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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 139

September 19, 2010

Sermon: Praying the Psalms
Text: Psalm 139

Last week, we started a new series of sermons entitled Praying the Psalms.  Today, we come to Psalm 139, one of the psalms among the most beautiful.  Charles Haddon Spurgeon, sometimes called the “Prince of Preachers,” said of this psalm, “It is one of the sublimest of all compositions of Scripture.”  Once again, we are going to read together the words from this wonderful psalm.

 

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.
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;
When I wake, I am still with you.
You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to understand.

 

I begin today with a cautionary statement about this passage. Many of you know that the verses we read here have direct application to the issue of the sanctity of life.  It is an exposition on the creation of human life.  I have preached sermons on the reverence of life from this very psalm.  This passage affirms that life is sacred from the very beginning, from the very moment of conception.  We see God’s power here, His omnipotence.  Listen to these words:

 

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works,
and 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 were none of them.

 

The issue of abortion is one of the most difficult topics in our day and time.  I have told you that I am certainly opposed to abortion.  The very moment I say that, I know some people right here in this congregation have had this terrible experience.  I want you to know that the purpose of this psalm is not to condemn you.  Its purpose is just the opposite.  This psalm lets you know that God loves you.  He knows all about you and accepts you with unconditional love.

Identifying any passage of Scripture with just one topic is dangerous.  It means that we never see the passage fresh.  We do not see it anew.  Certainly this psalm says that human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation.  They are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  When I look in the mirror in the morning, I know that I am fearfully made.  When I look at Clare, I know that she is wonderfully made.  To be “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a way of saying that God has created us in a way that I suppose the teenagers would say is totally awesome.

The gay community uses Psalm 139 to affirm a gay lifestyle.  I read about a man who graduated from another seminary just about the same time I did.  This man served in the ministry for a long time.  He was married and had children and grandchildren.  He made the decision to “come out of the closet” and declare to his congregation that he was gay.  He used this psalm as the text for his sermon on that day.

I would say that this psalm is not intended to be used for any kind of agenda for a political or social issue.  The psalm’s meaning is much deeper than that.  I want us to see today that the primary purpose for this psalm goes far beyond any of these issues.

Psalm 139 was written during the Babylonian Exile, which was a terrible time for the people of Israel.  In order to understand the psalm better, I invite you to open your Bibles and turn to Psalm 137, just two psalms before this one.  Sometimes we must rely on Scripture to help us interpret Scripture.  This is one of those occasions.  Psalm 137, too, was written during the Babylonian Exile.  Listen to these words:

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormenters demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing a song of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

 

What is the tone of Psalm 137?  The psalmist’s tone is, “We have been hauled off into captivity, and we cannot worship anymore.  Jerusalem is the place of worship, so don’t ask me to sing a song.”  The psalmist is basically saying, “My captors demand of me, ‘Sing us one of those good ole songs from down South,’ but I am not going to sing.  I pray that my right hand will wither so that I cannot even play the harp.  I pray that my tongue will stick to the roof of my mouth so that I cannot even mutter a tune.  I am not going to worship in a strange land.”

Contrast that attitude with the entirely different one we see in Psalm 139.  Today’s text affirms that God is everywhere:

Where can I get away from you?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I rise up to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths of the earth, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and go to the other side of the earth,
even there your hand will lead me…

 

Psalm 139 depicts a very important transition for the people of Israel during the Babylonian Exile.  Many felt as if all had been lost, that the worship of Israel, which was always worship as a nation, was confined to the temple in Jerusalem.  Psalm 139 shows us that worship in Jerusalem was important, but we also see that God can be worshipped anywhere, even in a strange land.  This idea gave rise to what is called Synagogue Judaism.  The synagogues were like little temples that sprang up all over the world.  Jewish people could worship God in a way that was familiar even though they could not go to Jerusalem.  Part of the Passover meal, even now for all Jewish people, is to say at the close of the meal, “next year in Jerusalem.”  Worshipping in Jerusalem is the ideal, but that is not always possible.  It is certainly not possible if we are in exile.  Our circumstance, our location, does not matter.  God is everywhere.  We can worship God anywhere, at any time, in any space, no matter the circumstances.

