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Bible Commentaries

Sermon Bible Commentary

Psalms 139

Verses 1-2

Psalms 139:1-2

I. Deep indeed and mysterious, far beyond what we can understand, are our own ordinary sleeping and waking; we know not how it is that the soothing quietness which we call sleep steals over the soul and body, nor how the two wake together and begin to act as before. Our sleeping and our waking are beyond our own knowledge and our own power; God keeps both in His own hand. And if our ordinary taking of rest in sleep and rousing up to our work again if these are so strange and mysterious, how much more the death and resurrection of our Lord, His slumber on the Cross and His wakening out of the grave.

II. We know not concerning other men's death and resurrection; and what is still more awful to each one of us, and comes nearer home to our hearts, we know not, every one for himself, what manner of death and resurrection our own will be. We know not, but God knoweth all. Let us trust Him without asking questions, as little children trust their parents. Surely He has power to order all for our good; else how could He raise Himself again, and in His human soul and body ascend into heaven, and there sit down at the right hand of the Father, all power being given unto Him in heaven and in earth?

J. Keble, Sermons for the Christian Year: Easter to Ascension Day, p. 97.

References: Psalms 139:1 , Psalms 139:2 . W. M.Taylor, Preacher's Monthly; vol. iii., p. 32; J. W. Gleadall, Church Sermons, vol. i., p. 27.

Verses 1-3

Psalms 139:1-3

The fact that God is always present and knows every minute trifle in our lives, and that His unerring judgment will assuredly take count of every detail of our character and conduct, neither exaggerating nor omitting, but applying absolute justice this truth is one of those which lose force from their very universality. That we should be so little checked, so little awed, in the course of our daily lives, by this perpetual and awful Presence; that we should know God to be looking at every motion and every impulse, and should be so unmoved; that we should do so many things before God's face which the opening of a door and the entrance of a fellow-creature would instantly stop this is an instance of that weakness of faith which proves the fall of man.

I. There is no need to exaggerate in this matter. We may recognise to the full that it is a part of God's own ordinance that we should be, as it were, unconscious of His presence during the greater part of every day of our lives. But that which is quite peculiar in this case is the nature of the forgetfulness. In the presence of father or of mother, or of any one else for whom you care, though you forget, yet the slightest real temptation, still more the slightest open sin, is sure to put you instantly in remembrance. Now I fear there is no such perpetual readiness in us to remember the presence of God. We forget His presence in the absorption of our daily employments and amusements; and forgetting it, we approach some sin which we know that He has forbidden. But our approach to the forbidden path rarely puts us in mind of the awful eye that is ever silently marking our steps. This is a veil which the devil puts before our eyes. It is the blindness of our fallen state.

II. The right state of mind plainly is to have the thought of God's presence so perpetually at hand, that it shall always start before us whenever it is wanted. (1) This perpetual, though not always conscious, sense of God's presence would, no doubt, if we would let it have its perfect work, gradually act on our characters just as the presence of our fellow-men does. (2) This habit, beyond all others, strengthens our faith.

Bishop Temple, Rugby Sermons, 1st series, p. 178.

References: Psalms 139:1-12 . F. Tholuck, Hours of Devotion, p. 110; Clergyman's Magazine, vol. xii., p. 83; E. W. Shalders, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xi., p. 328. Psalms 139:5 . G. Matheson, Moments on the Mount, p. 70; C. S. Robinson, Preacher's Monthly, vol. v., p. 73.Psalms 139:7 . A. P. Peabody, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xx., p. 118. Psalms 139:7-10 . Preacher's Monthly, vol. viii., p. 10. Psalms 139:9 . A. P. Stanley, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xiv., p. 257.

Verse 7

Psalms 139:7

I. God is in all modes of personal existence. These are all covered by the contrast between heaven and hell, than which no words would suggest a completer contrast to every thoughtful Hebrew.

II. God's presence is in the yet untrodden ways of human history. There came sometimes to the untravelled Israelites a perception that the world was very large. The ninth verse of this Psalm gives us an image of the Psalmist, standing by the sea-shore, watching as the rising sun broadens the horizon, and brings into view an islet here and there, which, by catching the sight, serves but to lengthen still more the indefinite expanse beyond. The fancy is suggested, half of longing, half of dread, What would it be to fly until he reached the point where now the furthest ray is resting, to gaze upon a sea still shoreless or to land in an unknown region and find himself a solitary there? But he is not daunted by the vision; one Presence would still be with him. Vast as the world is, it is contained within the vaster God. In a similar mood of not wholly barren dreaming we sometimes look out over the boundless possibilities of human life. Amid all possibilities one thing is sure: go where we may, go the world how it may, we shall find the ever-present God.

