A distant God is not much of a concern or threat. We can keep him at bay so that we can continue to indulge in whatever might fancy our imaginations. If he’s distant then we need not worry about facing him or dealing with his demands. Sometimes that distance comes out philosophically, other times it comes out practically in the excuses we rattle out to avoid dealing with the revelation of God.
The 2nd century heretic Celsus could philosophically admit God to be “uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassable, incomprehensible, infinite . . . encompassed by light, beauty, spirit and indescribable power,” as penned by Athenagoras, a contemporary Christian [Bruce Waltke and James Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary, 520]. But he could not and would not admit that God had come near in the person of Christ. He considered such a view to be “superstitious” and the claims concerning Christ as the God-Man as lacking credibility. His philosophy stripped of biblical revelation led to practical denial of Jesus Christ who came among us to redeem us from sin.
Yet on the other hand, while a distant God is not of much concern to those philosophically indifferent to the very idea of God, a distant God is also not of much help to those in need. For those who come to grips with their sin or who feel the weight of separation or who live with the angst of loss or who seem shrouded in darkness or who live with constant opposition, a distant God offers nothing to remove the dark cloud hanging over the whole of life.
Only when we realize that whatever the circumstance, however insurmountable the barrier of sin that God is there can we live consciously in His presence with freedom and joy. A distant God doesn’t really affect us. But the God who has come near in Christ calls for us to know Him and live through Him. Because God has come near in Christ we must live each moment with Him in view. That’s where this psalm helps us. It teaches us to think rightly about God so that we respond rightly to Him. How do we see that in this psalm? Let’s think about it together as we consider that God is there.
I. God is there, so think rightly about God
This psalm of David provides one of the clearest explanations about the nature and being of God found anywhere in Scripture. One can imagine that its lofty poetry arose when the psalmist pondered his circumstances in light of God’s revelation. He knew that God had made Himself known in Creation, through theophanies to his ancestors Abraham, Jacob, and Joshua, and even quite personally as the Lord his Shepherd, Rock, Light, and Salvation. Now he thinks of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence as the foundation for worship, holiness, and perseverance.
1. Omniscience—God’s personal and intimate knowledge vv. 1–6
Bruce Waltke and James Houston translate verses 1–6 with its vivid explanation of Yahweh, the great I AM, in the bluntness of real life language and experience:
I AM, you search me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you consider my thoughts from afar.
My going out and my lying down you discern,
you are familiar with all my ways.
Surely, before a word is on my tongue,
I AM, you know it completely.
Behind and before—you hem me in;
you have laid the palm [of your hand] upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
It is too high; I am unable to scale it [The Psalms as Christian Worship, 534-536].
David gives thought to God’s omniscience, that He knows all things. But he shows us that omniscience is not simply Deity filled with encyclopedic knowledge. It’s personal knowledge not generic information. It’s the intimacy of God acting with mercy and grace in our need. It’s knowledge that declares, “God knows you intimately. Everything about you, what you think, where you go, what you say, and what you experience, God knows before it happens, when it takes place, and how it affects every detail about you. God knows and so He acts on your behalf.” So that means that no circumstance eludes Him; no despondent thought escapes Him; no straying intention hides from Him; no word befuddles Him; no sin stops Him. You do not face anything without Him coming near to meet you with grace.
David doesn’t complain about this kind of knowledge, as though offended that God would pry into his life. Instead, he expresses his praise and adoration that God would come near even though that means that this God sees every fault, hidden sin, and secret ambition. For the reality that God comes near with intimacy means that He’s not a distant deity that has no real care for us. He comes near despite our sinfulness. We can even go so far as to say when we consider Jesus Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection, He comes near due to our sinfulness. Rather than divine intrusion that reveals divine mercy.
