Turn in your Bibles if you have them, with me, to Psalm 139. I too have been looking forward to this psalm but also in some sense dreading it. It's hard to live up to Psalm 139. It's so exalted; it's very precious in our hearts. We just had a funeral here this last week and one of the verses out of this psalm was the family verse of that sister in the Lord who went home to heaven. Perhaps there are many of you who have a particular verse in Psalm 139 that speaks deeply to you, that's meant a great deal to you in the course of your Christian experience.
A number of years ago, believe it or not it's been over fifty years ago now, an Anglican clergyman named J.B. Phillips who was a Cambridge scholar and translated the New Testament and wrote a number of books, wrote a book, in fact it was the year 1961, he wrote a book called, Your God is Too Small, and he was speaking to the modern church and to the midget-sized theology it had based on an undersized God. And his antidote to that was the rich, full theology, the big God of Scripture. And chapter after chapter he unfolded that big God of Scripture. Well, Psalm 139 itself is a cure for small thoughts of God. Though it is so personal and though it speaks in terms of God's knowledge of and presence with us and His providence over and care for us, yet with all of that personal emphasis, with all of what we might say that subjective emphasis, the ultimate focus of Psalm 139 is on God Himself, on who God is. It's who God is that comforts the psalmist. This is the psalm upon which Francis Thompson based his famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” The second stanza of this psalm, which we’ll read, gave him the idea for this great mystical poem.
And as we study this psalm together we will learn the principle that each of God's perfections is material for our consolation because the psalmist, in each of the four great stanzas in this psalm, meditates on one of the perfections of God. And I'm going to suggest as the four overarching categories of God's perfections in this psalm, that in verses 1 to 6 the psalmist is meditating on the knowledge of God, not just the omniscience of God, that God knows absolutely everything — that's true — but that God knows everything about His children. And then in verses 7 to 12 the focus is on the perfection of God's presence. And again, it's not just the doctrine of God's omnipresence, that He is absolutely everywhere, but that He is especially present to and nigh unto His children. Wherever they are, whatever's happening, He is exceedingly close to them.
So the perfection of His knowledge, verses 1 to 6, the perfection of His presence, verses 7 to 12, and then the perfection of His creation occupies His thoughts in verses 13 to 18. It was God Himself who knit him together in his mother's womb. And again, notice it's not just that God is the Omni-creator, He is the creator of everything, but it's, God is the creator of me. He made me and knows things about me that I don't know and can't know about me.
And then in verses 19 to 21 he marvels at God's holiness, His justice. We've just heard in the children's devotional the quote from the catechism. “God is angry with the wicked every day.” The psalmist attempts to mirror that attitude and posture towards wickedness in the final stanza of verses 19 to 24 because of God's holiness. So knowledge, presence, His creation, and His holiness. Verses 1 to 6 God's knowledge, verses 7 to 12 His presence, verses 13 to 18 God is the creator, and verses 19 to 24 His holiness. Let's pray before we read God's Word.
Heavenly Father, we bow before You tonight and ask You to do business with our souls through Your Word. You have appointed Your Word as a means of grace. It is inspired, it is infallible, it is our only rule of faith and practice and it sorts us out. It pries deep into the tiniest corners of our hearts, it separates the soul from the spirit, the joints from the marrow; it discerns us, it seeks us out. Lord, we want to be sought out by Your Word, even as we read a word about Your servant being sought out by You. Teach us about Yourself, teach us about us and then press us back in again upon Yourself and upon Your grace and upon Your character. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it. Psalm 139:
“TO THE CHOIRMASTER. A PSALM OF DAVID.
O LORD, You have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with You.
For You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in Your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with You.
Oh that You would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against You with malicious intent; Your enemies take Your name in vain! Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
The psalmist is stunned by the thought that the God of the universe who created everything and knows everything and is everywhere and is completely, spotlessly pure and holy, knows him, is near to him, made him, and loves him. That God who created him knows everything about him, the good and the bad, and He still loves him. And he meditates on that God and I want to meditate on that God with you for a few moments tonight. Four things — His knowledge, His presence, His creation, His holiness.
