A Reflection on Psalm 139.1-7 by Canon Rob,
4th September, 12th Sunday after Trinity
The opening words of this psalm, in our Common Worship books, are, “O Lord, you have searched me out and known me.” That might be a scary prospect as you reflect upon them. It may be true that we know ourselves better than anyone else, and if we are in a very long-term relationship our partner may know us very well and love us warts and all! But, if you have read George Orwell’s book, “Brave New World,” the prospect that God knows us inside out may remind you of “Big Brother” who, today, has become a symbol of totalitarian regimes which control citizens’ personal lives and deny them freedom. On the other hand, you may read the first seven verses, set for today’s worship, and find great comfort in them. If this is the case, you will be joining the many millions of people, especially Jews and Christians, who find these words a source of inspiration and hope. Rather than being threatened by the prospect that God knows us intimately, it is reassuring simply because, far from being an ominous ‘big brother,’ God is believed to be our heavenly Father whose sole motivation is love and a love which is freeing rather than controlling; a love which allows us freedom to be. Two ‘big’ words are attributed to God helping us to understand a little about Him. He is ‘omniscient’ which means He knows all and He is ‘omnipresent,’ meaning that He is everywhere, and the author of Psalm 139 clearly rejoices in this knowledge. Here is a God who isn’t disinterested and distant, but the One who loves completely: enough, for Christians at least, to believe that He sent His Son, Jesus, into the world to show us – face to face – who God is and what His love is like. So, God knowing us inside out is not meant to make us feel fearful or guilty, but thankful that we are truly loved as we are.
Verses 1 – 7 are set for today but, as in previous Reflections, can I encourage you to read the entire psalm? The following verses up to, and including, verse 18, continue with this same theme. Many find verse 12 especially beautiful: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” We probably wouldn’t want to take this literally today, but we can appreciate the poetry and even a deeper meaning than accepting it as fact. For it is about God knowing us and loving us from our very beginning and still doing so beyond our end here on earth. As verse 7 puts it, again so beautifully, “If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.”
You may be worried by the complete change in tone in verses 19 – 22. They are full of hate and the contrast with the other verses is a real shock. It is almost as if another writer has inserted these words. However, as one commentator puts it, these four verses show that the author, who celebrates God’s loving presence is “totally baffled by the infamy and vileness of really wicked men.” In other words, those who do what is seemingly inhuman and therefore reject God and His goodness. But it is worth reading the final two verses together with these four. Doing so strongly suggests that the author is asking God to continue to search him out to see if there is any such hate or wickedness in him. Perhaps a reminder of Jesus saying we should look for the “plank in our eye” rather than “the speck” which is in someone else’s? [See Matthew 7.1-5]
To end this Reflection, a verse from an ancient hymn, thought to go back to St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland: words which have brought comfort and encouragement, hope and joy, to thousands in the past and still do today. I hope and pray they will do the same for you. God be with you.
“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” Amen.