
"Let darkness hide me", if I say,
Darkness can no concealment be;
Night, on thy rising, shines like day;
Darkness and light are one with thee:
For thou mine embryo form didst view,
Ere her own babe my mother knew.
In me thy workmanship display'd,
A miracle of power I stand:
Fearfully, wonderfully made,
And framed in secret by thine hand;
I lived, ere into being brought,
Through thine eternity of thought.
How precious are thy thoughts of peace,
O God, to me! how great the sum!
New every morn, they never cease:
They were, they are, and yet shall come,
In number and in compass more
Than ocean's sands or ocean's shore.
Search me, O God! and know my heart;
Try me, my inmost soul survey;
And warn thy servant to depart
From every false and evil way:
So shall thy truth my guidance be
To life and immortality.
Whole Psalm. The Psalm may be thus summarized Psalms 139:1 . O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. -- As though he said, "O LORD, thou art the heart searching God, who perfectly knowest all the thoughts, counsels, studies, endeavours, and actions of all men, and therefore mine." Psalms 139:2 . Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. -- As if he had said, "Thou knowest my rest and motion, and my plodding thoughts of both" Psalms 139:3 . Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. -- As if he had said, "You fan and winnow me", that is, "You discuss and try me to the utmost." Psalms 139:4 . For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. -- As if he had said, "I cannot speak a word, though never so secret, obscure, or subtle, but thou knowest what, and why, and with what mind it was uttered" Psalms 139:5 . Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. -- As if he had said, "Thou keepest me within the compass of thy knowledge, like a man that will not let his servant go out of his sight. I cannot break away from thee" Psalms 139:6 . Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. As if he had said, "The knowledge of thy great and glorious majesty and infiniteness is utterly past all human comprehension." Psalms 139:7 . Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? -- As if he had said, "Whither can I flee from thee, whose essence, presence, and power is everywhere?" Ps 139:8. If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. -- As if he had said, "There is no height above thee, there is no depth below thee." Psalms 139:9 . If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea. -- As if he had said, "If I had wings to fly as swift as the morning light, from the east to the west, that I could in a moment get to the furthest parts of the world." Psalms 139:10 . Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. -- As if he had said, "Thence shall thy hand lead me back, and hold me fast like a fugitive." Psalms 139:11 . If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. -- As if he had said, "Though darkness hinders man's sight, it doth not thine." In a word, look which way you will, there is no hiding place from God. "For his eyes are upon the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings. There is no darkness nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves": Job 34:21-22 . Therefore, Christians, do nothing but what you are willing God should take notice of; and judge in yourselves whether this be not the way to have a good and quiet conscience. --Samuel Annesley.
Whole Psalm. In this Aramaizing Psalm what the preceding Psalm says ( Psalms 138:6 ) comes to be carried into effect, viz.: For Jahve is exalted and he seeth the lowly, and the proud he knoweth from afar. This Psalm has manifold points of contact with its predecessor. -- Franz Delitzsch.
To the Chief Musician. As a later writer could have no motive for prefixing the title, "To the Chief Musician", it affords an incidental proof of antiquity and genuineness. --Joseph Addison Alexander.
A Psalm of David. How any critic can assign this Psalm to other than David I cannot understand. Every line, every thought, every turn of expression and transition, is his, and his only. As for the arguments drawn from the two Chaldaisms which occur, this is really nugatory. These Chaldaisms consist merely in the substitution of one letter for another, very like it in shape, and easily to be mistaken by a transcriber, particularly by one who had been used to the Chaldee idiom; but the moral arguments for David's authorship are so strong as to overwhelm any such verbal, or rather literal criticism, were even the objections more formidable than they actually are. --John Jebb.
Verse 1. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known (me). There is no "me" after "known" in the Hebrew; therefore it is better to take the object after "known" in a wider sense. The omission is intentional, that the believing heart of all who use this Psalm may supply the ellipsis. Thou hast known and knowest all that concerns the matter in question, as well whether I and mine are guilty or innocent ( Psalms 44:21 ); also my exact circumstances, my needs, my sorrows, and the precise time when to relieve me. --A.R. Fausset.
Verse 1. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. The godly may sometimes be so overclouded with calumnies and reproaches as not to be able to find a way to clear themselves before men, but must content and comfort themselves with the testimony of a good conscience and with God's approbation of their integrity, as here David doth. -- David Dickson.
