The Pulpit Commentaries
A song of praise to God for his omniscience, his omnipresence, and his marvelous powers, ending with a prayer for the destruction of the wicked, and for the purifying from evil of the psalmist's own heart. The psalm divides into four stanzas of six verses each—the first (Psalms 139:1-6) dealing with the omniscience of God; the second (Psalms 139:7-12), with his omnipresence; the third (Psalms 139:13-18), with his omnipotence; and the fourth (Psalms 139:19-24) containing the supplication.
O Lord, thou hast searched me; rather, hast searched me out; i.e. examined into all my thoughts and feelings (comp. Psalms 17:3). And known me; i.e. arrived at a full knowledge of my spiritual condition.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising. All that I do from one end of the day to the other. Thou understandest my thought afar off; i.e. while it is just forming—long before it is a fully developed thought.
Thou compassest (rather, siftest) my path and my lying down; literally, my path and my couch—the time of my activity and the time of my rest. And art acquainted with all my ways (comp. Psalms 119:168, "All my ways are before thee").
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. What has been already said of deeds and thoughts is now extended to "words." God hears every word we speak.
Thou hast beset me behind and before; i.e. "thou art ever close to me, and therefore hast complete knowledge of me. Thine omniscience arises out of thy omnipresence." And laid thine hand upon me. To uphold me, and at the same time to restrain me (comp. Psalms 139:10).
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. The psalmist does not say, "such knowledge," but simply "knowledge," i.e. real true knowledge, such as deserves the name. "The thought of God's omniscience makes him feel as if real knowledge were beyond his reach" (Kay).
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? The transition is now made from God's omniscience to God's omnipresence, Psalms 139:5 having paved the way for it. God's presence is not to be escaped; his spirit is everywhere. "In him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). When Jonah sought to flee from his presence, he only found himself brought more absolutely and more perceptibly into his presence (comp. Jeremiah 23:24).
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; i.e. "if I were to ascend up into heaven, if I could do so, thou wouldst still be there—I should not find myself where thou wert not; no, nor even if I went down to hell (Sheol), should I escape thee—thou wouldst be there also." If I make my bed in hell means, "if I go down and take my rest in hell"—the place of departed spirits. Behold, thou art there; literally, behold, thou!
Psalms 139:9, Psalms 139:10
If I take the wings of the morning. If I were to speed across the earth on the wings of the dawn, and, having done so, were then to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea—the extreme west, where the sun sots—even there shall thy hand lead me. In that distant region I should still find thy guiding hand. And thy right hand shall hold me. Thy strong right hand would uphold me.
Psalms 139:11, Psalms 139:12
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. If I think to escape thee by plunging into darkness, and say to myself, "Surely the darkness shall screen me, and night take the place of light about me," so that I cannot be seen, even then my object is not accomplished; even the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day. Thy essential light penetrates every dark place, and makes the deepest gloom as radiant as the brightest sunshine. The darkness and the light are both alike to thee; literally, as the darkness, so the light; but the paraphrase of the Authorized Version gives the true sense.
For thou hast possessed my reins. Thou knowest me and seest me always, because thou madest me. Thy omniscience and thy omnipresence both rest upon thine omnipotence. Thou hast covered me (rather, woven me) in my mother's womb (comp. Job 10:11).
I will praise thee. The note of praise, which has rung through the whole poem in an undertone, is here openly struck. Reflections upon God's wonderful works must overflow into praise; and the phenomena of man's creation and birth are, at least, as calculated to call forth praise and adoration as any other. For I am fearfully and wonderfully made. The wonderfulness of the human mechanism is so great that, if realized, it produces a sensation of fear. It has been said that, if we could see one-half of what is going on within us, we should not dare to move. Marvelous are thy works; i.e. thy doings generally. And that my soul knoweth right well. The extent of the marvelousness I may not be able to comprehend; but at least I know the fact that they are marvelous, That fact I know "right well."
My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret. The formation of the embryo in the womb seems to be intended. This remains as much a mystery as ever, notwithstanding all the pryings of modern science. And curiously wrought; literally, and embroidered, or woven with threads of divers colors (comp. Psalms 139:13; and note that modern science speaks of the various "tissues" of the human frame, and calls a portion of medical knowledge "histology"). In the lowest parts of the earth. This is scarcely to be taken literally. It is perhaps only a variant for the "secretly" of the preceding clause.
Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; or, "my embryo." The Hebrew text has but the single word גלמי, which probably means, "the still unformed embryonic mass" (Hengstenberg). And in thy book all my members were written ; literally, all of them; but the pronoun has no antecedent. Professor Cheyne and others suspect the passage to have suffered corruption. But the general meaning can scarcely have been very different from that assigned to the passage in the Authorized Version. Which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. Modern critics mostly translate "the days," or "my days," "were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them;" i.e. "my life was planned out by God, and settled, before I began to be."
How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! If God's works are admirable, and, therefore, precious, so still more are his thoughts—those deep counsels of his, which must have preceded all manifestation of himself in act or work. How great is the sum of them! Were they all added together, how immeasurable would be the amount! What a treasure of wisdom and knowledge;
If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand (comp. Psalms 40:5, "Thy thoughts which are to usward cannot be reckoned up"). When I awake, I am still with thee. I meditate on thee, both sleeping and waking, nor ever find the subject of my thought exhausted.
Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God; or, "Oh that thou wouldst slay the wicked!" (comp. Psalms 5:6, Psalms 5:10; Psalms 7:9-13; Psalms 9:19; Psalms 10:15; Psalms 21:8-12, etc.). Depart from me therefore, ye bloody men (comp. Psalms 119:115). There is no fellowship between light and darkness, between the wicked and the God-fearing.
For they speak against thee wickedly; literally, who speak of thee for wickedness; i.e. use thy Name for the accomplishment of wicked ends. And thine enemies take thy Name in vain. The text must be altered to produce this meaning. As it stands, it can only be rendered, "Thine enemies lift up [their scull to vanity" (comp. Psalms 24:4).
Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? Those who love God must hate God's enemies. The psalmist claims to be of this number.
