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Psalm 139 - Psalm 139

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 10th August 2008.

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A young woman was driving on a long journey one night and she pulled into a service station to refuel. She then went inside to pay and buy herself some chewing gum and crisps. But as she drove off, a huge truck pulled out behind her. Out on the motorway, the girl realised that the truck was very close behind, uncomfortably close! She stepped on the accelerator, but to her dismay, the truck driver accelerated too. "I must be imagining this," she thought, trying not to panic. Yet whether she slowed down, changed lanes or speeded up, the truck stayed with her, its big headlights shining straight into her car. Unable to stand it any longer, the girl turned into the next service station she came to. The truck pulled off the motorway right on her tail. Jamming on the brakes, she jumped out and raced to the driver's side of the truck. At the same moment, a man leapt out of the back of her car where he had been crouching ever since the last stop. The truck driver was too quick for him and caught him just as he tried to make it to the open field behind the station. Later, after the police had come, the truck driver went over to the young woman. "I saw him jump into your car just before you came out of the petrol station back there, but there was no time to warn you before you drove off. The only thing I could think of was to stick so close to you with my high beams flooding your car so that he'd know I'd see him if he tried to do anything to you." Well the woman was stunned. All she could say, with a mighty sigh of relief, was, "And here I was wondering how I was going to shake off a crazy truck driver!"

Having the right perspective on things is extremely important. Because if we don’t it’s all too easy to come to the wrong conclusions. So truck drivers, we assume, are always maniacs, so the truck driver must be out to get the girl. But we don’t know all the facts and we’ve drawn the wrong conclusion because we’ve not got the right perspective on the incident. And if it’s easy to do in life in general, then it’s very easy to do in our spiritual lives as well. We perhaps draw the conclusion that God is no concerned for us because something bad happens to us. We maybe think that God won’t forgive us for some wrong we have committed- we’re not good enough for him we say. Or maybe we think that God will not help us through a situation because it’s just too big and complicated. There seems to be no way out. But in each of those cases, and no doubt hundreds more which we think about each week, we have failed to understand something about God himself. We have boxed God into a corner and we don’t see him as he really is in the Bible. We have under-estimated God. We do not have his perspective on our lives. And whenever that happens then we are heading for trouble. We’ll end up believing that our lives are at the whim of blind fate; we’ll think that God’s forgiveness and love is not wide enough for a sinner like us; we’ll end up believing in a rather weak, unloving sort of God who is really no god at all. What we need is a fresh perspective on God. Of course it’s nothing new in church history. The reformer Martin Luther once said to the NT scholar Erasmus that Erasmus’ view of God was too human. And so often that is our problem. We limit God to our own experience and our perspective.

So what’s the solution? Well as always we need to come back to God’s revelation of himself, as found in his word the Bible. And there are few places in the OT which explain so clearly the character of God than Psalm 139. King David is the author and as he meditates on the amazing character of God he finds his perspective on life totally transformed. So as we look at this psalm we’ll discover four challenges for us, each of which asks big questions of how we view God. And such a psalm is not just meant to transform our thinking, but our actions too.

1) Be Humbled by the Knowledge of God (Vv 1-6)

2) Be Reassured by the Presence of God (Vv 7-12)

3) Be Amazed by the Power of God (Vv 13-18)

4) Be Challenged by the Holiness of God (Vv 19-24)

1) Be Humbled by the Knowledge of God (Vv 1-6)

So first then we are to be humbled by the knowledge of God in verses 1-6. That is God’s knowledge about us. And that is what happens to David as he contemplates the knowledge that God has of him. Let’s read from verse 1: "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD." What David says here is that God knows everything there is to know about David. He says that God has searched him and knows him. God knows what David is doing at any given time, whether he’s out or in. What he is feeling about himself, spiritually, emotionally, physically, psychologically. He knows every thought that David has, whether it’s a good or bad one. Whether David is thinking about military strategies or what to have for dinner, whether he’s jealous over some girl or pondering his next psalm- God knows. You are familiar with all my ways, he says. And he even knows what David is about to say before he’s even said it. "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD." God’s knowledge of David is total and complete.

Now at first this sort of knowledge of us might sound horribly suffocating! Imagine someone knowing everything you do, everything you think, everything you say and will say! It’s always irritating when someone finishes your sentences for you isn’t, but imagine someone saying the whole sentence before you’ve even got it out your mouth! And we might even think that there is something rather sinister about this all encompassing knowledge of us. It sounds slightly Big Brotherish doesn’t it? There are no skeletons in the cupboard that big brother does not know about. He is watching us all the time. We cannot escape his gaze. So does David think that God is like that, some sort of sinister divine Big Brother who never lets us out of his sight lest we plot rebellion against him?

