Week of January 21, 2018
The Point: Every life counts – including mine.
God is All-Knowing: Psalm 139:1-6.
 O LORD, you have searched me and known me!  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.  You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. [ESV]
“[1-6] This Psalm is a prayer, addressed to God, and the word Lord (Yahweh) introduces the theme. David addresses God directly, plunging us right away into the subject of his thoughts. The word Lord sets the key for all that follows for He is the great central subject of the Psalm. The expression Lord is of particular interest, and when David uttered it he spoke as one conscious of the sacredness and preciousness of the word. This is the name which God revealed to Moses at the burning bush when Moses asked God to give him a name to give to the Israelites. Speaking from the midst of the burning bush, God declared, “I am that I am,” thus asserting His eternity. What God has promised will in His own time most certainly find fulfillment. He is the eternal God, and He can carry out and bring to fruition all His purposes and plans. David begins the Psalm dealing with the Lord’s omniscience. The first verb (searched) implies that God has engaged in an exhaustive search in order to learn all that there is to know about David. Whatever there is to know, God knows. What David has here stated in verse 1 concerning himself is true also of us. God is our God and He knows us. Having stated that the Lord is omniscient, the Psalmist proceeds to indicate in what respect God knows him. Only those who know God can address Him in a personal, God-centered prayer like David does here. The one whom the Psalmist so confidently addresses as Lord and You is not some being far removed from the affairs of man’s earthly life, but one who possesses knowledge of man. God is all-knowing and God is all-wise. To be able to address such a God is a blessing indeed. What however is it that God knows? He knows the Psalmist’s sitting down and rising up. This sharp contrast refers to the entirety of David’s life. God knows all of our life, every moment, every posture, every activity. At no time are our ways hidden from Him. It is not possible to escape from Him. God knows all our lives. Not only is the outward course of life known to Him, but also the thoughts of our hearts. The word which is translated thoughts probably refers to the purpose or aim of a man’s heart. The purposes and intentions which arise in our hearts are known to God. This is striking, for we ourselves often do not know, much less understand, the intentions which come from our hearts. God not merely knows of these intentions; He understands them. The word discern is strong, and suggests that God knows all about these intentions. What their origin is, why they have arisen in our hearts, how they affect us: all this is perfectly understood by God. It is not a mere knowledge about David, but an intimate, thorough knowing and understanding all that there is to know about him. Such attributes can belong to God alone. No man can know as God knows; no man can possess the understanding of God. God’s knowledge is perfect and all-embracing. What is meant, however, when the Psalmist declares that God knows or understands my thoughts from afar? By the term afar the Psalmist has in mind the thought that God is far removed from man in heaven. It is God’s transcendence which is here in view. Although God is in heaven and not upon earth, nevertheless, from this far-off place, He has a perfect and complete knowledge and understanding of David’s life, both external and internal. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. I am the object of that infinite divine knowledge. This is the matchless truth that David desires to express. The path  is the way in which one must travel during his active life, since life in the Bible is often conceived as a journey. For all practical purposes the word is an equivalent of the expression rise up which David had just employed in the preceding verse. To indicate the passive life the Psalmist speaks of my lying down. The two expressions, however, are not mere synonyms of the phrases in the second verse. The different figures of speech serve to express the fullness of life, as though to stress the fact that God knows wholly and completely the life of David, no matter from what aspect it be considered. The verb which he uses (search out) means to winnow, and thus David takes from everyday life in Palestine a figure which would be rich in meaning for his hearers or readers. To the dwellers in Palestine winnowing would have been thoroughly familiar. The worker throws the grain high into the air, and the wind blows or carries away the chaff, leaving the true grain to fall to the ground. Thus, the wind separated