I hate them with perfect hatred; i.e. with pure, absolute, intense hatred—a hatred commensurate with the love that he felt towards all God's saints. I count them mine enemies; i.e. I regard them as my private foes. I have the same feeling towards them as I have towards those who are at open enmity with me, and seek my destruction. The command had not yet been given, "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts. Examine me, and see if I have not represented my feelings as they really are. Keep on always searching me out (comp. Psalms 139:1), and "trying my reins and my heart" (Psalms 26:2). My desire is to be proved and tested.
And see if there be any wicked way in me; literally, any way of grief. "Ways of grief" are ways which lead to grief, which involve either bitter repentance or severe chastisement. And lead me in the way everlasting; i.e. either "the way that leadeth to everlasting life," or "the good old way, the way that endures—the way of righteousness." David, with all his faults, is one of those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matthew 5:6).
God's knowledge of us.
1. We sometimes say that "we know" a certain man who is a neighbor. By this we may mean nothing more than that we can distinguish him from his fellows, and give him his proper name. That is a slight acquaintance indeed.
2. Sometimes when we make such an affirmation we mean that we have a general knowledge of his occupation and his more outward and formal habits. That goes a very little way.
3. Sometimes we mean more than this—we intimate that we know what a man's principles are, what he believes, after what manner he worships, what are his tastes and his companionships. Here we may think that we have arrived at something very definite and solid.
4. We do not really know what a man's spirit is, and what is his real character, until we have seen him (as the apostles saw our Lord) both in public and in private—at those times when he is conscious of our observation, and when he is perfectly unrestrained, and expresses himself with unchecked freedom.
5. Even then, how imperfect is our knowledge of one another! how often and how greatly we mistake one another! how frequently we ascribe to one another deeds that were not done, or words that were not spoken, or feelings that were not cherished! how different we know ourselves to be—in character, in spirit, in motive—from the conception of ourselves which our neighbor has formed of us!
6. And, yet again, how far from being absolutely true is the estimate we form of ourselves! how possible and how practicable it is for us to over-estimate our virtues and under-estimate our weaknesses, our follies, our guilt! So much so that it is a question whether a man knows himself as well as his discerning neighbor does. We are convinced that it is often the case that the verdict of a man's intimate friend is much nearer the mark of truth than is his own.
7. The conclusion to which we are driven is that One, and only one, "knows us altogether." Only God knows us as we are. Guided by the text, we think of God's knowledge of us thus.
I. ALL THINGS ARE OPEN TO HIS VIEW. (Psalms 139:1.) He "searches "us through and through. There are inward recesses and remote points that escape our eye, but not one that escapes his penetrating, his far-reaching glance. We may conceal some things from man and elude his keenest search; we can hide nothing from God; he searches and knows all things, even the most secret chambers of the soul.
II. HE OBSERVES ALL OUR WAYS. (Psalms 139:2, Psalms 139:3.) From morning till evening, from evening till morning, everything is done before him. He is the Lord "before whom we stand," as the old prophets used to say. There is no action of ours that is too slight for his notice; he is the Infinite One, and infinity reaches downwards as well as upwards.
III. HE IS FAMILIAR WITH EVERY UTTERED WORD AND UNUTTERED THOUGHT. (Psalms 139:2, latter part, and 4.) It is not difficult to think of our shouted sentences or of our formal addresses being heard and noticed by God; it requires some effort of thought to realize that the casual conversation, the interjected remark, the whispered secret,—that these are heard and heeded by him. Yet it becomes us to remember that they are. This is the thought of Christ when he said, "Of every idle [casual] word shall men give account," etc. (Matthew 12:36, Matthew 12:37). Nay, the unspoken sentence, the half-formed thought, the rising feeling, that has not found expression, the "thought afar off," is understood by that omniscient Spirit! What reason here for purity of mind, for the "clean heart and the right spirit!"
IV. HE TOUCHES US AT EVERY POINT, "Thou hast laid thine hand upon me." It has been the unseen and unfelt touch of the Divine hand that has:
1. Preserved our spirit in being from moment to moment; for all earthly forces have been the working of his power.
2. Restored us every night, and renewed to us the vigor of body and mind we have needed for the labor and endurance of another day.
3. Quickened our mind and enabled us to think, to reason, to reply, to invent, to devise, to direct.
4. Brought us back from sickness and the shadow of death to life and health again.
5. Made our souls to be refilled with love and hope and sacred joy, so that we have lived the life of holy service and of spiritual growth. The explanation of all our power, our excellency, our success, is found in the simple words, "Thou hast laid thine hand upon me."
The domain of God.
The main thought of these noble words is—
I. THE BOUNDLESSNESS OF GOD'S DOMAIN. Wherever we are, whithersoever we go, we are always within his charge. Could we reach the highest heavens, he is there; or the lowest depths of Hades, he is there; and could we wing our way to the far horizon, where sea and sky meet, he is there. In vain should we seek the shelter of the darkness, for darkness and light are alike to him. Even before the light of life shone upon us, when our members were unformed, everything about us and before us was within his knowledge. There is absolutely no remotest or darkest corner of this wide world which is not included in God's realm—the realm of his presence, his observation, his action. Everywhere his hand leads us; everywhere his right hand of power upholds and restrains us. Since God is everywhere, we infer—
II. THE FOLLY OF OBDURACY. The psalmist is not the man who wishes to escape from the presence and the power of God, but his words bring out very forcibly the impossibility of so doing. There are too many souls who would gladly "flee from his presence" if they could.
1. Many try to escape from the consciousness of it by immersing themselves in some form of activity, or burying themselves in excitement, but they are very partially and only temporarily successful. Beneath all and after all that they do rises up the unextinguishable thought, "Surely God is in this place!"
2. Many try to escape the remorse of a rebuking conscience by taking their own life, but they only pass from one part of God's domain to another. Whithersoever they go, "his right hand holds them." If it be possible, they only enter his nearer presence, and come into closer contact with his power than ever. The one wise thing to do is to draw near to God in penitential prayer, to seek and find reconciliation to him by faith in the Divine Savior, that there may be no need and no desire to hide from his face, to shun his voice, to fear the touch of his hand.