Well David doesn’t see it like that at all. Notice what he goes on to say in verse 5: "You hem me in- behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me." Now that word that David uses for "hem me in" can also be translated "guard" or "secure". In Psalm 34 for example David uses the word to say that God encamps around him. In other words God is protecting him, guarding him from any danger. So for David, God’s all encompassing knowledge of him is a great reassurance. It’s like a security buffer around him. God is totally in charge of David’s life. Not that David is some puppet on God’s string. Rather David as a responsible human being knows that God ultimately holds him in his hands. His knowledge of him is a protecting and securing knowledge. And that is why David’s response is not to shake his fist at God, or try and flee from God- rather he says in verse 6: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." In other words, David is utterly amazed at God’s total and complete knowledge. He’s bowled over and humbled by God’s mind. It is truly overwhelming and David takes great comfort from it.

And such knowledge should be a great encouragement to us. We are no different from David. God knows everything about you and me too. He knows us intimately, how many hairs are on our heads, which isn’t a tough task for God in some cases! He knows what we’re thinking at this precise moment. He knows about all our achievements, the things we’ve done well, the things we’ve done wrong. He knows all about our sin, both the things everyone knows, and the things only known to us, those dark recesses of our hearts which are hidden even from our nearest and dearest. God knows. And what is so wonderful is that in spite of all that knowledge he still loves and cares for us. Knowing someone well can be a double edged sword can’t it. They know you faults and foibles as well as your good points. But good friends also stick by you despite your faults. And God who knows us more than even we know ourselves, still cares for us and loves us. Like David we should cry out in praise: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." Like David we should be deeply humbled by the knowledge of God.

2) Be Reassured by the Presence of God (Vv 7-12)

But secondly we should be reassured by the presence of God. Let’s read from verse 7: "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you." Well if David was humbled by the knowledge of God, now it appears he’s equally humbled by the presence of God. Everywhere David tries to go, God is there before him. "Where can I go to flee from your presence?", he asks. How about up in the heavens, even in space itself? Maybe Yuri Gargarin was right when as the first man to orbit the earth, he supposedly commented that God wasn’t there! But no says David, God’s there. How about down in the depths of the earth, as deep as you could travel? No, God is there. How about if I went very quickly to the very farthest reaches of the earth, just as the sun is rising over the Pacific islands? No, God is already there. There is nowhere I can go, says David, without God being there already. Nowhere in the whole universe where God is not present.

Now at first reading it might seem that David is feeling claustrophobic because of this omnipresence of God. Like his total knowledge, maybe God’s total presence is suffocating David? After all, he seems to say in verse 7 that he wants to flee from God’s presence. And certainly some people do want to do that. Like a modern day Jonah they want to escape God’s presence and hide from him. Francis Thompson was like that. Francis Thompson was a lost and lonely person, who had failed in his attempts to become a Catholic priest and then a doctor. He ended up in London where he was rescued by a kind Christian couple and shown love and friendship. In his poem "the Hound of Heaven" Thompson explains how he tried to run from God through many years of his life. He says this: "I fled Him down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears, I hid from him, and under running laughter." But Thompson goes on to explain how God was like a hound, chasing him and chasing him. There was nowhere Thompson could go without God being there. Until eventually Thompson gave in and came to know Jesus Christ for himself. You see, we cannot outrun God. We cannot hide from him. And if you are trying to run from God, if you are trying to hide yourself or something else in your life from him, then give it up. It’s hopeless. Far better to surrender to him. Being on the run is nothing compared to coming to know the God who made you.

But for David, God’s presence is not something to run from. Because a more careful reading of the psalm shows us that David is not trying to run away from God at all. He asks the question, "where can I flee from God’s presence?" But he asks it in order to show there is nowhere he can go where God is not. Rather he’s saying that he wants to trust God. Thankfully, he says, there is nowhere where God is not with me, even in the very darkest nights of the soul. So see what he says in verse 11: "If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you." Even in the darkest nights, God is there with us. Darkness is nothing to him. It’s as bright as day. So what does David do? Verse 10, he trusts in God’s guidance and his power to hold him. Even in the furthest reaches of the earth, "your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast." You see, says David, God’s ever present Spirit is not something to be scared of or suffocated by. For me, he says, God’s presence is something very reassuring. There is nowhere I can go where God is not with me. There is nothing I can go through where God is not with me. There is nothing I can experience where God is not with me.