The other very important dimension of that issue is that God is not just a God of the nation.  He is certainly that.  God is also the God of individuals.  Though we cannot always worship as a congregation, we can certainly worship as individuals.

We cannot hide from God.  We cannot escape.  God is omnipresent.  Francis Thompson, in his poem “Hound of Heaven,” says that God is going to pursue us.  We see this thought expressed in the first part of Psalm 139.  The psalmist says of God, “You hem me in – behind and before… your right hand will hold me fast.”  God is going to be wherever we are.

This psalm also affirms that God knows all about us.  Contrast His omniscience with what we know about God.  The psalm acknowledges that we know very little about God:  “These things are too wonderful for me.  They are so high that they are beyond me.  I cannot even understand them.”

The eighteenth century philosopher John Locke wrote a little treatise called “On Concerning Human Understanding.”  He said that we must accept just how limited we are in our knowledge about God.  We must sit down in a quiet place so that upon examination, we realize how much is beyond the reach of our capacity.  Frederick Buechner made essentially the same point, using different words:  “For a human being to understand God is about like a beetle – a little insect – trying to understand us.”

Maybe you prefer the way the prophet Isaiah worded this notion in Chapter 55, Verses 8-9:  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.  Higher than your ways are my ways.  Higher than your thoughts are my thoughts.”  God is inscrutable.  He is beyond our understanding.  At the same time, however, God knows every detail of our lives.  The psalmist invites God to examine us.  God has examined us, and He knows everything there is to know.

In preparation for this message, I reread a sermon by Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century.  In the course of that sermon, entitled “Escape from God,” he talked about the atheist Frederick Nietzsche who came to the conclusion that God was dead.  In one of his treatises, Nietzsche claimed, in the form of a story, that God had to die.  He described what he called “the ugliest man” as the one who killed God – God in Christ – with his death on the cross.  Nietzsche argued that God had to die because God sees everything.  He peers into our very heart and soul, into our hidden shame and ugliness.  God, who sees everything, had to die because mankind cannot tolerate such a witness.  Nietzsche’s argument is flawed at this point.  God does not know everything about us so that He can hold that against us, so that He can stand in judgment, though He does stand in judgment.  God knows everything about us so we can know that He accepts us, even with all of our flaws, even with all of our failings.  God, who sees deep into our hearts, loves us.  Psalm 139 affirms the message that God accepts us.

Nothing is hidden from God, and the psalm celebrates the love and acceptance of this God who is “acquainted with all of us ways.”  The psalmist says, “He discerns our thoughts from afar.”  It all sounds a little bit scary, maybe like someone is watching us with a surveillance camera or reading every e-mail we send.  Knowing that somebody understands all of our actions could make us uncomfortable.  For the psalmist, however, God’s knowledge is convicting and comforting.  The psalmist says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too high for me to attain it.” God knows all about us, and He accepts us.  He loves us the way we are.

Other Scriptures affirm this point that nothing happens that God does not know.  Job 34:21 says, “His eyes are on the way of men; he sees their every step.”  Hebrews 4:13 says, “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”  An ancient prayer, actually written by Thomas Cranmer when he was the archbishop of Canterbury, made its way into what was called The Book of Common Prayer.  Sometimes called the “Prayer of Purity,” it was incorporated into every Anglican service of worship.  Listen to the words:   “Almighty God, before Whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hidden:  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name: through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

This psalm can be used corporately, as we have done twice during this service.  It also is a very personal prayer that can become a part of your own devotional life.  As you read the psalm, and I hope pray the psalm, you will see the many first-person singular pronouns used.  “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise; You search out my path and my lying down.”  The psalmist’s prayer says, “Lord, you have examined me.  Please continue examining me because it allows you to lead me in the way that is right.  See if there be any wicked way in me; and lead me in the way that is everlasting!”  We see a large number of first-person pronouns because the psalmist is writing out of his own relationship to God.