III. THE CONFIDENCE OF CHRISTIAN SONSHIP. 'Chat thought which is a terror to the guilty is a comfort and a security to the good. It is a strong assurance to the heart to feel that whithersoever its path may lie it must be where the Father is at hand to guide and bless.
"I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond his love and care."
It must be well with us; for we shall be with God, we shall be with Christ, in whatever part of the universe we may be. Anywhere, everywhere, his hand will be laid upon us, his arm will be around us.
Thoughts, Divine and human.
With some apparent abruptness, the psalmist calls our attention
I. THE THOUGHTS OF GOD.
1. Their manifoldness.
2. Their preciousness.
Everything we see and hear and touch is a manifested thought of God; it must have existed in his mind before it took shape, color, substance. It adds deep interest to all natural scenery to think of sea and sky, of flower and tree, of the wooded glen and the snow-clad mountain, as thoughts of God. So also of ourselves, of our wonderful, complex nature, of manhood and womanhood in their strength and beauty, in their intellectual and spiritual maturity. And so also of the profoundest, of the loftiest, of the most beautiful and entrancing thoughts we have ever entertained in our minds. They are there because they were first in the mind of God. They are thoughts that have passed from the Divine to the human intelligence. How elevating and enriching must it be to be daily receiving the thoughts of God into our souls! What a new aspect is given to all study, in every sphere of knowledge, by looking at all objects and processes in this light! How near it brings God to us! We are never far from him whose uttered thoughts are around us on every hand—shining in the sun, singing in the song of birds, etc. At all times we are with him—as we walk, and as we work, and as we rest; and "when we awake we are still with him."
II. OUR THOUGHT ABOUT HIM. (Psalms 139:19-22.) The psalmist cannot tolerate the idea of men living to deny, to blaspheme, to disobey, to grieve God. His anger is stirred against them; they are an offence to him; he would like to have them removed from the earth. Jesus Christ has taught us a "more excellent way" than that of destroying such men. He bids us go forth and win them; conquer their disobedience, their rebelliousness; capture their will for wisdom and worth; bring them into that captivity to truth and righteousness which is freedom itself and lasting joy. But the root-thought of the psalmist is true. It is deep sympathy with the Divine; it is the identifying of ourselves with the Divine Object of our love. We love them that love him; we hate (are grieved with and are opposed to) those that hate him. The Christian man regards all things as they affect Jesus Christ and his kingdom; he looks with a profound dissatisfaction and sorrow on lives that are dissociated from the service of Jesus Christ. He feels that something vital is wanting to those who do not call Jesus Lord and Friend. He is separated by an immeasurable distance from those who speak ill of his Master. His soul is stirred to its depths by conduct or language which is irreverent or antagonistic toward him. His prayer is for their conversion; he hopes that such may be convicted and ashamed.
III. A WISE THOUGHT FOE OURSELVES. (Psalms 139:23, Psalms 139:24.) "Who can understand his errors?" There is no maxim more difficult to obey than that which seems the simplest of all, "Know thyself." For we are all of us subject to the law which makes familiarity blunt the sense of importance; and we are all of us liable to form the habit of excusing ourselves those duties which are disagreeable, and lessening the guilt of these sins to which we are inclined; and the result is that our measurement of ourselves is often very far from being the true one. We do not see ourselves as others (who judge without prejudice or passion) see us, or as God sees us. There may be within us, awakening and arising to power, some "wicked way," some evil habit, some strong craving, which, if not eradicated or subdued, will gain a mastery over us, and will destroy us. Or if not that, there may be within our heart, or in our life, some distinct imperfection or inconsistency which goes far to diminish our worth and to nullify our influence for good; and we may be unconscious of it. We do not know ourselves. We may be making a very serious, if not fatal, mistake about ourselves. Hence the wisdom of accepting, modestly and even gratefully, the counsel of the wise and true; hence the wisdom of asking the Searcher of hearts to try us and to cleanse us, and to lead us in "the way everlasting." If we do thus honestly and earnestly ask God's interposition, we must be prepared for his answer. That may take a different form from what we expect or desire. It may come in the shape of trouble, of loss, of affliction, of humiliation. But however it come, it is infinitely better to be led back into the way of everlasting life than to be allowed to go on and down in the path of sin and death.
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
Lord, thou knowest altogether.
This psalm, one of the most sublime of them all, is of unknown authorship. It seems to be the composition of some saint of God who lived after the Captivity. If so, what proof it gives of the blessing of sanctified sorrow (cf. the probably companion psalm, Psalms 119:1-176; Psalms 119:67, Psalms 119:71, Psalms 119:75)! The furnace of the Exile, the husks of the far country, did bring prodigal Israel to himself; and this psalm is one clear evidence thereof. And so, we believe, God will do with all like prodigals. They may seem set against him—they very often are; but his resources are not exhausted, and he will find ways and means to bring them to a better mind. The psalm is divided into four stanzas, of which—
I. THE FIRST TELLS OF THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF CONCEALING ANYTHING FROM GOD. (Psalms 139:1-6.)
1. Here is a fact asserted. "Lord, thou hast searched me," etc. The word originally means "to dig," and is applied to the searching for precious metals (Alexander). God had penetrated far below the surface of the psalmist's acts and words, so that he knew him perfectly. And he knows our time of rest and of going forth to active work (Psalms 139:2). He winnows or fans—such the meaning of the word rendered "compassest"—so as to sift our whole life, separating the evil in it from the good, as the chaff is separated from the wheat. And this is true of the night-life as well as of the day (Psalms 139:3). He knows not only the words that we do speak, but those that we are going to speak (Psalms 139:4). The past and the future—that which is behind and before—are all known to him, and under the control of his hand (Psalms 139:5). We cannot understand all this, but so it is (Psalms 139:5, Psalms 139:6). Thus emphatically is the truth asserted.