I wonder if you and I really believe that deep in our hearts. Maybe you are tempted to think that in some situations God might not come through. When we go through the darkest night of the soul, will God let us down? Will we have to travel through the valley of the shadow of death alone? Will we have to endure some horrific experience alone? No. Where can I go from your Spirit, says David. Where can I flee from your presence? Answer- nowhere. Because God is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. It might not always feel like God is with us. We may feel alone. But we are never alone. He will hold on to you, even if your grasp of him is weak and barely sustainable. Whatever you face, wherever you are, be reassured by the presence of God.

3) Be Amazed by the Power of God (Vv 13-18)

But David is not finished yet. He has more to say about the God he has come to know and who has revealed himself to David. And in verses 13-18, David says that he is amazed by the power of God. Because we might well ask the question, "What confidence does David have that God will be with him and not forsake him? How can David confidently say that God’s right hand will hold him fast? Well David tells us in these verses. Notice he says "for" or "because" at the beginning of verse 13. This is the reason for David’s confidence. So what is it? Verse 13: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." The reason for his confidence is because of God’s amazing power. David knows that he owes everything to the almighty God. God is so amazing that he even knitted David together in his mother’s womb. God knew and cared for David even before his own mother knew and cared for him. It was God who specifically saw to it that the incredible processes of pregnancy led to David’s birth. It was God, he says, who specifically created David in the womb. David knows that he is fearfully and wonderfully made. David is a miracle of God’s grace and power. And not only that but God stands over the whole of David’s life and knows exactly how it will pan out. David’s life is in God’s hands, everything from his birth, his childhood, his teenage years, his marriage, his children, his death. All watched over by God’s gracious and sovereign hand. And what is David’s conclusion about this? Again is it to feel that his life has no value because God is ultimately in control of it? Does David feel just a robot in God’s hands, a plaything of a master creator? No- such thoughts cause David to praise God. Verse 14, he says "I praise you". And in verses 17-18 he takes great reassurance from the power of God’s thoughts and actions: "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you." Again he is overwhelmed by God’s power and his care for him.

Now such thoughts should cause us to think long and hard about ourselves. Because what is clear from these verses is that God is the ultimate creator of each one of us. Yes, he uses the natural processes of pregnancy to create a new person, but it is his glorious work. Every tiny child, born or unborn is his work. That thought at least should cause pause for thought over the whole abortion debate. The details of the debate may be complicated, and for some very emotionally involved; but this psalm teaches us that God is responsible for life from it’s very conception. And what God values we should value. And notice too how clearly the message comes through that God does not make junk. Whatever we may think of ourselves, whatever we might think when we look in the mirror, we are very precious to God. Every human being is carefully made in his image, fearfully and wonderfully made, uniquely precious. If you are struggling to understand why God put you on earth, or why he made you as he did, then take great encouragement from this: That no-one is a mistake. God does not make rubbish. Each and every one of us is precious and individually hand crafted by God. You are dearly loved and cherished by God. And when we have this perspective on our lives, when we realise that we are in the hands of a loving all powerful creator, then it should give us great courage when we face the harder times of life.

One person who understood this truth was the Scottish minister George Matheson. He’s most famous for writing the hymn, 'O love that will not let me go’, a hymn he wrote on the eve of his sister’s marriage. Matheson’s story is a sad one, even though it began brightly. He had been engaged to be married, but he was afflicted with a condition that meant he would go blind. The doctors said that there was nothing they could do. And his fiancée told him that she just could not face life with a blind man, so she called off the wedding. A while later he did go blind, whilst he was studying to become a minister. And it was his sister who had taken to caring for him. God had richly blessed him in a church where he regularly preached to over 1500 people each week. But he was only able to do this because of the care of his sister. And now, years later, he sat alone in a room on the eve of his sister’s wedding. All the pain came flooding back of his broken engagement and his spurned heart. And added to that was the pain of his sister getting married. Who would care for him? How would he cope? Well alone in that room, he came across the answer. And he wrote that hymn, "O love that will not let me go" as the expression of his thoughts that night. Apparently he wrote it in five minutes that evening on the eve of his sister’s wedding, all these thoughts going through his mind. So who could Matheson cope in such a sad and lonely situation? This was his answer: "O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe, That in thine ocean depths its flow May richer, fuller be. O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow in the rain, and feel the promise is not vain. That morn shall tearless be." That was Matheson’s answer. He was totally convinced of God’s love and power to keep him going. And when we understand the power of God to make us and sustain us, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, then that truth will give us great confidence in face of life’s problems. So be amazed at the power of God.