III. God's presence is in the perplexities of our experience. The untrodden ways of life are not the only, nor even the principal, obscurities in life; there are incidents in man's experience which seem only the more perplexing the more we know of them. There is the mystery of pain, and that strange fluctuation of spiritual emotion which pain often brings; there are the complications of human relations, in which the saintliest seem often the victims of the basest or the sacrifices for the sins of others; there are the conflicts of noble affections, of the purpose of patience with the impulse of indignation, of our love of men in its pleadings against the fear of God. It is by perceiving the fruitful issues of perplexity in our experience that we gain the confidence that God is in the discipline, its Author and Controller. He who believes in God enters into rest; a large faith means a repose which cannot be shaken.

A. Mackennal, Sermons from a Sick-room, p. 85.

Verse 11

Psalms 139:11

Consider sonic of the thoughts which press upon a mind conscious of its own wonderful nature. It perceives in part an evident likeness, and in part an equally marked unlikeness, to its Maker. (1) We know by instinct and by revelation that God has made us in part like to Himself; that is, immortal. (2) We learn that our nature stands in a marked contrast to the Divine; that the immortal nature which is within us is of a mutable kind, susceptible of the most searching changes.

I. Our immortal being is always changing, for good or evil, always becoming better or worse. All our life long, and in every stage of it, this process, which we vaguely call the formation of character, is going on. Our immortal nature is taking its stamp and colour; we are receiving and imprinting ineffaceable lines and features. As the will chooses, so the man is.

II. This continual change is also a continual approach to, or departure from, God. Heaven and hell are but the ultimate points of the diverging lines on which all are ever moving. The steady and changeless rise and fall of the everlasting lights is not more unerring. It is a moral movement, measured upon the boundaries of life and death.

III. Such as we become in this life by the moral change wrought in our immortal nature, such we shall be for ever. Our eternal state will be no more than the carrying out of what we are now. And if these things be so, with how much awe and fear have we need to deal with ourselves. (1) We must needs learn to keep a keen watch over our hearts. Every change that passes upon us has an eternal consequence; there is something ever flowing from it into eternity. (2) We have need not only to watch, but to keep up a strong habit of self-control. By its own continual acting, our fearful and wonderful inward nature is perpetually determining its own character. It has a power of self-determination, which to those who give over watching and self-control becomes soon unconscious, and at last involuntary.

H. E. Manning, Sermons, vol. i., p. 47.

Verse 11

Psalms 139:11

Consider sonic of the thoughts which press upon a mind conscious of its own wonderful nature. It perceives in part an evident likeness, and in part an equally marked unlikeness, to its Maker. (1) We know by instinct and by revelation that God has made us in part like to Himself; that is, immortal. (2) We learn that our nature stands in a marked contrast to the Divine; that the immortal nature which is within us is of a mutable kind, susceptible of the most searching changes.

I. Our immortal being is always changing, for good or evil, always becoming better or worse. All our life long, and in every stage of it, this process, which we vaguely call the formation of character, is going on. Our immortal nature is taking its stamp and colour; we are receiving and imprinting ineffaceable lines and features. As the will chooses, so the man is.

II. This continual change is also a continual approach to, or departure from, God. Heaven and hell are but the ultimate points of the diverging lines on which all are ever moving. The steady and changeless rise and fall of the everlasting lights is not more unerring. It is a moral movement, measured upon the boundaries of life and death.

III. Such as we become in this life by the moral change wrought in our immortal nature, such we shall be for ever. Our eternal state will be no more than the carrying out of what we are now. And if these things be so, with how much awe and fear have we need to deal with ourselves. (1) We must needs learn to keep a keen watch over our hearts. Every change that passes upon us has an eternal consequence; there is something ever flowing from it into eternity. (2) We have need not only to watch, but to keep up a strong habit of self-control. By its own continual acting, our fearful and wonderful inward nature is perpetually determining its own character. It has a power of self-determination, which to those who give over watching and self-control becomes soon unconscious, and at last involuntary.

H. E. Manning, Sermons, vol. i., p. 47.

Verse 14

Psalms 139:14

Let us observe some of the mysteries which are involved in our own nature.