2. And altogether credible.
3. And blessed. For it shows that we are not under the rule of a stranger. The rule of a stranger is ever a hard and irksome rule. And it shows how gracious he is; for, though he knows all about us, yet this does not stay his blessing. And how holy; for, though with us the knowledge of evil and the continual contact of it defiles, or at least tends to deaden our sense and horror of evil, and so to lessen our own holiness, it is not at all so with God. See this in Christ. He was surrounded always by sin, but yet was himself "holy, harmless, and undefiled." And because he thus knows us, he must know what is best for us, so that we may be well content with his ordering of our lot. What a holy restraint this truth exercises upon the believing soul! Indeed, it is only to such soul that this truth is or can be welcome; to the ungodly it is all unwelcome, and they seek to cast it out of their minds. God forbid that we should do this!
II. THE SECOND DECLARES THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF ESCAPING FROM THE PRESENCE OF GOD. (Psalms 139:7-12.) The height of heaven cannot transcend him; the depth of hell cannot hide from him; flight, rapid as the rays of the morning sun, cannot outstrip him; distance, like that of the uttermost parts of the sea, cannot separate from him; darkness, deep as midnight, cannot conceal from him. It used to be said of ancient Rome that the extent of her empire rendered it impossible for any one who had incurred the displeasure of her emperors to escape their vengeance; yet more truly is it impossible for us to do what Jonah vainly tried to do—to flee from the presence of the Lord. But this perpetual presence is a perpetual joy to the people of God. Our Lord cheered his disciples ere he left them, by promising that he would be with them always. He had said before that "wherever two or three are gathered together in my Name, there," etc. He is a God "at hand, and not afar off." "At thy right hand, therefore, I shall not be moved." But this perpetual presence, inescapable, is the terror of the wicked man, for he knows he cannot get away from God. How needful that we should acquaint ourselves with God, and so be at peace! So shall the terror be turned into joy.
III. THE THIRD SETS FORTH THE GROUND OF GOD'S PERFECT KNOWLEDGE OF US. (Verses 13-16.) "The mysterious beginnings of life which none can trace, the days all of which are ordered before the first breath is drawn,—these are fashioned and ordered by the hand of God." How, then, can it be otherwise than that he should know us altogether? And how reassuring is this truth of God's knowing us from the very start of our being, because he is the Author of that being!
IV. THE FOURTH SHOWS THE EFFECT OF THIS TRUTH ON THE DEVOUT SOUL. (Verses 17-24.)
1. It gives rise to a vast throng of precious thoughts within Him. He calls them (verse 17) "thy thoughts," which may refer either to God's thoughts about us, or to our thoughts about God. Probably both are meant; for God's thoughts about us are precious, for they are thoughts of good, and not evil. And how great and undeserved and freely given is that good! And our thoughts about God are precious also, if indeed we be reconciled to God. None others can think about God and find delight in such thoughts. But if we be his servants, we think of what God is in himself, of what he has done and will do, in things temporal and in things spiritual, for ourselves, for others dear to us. How vast the sum of these thoughts, and how precious!
2. His soul is filled with a holy hatred of the ungodly. Not because of what they had done to him, though that was bad enough, and could not but wake up the spirit of resentment, but because they were the enemies of God (verses 19-22). It is good to hate evil, first in ourselves, then in others; and if those others will cleave to it, then they and their sin cannot be separated, and we must "count" both our "enemies." "Ye that fear the Lord hate evil." Would to God we all did (cf. homily on Psalms 97:10)!
3. An intense longing after entire holiness. (Verses 23, 24.) The psalmist yearned to be free from all sin, not only from some sins. Therefore he would lay bare his soul before God—would come into the full light of God, that the Divine scrutiny might be thorough and complete. He knew that after all his own search sin might yet lurk in unthought-of places, and hence he prays God to search, and try, and know, and see, and show him the wrong, and then lead him "in the way everlasting." Such is the effect of this faith: "Lord, thou knowest me altogether."—S.C.
The mystery of man's being.
The psalm shows that the knowledge of God brings peace. It appeals to God's omniscience, that which would confound him if he were not at peace with God. They who are not hide away from God, and dread the truth the psalm declares. But let us listen to the patriarch Job (Job 22:21). The psalmist had done so, and hence he is able now to challenge even the all-searching eye and the absolute knowledge of God, to attest his sincerity and the integrity of his heart. No hypocrite or pretender to piety could possibly do this, or ever can. Our text tells how God had known man from the beginning of his life—must know him, for he had created him. This leads to reflection on the mystery of man's being. Note—
I. THE TRUTH OF THE PSALMIST'S ASSERTION. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" Now, this is true:
1. As regards the body. This is what the psalmist had mainly in his thoughts. Now, our corporeal structure is wonderful, whether we regard it as a whole or in its separate parts. But it is "fearful" also; there is an awe and mystery about it, as his soul knew right well. That it should be subject to pain and disease; that it should be so often a clog to the spirit and a hindrance to our higher life rather than a help; and that it should be ever hastening deathwards, and be at last a prey to corruption. And yet God made it—not man.
2. As regards the soul. It is marvelous, whether, as with the body, we consider it in its entirety or in its several parts—intellect, imagination, affections, judgment, conscience, will. How wonderful it is! But how fearful also! That it should be born with a fatal bias and tendency towards evil; that thus it is in continual peril, and is often in bondage to sin; and it can perish, and, so far as we can see, it often does. And yet God formed the soul as he did the body. How true that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made"!
II. THE SPIRIT IN WHICH WE ARE TO REGARD THIS TRUTH. With praise. "I will praise thee." So speaks the psalmist.
1. Many wonder how he or any one could possibly do this. Some even dare to censure and blame the Creator that he has made man so; and they audaciously assert that the coming judgment will not be so much God calling us to account for what we have done, as man calling God to account for what he has done. Far enough are such from the spirit of this psalm.
