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Psalm 139

Sermon Transcript

Writing to Christians experiencing the leading edge of Neronian persecution, Peter, who likened the city of Rome to the wicked city of Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13), reminded believers how a hostile culture naturally uses slander, ridicule, and discrimination against believers in order to silence.  They, therefore, should not be shocked at their treatment for such is how the world responded to the Lord.  They should also, according to Peter, prepare for greater methods of persecution (1 Pet. 1:6), because a wicked and power-hungry ruler like Nero and his faithful followers would ratchet up opposition to Christians in their quest to drive these problematic people from their neatly ordered and totalitarian culture.  This is always how it goes where spiritual truth comes in contact with false worldviews.

As opposition to the faith heated up, Peter carefully gave the saints sound advice on how to respond.  Throughout his epistle, he reminds believers how important it is for them to evidence godly behavior so the gospel of Christ is showcased (1 Pet. 5:12).  Sound doctrine should, therefore, result in sound practice.  Translated, a holy life in the middle of unholy times is the powerful message the combative non-Christians need to see and hear in order to see their own need of the Savior, Jesus.

In addition to the important of living a godly life in evil, persecutory times, Peter spoke of the important of studying the culture and the Word so you are able to defend the faith, and hopefully then be positioned to lead unbelievers to Christ. I like the way the NIV translates Peter’s words from the Greek text:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Pet. 3).

The key word here is “answer” in verse 15, which is from the Greek apologia (ἀπολογία).  According to Danker’s Greek lexicon, this word originated in the Grecian courtroom and represented an attorney giving an educated, logical, and sound defense based on the evidence at hand.[1] Applied to believers, it means we, too, must be ready at all times to give a reasoned defense of the faith and the gospel, and we must, as Peter says, do it with a compassionate, self-controlled attitude.

Great advice, wouldn’t you agree? As we, too, become the object of cultural animosity and angst for daring to believe in the absolute nature of truth, especially where the gospel and the Word of God is concerned, we need to be prepared to live as Christians and to back that life up with reasoned evidences which can lead non-Christians to coming to Jesus in saving faith.

Adverse times for saints are nothing new.  King David had his share of constant opposition as a godly, moral man living in the fish bowl of politics.  From his personal laments he turned into songs in the Psalter, we learn of how mean-spirited sinful people constantly attacked and sought to silence him (Psalm 12, 13, 22, 44, 86).  Much wisdom and insight can be obtained in these Psalms by saints who desire to learn how to live for God when society turns hostile.  Psalm 139, which is another Davidic lyric, is, in my view, most effective in equipping believers for effective lives in dark, destructive days.  To read and study these twenty-four verses, which are some of the most famous and beloved in the Psalter, is to realize they collective answer one pivotal question:

What Is Divine Advice For Living For God In Tough, Testy Times? (Psalm 136)

Four wise, insightful answers are given by David in the ensuing verses.  May they become not just concepts you understand, but ones you embrace and apply as you live in times similar to those of David, Peter, and the saints under the boot of Nero.

Focus On God’s Person (Psalm 139:1-12)

Why?  The more you understand God’s person and character the better equipped you will be to stand strong and true when, not if, non-Christians oppose you for your faith in Jesus Christ (“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” John 15:18; “. . . everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . .” 2 Tim. 3:12).  David understood this and this is why he starts with a clear presentation of sound theology:

1 For the director of music. Of David. A psalm. You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.

David emphasizes here the utter omniscience of God.  He knows when David sits on his throne, what time he gets up in the morning, what he is thinking at any given moment, where he goes, and at what time he calls it a day and hits the sack.  Literally, God’s omniscience constantly knows every single detail of David’s life.  Before he even articulates a thought, God knows the content of David’s thought in his mind because His knowledge is absolutely perfect (v. 4).