between the chaff and the grain. It is this beautiful figure which David employs of God. God has winnowed his path and his lying down, so that the path and lying down have been thoroughly examined and searched out by God. God has tested them. That there may be no misunderstanding of his thought, the Psalmist inserts the phrase, with all my ways. The language is self-explanatory. All that David does, all that he suffers, all of his actions and all that affects him, is known to God. God intimately knows all the ways of David. Even before man utters his words, while they are yet on the tongue, unspoken, the Lord knows them. God knows in their fullness and entirety the words which are on David’s tongue. Both the thoughts and words are known by God altogether. How practical is this truth of God’s omniscience. From men we may be able to conceal the thoughts which we have. And it is well that this is so. Thoughts of anger, jealousy, hatred; how good it is that other men need not know them. The wicked thoughts that from time to time find lodgment in our hearts we may hide from men. From God, however, we cannot conceal them. For this reason we must guard the heart, for out of it are the issues of life. Should thoughts of evil reign in our hearts, they may break forth into expression in words of evil. None of this can be kept hidden from God, who knows us for what we are. The deep contemplation of this truth will strengthen us that we keep our hearts pure from evil and our lips from speaking guile. Verse 5 contains an almost imperceptible transition from the consideration of God’s omniscience to that of His omnipresence. If David would go forward God is present; should he step backward as though to flee, yet God is there. In whatever direction he turns he cannot escape from the all-knowing God. This raises the question, ‘Why should one desire to escape from the presence of God?’ When we think of God as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word, we are at once reminded of the great gulf which separates the Creator from the creature. In our daily lives we do not meditate upon God as we ought. When we turn aside from the cares and demands of daily activity and enter into the quiet of meditation we are brought face to face with the greatness of our God. He is so great that we cannot comprehend Him. He is the infinite One. Hence, we are not able to think of Him as He is in Himself. There is nothing in this earth with which we can compare Him, for this earth and its fullness belong to Him as His creation. God, however, in all of His perfections and attributes is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. Hence, when we think of His omniscience, we tremble. Before such a God who can stand? From this God there is no escape. Before Him we can only bow in adoration and in genuine reverence. To express the thought of inescapability from God David uses a word (lay your hand upon) that actually means ‘to shut up’ or ‘to enclose’. God has confined man by shutting him up so that whether man go forward or backward he is hemmed in and unable to flee from God. The language is graphic, and speaks of the palm of the hand. Thus we have the picture of the outstretched palm of God placed over David, so that David is held down and cannot escape. When God places His almighty hand upon a person, that person is completely in His power, and it is this truth which David is compelled to recognize. The thoughts which the Psalmist has just expressed lead him to utter an exclamation of wonder at the greatness and incomprehensibility of God’s knowledge . The underlying idea of the word that David uses is that of separateness or distinctness. The knowledge which David now wishes to praise is distinct and separate from human knowledge; it is divine; it is too wonderful for David. Such knowledge is incomprehensible; it is something that man cannot possess, for man is but a creature and hence finite. God’s knowledge is that of the infinite One; man’s that of a finite being. The two are distinct and cannot be identified any more than the creature and Creator can be identified. Lastly, David makes the confession, I cannot attain it. God’s knowledge is incomprehensible. It is knowledge such as no mere man can possibly possess, for it belongs to God alone. Indeed, the purpose of the language is to show that man and God are distinct. David wishes to make it clear not merely that God is above man, but that He is infinitely above man. Such an emphasis is eminently needed in our day, for men tend to bring God down to the human level. The sense of awe and wonder in the presence of God has all but disappeared. In discussing God’s omniscience David is showing that God and man are utterly distinct.” [Young, pp. 9-44].
God is All-Powerful: Psalm 139:13-18.