2. But we cannot but ask—What was the ground of the psalmist's praise? Now, it was not in spite of evil, defying and scorning it; nor ignoring it, for none were more sensible of it; nor by minimizing it in comparison with the superabundant good. And, in comparison with the good gifts of God, evil is as the small dust in the balance—not worthy of account, though to us here and now it looms so large. But not for such reasons is this praise. But because by means of this strange and fearful mingling of evil in our constitution we come to know, as otherwise we could not, the highest good. God has caused that sin should be as a foil to make more manifest his grace. The devil meant only our harm. God turned it round to good. Thus we come to know evil and hate it; we come to know God in Christ, and to love him as we never else should have loved him; the unfallen angels cannot love him as we may and will and do. And we come to know good—holiness, purity, truth, and to hunger for them, and to rejoice in them as else we had not done.
III. THE LESSON TO BE LEARNT. If God turns the greatest ill into good, be sure he will all lesser ones. But it is only by the knowledge of God that evil is thus transformed. Praise him evermore!—S.C.
Psalms 139:23, Psalms 139:24
God's searching desired.
In these verses we seem to be standing by a fair river, a very river of the water of life—full, flowing, beautiful, fertilizing; a joy to all beholders and all who dwell by it. And as we look back at the former parts of this "crown of the psalms," as it has been called, we see the lofty spiritual heights from whence this river has flowed down; we realize the glorious truths about God—his omnipresence and omniscience—which are the source from whence this prayer we are to consider has sprung. But such thoughts about God have not always such results. They are terrors to the mind of the godless, and of all who are not walking in the light of the Lord. Hence the truths taught in this psalm serve as a test of our own spiritual condition. Are they welcome to us, or the reverse? They cannot be welcome to an ungodly soul, but they are to such as him who wrote this psalm. Now, in our text, note—
I. WHAT IS IMPLIED.
1. That there has been a previous searching of ourselves. Here is one great excellence of this prayer—it compels sincerity. For how can the sin-loving man pray, "Search me, O God!" when he can see quite plainly himself what he is? And how, "See if there be," etc; when there is no "if" at all? It is only those who, like Peter, can lay bare their hearts, and say, "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee," that can thus pray. We do not say that a man must be sinless, but he must be sincere. Can we pray this prayer?
2. That our searching is not sufficient. It is implied, what all experience proves so surely, that none of us can understand his errors; and we ever need God to cleanse us from our secret, hidden, and so, to us, unknown faults. "The heart is deceitful above all things; … who can know it?" None but God can.
II. THE REGIONS WHERE GOD'S SEARCHING IS FELT TO BE NEEDED.
1. In the heart. Our life is visible to others and to ourselves, and our words audible, but our hearts are neither. The seeds of conduct and character are so minute, so seemingly insignificant, our motives are of such mingled, mixed nature, so chameleon-like, that we are baffled.
2. In the thoughts. "Try me … thoughts." They need to be tried; they often seem right when they are not so. Judas was, no doubt, self-deceived in this way, thinking his thought to be right when it was all evil. And God does try them; he is ever applying his tests and revealing us to ourselves, as the moonlight reveals the ship that crosses its path, as the lightning reveals the unseen precipice. And he does this for gracious purposes, that so we may be led to betake ourselves to this prayer.
3. The ways. "See if … way in me." The prayer confesses that a man's ways are in him before he is in them. There were evil ways he knew—behind him, and he had gone in them; around him, many were going in them; before him, seeking to attract him. But all this did not matter so long as they were not in him. That the ship should be in the water is all right; but for the water to he in the ship! It is what is in us which is all-important.
III. THE ULTIMATE OBJECT OF THIS PRAYER. That he might be led "in the way everlasting."
1. There is such a way—the way of the everlasting God.
2. And the ways of God are fitly so called. Other ways may go on for a long distance, but they are cut short at last.
3. All joy, goodness, and strength are in these ways; all that the heart can desire, all that can bless our fellow-men, and that can glorify Christ.
4. And in these ways we need to be "led," not merely have them shown to us. Many see them, but do not walk in them; and none ever will unless the Lord leads them. But this he is most willing to do. If sincerely we pray this prayer, his leading has begun.—S.C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
The Divine inspection.
"Searched;" the figure is "winnowed" or "sifted." "Before men we stand as opaque bee-hives. They can see the thoughts go in and out of us, but what work they do inside of a man they cannot tell. Before God we are as glass bee-hives, and all that our thoughts are doing within us he perfectly sees and understands" (Beecher). How near the ancient poets of India could get to the thought and feeling of this psalm is indicated in the following hymn taken from the Atharva-Veda: "
1. The great lord of these worlds sees as if he were near. If a man thinks he is walking by stealth, the gods know it all.
2. If a man stands, or walks, or hides; if he goes to lie down or to get up; what two people sitting together whisper,—King Varuna knows it: he is there as a third.
3. This earth, too, belongs to Varuna the king, and this wide sky with its ends far apart. The two seas (the sky and the ocean) are Varuna's loins; he is also contained in this same drop of water.
4. He who should flee far beyond the sky, even he would not be rid of Varuna the king. His spies proceed from heaven toward this world; with thousand eyes they overlook this earth.
5. King Varuna sees all this, what is between heaven and earth, and what is beyond. He has counted the twinklings of the eyes of men. As a player throws the dice, he settles all things.
6. May all thy fatal nooses, which stand spread out seven by seven and threefold, catch the man who tells a lie; may they pass by him who tells the truth!"
I. THE DIVINE INSPECTION IS AN OBSERVATION. All outward things related to us are "naked and open unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." Illustrate by the regiment inspected by the colonel. Everything—health, bearing, dress, weapons, etc.—is carefully observed. God knows all about us.
II. THE DIVINE INSPECTION IS A SPIRITUAL TESTING. It concerns the inner man. It deals with cherished thought, fixed motive, passing mood, varying feeling. There is so much that never gets expressed in word and act, which nevertheless makes up our real selves; and all this God knows.—R.T.
The oppression of the Divine omniscience.
