The majesty of God and the miracle of man - Psalm 139
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The American novelist, Tom Wolfe was only 38 years old when he died. He once wrote these words: 'The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that the sense of loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary people, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. All this hideous doubt, despair, and dark confusion of the soul a lonely person must know, for he is united to no image save that which he creates himself. He is bolstered by no other knowledge save that which he can gather for himself with the vision of his own eyes and brain. He is sustained and cheered and aided by no party. He is given comfort by no creed. He has no faith in him except his own and often that faith deserts him leaving him shaken and filled with impotence. Then it seems to him that his life has come to nothing. That he is ruined, lost and broken past redemption and that morning, that bright and shining morning with its promise of new beginnings, will never come upon the earth as it did once.' Interestingly enough, he entitled that essay 'God's lonely man.' The thing is, he didn't believe in God. For Tom Wolfe, man stands all alone in a bleak, indifferent universe. The result? That deep sense of lostness and anguish expressed in those sad words. But what if you start at the other end as it were, not with man by himself looking out into dark space, but with God looking down from heaven? How do we appear to him- what is our relationship to him? Well, to answer those questions we turn to the contemplations of another writer, the former shepherd boy turned King and national hero- David. It is all laid out for us there in one of the most profound writings in Hebrew poetry- Psalm 139.
The song itself is divided into four stanzas or sections, each six verses long. And notice how from beginning to end, David's thoughts are consumed with God- not a remote God, but a God who is intimately personal in his infinite majesty.
First, we have the God who is for ever perceiving vv 1- 6. 1O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.5You hem me in--behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. 6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
David is profoundly aware that he is constantly under the all-seeing gaze of God. Not only is his every movement chronicled by God, his inmost thoughts are read; his half formed words are anticipated. 'Lord' he says, 'you have searched me, you know me, even better than I know myself. I have no privacy before you, no room in my palace which can exclude you, no area of my life which forbids you. Your knowledge of me is comprehensive and exhaustive. Whether I sit or rise, travel or settle- there is no item of my life which is not known to you or of no interest to you. Your care for me is as intensive as it is extensive.
Now the question is this: does David see this as a threat or a blessing? Is he issuing a complaint or is he exuding praise? Some see it as the former, as if David is anticipating George Orwell's totalitarian state depicted in '1984', oppressed by the constant reminder that 'Big brother is watching you.' Is that it? Of course we have now reversed all of that so that everyone is watching big brother!
But far from such a view of the omniscient God being a cause for irritable complaint, it is in fact a source of immense comfort. When in verse 5 David says 'you hem me in,' it could be translated, 'you guard me.' That is, as a believer I am encircled by the impenetrable palisade of God's being. As David consults his feelings about this all perceiving quality of the divine mind, his reaction is one of overwhelming wonder - v6 'Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.' Such is the infinity of God's knowledge that he knows the exact position of every corpuscle in your body, the complete detail of your genetic blueprint, the total layout of the entire neural pathway system which links up your ten thousand million brain cells and what messages will be firing through them every millisecond of your life. And what is so with you is also the case with every single person living on this planet, as ever lived on this planet and will ever live on this planet. That is a knowledge which brings us to our knees in worship isn't it? The knowledge that God is interested in us this much.
And this leads us on to the next thought, namely, that he is the God who is for ever present vv 7-12 : 7Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast11If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," 12even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Here David engages in what today would be called a 'thought experiment.' What would be the outcome of not being in God's presence? Maybe it would be possible to blast off into the highest point of the stratosphere and outdistance God? Or dive into the deepest parts of the ocean and find God absent. Perhaps it is possible to outrun God by going so far east as to fly off with the morning light as it wings its way over the continents and continue west beyond the bounds of the sea? But the very thought reveals the absurdity of it all, for the God who knows everything is the God who is everywhere.
Again it would be so easy to mistake the tone in David's voice as being one of angry frustration: 'No matter where I go God I can't get rid of you, like the proverbial bad penny wherever I travel I discover you have turned up before me, dogging my every step.' No, it is not like that at all. David takes comfort from the fact that there aren't any 'no go areas' for God. Let's just suppose for a moment that there were, just imagine that there were some places into which God's power could not extend, his love could not penetrate- then what would happen if by some misfortune you happened to stumble into one of those places-tripping into a spiritual black hole? Well, then you would be lost, you would have no hope. It used to be the case that a church building was inviolable such that people could hide there and claim sanctuary-the idea being this is holy ground-God is here, his protection is being afforded. But do you see what David is saying? For the one who trusts in the Lord the whole universe is holy ground; sanctuary is being offered everywhere - v 10 'Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand (that is the hand which rules) will hold me fast.' Of course, we may say that no literal darkness can obscure us from God's sight, but what about a spiritual darkness? Would we expect to find God present in a Nazi concentration camp like Ravensbruk for example? Two people who did were Corrie ten Boom and her beloved sister Betsie. Imprisoned because of hiding Jews from the Nazis, in the most inhumane conditions they would gather around a small fire and read a Bible. One night they read the words of the apostle Paul: 'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or peril or the sword? No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.' Then Corrie wrote: 'I would look around us as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face. More than conquerorswas not a wish. It was a fact. We knew it; we experienced it minute by minute-poor, hated, hungry. We are more than conquerorsin Ravensbruk took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One the observable, external life grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.' You see, even the darkness is light to God. Do not think he doesn't know or doesn't care.
But a God who knows and yet is unable to help is worse than useless and so thirdly, we have the God who is forever powerful vv 13- 18: 13For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15My 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, 16your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.' 17How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.
