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(Sunday between July 17 and July 23)
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

Psalm 139 is something of an exception in the Old Testament, speaking strongly and positively about the individual. Nevertheless, it acts as a foil to the modern obsession with privacy and individuality. The psalm does not deny the importance of the individual; it positively underlines it. But it also questions our rigorous pursuit of and desire for privacy, and whether such a pursuit is ultimately in our best interest. For while Psalm 139 is about the individual and has a very private feel to it, the psalm is even more about the invasion of our privacy – by none other than God. This is a comforting psalm in terms of God’s intimate knowledge of us and care for us. It is also a frightening psalm because to be known so intimately is ultimately to be open to the other. The lectionary selections for today give us a taste of both sides of the psalm. No relation with God, however comforting, is ever entirely without awe and trepidation.

Psalm 138 ends with the petition that Yahweh might not forsake the ‘work of (his) hands’ (v. 8) having proclaimed how Yahweh regards the lowly (v. 6). In Psalm 139, the psalmist explores their own personal relationship with Yahweh and spells out precisely why Yahweh should respond to the petition in Ps 138:8. Yahweh has a lot invested in the psalmist as an individual. Yahweh’s knowledge of the psalmist is too wonderful, too high for even the psalmist to comprehend (Ps 139:6). With such commitment to searching the psalmist out (vv. 1-4), and with such fearful and wonderful work in forming the psalmist (vv. 13-16), the psalmist is overwhelmed with Yahweh’s care (vv. 17-18). But at the same time it is not possible for the psalmist to escape Yahweh who is all present and all knowing (vv. 7-12). While we might expect to hear of Yahweh present in heaven (v. 8a), it is surprising to hear of God present in Sheol (v. 8b), the place of the dead in Old Testament thought and a place usually thought to be separated from God. The poetic point made is that God’s presence is all pervasive – east and west, heaven and Sheol, God is everywhere. This was a radical thought for Old Testament writers and is one they came to only late in the people’s experience, after the destruction of the temple, the place usually seen to embody the divine presence. Given the vulnerability of human life (cf. Pss 39:4-6; 62:9; 144:4) such a presence could be oppressive but in this psalm it leads only to wonder and praise (v. 14). In this way it is a fitting companion to the story of Jacob leaving his homeland with the promise of God’s presence with him in his journey.

The psalm ends with a desire for the death of the wicked and a claim that the psalmist hates that which Yahweh hates (vv. 21-22), a statement principally of loyalty rather than emotion. But in the end, just as the psalmist is aware that Yahweh has searched him or her out in the past (vv. 1-6), they ask Yahweh to search them out again so that they will not be like the wicked but be led ‘in the way everlasting’ (v. 24). The end of this psalm with its harsh words is not an opportunity to seek some sort of revenge on those whom we can’t stand. Rather it is calling for God to remove all that is evil, ‘bloodthirsty’, malicious, and opposed to the one who lovingly and with great care ‘knits’ each of his creatures together. And it goes so far to request that such evil be sought out even in the one who utters the prayer (vv. 23-24).

Psalm 139 presents a text for preaching which involves self-reflection. Any sermon on it should model that process. It offers a chance to echo unspoken thoughts about the inescapable presence and knowledge of God. It also offers the opportunity to affirm that such close scrutiny is for the purpose of a deeper communion and greater praise of God. The inherent worth that the psalmist feels, in spite God’s close scrutiny, underlines the inherent worth of all people of integrity, a worth based in God’s presence with and knowledge of all peoples.

Similar thoughts to those in the psalm are found in the New Testament, especially in Rom 8:38-39 and Heb 4:12-16, both of which also speak of the role of Christ in all this.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Psalm 139 could be used in relation to the prayer of confession this week. The petition at the end of the psalm (vv. 23-24) could form a call to confession, changed to speak for the whole congregation not the individual.

Search us, O God, and know our heart;
test us and know our thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in us,
and lead us in the way everlasting.
     (followed by prayers of confession)
The early verses of the psalm could also be used as an introduction to the declaration of forgiveness after the prayer of confession, again with changes to make the psalm plural.
    (After suitable prayers of confession)
O LORD, you have searched us and known us.
You know when we sit down and when we rise up;
you discern our thoughts from far away.
You search out our paths and our lying down,
and are acquainted with all our ways.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for us;
it is so high that we cannot attain it.     (Psalm 139:1-3, 6)

But since we have a great high priest
who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
we hold fast to our confession.
We therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,
so that we may receive mercy
and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:14, 16)

We hear then Christ’s word to us:
‘Your sins are forgiven”
Thanks be to God

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 28:10-19a

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