2. God’s omnipresence—God’s certain and reassuring presence vv. 7–12
Some wonder if David thought of escaping this God as though His intrusions were unwelcome. Yet instead, David saw God’s omniscience in personal and intimate knowledge of him leading to the certainty of His reassuring presence. Wherever he found himself, whatever difficulty enveloped him, whatever fear or uncertainty he encountered, God is there with mercy and grace in time of need. And don’t we need that same sense of His presence? Alec Motyer’s translation helps us to feel this.
Where am I to go from your Spirit? [i.e. from God’s very active presence]
And where am I to flee from your face? [His face expresses “his personal presence”].
If I should ascend to heaven,
You are there!
And should I spread my bed in Sheol [the underworld],
Should I lift up the wings of the dawn,
make my dwelling on the west of the sea—[ so from one horizon to the other]
there too it is your hand that will guide me,
and your right hand grip me!
And should I say,
‘The darkness, of course, will crush me,’ [with darkness as “symbolic of threat”]
night is light around me.
Indeed even the darkness does not make things too dark for you;
like darkness like light! [Psalms By the Day, 397–398]
Notice what the psalmist does in this strophe. He thinks of the most extreme contrasts in order to help us see the comprehensive way that God is there [Motyer, 398]. He looks at heaven and Sheol, the eastern dawn and the western setting of the sun, and darkness and light. Out of that he assures us, God’s presence is boundless.
Why do we need to grapple with God’s omnipresence? If the day or the experience has not come, it will when you feel utterly alone, hopeless, without consciousness of where to turn or what to do or how to handle some massively overwhelming issue of life. You need to know with certainty that God is right there with mercy and grace in time of need. Whether news of loss or diagnosis of future uncertainty or the harsh reality of sin or the distressing weight of some impossible challenge, God has come near to you in Christ.
His presence is boundless. So if the reality of sin seems insurmountable, look to Christ who has come near at the cross to break sin’s power and bear it away in forgiveness. If the reality of loss or uncertainty leaves you numbed with intense pains that you’ve never imagined, God has come near through Christ so that you might live in hope of future grace and resurrection power. He’s not distant; He’s the God who is there in every trial, every uncertainty, every loss, and every period of darkness.
I felt that reassuring presence this past week, as I stood before a group of pastors living with constant oppression on the other side of the globe. When they know that powerful threats to arrest them or to take away everything they’ve labored faithfully to see grow and develop are not empty but real possibilities, then how do I who’ve never known such threats, help them? Ultimately, I realized that they didn’t need my help—which took a great burden from my shoulders. They just needed to be reminded that the Lord is there right in the midst of oppression and threats and loss. No circumstance surprises Him or challenges His reign over their lives. He is boundlessly present!
3. Omnipotence—God’s creative and governing power vv. 13–17
God’s power is often thought of in the mighty storms or the parting of the Red Sea or the divine triumph for helpless Hezekiah and the people of Judah over Assyria’s massive army without a shot. And of course, that’s all true. But what David does is to help us to see God’s omnipotence more closely by seeing both His creative handiwork in forming us and in His providence revealed in governing each day of our lives.
For you gave birth to my kidneys; [i.e. “my inward parts]
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully extraordinary; [or fearfully set apart/distinguished]
your works are wonderful I know full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was wrought in the secret place,
when I was colorfully woven in the depths of the earth.
My embryo your eyes saw;
In your book all of them were written;
My days were fashioned before one of them came to be [Waltke & Houston, 537–538].
A Catechism for Babes, or, Little Ones, written in 1652 by English Baptist Henry Jessey, asks, Q. Who made you? A. God made me. Q. When did God make you? A. God made me before I was born. Q. Where did God make you? A. God made me in my mother’s womb. Q. Wherefore did God make you? A. God made me that I should serve Him [Timothy & Denise George, John A. Broadus: Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms, 228–229]. Four hundred and fifty years later, we affirm the same. That’s why we unabashedly call ourselves pro-life, for if God made us, fashioning us in our mother’s wombs, then every life must be cherished and nurtured toward our purpose to know and serve God. Derek Kidner comments, this “stanza so far has laid its main emphasis on our pre-natal fashioning by God (13–16a at the least)—a powerful reminder of the value He sets on us, even as embryos, and of His planning our end from the beginning” [TOTC: Psalms 73–150, 466].