 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.  How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!  If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. [ESV]
“[13-16] With verse 13 David makes quite a transition in his thought. Having spoken of the possibility of fleeing from God, David now adopts the opposite course of turning in a personal manner unto God and reflecting upon the fact that God has created him. The verse begins with a For, and this word introduces the reason why God is all-knowing and also omnipresent, and that reason is found in the fact that God is the Creator. God knows the entirety of David’s life, both his outward existence and the thoughts of his heart. From this God there is no way of escape, and the reason why God possesses this knowledge and why God is everywhere present is simply that God has created all things and He has created David. David continues addressing God, again with an emphatic you. Inward parts refers to the seat of man’s emotions and will. Since God has created or formed these inward parts of man, then God’s control reaches to the inmost part of our being. By means of the second part of the verse David wishes to show how God has a control over his whole being. David is speaking of the embryo in the mother’s womb. When as yet he was in the womb of his mother before actual birth, he was in God’s control. And this was not in some vague way, but God even then knew him intimately. Even in this unborn stage, David was in God’s hands. We are not the creatures of chance, merely happening in some inexplicable way to appear upon the scene of history. We are here, for God has created us, and from the first instant of our creation, even before our birth, we were wholly in His care. Truly the doctrine of divine providence is a blessed thing. It teaches that God cares for us. And the reason why this doctrine is a blessed one is that it goes hand in hand with the doctrine of creation. Before birth, while we were yet in the womb of the mother, God watched over our ways, and the reason why He did this is that it is He that formed us. He brought the embryo into existence. From the very beginning then, we were in God’s hands. David cannot continue the development of his thought; it is too great, too vast, too all-embracing. Before such a God he does what he cannot refrain from doing. He breaks off in the midst of his argument, and bursts forth into thanksgiving and praise to God. Indeed, one cannot think of God and His wondrous works without bursting forth into praise. He who knows God and loves Him cannot speak of Him without feeling. The greatness of His works of creation calls forth the adoration and praise of the human heart. If we are not moved to praise by the contemplation of God’s attributes, we may well examine our hearts whether we possess the true knowledge of God. When the devout heart begins to contemplate the greatness of God, it loses itself in wonder, love and praise. In contemplating the wondrous manner in which he has been formed, David proceeds in verse 15 to assert that from the very beginning he was known to God. Even before his birth God saw clearly the frame of David’s being. The origin of our being is in His hands. Herein is another evidence of His omniscience and mighty power. The second part of verse 15 refers to the mysterious manner in which the bones and sinews of the human body are knit together. What, however, is the meaning of the strange expression, in the depths of the earth. In what sense can it be said that man was intricately woven in the depths of the earth. The phrase obviously stands in parallelism to in secret. If, therefore, the phrase in secret refers to the womb of the mother, it would seem also that the depths of the earth is a figurative expression for the same thing. Perhaps there is an allusion here to the fact that man was formed of the dust of the ground, and the suggestion that the mother’s body is dust. Here the figure simply serves to emphasize that the womb of the mother is a place of darkness wherein the body of man is formed. David continues his prayer to God in verse 16, declaring that God’s eyes have seen his embryo (unformed substance). To God the body of the mother is no covering, and God’s eyes penetrate through the body, so that from Him nothing can be hidden. All the days of David’s life are written in God’s book. The thought here is that the entirety of David’s being, even including the days of his life, are inscribed in the book that belongs to God. Furthermore, it is stated that these days of the Psalmist’s life have been formed before there were any of them. What actually is the Psalmist saying? He is saying that the days of his life were actually formed before even one of them had come into existence. All his life, the details of each day, had been written down in the book of God, before any of these days had actually occurred. The Psalmist has here reached a peak in his exaltation of the all-knowing and all-powerful God. Not only does God know all things, but God has also foreordained all things. In other words, the Psalmist has brought us head on with the doctrine of predestination. His life he regards not as a chance happening, but as a life already planned by God even before he himself was born. All the days that David would live and all the events of each day had been written down in God’s book before David himself had come into existence. David’s life is not determined by David; he is not the master of his fate nor the captain of his soul, nor, for that matter, is any man. Before David appeared upon this earth, the days of his life had been determined by God Himself. Indeed, all that occurs has been foreordained of God. God has a plan and hence there are no surprises for Him. He knows what the future will bring forth, for He Himself has determined that future. David does not rebel at this thought and neither should we. The contemplation of this profound doctrine leads him to an utterance of the preciousness of God’s thoughts. David is content that God has determined in advance his life, predestined the course of events for him. As a devout believer in the Lord he knows that whatever God does is right. But this teaching of predestination does not in any sense do violence to our human responsibility. We know that the very fact that God has proclaimed both His sovereignty and also the responsibility of the creature is sufficient warrant for us to believe in both. In God they find their harmony, and that is sufficient for the believer. We can trust God and leave the question of harmonization to him. David, apparently, was willing to do just that. There is something else that we can do. In the light of this profound teaching of the Bible we can bow in devout adoration before our great God. What a wonderful thing it is to know that the very days of our lives have been written down in His book even before these days come into existence. Life is filled with difficulty. About us the world seems to be in turmoil. We see men in desperation and agony, for they know not the meaning of life. But we know better; we know that our days are in God’s hands.
