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Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

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.