"Such knowledge is too wonderful for me." "Nowhere are the great attributes of God—his omniscience, his omnipresence, his omnipotence—set forth so strikingly as they are in this magnificent psalm. Nowhere is there a more overwhelming sense of the fact that man is beset and compassed about by God, pervaded by his Spirit, unable to take a step without his control; and yet nowhere is there a more emphatic assertion of the personality of man as distinct from, not absorbed in, the Deity" (Perowne). A philosopher was asked by a monarch about God, and he desired a day for his answer. He then asked for another day in which to give his answer. The more he thought about God, the more he seemed unable rightly to describe him. At last the monarch asked the philosopher why he so often delayed to tell him what he knew about God; and he replied, "The more I think about God, the more incomprehensible he seems to be." The kind of oppression which comes from feeling that God knows even the very minutest things about us, and even everything that will come to us, may be illustrated by the oppressed feeling that the persons skilled in palmistry give us. Looking at our hands, they seem able to read our character and our destiny; and we shun them with a kind of fear, lest, knowing so much, they become mischief-makers. It really is an awe-ful thing that God should know us altogether. This is seen in Hagar's oppressed exclamation," Thou God seest me!" and in a better way, in Jacob's devout utterance, when he had seen the ladder of God's care, "How dreadful is this place!" Notice—
I. HOW PERFECT THE DIVINE OMNISCIENCE IS! The psalm illustrates the Divine knowledge, not of things in general, but of us—"Thou knowest me," my doing this or that;
II. HOW OPPRESSIVE THE DIVINE OMNISCIENCE IS! Even when we are in right relations with God, it is oppressive. It is an awful feeling that we can never be alone. We can never escape the eye. The only relief comes by the knowledge that it is our Father's eye. He knows only that he may help. What is Divine omniscience to those who neither know nor love God?—R.T.
Omnipresence a fear and a satisfaction.
Calvin says, "The word 'Spirit' is not put here simply for the power of God, as commonly in the Scriptures, but for his mind and understanding." Milton, as a young man, traveled much abroad. Years afterwards he thus expressed himself: "I again take God to witness that in all places where so many things are considered lawful, I lived sound and untouched from all profligacy and vice, having this thought perpetually with me—that though I might escape the eyes of men, I certainly could not the eyes of God."
I. OMNIPRESENCE A FEAR. This term is not here used in a sense that applies to the ungodly man. Indeed, such a man will in no way apprehend or encourage the idea of God's omnipresence; it has no practical reality to him. The omnipresence of God is a religious man's idea, and we have to think of its influence upon him. It fills him with a holy fear, which is a mingling of awe and reverence and anxiety. That presence brings the perpetual call to worship; it keeps before us the claims of obedience; and it shows us continually the model of righteousness. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." It has been said that a "Christian should go nowhere if he cannot take God with him;" but that presence would make him afraid to go to many places where he does go; and it is a weakness of Christian life that the holy fear of the sense of God's presence is not more worthily realized. The fear to offend or grieve is a holy force working for righteousness.
II. OMNIPRESENCE A SATISFACTION. When we really love a person, and are quite sure of their response to our love, we want to be always with them. Separation is pain; presence is rest and satisfaction. And it is in the fullest sense thus with God. "We love him because he first loved us." And since there is this responsive love, we cannot be happy away from him; and we are permitted to think that he cannot be happy away from us. And so the psalmist says, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever, to behold the beauty of the Lord." And the Lord Jesus satisfies the longing of his people with his promise, "Lo, I am with you all the days."—R.T.
Psalms 139:13, Psalms 139:14
The mystery of being is with God.
The expression translated, "hast covered me," really is, "thou weavest me," as boughs are woven into a hedge. The "reins" may denote the sensational and emotional part of the human being. It is not possible to deal with the detailed expressions of this psalm in a public ministry. Reticence in regard to the human origin and birth, and in regard to the inner mysteries of bodily life, is characteristic of our times. Eastern people are still accustomed to talk freely of such matters; and conversation was much less delicate at the time our Bible was translated. It must suffice for us to set before our minds the great truth concerning God which is thus illustrated.
I. THE DESIGN OF A HUMAN BEING IS THE THOUGHT OF GOD, Here we may be met by the doctrine of evolution, which teaches that the bodily organization of man is a development out of some lower forms of life. But this in no way affects our position. It does not say that man is an accident—made without any design; it only explains to us what the design was; it unfolds for us the particular method in which the Divine design was out-wrought and accomplished. Because God's design took ages to complete, it did not cease to be God's design. God thought a man. But a man is much more than a body. Man is not the fulfillment of God's design until God has got him into his image, breathed into him the breath of life, and even requickened him with a spiritual life. But what a thought that design of God was! It embraced all the complicated and delicate organs of man's frame, all the subtle relations of body and mind, and all the varying response which body and mind must ever make to surrounding circumstances. A man designs a house or a machine, and his work is within limits that can be grasped. God designs a man, and the complications are beyond us; we can only wonder and adore.
I[. THE WORKING OUT OF HIS DESIGN IS IN THE HANDS OF GOD. A man may give his design into the hands of a fellow man, and entrust him with the duty of working it out. God can never trust his design to anybody; for there is nobody who could understand or grasp it. He must work it out himself. And to us the great glory of the complex story of humanity is this—humanity is God's thought and God's purpose, and that thought and purpose God himself is working out.—R.T.
Psalms 139:15, Psalms 139:16
What a man can be and do God knows.
The latter clause of Psalms 139:15 has been well rendered, "When I was wrought with a needle in the depths of the earth." There is an evidence of allusion to the sacerdotal robes, and the undescribable texture of the human system is compared to the exquisite needlework of the high priest's garments. Every man is a bundle of possibilities; but no man has precisely the same possibilities as any other man. Each man can be what nobody else can be; each man can do what nobody else can do. This does not mean that any man can transcend the sphere and limitations of man, only that there is a very wide variety within the limitations. There are, indeed, general powers and faculties, and general elements of character and disposition, so that men can be classified; bat within the classes there is what may be called an infinite individuality—remarkable varieties of ability, and even more remarkable combinations of ability and disposition and sphere. Nothing oppresses so much as to think what we should do if it were laid on us to find their right places for every man and every woman.
