Do you read the superscriptions of the Psalms or jump straight into the verses? Many people ignore the intro material, including the chapter headings added by the translation editors. For example, Psalm 139, in the NRSV, has the title “The Inescapable God,” followed by the superscription “To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.” The title was invented in 1952, but the superscription has been part of the text from the time of our earliest manuscripts. In fact, before verse numbers were added, there was no distinction between the superscription and the body of the psalm. Because of this, some early translations included the superscription as verse 1 of the text.
Why does this matter? It matters because, in the case of Psalm 139, the superscription lets us know that we are not reading the private prayer book of King David. Though this psalm may have begun as the deeply personal reflections of its author, it eventually found its way into the people’s songbook as a hymn to the all-knowing, everywhere-present God of Israel. Under the Spirit’s influence, these words are received as a gift for prayer and worship for God’s people at all places and times.
I was experiencing growth pains in my development as a young pastor. The responsibilities of preaching and shepherding, together with the calling to be a faithful husband and father, had brought my need for significant spiritual formation into painfully sharp focus. I got up early each morning (not my habit or inclination!) and walked the streets of our neighborhood, praying in the pre-dawn darkness. During those days, the lines of Psalm 139 shaped my morning prayers. On some days, I got no further than verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”
As verses 2-6 make clear, God’s knowledge of us extends to our most private thoughts, to our habitual behaviors, to our every word, even before a word is spoken. How many of us sincerely welcome such a penetrating gaze? To be examined and known in these ways is not a comfortable experience. But, of course, God’s knowledge of us is a precondition of God’s healing, forming and guidance. The young pastor roaming the streets in early morning prayer learned that conviction and confession are close companions of the joy and peace that intimacy with God produces. Though God is acquainted with all my ways (all of them!), the hand that is laid upon me (verse 5) is a hand of blessing, reassurance and love.
Our understanding of omniscience too often relies on Greek philosophy for its content. Plato’s idea, for example, was that God’s perfection means there can be no change in God, such as would be required if God were to learn new information. Therefore, God’s knowledge is perfect, complete and unchanging. A very logical and elegant idea! But the biblical portrayal of God is not of a remote being, distant from humanity and unaffected by interactions with mere mortals. The knowledge that leaves David wonderstruck is deeply personal and responsive. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.” (verse 6) Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it: “This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in!” (The Message)
Verses 13-18 movingly describe God’s loving involvement in the Psalmist’s life, extending even to the formation of his physical body while still in the womb. David is speaking in the first person: “You formed my inward parts, . . . you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew verbs are “shaping” and “weaving,” the kind of work done by sculptors of clay and weavers of cloth. The language is reminiscent of Genesis 2:7, when “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.” God’s hands . . . forming and weaving my life. It doesn’t get more intimate than that.
When our daughter and her husband arrived home from the doctor’s office with a DVD of the ultrasound recording that would show us the beating heart of our grandson, we crowded around the computer screen like we were witnessing the discovery of life on another planet. That little plum-sized fetus was carrying our genes, our traits, our blood. But the mystery of his life was beyond our imaginations. He was “fearfully and wonderfully made,” not by his parents, but by a loving Creator, whose thoughts of my grandson are more than the sand on the seashore.
This text is a favorite of those who are passionate about the sanctity of life, and rightfully so. I would have loved to hear the temple choir in Jerusalem sing the stanza that says, “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” For that matter, I’d love to hear a gospel choir in Charleston, South Carolina, offer their rendition of those words. Or a church full of refugees sing of God’s precious thoughts toward them from before birth, through childhood and on to old age. How vast is the sum of God’s thoughts toward every child of every race and nationality and creed! If we would sing it, as the superscription of this Psalm intends for it to be sung, we would live in greater awareness of the sacredness of the lives God has fearfully and wonderfully made.
The final verses of the psalm return to the opening theme. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.” Growing up in this life with God means learning to welcome and submit to the all-knowing, all-loving Spirit of the One who is faithful to lead us in the way everlasting.
With the Book of Common Prayer, we say,
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
District Superintendent, Hawaii Pacific District