As you pray Psalm 139, you will find some key elements that remind us that the life of prayer is not always what we imagine.  You notice here that the psalmist expresses some uncertainly.  He simply says he cannot understand many things.  How many times have we, as parents, prayed about our own inability to understand?  The Sunday School lesson in my class this morning dealt with the whole topic of suffering.  My goodness!  How we fail to understand that issue.

In the midst of that uncertainty, this psalm offers wonderful assurance that even with our questions, even with our uncertainty, we see that God is always with us.  God has made the promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  He made that promise to Jacob at the place called Bethel: “I will be with you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15).  God made that promise to Joshua before he led the people into the Promised Land:  “Be strong and of good courage!  Do not be afraid.  I will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).  Even with our questions, we have the wonderful assurance that God is always with us.

We learn from this psalm that we do not have to have words in order to pray.  What a mistake we make when we think that prayer is a monologue, when we think that prayer is talking to God.  Prayer, at its very best, may indeed be a conversation, one in which we have an exchange with God.  We speak, and God speaks.  More often than not, God speaks through His Word, as, for example, in this psalm.  God does not need our words.  Psalm 6 says that God hears our tears.  He hears our weeping.  Psalm 139 says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, you already know it.  You know it all together.”  It is the reason the Apostle Paul could write that God’s Spirit intercedes for us with prayers that are “too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).  Prayer is not a monologue.  Prayer is a relationship, an intimate relationship.  This prayer can be used corporately.  It can be used privately.  Right at the heart of the prayer is this personal relationship with God who knows all about us and God who loves us very much.

I want to share with you again my favorite story about this prayer that is very personal.  A father was sitting in his den, kicked back in his La-Z-Boy recliner.  His teenage son walked into the room and asked, “Dad, can I have the keys to the car?  I have a date tonight.”

The father reached in his pocket, pulled out the keys, and flipped them to his son as he said, “Take the car.  I think it has plenty of gas.  Please be careful.”

The boy answered, “Thanks, Dad” and left.

The father’s teenage daughter came in the room a few minutes later.  She, too, asked for money, saying, “Dad, I am going out with some friends tonight to see a movie.  I need a little money.”

The father reached in his wallet and pulled out a green bill.  I used to say that he pulled out a ten dollar bill, but I doubt that would be enough now.  He would have to give his daughter more like a twenty.  Handing his daughter some money, he said, “Honey, have a good time, but please be careful.”

A short time later, his eight-year-old daughter came into the room.  She walked over to the recliner and crawled up in her daddy’s lap.

“Young lady, what do you want?”

“Daddy, I just want to be with you.”

The young child’s comment expresses the crux of Psalm 139, as does our morning anthem, “Be Still and Know” that I am God.  Come into the presence of God.  He knows you so well.  He knows all your faults, all your flaws, all your strengths, all your talents.  Come into His presence, not so much with words but with the assurance that He loves you very much.  God just wants to love you wherever you are.  This psalm will speak to us when we are in the intensive care unit.  It will speak to us when we are in a courtroom.  It will speak to us when we are at a mortuary.  It will speak to us even in prison.  Psalm 139 will go with us all the way to exile wherever that may be.  God, our loving heavenly Father, will be right there with us.

When you pray this psalm, could I suggest that you imagine approaching the great throne of heaven?  Do not imagine the throne being some pretentious chair.  Imagine it as a recliner with God, your heavenly Father, welcoming you into His arms.  He just wants to love you.  When you will pray the psalm that way, you will find that it will deepen your life of prayer and your relationship with your Father in heaven.

Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ as your Savior?  Have you taken the step to say, “I really want to know the Father”?  Jesus himself said, “This is the way to come to the Father.”  You come through Jesus.  We invite you to come to this heavenly Father through His Son, Jesus.  Acknowledge Jesus as your Savior.

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