I. GOD KNOWS EVERY MAN'S INDIVIDUALITY. Science may trace that individuality to heredity, to the bodily and mental condition of parents, to food and atmospheres, or anything else; it remains the fact that the estimate of the individuality is possible only with God. Man must have the actual story of another man's life and experience ere he can discern his individuality. God alone can know it anticipatively from the beginning. A man's individuality is not shown in any one thing; it is the stamp on the life, and the life must be lived before it can be seen. God knows the end from the beginning, because he knows what man essentially is. Of Christ it is said, "He knew what was in man."
II. GOD CAN PRESIDE OVER THE ADJUSTMENT OF MAN'S PLACE AND WORK TO HIS INDIVIDUALITY. Oftentimes the surprise of life is the place in which God puts men, and the work he gives them to do. Men always err when they force themselves to do what they think they would like to do. We are only on safe lines when we do what God gives us to do. He knows us; he knows all places, all work, all circumstances; so he can fit things and people together, and make both work together for good. "My times are in thy hands."—R.T.
The abiding sense of the Divine presence.
"I fall asleep, exhausted with the effort of counting thy thoughts or desires; and when I awake I find myself still engaged in the same spiritual arithmetic, which is my dearest delight."
I. IT IS THE SUGGESTION OF DELIGHTFUL THOUGHTS. The psalmist exclaims, "How precious are thy thoughts unto me!" This may mean, "my cherished thoughts of thee," or, "thy loving thoughts of me, of which I have the most comfortable assurance." Probably the psalmist meant the former. "Thy presence wakens in me such loving, tender, trustful thoughts concerning thee." "We cannot conceive how many of God's kind counsels have been concerning us, how many good turns he has done us, and what variety of mercies we have received from him." The sense of God's presence excites meditation; and what is lacking in modern Christian life is that which meditation can supply.
II. IT IS THE ASSURANCE OF DIVINE SECURITY. Compare the absolute confidence of the psalmist when he sings his refrain, "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge." Compare apostolic assurances: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" "For he hath said, I will not leave thee, nor forsake thee." If God is with us, we can always have this confidence—whosoever would deal adversely with us must take account of God, and deal with him; and
"He is safe, and must succeed,
For whom the Lord vouchsafes to plead."
III. IT IS THE INSPIRATION OF NOBLE ENDEAVOR. It is not just a cold doing of actual duty, "as ever in the great Taskmaster's eye." The loving child-soul never talks about the "great Taskmaster." It is a parental presence that wakens everything noble and beautiful in the child. And God's presence is peculiar in this, that it brings to us the sense of power. It makes us feel that we can do whatever he inspires us to do. "I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me."
IV. IT IS THE COMFORT OF EVERY TROUBLE. The hardest thing in trouble is to have to bear it alone. It is eased if another sympathetically shares it with us. We are never alone in trouble-bearing if we cherish the sense of God's presence.—R.T.
Psalms 139:23, Psalms 139:24
"Know my thoughts." This psalm contains the finest utterance of human feeling about the Divine omniscience that has ever come from human lips. God sees everything and everywhere. He sees the hidden mystery, man's secret thought and purpose. To the God-fearing man that is no trouble; it is rather a source of satisfaction and holy joy.
I. THE IMPORTANCE OF OUR THOUGHTS. The wise man says, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." A man is as his thoughts. Man cannot rightly judge the thoughts of his fellow-man; but God is the "Discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Many religious people cherish the notion that they have no control over the suggestions that are made to their minds, no responsibility for the contents of their thoughts—only for cherishing thought, only for letting thought inspire conduct. This, however, is only true within certain narrow limits, which need to be very carefully defined.
1. The importance that attaches to our thoughts we may realize from our observation of men. We have to do with them, but we cannot be said to know them until we come into such relations as reveal to us their thinking. We can only be said to know our friends, in whom is the "mirror of an answering mind."
2. The experience of Christian life impresses us with the importance of our thoughts. It is difficult to restrain and mould aright our conduct and conversation; but the supreme difficulty is to control and purify our thoughts. There are two hard things we have to do—"patiently continue in well-doing;" and "keep the heart with all diligence." And the latter is the harder of the two. Its hardness has driven men and women into convent and hermit-cells, as providing the only hopeful conditions. The scheme of redemption is really a heart-regeneration, a purifying of the very springs of thought and feeling. It does deliver us from outward foes; but its supreme interest lies in its going right down to the very root of the mischief in man. It proposes to deliver man from his own evil self. It reaches to the very fountains of our thoughts, and cleanses them.
II. THE CONTROL WHICH WE SHOULD HAVE OVER OUR THOUGHTS. We must have some measure of control over them, or we could have no responsibility in relation to them.
1. We have control over the material of our thoughts. It is commonly assumed that thoughts and suggestions are absolutely put into our minds either by God or by Satan. But thought is really the comparison, selection, and association of the actual contents of our mind in the power and activity of our will. All that has impressed us during our lives, by the eye, the ear, or the feeling, has passed into our mental treasury. It is all there, and all linked together by the most subtle connections. The contents of each of our minds today is the sum of past impressions and associations; and we are adding to that sum day by day. What we call "thinking" is taking up a portion of these contents, and recombining and rearranging them to form new ideas. Then we must be, in some measure, responsible for the contents of our minds. Not wholly, because we have been placed in circumstances and under influences over which we had no control. We can, however, put ourselves where we shall receive evil impressions, and we can put ourselves in the sphere of good impressions. No man needs to fill his mind with evil things, which sooner or later must become the material of evil thoughts. We need not choose evil companionships, or read demoralizing books. Oar lives are so far in our hands that we can to a large extent settle what shall be the materials of our thoughts. We might fill up our souls with good things.
2. We have control over the course and the processes of our thought. We can deliberately choose to think about evil things or about good things. If our will is a renewed and sanctified will, then we ought to expect it to gain presidency over our thoughts.
III. THE HELP WHICH GOD IS EVER READY TO GIVE US IN THE EXERCISE OF SUCH CONTROL. This help the psalmist sought, "Try me, and know my thoughts." Our self-trusting attempts to regulate our thoughts are sure to bring us a feeling of depression, almost of hopelessness. The work proves to be beyond us. It is not beyond us when God is our Helper. And his gracious response ever freshly comes to the trustful, up-looking soul. He does "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit."—R.T.
