George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 139

1. Structure

Thou, God, seest all and knowest all
I am Thy workmanship
The marvel of Thy wisdom
Why cannot the wicked learn this?
Search me, O God

2. A psalm of David

There is little to help the reader place this psalm in the long story of David’s multifaceted experiences. The main part of it is appropriate to his penitence after his great moral collapse. Yet there is very little resemblance to Psalms 32 and 51. And who are the “wicked” who are hated of David’s soul? So historical context remains very much guesswork here.

3. Hezekiah?

It is perhaps possible that vv. 1-18 make up the original psalm of David, and that the rest (or maybe just vv. 19-22, which seems a bit in-congruous alongside the other) was added by Hezekiah. If so, then it was with reference to the virulent campaign against Yahweh which Rabshakeh and his evil master Sennacherib pursued so persistently, in the hope of breaking the morale of Hezekiah and his people (Isa. 36:7,10,15,18,20; 37:10,11,17,23-25,28,29).

4. Details

Thou hast searched me. The word means “to dig, or mine”. ‘You know me inside out!’ In the face of this clear recognition of the omniscience of God, it takes a brave man to say: Search me, O God (v. 23). Compare Psa. 90:8; and contrast 145:3: “His greatness is unsearchable”.
Thou understandest my thought afar off, and Thou hast compassion on me. This is the theme of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son:

“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

There seems to be a very definite contrast here with Psa. 138:6.

Thou hast beset me behind and before. Like the air, all around, yet not perceived.
Such knowledge... as God has... is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. But see Eph. 3:19 and 4:13 and context (in which Paul is quoting this psalm: cp. Eph. 4:9 with v. 15 here).
Whither shall I flee from thy presence?

“Closer is He than breathing,

And nearer than hands and feet” —

one of Tennyson’s higher inspirations. This word “flee” suggests the all-too-common experience of wanting to get away from God. The impulse to flee from the face of God (“presence” here = panim, or face) is as old as the Fall (Gen. 3:8). And in this respect the biggest coward of all is the atheist, who is so determined to get away from his own personal responsibility to a Higher Power, that he airily abolishes God and then considers his problems solved. The poor fool! Jonah tried this (1:3,10), but found the might of God in the storm and the “great fish” (1:17) too much for him. Like him, most others learn the hard way.
Heaven and hell (Sheol) are the two vertical extremes of Creation.
The morning (sunrise in the east) and the uttermost parts of the sea (the Mediterranean, to the west) are the two horizontal extremes of Creation.
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. The RSV has: “For thou didst form my inward parts; thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.” This last verb describes the inwrought intricacy of pattern on the veil of the Tabernacle. Yet that unique man-made fabric was simplicity itself compared with the fantastic complexity of every human being coming to birth. David, without the resources of modern investigation in the field of genetics (see John Morris, “Science and the Disciple”, The Christadelphian, May 1989, Vol. 126, No. 1499, pp. 183, 184), was awestruck. Then what would he have had to say about the way the genes of two parents are knit together to produce, every time, an absolutely unique human specimen?

Such a comparison, between a building and a human being, is fitting to teach us that the true “tabernacle” was the man Christ Jesus (John 1:14; 2:19; Col. 2:9; Heb. 8:2; 9:8,9,11; Matt. 12:6), and that every man may be a temple, filled with the glory of God:

“Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19; cp. 2 Cor. 6:16).
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully (palah) made. It is possible that, if Saul of Tarsus took a new name after conversion, he may have taken such a name, Paul, from this description (palah) of a marvellous new birth. (With this verse cp. Gal. 1:15: “God, who separated — the Hebrew equivalent is also palah — me from my mother’s womb”.)
My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought. The last phrase describes the embroidery of the door hangings and the vail of the most holy in the Tabernacle (Exod. 26:31,36; 27:16; 36:37; 38:18 — cp. Heb. 10:20!) and the high priest’s coat (Exod. 28:39; 39:29). The body of the fetus is described as woven together of so many differently-colored threads, like an exquisitely beautiful tapestry (cp. Jer. 1:5).