First, His knowledge. In verses 1 to 6 the psalmist draws our attention to the God who sees and knows. He's amazed not just at the doctrine of God's omniscience in the abstract, not just at the reality of God's all-knowingness, that God knows absolutely everything, but that God sees and knows him personally. What has gripped the psalmist is God's personal knowledge of him. “You have searched me and known me. Even before a word is on my tongue You know it altogether.” This realization has thrilled the people of God from the beginning of time. Do you remember Abraham on MountMoriah? He's lifted the knife to plunge it into the body of his only son, Isaac, and a voice calls out from heaven and says, “Do not touch that boy.” And the next thing that Abraham sees is a ram caught in a thicket and the Lord instructs him to substitute his son with that ram and sacrifice the ram in his son's place. And do you remember Abraham's response? His heart sings to God. And what does he call God? Yahweh-Yireh. We say it sometimes Jehovah-Jireh sometimes in the song. And what does that word say about God? What does that title of God mean? “God sees.” He's singing; this father's heart that was moments before breaking at the thought of the loss of his only begotten son is now saying, “Lord, You see. You saw this father's heart. You saw the need for the substitute. You knew what it was that my heart was crying out for and You provided.”
The knowledge that God knows your deepest desire ought to evoke praise. Do you know that is true for every single one of us? For your deepest, your most secret, your unspoken desires, the unfulfilled desires of your hearts He sees and knows. I'm always fascinated with the story of Elijah, especially in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah has seemed to have won such a great victory and then comes the message from Jezebel that she's going to kill him because of his role in the slaughter of the false prophets of Baal in the northern kingdom. And Elijah, in complete disconsolation, flees into the wilderness, but even as he flees into the wilderness, one of the things that comes out in the story is that God knows the desires of Elijah's heart. And though Elijah has given up as hopeless ever seeing the desires of his heart, God not only knows what those desires are, but He has a plan which has been booking from before the foundation of the world that is going to surpass anything that Elijah could have imagined. And the very fact that God comes to Elijah, you remember, in the whirlwind and the earthquake and in the fire, but we're told the Lord was not in the whirlwind and the earthquake and the fire is an expression of the fact that Elijah wanted to see God come in a dramatic way to the northern kingdom and bring revival and God didn't do that. But when Elijah is taken up out of this world, how is he taken out of this world? In a chariot of fire; in a whirlwind and fire. Now what's God saying by that? He's saying, “Elijah, I know exactly what your heart yearned for and what you yearned for, Elijah, was a good thing but I have something better because I know you, I made you, and what I provide is not going to disappoint you.” And the psalmist here, in the knowledge that God knows everything about him, is moved to the praise of God. Your God knows you personally and He knows things about your desires that you don't know about your desires and it ought to move us not only to comfort but to worship and praise and thanksgiving.
Then in verses 7 to 12 the psalmist muses on the fact that there's no where he can go to escape God's presence. The Lord is always there. So if verses 1 to 6 speak of the God who sees and knows of the personal knowledge of God, of His servant, then verses 7 to 12 speak of the God who pursues and is present with His servant. It speaks of the personal presence of God. “Where shall I go from Your spirit or where shall I flee from your presence?” It's a problem that many of us have, isn't it? We flee from the presence of God seeking to find somewhere else things that can only be found in Him by His presence. That's what the poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson is all about. Have you ever heard Richard Burton read that poem? If you haven't, go home tonight and Google is and listen to Richard Burton read that whole poem. I’ll just give you this little snippet. It goes like this.
“I fled Him; down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes I sped; and shot, precipitated, adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears, from those strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy, they beat — and a Voice beat more instant than the Feet — ‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’”
That poem ends with these words:
“Now of that long pursuit comes on at hand the bruit; that Voice is round me like a bursting sea: ‘And is thy earth so marred, shattered in shard on shard? Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me! Strange, piteous, futile thing! Wherefore should any set thee love apart? Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said), ‘And human love needs human meriting: How hast thou merited — of all man's clotted clay the dingiest clot? Alack, thou knowest not how little worthy of any love thou art! Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, save Me, save only Me? All which I took from thee I did but take, not for thy harms, but just that though might'st seek it in My arms. All which thy child's mistake fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’ Halts by me that footfall: Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly? ‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He Whom thou sleekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’”
And so Francis Thompson speaks of how the hound of heaven pursued him as he fled from God until he realized that all the things that he was fleeing from God to find somewhere else could not but be found in God. And the psalmist admits that in verse 7 and it's verses 7 to 12 that Francis Thompson bases that wonderful poem on. The psalmist is speaking of the personal presence of God but there's absolutely nowhere that he can go where God is not there.