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
"Thou hast laid thine hand upon me." Aben Ezra called this "the crown of all the psalms." Man is completely in God's power—physically, intellectually, and morally.
I. Look AT THE PROOFS.
1. Man's spiritual nature. Sense of sin and responsibility; conscience; instinct of prayer; sense of Divine omniscience.
2. The Divine providence. God's omnipresence; our lot appointed and mysteriously controlled.
3. In the provisions of the gospel. Cannot wholly throw off the power of the Divine love or Divine Law. God's hold of us through Christ much greater that our hold of him.
II. FOR WHAT PURPOSE DOES GOD EXERCISE HIS POWER OVER MAN? Not to destroy his freedom of will and action.
1. To assert his property in us.
2. To make man conscious of his calamity and his hope. By the remedy in the gospel.
3. To draw man to himself as the exclusive Redeemer.—S.
"Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in bell, behold, thou art there," etc.
I. GOD IS PRESENT EVERYWHERE. Let us try to fill ourselves with this great thought.
1. God is in heaven. There have been atheists on earth—fools who have said in their hearts that there is no God. Let me tell you what an atheist is like. He is like a man going to hear an oratorio—the 'Messiah' or the 'Elijah'—performed by a hundred musicians, and who says that all those wonderful harmonies that intoxicate the soul were not previously arranged and designed by Handel or Mendelssohn, but were the accidental result of those hundred men playing at random upon a hundred instruments. But if an atheist could be taken to heaven, he would be an atheist no longer. He would be overpowered with the proofs, not only of God's existence, but with the tokens of his presence. What and to whom are those mighty hymns the angels sing? Who commands those mighty works which they perform? Not a God whose existence is argued out or doubtfully apprehended. Why has the city no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it? Because the glory of God lightens it, and the Lamb is the Light thereof. Why is there no temple? Because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple of it. The throne of God and of the Lamb is in it; and his servants serve him, and they see his face, and his Name is in their foreheads.
2. God is in hell—Sheol, Hades. The devils believe in God, and tremble. There are no atheists in hell. God will be felt in the consciences of lost spirits. This is one of the most powerful ways of feeling God's presence. Hell is the carrying out of the Divine law. The Law-giver is known in the carrying out of his law. As in a jail the power of the state is felt.
3. God is in every part of this world. The meaning of the text is that God is in the most distant, even the uninhabited, places of the earth. The thought of the psalmist was that God could be found amongst the solitudes of nature. And it is not in crowded cities that we can most strongly feel the presence of God. On the sea, on the mountain-top, down in deep glens and valleys, in the morning or at midnight, studying the smallest or sublimest of God's works. But God is to be found amongst men, only so often face to face with the devil. Go on the Exchange, into the street, into the gin-palace, and there the world seems without a God, or without a God that cares for it. But go into that sick-room where the Christian is dying, or into that closet where the saint is wrestling with God, or where a sorrowing mother is pouring out a broken heart before God over a profligate son or daughter, or into that family where there is a daily altar before which all devoutly kneel, or glance into the dark cell of the prisoner, and you exclaim, "The darkness hideth not from thee."
II. THE RELATION OF THIS TRUTH TO SEVERAL CLASSES OF MEN.
1. To those who wish to escape from God. "Though they dig into hell, thence shall mine hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down." In no part of any world can you fly from him. If, therefore, you cannot fly from him, there are two things which you may try to do—either to make yourself blind and deaf and dead to his presence; or to awake up more intensely to him, and welcome his presence. The former you cannot do forever; the latter you might do.
2. To those who depend upon God for support. "If I take the wings of the morning … even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." God is present everywhere, not only to judge the wicked, but to reward the righteous. The Bible tells me I have begun a very long journey; that I shall often become footsore and weary, often miss my way; but also that God will be with me; that as my day is so my strength shall be; that "they that wait upon the Lord," etc. It tells me that I shall die; that I must go into a far-distant country which eye hath not seen.
3. To those who are seeking the everlasting way. There are many ways leading to honor, pleasure, wealth, but none of them is the everlasting way. We are guided in them and to them by false lights which will go out and leave us in darkness. But God is always present, and he can light us and guide us into the one everlasting way. He is a Lamp and a Guide.
"Nearer, my God, to thee! …
E'en though it be a cross
That raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee."
If God could or would come to me only at times, what should I often do?—S.
Psalms 139:23, Psalms 139:24
Request for God's searching.
"Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
I. SOME THINGS IMPLIED IN THE TEXT.
1. The imperfect knowledge of his own character. Though it lies so near to us—not a far-off country. Though it is the most important of all knowledge. Knowledge of the body important; but that we can trust to another—not this. Sin creates darkness.
2. That he was aiming at the perfection of his nature. It is only such as he who want to know themselves better. This is the idea of a Christian; and all other aims are poor and selfish.
II. SOME THINGS STATED IS THE TEXT.
1. That he was willing to know the worst of himself. Men generally are afraid to know themselves. If we think our child is in danger from some disease, we ask to know the worst; and so of our own bodily disease. But not so with the soul. Men try to keep out of sight and forget their true selves.
2. That he was willing to be tried—to submit to the means by which this knowledge could be gained. Put me to the proof. Few know what they are asking for in using this prayer. "Try me, so as to show me what I am." The axe willing to be proved is put on the grindstone, and then taken into the forest. The wheat—"try me"—is bruised; the gold is cast into the furnace. Christ tried the rich young man in the Gospel.
III. THE PRAYER OF THE TEXT. Founded on the conviction:
1. That God alone is able to show us what we are. We want a revelation from heaven for that. It is not self-developed knowledge, nor is it a sudden, but a gradual, revelation. No man knows himself till he has known Christ, his true and better Self.
2. That God, and not himself, is his Savior. "Lead me in the way everlasting." Ways that last—God leads us into them, keeps us in them, and draws us onward along these ways.—S.
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