Most read these verses and conclude they possess a positive flavor, but that would be to miss the finer points of David.  When he says  God discerns his daily travels in verse 3, he employs a Hebrew word which speaks of the process of winnowing grain, zerita ( זֵרִ֑יתָ).  David knew the agricultural drill: A farmer placed his freshly cut wheat and weeds on a large round woven basket and then tossed the mass up in the air, waiting for the wind to blow the chaff/tares away, leaving the coveted wheat for processing.  Applied to a believer, David knew God constantly evaluated the motivations behind why he when where he went. Man looks upon the external, but only God can, and does, look at the reasons why we do what we do.  This reality, in and of itself, is somewhat unsettling because we all have clay feet even as saints. Hence the need for commands to move us toward obedience to God (Rom. 6:19ff; 12:1-2, etc.).

This level of divine knowledge of David’s total life moves the king to fearfully state:

5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Again, most Christians take these words in a positive light, but that would be an interpretive mistake based on the Hebrew words employed here.  Literally, the word for “hem” here is the word for besieging a city, sur (צור ).[2]  The next clause uses the word for the full palm of the hand, not just the hand itself, which is another Hebrew word (yad,  יָד ).  David purposefully chose this image to denote how the precise, penetrating knowledge of God makes him feel.  He feels like a bug, as Dr. Allen Ross points out in his commentary on the Psalms, that could get zapped for his missteps and sin.

This realization of the perfect knowledge of God leads David to conclude what any thinking, honest person would:

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

“Wonderful, peli (פֶּלִי) denotes knowledge which is supernatural and completely beyond all human comprehension.  This, too, has a negative connotation here because of the parallelistic final clause, “too lofty for me to attain.”  “Too lofty” is from the Hebrew word for a massive, impregnable wall of a fortress,  nishgevah  ( נִ֜שְׂגְּבָ֗ה ).  Since God is armed with detailed daily information like this on a saint, David logically felt somewhat powerless. No kidding.  You can fool me but you cannot fool God who knows all about everyone at all times.  Talk about a mind to beat all minds.

Question.  How does the omniscience of God Almighty help you, as a Christian, when times are tough and testy?  It helps in this fashion: A God who knows you, as His child, at this level, certainly is fully aware of what you are up against in your life.  Knowledge of who and what you are up against enables Him to be your shield, fortress, and shepherd in the most powerful fashion possible. Further, since He is evaluating you for holy and unholy behavior, what do you think He is doing with non-Christians?  He’s keeping close tabs on them as well, for the external and internal data points He is collecting will be used against them on judgment day to underscore His absolute just judgment of them (Luke 8:17, For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open”; Revelation 20:12, And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”).

Next, David offers up some helpful thoughts about the omnipresence of God:

7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

What are the answers to the two questions?  The answers are a resounding, nowhere.

To illustrate how a saint could not ever go to a place where God did not dwell, David presents four hypothetical situations (assuming verse nine contains one motif even though two conditional clauses are employed):

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Let’s break this down in our terms.

If it were possible for you to actually fly at the speed of light (186,282 miles per second), it would take you a whopping 26,020 years just to fly from the middle of our Milky Way galaxy, which is 105,700 light years across, to its edge.  Unbelievable.  No, what’s unbelievable is the Andromeda galaxy, which is “nearby,” is a staggering 220,000 light years across, and all of these galaxies simply hang in the vast vacuum of space.  Fly to any and all cosmic locations as far away from earth as they are and guess what?  God would already be there.

If you could build a vessel which could withstand the pressure of descending into the 36,037-foot depth of the crescent shaped Marianna Trench, located due south of Japan, and guess what? God would already be there.

If you could fly with the speed of the breaking morning dawn and wind up on the farthest reaches of the world, guess what? God would already be there. And note the positive import here by David.  Even in all of these faraway (somewhat foreboding) locations, God, who loves you, who knows you, who watches you, would already be even there to guide your life and give you much needed stability.  You who think God has forgotten you in the middle of your personal storm might need to re-read these conditional clauses again.  This time let their import and truth sink deep into your parched, pulverized soil.

