By Jon Berry
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works…” – Psalm 139, v. 13-14
Are you religious? It’s a question I’ve never gotten used to – though not for a lack of being asked. I live in a part of the country where most people sleep in, head out for day trips, or queue up at restaurants for brunch on Sunday morning.
Sometimes I explain how I’m taking classes for an MDiv and am hoping to make the next stage of my life more about giving back, maybe as a hospital chaplain, and write about my spiritual travels.
Sometimes I talk about how everything shifted for me when I read the root of religion is “religare,” to bind, and realized how much I was bound to.
But sometimes I say “some days more than others.”
Faith – that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, as Dr. King says; that practicing the steps can lead to serenity, as AA and Al-Anon friends aver; that an “ocean of light” can be found amid the ocean of darkness that life seems to hold, as George Fox said – is a process for me. Often it feels like two-steps-forward, one-step-back.
It’s also, I’ve come to see, a journey I don’t have to take alone.
Psalm 139 captures those two sides. It is one of the most introspective and intimate of psalms – almost Rumi-like – a halting, hesitant journey toward relationship with [fill in your preferred term – God; the Divine; Wonder; the Cosmos; this seems to me to be one of the most flexible psalms].
But as with all the psalms it is also profoundly communal, said aloud and discussed in communal settings, and recited in private devotion by others before us over thousands of years.
As I reread it this week, it became a conversation:
“O Lord, you have searched me and know me, You know when I sit down and when I rise up.” (v 1) Across the ages, readers have found comfort in this psalm's belief that, no matter where you are, you are not alone. This has made Ps 139 one of the most beloved psalms. And one of the most poignant, a psalm that martyrs recited on the way to their deaths (an image that stops me in my tracks every time I read this psalm).
“Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” (v 4) Ps 139’s intimacy has, for some, a sharper edge. Some see this as a judging psalm. Calvin saw in Ps 139 proof that God saw all; there was no evading God.
“You hem me in, behind and before…” (v 5) Some see these words not as protective – God in the image of the good shepherd, keeping us on course – but threatening. The word translated in the New Revised Standard Bible as “hem” has connotations of besiegement. But it also can mean “shaped,” as a potter shapes a pot. Which makes most sense? Is the God of Ps 139, as one commentator asks, “enemy or friend?"
For reasons that aren’t clear, something then shifts in the psalm. Its imagery moves from outside – the Eternal being in the heights and the depths of the world, in darkness and light (a poetic device, merism, in which opposites evoke the full spectrum) – to inside: the landscape within the psalmist.
The psalmist realizes he/she is part of creation. These are the lines I quoted at the beginning of this essay. Suspicion shifts to awe. God goes, in one scholar's words, from “intimidating outsider” to “nurturing insider,” which then leads to trust. “I come to the end – I am still with you.” (v 18).
This is not, though, the end. The psalmist, in another switchback, ruminates on “the wicked" - in fact, prays for death for those who do not see God as he/she now does (“I hate them with perfect hatred.” v 22). It’s a strange turn, and, again, one that commentators don’t agree on. Some see the ever-present threat of enemies and conflict in the psalmist's era; others anxiety; some a warning to avoid the trap of self-righteousness - two steps forward, one step back.
But, then, the impulse recedes. The psalmist seems to catch him/herself, see his/her potential to harm, and solicit help: “Test me…know my thoughts. See if there is a wicked way in me…lead me in the way everlasting.” (v 24) The journey ends where, at the beginning, seemed so distant: relationship.
For the full text of Psalm 139, click here.
The primary source of this essay is “Certainty, Ambiguity, and Trust: Knowledge of God in Psalm 139,” by Carolyn Pressler, in A God So Near: Essays on Old Testatment Theology in Honor of Patrick D. Miller (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003), pp. 91-99
I also cite the notes to Psalm 139 in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 885-886, and Robert Alter's translation notes (Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary [New York: WW Norton & Co., 2007], p. 479