Reflections on the Old Testament God (13): Psalm 139

Counting on God

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-16, 23-24

[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 11/15/10]

Ted Grimsrud

We conclude our lessons on the psalms with this vigorous statement of personal faith in the face of adversity. Maybe we all can imagine ourselves in conflict with those who reject the basic message of God’s ways of justice and peace.

Because God knows us, we may trust God

This psalm affirms God as our creator, who knows each of us better than any of us can even know ourselves. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:2). God not only knows us, God remains present with us throughout our lives. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (139:8).

God’s knowledge and presence are reassuring, not terrifying, because they show God’s love and commitment. “Wonderful are your works; that I know very well” (139:14).

God may be counted on to vindicate the one who trusts in God even when such trust leads to hostility from others. The psalmist takes this so far as to affirm the psalmists’ enemies as God’s enemies and to be hated “with perfect hatred” (139:22).

At this point, Psalm 139 moves from offering simple words of encouragement to challenging some of our core convictions as followers of Jesus. How do we understand the psalm’s implicit call to animosity toward those we understand to be opposed to God’s ways?

God’s objective standards

What prevents this psalm simply being another case of petitioning God to take our side in our disputes? How is this not simply a case of reducing God to be my partisan, my personal guarantor of success? How is this not a call to add to the spiral of violence in face of conflicts?

Certainly the psalm may be used in this way. However, within Psalm 139 itself we find strong indications of a much more universal understanding of God. And when we read this psalm along with the other texts we have looked at this quarter, we have even more reasons for reading this psalm in a more “objective” fashion.

God exists outside of the psalmist. God, in fact, is our creator. To be “known” by God is quite different than being “known” by a mirror.

The story of the exodus, the giving of Torah, and the crises in the community when Torah is disregarded that we looked at earlier remind us that God holds us accountable to the ways of justice.

The God who knows each of us “completely” (139:4) knows whether or not our cries for vindication are themselves cries for God’s vindication because our sufferings result from our following God’s ways.

The standard here, as throughout the psalms and the rest of the Bible, is God’s will for shalom and God’s opposition to injustice. The final call of the psalm, “lead me in the way everlasting” (139:24), is a call for empowerment to follow God’s healing love that opposes the proud and unjust and that gives special attention to the vulnerable and oppressed.

The psalmist can count on God’s help only insofar as the psalmist’s own life (and reasons for suffering) conform to the Lord’s requirements for human faithfulness: turning from “hurtful ways” (139:24) and pursuing justice and mercy (Micah 6:8).

The psalm ends with a strong statement of submission to God’s will (139:23-24). As followers of Jesus we may understand this not with the expectation that we would have no enemies but with the desire that we ultimately follow God’s way of responding to enemies as shown in Jesus—with transforming love not punishing violence.

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