[17-18] What effect does such divine scrutiny and knowledge of David’s being and ways have upon the Psalmist? David does not exhibit resentment at God’s close scrutiny of himself; instead he marvels at the wonder of the incomprehensible thoughts of his great God. In verse 17 David directs our thought to himself, not in any sense to praise himself, but rather to exhibit how he reacts to the divine scrutiny and knowledge of which he has been speaking. And what is said here concerning David should also apply to all who like David love and reverence the Lord as their God. The Psalm thus exhibits a practical purpose: it is designed to promote godliness among those who are God’s own, and nothing can produce godliness more effectively than the contemplation of the attributes of the majestic God of whom this Psalm speaks. The thoughts of God of which David speaks are those which God has concerning David, thoughts which are constantly directed to him and which have embraced and do embrace him in the entirety of his life. These thoughts which have originated with God reveal how great God is. They show that He is truly omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. The second half of verse 17 also includes an exclamation: How vast is the sum of them! David reflects to the vast number of God’s thoughts as well as the power and greatness of the thoughts themselves. It would seem that David is uttering his surprise at the power of the thoughts of God. The total impact which they make upon him is that of strength. The thoughts of God are so many that David cannot possibly count them. In the Scriptures sand is an example of what cannot be counted. Here the reference to sand is emphatic and is placed first in the Hebrew. These thoughts of God which arouse the adoring wonder of David are before him night and day. There is no escape from them. In counting the thoughts of God David was not merely seeking to find out how many thoughts God had, but rather was meditating upon these thoughts. it is not only the number but also the greatness of the thoughts which impresses him. Night does not exclude David from the thoughts which God has of him. When the morning comes he is still with God. It is important to note the word still, for it implies that the night had not separated David from God. To say that when he awakes he is still with God is to imply that he has been with God right along throughout the night. In fact, the purpose of the verse is to show that even the night does not separate from God.” [Young, pp. 66-91].
Questions for Discussion:
- List all the things David says about God in these verses. Now list the ways David responds to his Lord. Spend time thinking about how you respond to the God David describes in these verses.
- In verse 2 David writes that Yahweh (Lord) discerns (or understands) his thoughts. What is the difference between being known and being understood? Why is it important to you that our covenant Lord not only knows, but understands completely all the thoughts, purposes, intentions, and desires of your heart? How do you respond to such an all-knowing God?
- How does David respond to the fact that all the days of his life were written in God’s book prior to his birth [13-16]? How do you respond to this great truth? Note: In verse 17, David rejoices in the truth of verse 16; just as Paul bursts forth in the doxology of Romans 11:33-36 after dealing with the truth of God’s sovereign choice in Romans 9-11. Do you respond in hymns of praise to God’s sovereignty like David and Paul?
Psalms, volume 3, James Boice, Baker.
A Commentary on the Psalms, volume 3, Allen Ross, Kregel.
Psalm 139, Edward Young, Banner of Truth.