In the lowest parts of the earth. ‘In the lowest parts, even the earth’. A comparison of Isa. 44:23 with 49:13 shows that this expression is simply an idiomatic way of emphasizing the contrast between God’s heaven and the human sphere on earth.
Thine eyes did see my unformed substance, yet being imperfect. The physical features were being fashioned in continuance, day by day, but they were not yet as complete as their Creator meant them to be.

In thy book might suggest that all my members means the days of the new life not yet begun (cp. v. 17). (For God’s “book” of remembrance, see references, Psalms Studies, Psa. 56, Par. 5, v. 8.)

When as yet there was none of them. That is, none as yet have come forth to be marvelled at.
This verse and Psa. 40:5 are remarkably similar; but the context is hardly the same.

How precious also are thy thoughts unto me. That is, God’s purposes with the psalmist. The marvel of formation in the womb is now matched by the equally wonderful Providence with which each day and every day runs its course according to the unperceived guidance of God. The evidences of this Providence are not to be counted (v. 18); they are too numerous, too complex, too “wonderful”.
A four-fold expression of hatred. Why? See Par. 3.
Try me, and know my thoughts, that is, ‘my plans and purposes’ (v. 17).
And lead me in the way everlasting: Psa. 1:6; 16:9-11; Prov. 4:18.

5. A parable of Israel?

Whereas so many psalms (such as 78, 105, 106) tell afresh the story of Israel, this psalm does the same in the form of a parable:

God’s special Providence exercised over His people.
Even in the periods of Israel’s waywardness, there has been no escape from Him.
Hidden away in Egypt, Israel grew into a people, and came forth to nationhood — all of this under the control of God.
God’s great and complex Purpose is centered in Israel.
The ceaseless hostility of the nations to Israel and Israel’s God.
Ultimate reconciliation and union with a God who has never truly been understood.

6. Messiah?

Here is the unique intimacy between Father and Son. In the days of his flesh, even Jesus had to marvel (v. 6).
Christ’s entire life wrapped round by the care of God and his consciousness of this. Verse 7 suggests the inherited human nature of Jesus. He too had to live a life of faith (vv. 9,10). Whether ascending up to “heaven” (in the mount of transfiguration), or descending into the waters of baptism or into the grave — in all these experiences, v. 8 stands true: thou art there!
Christ’s virgin birth. Eph. 4:9 quotes v. 15. Though Jesus was “from above” in the sense of his divine parentage (John 3:31; 6:33, 50; 8:23,42; etc.), he was actually woven together in the womb of a woman (see John Carter, The Letter to the Ephesians, pp. 98-115).
Marvellous are thy works. The s.w. in Hebrew occurs in Isa. 9:6: “His name shall be called Wonderful”.
Do these verses also picture the re-creation of life in the entombed Christ? (See Eureka, vol. 1, p. 15.) Jesus, born from a virgin womb and, later, from a “virgin” tomb (John 19:41)! Then all my members would be all believers, destined to become members of the One Christ-Body (1 Cor. 12:27; Col. 1:15,18) as a result of the death and resurrection of the Head.
Even Jesus marvelled at the Purpose and Providence of his Father.
Even Jesus hated the sin of the sinners who surrounded him, but with a difference. He wept over Jerusalem.
This self-yielding of Jesus to his Father, is something to marvel at. And Jesus was not without an inheritance of his Father’s all-seeing, all-knowing faculties: see Matt. 12:25; 16:8; 17:25; Mark 2:6,8; 3:23; 5:30; Luke 5:22; 6:8; 7:39,47; 9:47; 11:17; John 1:48,49; 2:24,25; 3:7; 4:18,29; 6:61,64; 11:14; 13:38; 16:19,30; 20:27; 21:17; Rom. 8:27; Heb. 4:12; and the seven-fold “I know thy works” in Revelation
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