If you could descend in the deepest cave known to man, the Veryonkina in Abkhazia which is a staggering 7,257 feet deep, and attempt to hide in the dense darkness from God, good luck.  Why?  Because darkness is as light unto Him.  He who created darkness doesn’t need special night vision optics to see for darkness poses no issue to His vision.

Think about these foreboding, fearsome places. As dangerous, spooky, ominous, and lonely as they might appear, even if you ventured here God would already be there to guide and your life in the chaos and potential calamity.  How should we think about this in relationship to dealing with troublemakers who oppose our faith in the living God, who seek to make our life miserable, who work overtime to silence and sideline us so they can expand their levels of evil?  The argument here naturally and logically moves from the greater to the lesser.  Since God is at these locations, by definition, it stands to reason He is with you in your current and problematic location, be it Fort Belvoir, the Joint Chiefs, Andrews Air Force Base, the Fairfax County school room, the doctor’s office, the Pentagon, the cockpit of a plane, the university classroom, the traveling soccer team with competing attitudes, and so on and so forth. And since He is with you, He will guide and protect you for you are His child.

So, if you are feeling quite alone in your spiritual predicament right now, if you feel like the darkness of the ungodly is starting to enclose and overpower you, you need to rethink the matter. Stop focusing on your feelings and start focusing on the facts.  What are those fact?  Jesus put it this way:  “ 5 I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you . . .” (Heb. 13).

In addition to zeroing in on God’s person by studying Him and living in light of that knowledge, David counsels us to . . .

 Focus On God’s Plan (Psalm 139:13-18) 

Who does not know these profound, jaw-dropping words?

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 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.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

These verses absolutely destroy the evolutionary argument.  You don’t evolve.  God personally designs you to be who He wants you to be, and your intricate systems (muscular, nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, integumentary, skeletal, reproductive, digestive, urinary, lymphatic, and respiratory), which are brimming with specified complexity, can’t help but point to His part of your creation.   These verses destroy the vacuous arguments of Pro-choice people.  How can you ever think of killing the unborn life that God Almighty is shaping and honing deep inside the protective womb of the mother?  I don’t care what arguments you (in vain) marshal to rationalize and validate this this pernicious position, for they all fall flat at the feet of the One who, alone, designs the baby.  None of them stand under the piercing scrutiny of God’s total part in fashioning each and every embryo, fetus, and baby.  These verses absolutely destroy the transgender argument which claims a given person is unfortunately trapped in the wrong sexual body.  God, who personally weaves you together like a weaver works on a loom, makes no mistakes in the final product.  Even the boy who was born blind was born this way according to Jesus so that He could heal him and thereby showcase His deity (John 9:1-12).  God only ever makes male and females as He had done from the beginning of time, and it is erroneous and offensive to think otherwise (Gen. 1:27).

Moving from his marvelous, miraculous creation by God, David draws this logical conclusion:

. . . all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Verse 16 should not be misunderstood.  The very God who created you wrote down, as it were, in a heavenly book what He wanted to see in your life.  This is not a fatalistic statement, one which crushes our freewill, just in case you are wondering.  God knows all about the purposes and plans He has for our lives, but we also know He has lovingly and thoughtfully given us free wills, especially as His children, to live obediently or disobediently.  That free will is reflected in statements like Paul articulates in Romans chapter 12:

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12).

His purpose and plan is for you to live the transformative life to the fullest. At the end of the day, however, this all depends on your willingness to yield to the Spirit and seek to produce the His godly fruit:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Gal. 5).

Will you, do you fulfill God’s purposes and plan for your life?  He designed you to live for Him, not for yourself.  How are you faring?  The more your life aligns with and reflects His holy life, the more powerful you will be at pushing back effectively against the persecution you face.  Well-designed arguments are good to defend the faith, but in light of the intricate and specialized effort God has invested in our individual formations it behooves a saint to live saintly in unsaintly times.