4) Be Challenged by the Holiness of God (Vv 19-24)

But there’s one last lesson we learn from this psalm and that is to be challenged by the holiness of God. And we discover that in verses 19-24. Now at first these verses seem totally out of place in the psalm. It feels like a very sharp change of gears. We move from lofty thoughts about God, to David wanting to hate his enemies. Indeed some people have been so put off by these verses that they reckon it’s part of a another psalm which has accidentally been included here. But clearly David does not think so, because his final two verses go back to the theme which with he started. These verses are very much part of the psalm. And actually it is a very biblical thought process. You see if you really understand that God is awesome and majestic, that he’s all knowing, all present and all powerful, then your perspective on life is changed. You begin to see things as God sees them. You begin to want the same things as God wants. And that includes justice and holiness. You long for what is right. And you rightly hate what is evil. You have a strong aversion to anything that is not good and holy, just like God himself. And that is what we see in David here. Not a callous, angry man wanting spiteful revenge, but a godly man wanting the evil doers to be punished. He wants God’s standards to be upheld. The reason we don’t like such verses in the Bible is not because we are more tolerant than the Biblical writers, as if we somehow in our modern western liberal democracy have a better grasp on what is good. Rather we are less holy than them. We do not see things as God sees them. God hates wickedness and evil. And so does David. And it shows David has more of an understanding of God and more of a passion for holiness than we do.

So what then does David ask for? Well let’s see what he says in verses 19-22: "If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies." Now at first the language seems pretty hostile. Is this right for a following of God? But David has God’s perspective on life. So notice that David is concerned not so much for his own reputation and power, nor is he angry through personal pride. Rather it’s because he is outraged that God’s name is being dishonoured. "They speak of you with evil intent", says David in verse 20. "Your adversaries misuse your name". Or verse 21: "Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?" If you abuse the name of God, you abuse him, you slander his character, and that is a very serious offence. David won’t have God’s name being abused like that. In a small way, it’s like defending a friend whom you overhear being slandered. You won’t stand for it, and so you step in and set the record straight. In one sense, those who attack your friend are attacking you as well. So his enemies become yours. So it is with God. If others are attacking God’s name, then his enemies become ours. And the language of hatred, whilst shocking in verses 21-22, shows how strongly David feels about God’s holiness. He just cannot stand the evil behaviour and actions of people that oppose God. In a godly and right sense he hates them. He has such a passion for God’s name and God’s glory that he opposes those who oppose God.

Now we might feel very uncomfortable with such language, but actually David’s words are very challenging. Because they force us to make up our minds where we stand. They force us to see that there are only two ways to live. Either God’s way or our way. Either the way of holiness or the way of wickedness. And the more you love the Lord, and have the perspective of God revealed in this psalm, then the more you will love holiness and hate wickedness, even to the point of distancing yourself from wicked people who dishonour God’s name. Now of course Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. But that does not soften the challenge to hate all that is evil, because we love the Lord so much; and we esteem what he regards as good more highly than what the world says is good. So David asks us some very pointed questions. He says to us: "Do you hate your sin, and long to battle against it, for God is righteous and good? Do you set yourself apart from office gossip and immorality even though it might make you seem a prude? Do you stand up for others when they are being slandered for God’s name, or do we run and hide? Will we as a church side with those in the Anglican Communion who battle for truth and holiness against immorality and sin, even amongst the leadership? You see for each one of us there are numerous applications of this truth. The principle is, the more you love the Lord, the more you will hate sin and take a stand on it, both privately and publicly.

But notice how David ends the psalm. Not in pointing the finger at others, but in asking God to point the finger at him if there is anything ungodly in him. Verse 23: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." That’s the prayer of the godly man or woman isn’t it? That God would search us and show us any offensiveness in our hearts. Before we start accusing others, we must set our hearts right with God. And it’s the right place to end such a great psalm which has reflected on the amazing majesty of the glorious God we worship and serve. Because big thoughts about God will mean big changes in our lives. So with David this evening let us come again to see God for who he is. Let our perspective on life be changed as we mediate on the wonderful character of God. Let our actions and thoughts come more into line with the God who knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs, and who sustains us throughout our lives. May we too be humbled by the knowledge of God, be reassured by the presence of God, be amazed by the power of God, and be challenged by the holiness of God.

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