Surely if ever there was a time I was not known to God, when I was hidden from him, it was while I was in the womb. How can a microscopic ball of cells travelling on its mysterious journey down the fallopian tube to be embedded in the uterine wall be of any interest to God? Why, even my mother was not aware of my existence then, so how could God be? 'You know, that is the sort of question I pondered', says David. Never having seen an ultrascan does not prevent him from using the most sublime figurative language to describe God's providential care in piecing us together to become the people he designed us to be. You created me, intones David, like a potter shaping a vessel. You knit me like a weaver blending together threads in a complex tapestry. You saw my unformed body. '17How 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.' He is talking about God's pre-natal thoughts, all the details that have gone into making him the man he is- eye colour, hair texture, height, weight, IQ, his fear of spiders- millions, if not trillions, of thoughts have come together in perfect harmony to produce this glorious creature called a human being- more specifically-me.
Not only that but from the vantage point of eternity my whole life was mapped out by you says David; all the decisions I would ever freely make from which shoe I would wear to which wife I would choose were foreordained by you-v16. You knew exactly when I was to enter this world and you know exactly when I am to leave it and no one can change that. This gives life a meaning, as every story has a meaning, a goal to which it is heading.
Now isn't that a truth worth knowing, especially when life hits the hard times? One person who knew this to be so was the Scottish minister George Matheson who wrote the moving hymn, 'O love that will not let me go.' which he wrote on the eve of his sister's marriage. His whole family had gone to the wedding and had left him alone. And he writes of something which had happened to him that caused immense mental anguish. There is a story of how years before, he had been engaged until his fianclearned that he was going blind, and there was nothing the doctors could do, and she told him that she could not go through life with a blind man. He actually went blind while studying for the ministry, and his sister had been the one who had taken care of him all these years, but now she is gone. The Lord 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 she was married and had left. Who will care for him now, a blind man? Not only that, but his sister's marriage brought a fresh reminder of his own heartbreak, jilted by his fiancbecause he had gone blind. It was in the midst of this intense sadness that the Lord gave him this hymn - written he says in 5 minutes! Tell me, how could he maintain such a quenchless hopefulness in the midst of such circumstances and trials? His hymn gives us a clue. '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.' He trusted in God's promises; the God who is all perceiving, all present and all powerful.
But there is one other aspect of the true God which was dear to David's heart but often far from ours, namely that this is the God who is for ever pure: If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! 20They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. 21Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? 22I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. 23Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Now we have to admit that this does come to us as a bit of a shock. How can David suddenly switch from sublime meditations on the grandeur of God to murderous invocations in the name of God? It doesn't sound very 'Christian' does it? Whatever happened to 'love your enemies'? Well, before we judge him too harshly, let's just remember who it is that is speaking. This is King David- the anointed one of God- his Christ. As such he represents the people to God and in some measure he represents God to his people. So when God is being abused-he so identifies with God that he feels defensive of him. Also when he as King is being abused, then in some measure God is being attacked. In other words, David is so taken up with God's purity that what God hates he hates- sin. What is more, David is not looking for specks in other people's eyes while ignoring the beam in his own, which is why he calls out 'search me O God, see if there is any offensive way in me'. This is no hypocrite; he wants his own life to be sorted out too. He is acutely aware that for everyone one finger pointing at others there are three fingers pointing back at himself.
But could it not be that rather than David having a quiet time one day in which he was thinking lofty thoughts about God only to wake up to the harsh reality of court politics with wicked men trying to get rid of him, that it was the other way around? Maybe it was the insecurity of seeing evil men going on from strength to strength, feeling his own life to be threatened, which led David to seek refuge in God. It was by turning his thoughts to the heavens that David worked through just how great and caring God is, which put all his other troubles into perspective. And maybe that is what we need to do. If this is the God who is on his side, then what can evil men do unless God permits it? What is more, it is to this God that such evil men are to give an account and God will judge them. The God who is for ever perceiving, for every present, for ever powerful, for ever pure- will deal with them, so David prays that he will- nothing wrong in that.
But here is one more final thought: in the light of what the New Testament tells us of the Christ who was to come, King David's greater son, we can also affirm the God who is for ever personal. What I mean is this: You could read this psalm and still feel that God seems rather remote. His knowledge may not be all that different from a giant computer; his presence like an all pervading gas. But this is where we need to remember that there is a world of difference between knowing about and knowing that. For example, I might know about the joys and trials of fatherhood, because I have read about them. But I know that such joys are thrilling and such trials are taxing because I have experienced them. Well, the Christian turning to this psalm can say God knows how all of this feels too. The true King, Jesus the Son of God went through all of this as well. In the womb of Mary, God was the ball of cells rapidly multiplying. God saw through the newly formed eyes of a developing embryo. God felt what it was like to touch with a baby's hand. And as he walked this earth, God the Son rejoiced in the thought of his heavenly Father knowing when he sat and when he stood. Even in the dark night of Gethsemane he knew that his Father was still watching him and his way was not hid from him. Jesus Christ was born at just the right time, his days where all written in his Father's book- nothing was ever outside his eternal will and good purpose. And as the rejected King hung on a cross, he was surrounded by bloodthirsty men.
You see, the one who trusts in Christ, unlike Tom Wolfe can never be 'God's lonely man' -not with this God he won't. His knowledge of you is inexhaustible, his power unquenchable, his presence totally dependable. And because he became one of us in order to die for us, his love is completely personal.
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