Sitting back and thinking about God’s specialized and loving creation of his body causes David to burst forth in praise:

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand-- when I awake, I am still with you.

“Precious” is wedded to the Hebrew word for a costly gem, something akin to a diamond.  “Thoughts” can also be translated “intentions.”  Coupled with the word “precious” David is saying he is simply overcome with all of the divine intentions, or divine purposes, he sees as he walks through life as a godly, maturing saint.  Persecution does not thwart these divine intentions and purposes either.  In fact, in many ways, tough times call saints to work even harder at showing the world just what the living God is looking for in our lives, which runs counter to what the world says.  The list, as David notes, is akin to counting grains of sand on the beach.

  • God wants you to love Him with everything you’ve got and your neighbor as yourself.
  • God wants you to trust His sovereign leadership no matter what.
  • God wants you to embrace the adversity and see His grace.
  • God wants you to be holy as He is holy.
  • God wants you to build a marriage which reflects the unity of the Trinity.
  • God wants you to be a young person who is in control of their body.
  • God wants you to seek the wisdom of the counsel of the many before you head out in a big life decision.
  • God wants you to choose the path of wisdom as opposed to the path of the fool.
  • God wants you to be a person of prayer in the heat of the spiritual battle.
  • God, well, I think you get the picture.

Persecution and opposition can cause you to take your spiritual eyes off why you were created in the first place, while placing your view solely upon the hardness of the moment.  God, however, wants you to live differently, to live victoriously.  How do you do that?  You know the answer.  You focus on His person, His definite plan for your life, and third . . .

Focus On God’s Passion (Psalm 139:19-22)

Once again, the Spirit of God has a way of throwing you curve balls as you read the biblical and inspired text.  I must admit, I wish God had finished this amazing Psalm with verse 18, but He didn’t because He has more to say to us.  Put differently, He shows us how we are to think about sin and sinners who openly mock, deride, and besmirch you and your Christian walk:

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! 20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? 22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.

Sinners who attack saints are great at seeking to get you to call light, darkness and darkness light (Isa. 5).  Since your godly life bothers them, really convicts them, they hate what you believe and how you live and will do everything in their power to turn you to their crooked, vacuous way of thinking.  They will go so far as to say that all hate is wrong, while hating what you believe as a Christian.  They drip with hypocrisy and because they are spiritually blind they usually don’t even see the major discrepancy in their lurid lives.

The Spirit of God comes right out and says hate, dislike, and abhorrence, contrary to what the hypocritical culture says, are just insofar as God is the inexorable standard of measurement. Abhorrence is a good word choice. Once while playing hide and seek as a child, I, along with my best friend, Kenny, jumped in a hole in an abandoned lot.  It didn’t take us long to figure out we had jumped into a dark, dry, and rotting septic tank. Believe me, I abhorred being in that place of defilement. Such is how God wants us to look at evil. We are to abhor and pull back from it.  Got any areas of your life which needs some work?

Our culture, of course, thinks differently and wants us to believe that nothing should be abhorrent.  If there is no ultimate holy reference point to determining right from wrong behavior, then no hate, dislike, or abhorrence is possible.  If there is a denial of absolutes, then hate, dislike, and abhorrence is just your personal choice and empty of any ability to teach truth or to bring true peace. Why, then, do these types of ideologues judge you so? Conversely, with an absolute reference point for truth and error, morality and immorality, which only God can provide us, we instantly learn and realize how abhorrence is viable in a limited, focused fashion when man’s activity runs purposefully and arrogantly counter to God’s person/character/revelation.

Based on this, we are not surprised to learn that God does, in fact, hate certain things:

  • 7 You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore, God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy. (Ps. 45)
  • 13 To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. (Prov. 8)
  • 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations-- I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
  • 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. (Isa. 1)
  • 8 "For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. (Isa. 61)
  • 17 do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this," declares the LORD. (Zech. 8)
  • 15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5)

And, then, there is Proverbs 6:

16 There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, 19 a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community (Prov. 6).

