Psalm 139: The All-Knowing God

By James M. Rochford

Unless otherwise stated, all citations are taken from the New International Version (NIV).

Scholars are “divided on the genre.”[1] The psalm incorporates “elements of lament, praise, and wisdom.”[2]

God’s knowledge

(139:1) You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.

“Search… know.” David opens and closes with these words (v.23). This forms an inclusio for the psalm, demonstrating that this is the central message. What do we learn about God’s knowledge of David?

(139:2) You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

“Sit and… rise.” This is an example of a merism. A merism captures everything in between the two extreme opposites. It’s similar to saying, “We searched high and low.”

“You perceive my thoughts from afar.” God not only knows David’s actions; he even knows his thoughts. He knows absolutely everything about David’s external and internal worlds.

(139:3) You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

“Going out… lying down” is another merism. God knows everything about David from when he wakes up in the morning to when he goes to sleep at night.

(139:4) Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.

God knows David’s future actions. This means that he knows absolutely everything about David—his past life, present circumstances, and future choices. He continuously watches over David.

(139:5) You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

“Hem me in.” The Hebrew can be literally translated, “Behind and before, you have encircled/besieged me.”[3] Without a context, the language can be taken as either positive or negative. However, in context, the idea is resolutely positive (cf. Job 1:10). David feels “nestled in the Lord’s protective grip, safe from assault from every direction.”[4] The NLT renders this passage in this way: “You go before me and follow me.”[5] David feels secure in the fact that God is leading him from the front, and also protecting his back.

“You lay your hand upon me.” A God like this could be very scary to consider. Yet VanGemeren writes, “However, the accused is not afraid of his judge. The divine Judge is more than an arbiter, because he is also the one in whom the psalmist has found protection.”[6] This God comes and lays his hand on David’s shoulder (v.5). He loves him.

(139:6) Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

The omniscience of God wasn’t simply some theological doctrine for David. It blew his mind! The NLT renders this as, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” When we put all of this together, we see that God knew David more accurately than David even knew himself.

God’s omnipresence

(139:7) Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

God’s “Spirit” and God’s “presence” are synonymously parallel. That is, God’s Spirit is his presence. Since God is spirit (Jn. 4:24), he is present everywhere.

(139:8) If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

God exists as high as you can imagine (“heaven”) or as low as you imagine (“depths”).

(139:9-10) If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

God exists as far east as you can imagine (“dawn”) or as far west as you imagine (“far side of the sea”). In Israel, the Mediterranean Sea is to the west.

(139:11-12) If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

God’s omniscient eyes see everything. This would be terrifying if God wasn’t a God of grace, love, and forgiveness. To David, this was a sign of protection. Estes writes, “Whatever the specific reference for darkness, the Lord illumines the darkness, seeing through all the threats that could frighten him (cf. Job 34:22), and that comforts the psalmist. The Lord is present with him, even in times of utter darkness (cf. Ps 23:4).”[7]

God’s creation

(139:13) For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

“Inmost being” (kilyâ) literally refers to the “kidneys.”[8] Modern people state that we feel emotions “in our hearts,” or we might say, “Let your heart be your guide.” In this culture, the “kidneys were considered to be synonymous with the mind (Ps 7:9; 26:2) and the center of human emotion (Ps 73:21; Prov 23:16).

(139:14) I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

“Fearfully” (yārēʾ) means “reverence and awe.”[9]

“Wonderfully” (nip̱lêṯî) means “to be different, striking, remarkable—outside of the power of human comprehension.”[10] Kidner states that the Hebrew can “legitimately translated… awesomely wonderful.”[11] The psalmist uses these same words to describe the miraculous acts of God at the Exodus (Ps. 106:22).

(139:15) My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

“Woven together” (rāqam) literally refers to embroidery. It is the same term used “in the directions for making the tabernacle in Exodus.”[12] God took his time creating you. He created you with all of the creativity and craftmanship of a sculptor.

(139:16) Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

“Ordained” (yāṣar) means “planned.”[13] God foreknows every day that we will every live. God knew all of the good days you’d live through and all of the bad days you’d live through. He saw them all in advance, and he thought it was worth it to bring you into existence.

(139:17) How precious to me are your thoughts,  God! How vast is the sum of them!

“Precious” (yāqar). Kidner writes, “Such divine knowledge is not only ‘wonderful’ (cf. verse 6) but precious, since it carries its own proof of infinite commitment: God will not leave the work of his own hands (138:8c), either to chance or to ultimate extinction.”[14]

(139:18) Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you.

“Were I to count [your thoughts about me], they would outnumber the grains of sand.” God is the Cosmic Creator and Sustainer of the universe, but he thinks about you constantly. Why would God think about someone like me so much? I think about myself enough. Why are you thinking about me too? My kneejerk reaction is to think that God should spend time thinking about other important people rather than me.

God thinks about you far more than you do. God is way ahead of all of your worries and fears.

Personal prayer, after reflecting on God’s nature

Often, David begins his writing by focusing on his problems, and ending with God’s truth. Here, he began with key truths about God, and he ends with his problems. He meditated before he was ready to face his current external enemies and internal hatred.

(139:19-20) If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! 20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.

Sensible and modern people find these statements uncouth. However, what are you supposed to pray when evil, murderous people threaten to kill you? You could be a pacifist and allow them to hack you and your family to death. You could run away and surrender your home and land, living in poverty. You could kill them in self-defense. Or you could pray that God would be the one to be the ultimate judge.

(139:21-22) Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? 22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.

See What about the “Cursings” in the Psalms?

Conclusion

(139:23) Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

“Search… know.” David ends where he began (v.1). However, these verbs are in the indicative mood at the beginning of the psalm, but they are in the imperative mood at the end.[15] In other words, David knows that God searches him (v.1), but he wants to know what God knows about him. Kidner writes, “David does not confine his attack to the evil around him: he faces what may be within him.”[16]

(139:24) See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

David is asking, “Am I being a hypocrite? If I am, I want you to show me that. I’m incapable of seeing this in myself.”

[1] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 835.

[2] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 551.

[3] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 553.

[4] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 553.

[5] Alter understands this to refer to being created by God—just like a potter with clay. He bases this on the later context (vv.13-16). But the immediate context doesn’t support this conclusion. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 480.

[6] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 836.

[7] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 555.

[8] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 556.

[9] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, “The Songs of the Ascents: Psalms,” in The Book of Psalms, ed. E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 965.

[10] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, “The Songs of the Ascents: Psalms,” in The Book of Psalms, ed. E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 965.

[11] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 502.

[12] See footnote. Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 557.

[13] Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 557.

[14] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 503.

[15] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, “The Songs of the Ascents: Psalms,” in The Book of Psalms, ed. E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 966.

[16] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 504.