And he says something in verse 8 that is beyond his knowing. Did you catch it? “If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.” Now that's an amazing statement because in Hebrew theology, Sheol was a place where there is no praising of God. It is the end of days; it is nothingness. And the psalmist says, “Even in Sheol You are there.” And I just want you to think about that a little bit because the glory of the Gospel is that that verse is truer than David ever could have understood when he said it. Do you understand that you worship and serve a God whom you can ask, “What is death like?” and Jesus can tell you what death is like because He knows Sheol? He has been under the power of death for three days. He knows what it's like. He's been there before you. You worship a God who is immortal and invisible and only wise but He knows what death is like personally. No wonder our catechism celebrates the fact that our union with Christ is not severed by death and that our bodies rest in the graves as in their beds and we are asleep in Jesus because He has already tasted death for us. And so the psalmist celebrates the personal presence of God. There's no place that we can go where He's not already there waiting for us.
Then he marvels at God's intricate creation of Him. In verses 13 to 18, the God who “makes and shapes me,” moves him to praise. “You formed by inward parts. You knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” It's not just God's creation in general; it's His creation of him. “Lord, You made me, You put me together, You built me. You know what I'm like inside and out. No student of anatomy understands me the way that You understand me. Lord, You invented the anatomy. You put me together in the first place.” And so God's personal knowledge of him moves him to praise in verses 1 to 6, God's personal presence moves him to praise in verses 7 to 12, and now God's personal creation of him moves him to praise and comfort in verses 13 to 18.
But then in verses 19 to 24 it is the aspect of God's holiness that has his attention because God not only sees and knows, God not only pursues and is present with him, God not only made and shaped him, but the God who did these things is just and pure. And so he speaks in verses 19 to 24 of the God who is just and pure. “Oh that You would slay the wicked, O God! Men of blood depart from me!” And suddenly you know exactly the context in which David is writing this psalm. Here's David, once again in trouble. Now this is so important for us to remember. We've said it I don't know how many times — dozens as we've worked through the psalms together. Aren't you thankful for David's troubles? Because David's troubles drove him to God and going to God drove him to write and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit what he wrote has come to us so that when we are in the midst of our troubles we can go to our God through the medium of the inspired words that he wrote about the God who came and met him in his times of trouble. And so we thank God for David's troubles because his troubles have, by God's grace, come to serve us in our troubles. And here he is in Psalm 139 surrounded by wicked men who want to do him in. How many times is that a framework of one of David's psalms? And he sings Psalm 139 about God's knowledge of him, God's nearness to him, God's making of him, and here in the last instance, God's justice and His purity and His holiness.
And he speaks very strong words, doesn't he, in verses 21 and following? “Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord? Do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with a complete hatred. I count them my enemies.” William Plumer, the great commentator on the Psalms, has some very helpful words about this part of the psalm that we should take in as we attempt to take those same words and ideas up on our own lips and in our own hearts. He says this:
“In our hatred of sin, we should carefully guard against all malice, all private peak, all personal enmity, and abhor the characters of the wicked, only as they are abhorrent to God. Even our very condemnation of what is evil needs to be tested. Does it spring from the love of God? Does it spring from the hatred of sin? Does it spring from a personal attachment to holiness, from a desire not to countenance evil? Or does it spring from ostentation, from a censorious feelings, from a hypocritical pretense, from a desire to please certain of our fellow creatures?”
Very wise words so that the application of the final verses of the psalm, “Search me, O God, and know my heart,” applies to that, to the words that he's just said in verses 21 and following. But the psalmist here, throughout the psalm, points us to the character of God as the source of our comfort.
One old commentator says this about Psalm 139: “We cannot account for the existence of this poem apart from divine inspiration. Let the modern wits after this look upon the honest shepherds of Palestine and think them a company of rude and unpolished clowns. Let them, if they can, produce from any other profane authors thoughts that are more sublime, more delicate, or better termed, not to mention the sound divinity and solid piety couched under these expressions.” In other words, the exalted material of this psalm is unmatched in the uninspired mind of the greatest writers of every age. The only thing that can account for this psalm is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. May God comfort us with Himself and His own character in our troubles through His knowledge, His nearness, His creation, and His holiness. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for You. Lord Jesus Christ, we thank You for You. Holy Spirit, we thank You for You. Triune God, the One only and true, we praise You for Your knowledge of us, Your nearness to us, and making of us, and Your holiness. Comfort us by these things and move us to praise. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing?
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ until the daybreak and the shadows flee away. Amen.