So why does the psalmist point to God’s pre-natal fashioning of us in the womb? He was mindful that we struggle most when we try to find our security in ourselves or in other things. But this failure in “considering how singularly we were fashioned at first by our Divine Maker,” as John Calvin put it, has left us fretting and fearing and worrying when the uncertainties of life surround us [Calvin’s Commentaries, VI. 214]. We struggle most when we think that God’s power is a relic of the past instead of seeing the wonder of His power in the mirror. And if He has created us then He does not leave us alone. He governs what He creates so that we might live to His glory.
This means that God’s omnipotence has both personal and larger dimensions. He made us so that we find joy and offer thanks that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We’re not the offshoot of cosmic bangs or protoplasmic mush. We’re the handiwork of God. And we only find our reason for life when we find it in the Lord.
Yet even bigger, all of these displays of the creative handiwork of God around you assure us of the power of His governing hand in the details of life. He doesn’t create and abandon. Even when the fall took place and sin with its cosmic rebellion against God gained the ascendency in the world, God didn’t abandon His creation. Rather, in the fullness of time He “sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:3–4). In that powerful act of sending His Son, He conquered the fall and its effects at the cross, redeeming a people for God and reclaiming the whole creation for God. So God governs the details because the details belong to Him as the creation marches toward the full restoration of everything to the glory of God. Revelation 21–22 is coming because God exercises His power to see it to fruition. And that powerful working of God in the details of life includes your life and your details. The days that God ordained for you when none of those days had come into existence means that not only are there no surprises to Him but His plans worked out in perfect faithfulness unfold in the details of relationships, experiences, challenges, and opportunities to display His glory.
So how does it affect us when we live with consciousness of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence?
II. God is there, so respond rightly to God
This psalm teaches us that we don’t study theology just to study theology or just to make us feel like we’re a bit smarter than the average person. When we dig into theology, if we properly grasp what we’re studying, it has a direct effect on our walk with God. Many have deficient walks because they have a deficient theology. Others look at theological study as a hobby rather than as a spiritual discipline that affects the details of our daily walks with Christ. So how does the theology of Psalm 139 affect us practically?
1. Worship: be overwhelmed by God’s worth vv. 17–18
The psalmist turns in verses 17–18 to exult in God. He can’t contain himself. The more that he sees of God’s intimate knowledge, reassuring presence, and governing power, the more he wants to worship.
This same God that has come to us personally and powerfully in Christ, receives our worship as we respond to God’s revelation of Himself. Worship is always a response to God’s revelation and never something that we initiate out of our cleverness. Or else our worship is fabricated and not God-honoring. That’s why we put such a premium in our corporate worship on Scripture reading and exposition, and theologically rich hymnody. It’s only as we’re affected in our thinking about God that we truly worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24). He made us to worship—just peak into the scenes in heaven and see that. But sin’s disruption of relationship with God affects worship. So as the Lord reconciles us to Himself through Christ, worship is restored so that we regularly “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” So David exults in God:
How precious are your intentions for me!
how mighty is the sum total of them!
Should I reckon them up,
they are more than the sand!
I awake and I am still with you [Motyer, 398].
Whether we’re counting God’s thoughts that exercise His knowledge, presence, and power, or we’re considering His intentions for us as those redeemed through His Son, we worship. So we see how He has revealed Himself and we experience how He acts toward us in mercy and grace, we respond with worship. That’s the point that David makes. When we really see who this God is that has shown us the richness of grace in Christ, then we cannot but worship. To be silent or dull or non-participatory admits that we’ve not given any thought to God’s majesty or power or grace. Good theology leads to passionate worship.