Verse 1. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. David here lays down the great doctrine, that God has a perfect knowledge of us, First, in the way of an address to God: he saith it to him, acknowledging it to him, and giving him the glory of it. Divine truths look full as well when they are prayed over as when they are preached over: and much better than when they are disputed over. When we speak of God to him himself, we find ourselves concerned to speak with the utmost degree both of sincerity and reverence, which will be likely to make the impressions the deeper. Secondly, he lays it down in a way of application to himself: not thou hast known all, but "thou hast known me"; that is it which I am most concerned to believe, and which it will be most profitable for me to consider. Then we know things for our good when we know them for ourselves. Job 5:27 ... David was a king, and "the hearts of kings are unsearchable" to their subjects ( Proverbs 25:3 ), but they are not so to their sovereign. --Matthew Henry.
Verse 1. O LORD, thou hast searched me. I would have you observe how thoroughly in the very first verse he brings home the truth to his own heart and his own conscience: "O LORD, thou hast searched me." He does not slur it over as a general truth, in which such numbers shared that he might hope to escape or evade its solemn appeal to himself; but it is, "Thou hast searched me." --Barton Bouchier.
Verse 1. Searched. The Hebrew word originally means to dig, and is applied to the search for precious metals ( Job 28:3 ), but metaphorically to a moral inquisition into guilt. --Joseph Addison Alexander.
Verse 1-5. God knows everything that passes in our inmost souls better than we do ourselves: he reads our most secret thoughts: all the cogitations of our hearts pass in review before him; and he is as perfectly and entirely employed in the scrutiny of the thoughts and actions of an individual, as in the regulation of the most important concerns of the universe. This is what we cannot comprehend; but it is what, according to the light of reason, must be true, and, according to revelation, is indeed true. God can do nothing imperfectly; and we may form some idea of his superintending knowledge, by conceiving what is indeed the truth, that all the powers of the Godhead are employed, and solely employed, in the observation and examination of the conduct of one individual. I say, this is indeed the case, because all the powers of the Godhead are employed upon the least as well as upon the greatest concerns of the universe; and the whole mind and power of the Creator are as exclusively employed upon the formation of a grub as of a world. God knows everything perfectly, and he knows everything perfectly at once. This, to a human understanding, would breed confusion; but there can be no confusion in the Divine understanding, because confusion arises from imperfection. Thus God, without confusion, beholds as distinctly the actions of every man, as if that man were the only created being, and the Godhead were solely employed in observing him. Let this thought fill your mind with awe and with remorse. --Henry Kirke White, 1785-1806.
Ver. 1-12. --
O Lord, in me there lieth nought
But to thy search revealed lies;
For when I sit
Thou markest it;
No less thou notest when I rise;
Yea, closest closet of my thought
Hath open windows to thine eyes.
Thou walkest with me when I walk,
When to my bed for rest I go,
I find thee there,
Not youngest thought in me doth grow,
No, not one word I cast to talk
But, yet unuttered, thou dost know.
If forth I march, thou goest before;
If back I turn, thou com'st behind:
So forth nor back
Thy guard I lack;
Nay, on me, too, thy hand I find.
Well, I thy wisdom may adore,
But never reach with earthly mind.
To shun thy notice, leave thine eye,
O whither might I take my way?
To starry sphere?
Thy throne is there.
To dead men's undelightsome stay?
There is thy walk, and there to lie
Unknown, in vain I should assay.
O sun, whom light nor flight can match!
Suppose thy lightful flightful wings
Thou lend to me,
And I could flee
As far as thee the evening brings:
Ev'n led to west he would me catch,
Nor should I lurk with western things.
Do thou thy best. O secret night,
In sable veil to cover me:
Thy sable veil
Shall vainly fail:
With day unmasked my night shall be;
For night is day, and darkness light,
O Father of all lights, to thee.
--Sir Philip Sidney, 1554-1586.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
Verse 1. and 23. A matter of fact made a matter of prayer.
- A cheering thought for sinners. If God knew them not perfectly, how could he have prepared a perfect salvation for them?
- A comfortable truth for saints. "Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things."
Verse 1-5. In these verses we have God's Omniscience,
- As observing minute and comparatively unimportant actions: "My downsitting and uprising."
- As taking note of our thoughts and the motives behind them: "Understandest my thought."
- As investigating all our ways: "Thou compassest", etc.; better rendered, "Thou triest my walking and lying down", i.e., my activities and restings.
- Accurately estimating every word at the instant of its utterance: "For there is not a word", etc.
- As being "behind" men, remembering their past, and "before" men, acquainted with their future: "Thou hast beset me", etc.
- As every instant holding men under watchful scrutiny: "And laid", etc.
- Personally realized and pondered: "Thou hast searched me." Me and my run through the whole set of statements. Thus felt and used, the fact of God's omniscience,
- Begets reverence.
- Inspires confidence.
- Produces carefulness of conduct.