The wicked world, which persecutes and opposes you and your Christian faith, wants to guilt you (force you) into thinking that all hate, dislike, and abhorrence is wrong, so that they can rationalize their love of deeds of darkness.  Can you not see how the more they silence you, the more they work overtime to codify works of wickedness?

God, on the other hand, wants you to live as He lives with a holy hatred of that which is outright evil.  The more your thinking and feelings dovetail with God’s on this matter, the greater our growth in holiness will be, and the more powerful you will become in pushing back against sin and sinners.  So, may our prayer be clear:  God, help us to feel about evil as you do so we can stand against it.


Focus On God’s Proving (Psalm 139:23-24)

David ends on a powerful note:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Ah, here is a prayer your persecutors will never pray. They are too busy searching and testing you to see whether you measure up to their twisted, distorted view of truth and morality.  You are to live differently.

Do you remember how we started with Peter’s words? He stressed the importance of having well-studied answers to give to those who persecute you for your faith, but He also spoke clearly about the need to put doctrine into daily practice.  This is so important for a Christian life which is just knowledge without practice is about as useful in the heat of spiritual battle as a sheath with no sword.  No wonder, then, David asked God to do the unthinkable here.

What about you?  Are you game in the midst of the trying times in which we all live to ask God to search and test you with a goal of identifying areas where there is sin?  Do this and you will be positioned to stand strong and true for Him, while also leading some into His glorious kingdom.

                  [1] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 117. .ἀπολογία, ας, ἡ (s. ἀπολογέομαι; Pre-Socr., Thu. et al.; pap, e.g. BGU 531, 21 [I a.d.]; PLips 58, 18; Wsd 6:10; TestSol; Jos. C. Ap. 2, 147; Ar., Just.) freq. as legal term.① a speech of defense, defense, reply ἀκούσατέ μου τῆς πρὸς ὑμᾶς νυνὶ ἀπολογίας hear the defense which I now make to you Ac 22:1 (ἀ. πρός τινα as X., Mem. 4, 8, 5). ἡ ἐμὴ ἀ. τοῖς ἐμὲ ἀνακρίνουσιν my reply to those who sit in judgment over me 1 Cor 9:3. Written defense, apology Qua (1).② the act of making a defense, defenseⓐ in court (Jos., Bell. 1, 621) ἐν τ. πρώτῃ μου ἀ. at my first defense 2 Ti 4:16 (s. πρῶτος 1aαא). τόπον ἀπολογίας λαμβάνειν περί τινος receive an opportunity to defend himself concerning someth. Ac 25:16.ⓑ gener. of eagerness to defend oneself 2 Cor 7:11. Of defending the gospel Phil 1:7, 16. ἕτοιμοι πρὸς ἀπολογίαν παντί ready to make a defense to anyone 1 Pt 3:15.claim of extenuating circumstance, excuse, οὐκ ἔχειν άπολογίαν εἰπεῖν be unable to say in defense PtK 3 p. 15, 23 (cp. Just., A I, 42, 2 ἀ. παρέχειν).—DELG s.v. λέγω B. M-M.

         [2] Holladay, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, צור: qal: pf. צַרְתָּ, צַרְתָּֽנִי; impf. וְיָּ֫צַר, תָּצוּר, וַיָּצֻרוּ; impv. צוּרִי; inf. צוּר, pt. צָרִים: — 1. tie up (silver in bags) 2K 523; w. b® & acc. clasp (silver in hand) Dt 1425; collect (population against …) Ju 931; — 2. ƒar muƒƒ¹b post (sentries) around Is 293; — 3. w. °el enclose, invest (town &c. in siege) 1S 238; w. ±al besiege 1K 1527 & oft.; — 4. w. ±al barricade SS 89.