2. Holiness: be diligent for God’s honor vv. 19–22
One might think that adding this psalm to the imprecatory psalms, i.e. the psalms that cry for God’s vengeance upon His enemies, seems unfitting. Yet the purpose of that class of psalms, while viewed with more restraint in light of the cross of Christ, is fitting to call our attention to the certainty of judgment when God’s honor is attacked. Derek Kidner notes, “The passages on which we may be tempted to sit in judgment have the shocking immediacy of a scream, to startle us into feeling something of the desperation which produced them” [Psalms 1–72, 28]. In other words, while we pray for their salvation, we feel no less weight of justice in divine judgment for those refusing to repent of dishonoring God through unbelief. David counted God’s honor as holy and irreproachable, so he prayed for justice and took the side of the Lord against those who would dishonor Him. We would do well to feel that same deep wounding at the acts of wickedness and blaspheming against God that David felt, and yet turn our emotions to prayer for their salvation and recognition of the certainty of judgment.
If only you, God, would slay the wicked—
Bloodthirsty men, get away from me!—
who speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, I AM,
and loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
they have become my enemies [Waltke & Houston, 539–540].
So how do we wrestle with this imprecatory strophe? (1) Keep in mind the nature of poetry as filled with hyperbole in describing actions. Kidner calls this “a vividness of communication which is beyond the reach of cautious literalism” [Ps 1–72,27]. (2) Remember that the New Testament writers expressed judgment as well. Even Jesus prescribed “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Matthew 23: 13–36), and upon the “evil and adulterous generation” that craved signs of their own making while rejecting “the sign of Jonah,” the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Matthew 12:38–42).
(3) Kidner summarizes so well, “The New Testament, then, so far from minimizing the role of judgment, increases its gravity at the same time as it removes it from the sphere of private reprisal” . So while we don’t see the individual expressions of imprecation in the NT we find a far larger pronouncement of judgment for those who remain in unbelief. Let that motivate us to pray, plead, and proclaim the gospel, asking God for mercy while praising Him for His justice for those that dishonor His gift in Christ.
3. Perseverance: be dependent on God’s grace vv. 23–24
Just when we think that we don’t like the psalmist because he expressed himself in such drastic tones (a misunderstanding in our sophistication), we’re brought back to earth. He not only wanted to see God honored among the masses of rebels before him but also in his own heart. He would not pronounce judgment on others without doing so to himself. He opens his heart to the searching gaze of a holy God who would expose sin yet give grace to lead in the everlasting way.
Search me, transcendent God,
and know my heart.
Test me, and know my wandering thoughts,
and see if there is a way of distress in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting [Motyer, 399].
David prays for purity so that he might persevere as one dependent on God’s grace. He asked God to search him, or “to dig deep” [Alexander Maclaren, Expositions, 4:361]. Here’s no prayer for the fainthearted. It’s a man that knows that when God digs into the thoughts, motives, ambitions, and actions that He will not find a clean house. Debris will litter the heart and thoughts—dark, foreboding sins that need to be exposed and cleaned out by a holy yet gracious God. It’s a request for purity because only through purity will he continue in perseverance. Yet that request is not made to a reluctant Deity but rather one who loves to forgive those who humble themselves before Him, because the Son humbled Himself at the cross to grant the grace of forgiveness.
Here is the heart that humbly relies on the grace of God, for only such a heart can invite divine searching, knowing that despite the pain of what is revealed, grace abounds. Where sin abounds, Paul tells us, grace abounds much more (Rom 6). And where grace abounds in forgiveness, we continue persevering along the path of the everlasting way.
What prompted the psalmist to expose himself so willingly to the searching gaze of God? He had thought rightly about God so he understood that he did not approach a deity far removed from his pain, anxiety, oppression, and sin. Rather he came to the God who is right there in the middle of our lives to give grace and life through Christ. And that was not just for David—it’s for us as well. The empty tomb makes it so.