I. We are made up of soul and body. Now if we did not know this so that we cannot deny it, what notion could our minds ever form of such a mixture of natures; and how should we ever succeed in making those who go only by abstract reason take in what we meant?

II. The soul is not only one, and without parts, but moreover, as if by a great contradiction even in terms, it is in every part of the body. It is nowhere, yet everywhere.

III. Consider what a strange state we are in when we dream, and how difficult it would be to convey to a person who had never dreamed what was meant by dreaming. These are a few out of the many remarks which might be made concerning our own mysterious state, but this is a very large subject. Let a man consider how hardly he is able and how circuitously he is forced to describe the commonest objects of nature, when he attempts to substitute reason for sight how difficult it is to define things, and he will not wonder at the impossibility of duly delineating in earthly words the First Cause of all thought, the Father of spirits, the one eternal Mind, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who only hath immortality, dwelling in light unapproachable, whom no man hath seen or can see, the incomprehensible, infinite God.

J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. iv., p. 282.

References: Psalms 139:14 . J. Baldwin Brown, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 321; E. A. Abbott, Sermons in Cambridge, Philippians 1:23 , 49, Psalms 139:17 . Spurgeon, Evening by Evening, p. 121.Psalms 139:17 , Psalms 139:18 . A. C. Price, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 171.

Verses 19-24

Psalms 139:19-24

I. There is a peculiarity of expression in this Psalm which we certainly should not find in any Christian hymn, and one which cannot fail to strike us. What can be more remarkable than the contrast between the former part of the text and the sublime meditation which precedes? It startles us thus to be carried from thoughts of God's omniscience and omnipresence and His superintending providence and watchful love into the midst of a conflict in which human passions are roused, to find their vent in strong invective. It is impossible to disguise the fact that there does run through the Psalter this spirit of intense hatred of wickedness and wicked men. In many instances, no doubt, the sense of wrong, and violence, and persecution stirs it into keener life. The psalmists are always in the minority, always on the weak side, humanly speaking. But they are profoundly convinced that their cause is right. They are sure that God is on their side. They hate evil with all their hearts, because they love God with all their hearts.

II. But now the question forces itself upon us, Are we justified ourselves in using these bitter and burning words? Is it right to pray, "Oh that Thou wouldest slay the wicked, O God"? Are these words in harmony with the Christian conscience? (1) It is quite plain that the general current of the Psalter, the strain and tone of feeling running through it, cannot be antagonistic to our Christian conscience, or the Christian Church throughout the world would not have adopted the Psalter as its perpetual book of devotion. Therefore, though there may be single expressions in the Psalter, imprecations and burning words, which are not suitable in Christian mouths, depend upon it that the whole strain of the Psalter, as sternly set against evil, is not opposed to the Christian conscience. (2) The New Testament is not so entirely opposed to the spirit and teaching of the Old on this point as is sometimes asserted. The chief difference lies here: ( a ) that in the New Testament we are taught to carry the endurance of wrong much further than was possible or conceivable before Jesus our Master set us an example that we should follow in His steps, and ( b ) that we are taught by Him and His Apostles what we are not taught distinctly by psalmists and prophets: to distinguish between the sinner and the sin, between the wickedness which a man does and the man himself; that we are to try and root out wickedness without rooting out the wicked from the earth; that, with the patience of God, we are to bear with the evil and seek to reform the evil, even whilst we long to see it come to an end. (3) We may not cherish a personal hatred; we may not seek for a personal vengeance. But it is our bounden duty to hate wickedness and wicked characters with all our hearts.

J. J. S. Perowne, Sermons, p. 68.

Verse 21

Psalms 139:21

The Psalmist answers his own question: "Yea, I hate them right sore, even as though they were mine enemies." We should most of us reply quite differently. We should say, Hate them! We hate nothing. We try to obey Christ's command, "Love thy neighbour as thyself." "There is a way which seemeth right to a man, but the end of it is the way of death." I believe that this plausible, self-complacent language of ours indicates that we are in exceeding danger of wandering into that dark road, if we are not walking in it already.

I. The force of the sentence evidently turns upon the word "Thee." David knew that there was a Divine Presence with him. When he clave to this righteous Judge and Lawgiver, when he acknowledged His guidance and desired that all the movements of his life should be ruled by Him, then did he himself, and his fellow-men, and the world around, come forth out of mist and shadow into the sunlight. Everything was seen in its true proportions.

II. David hated whatever rose up against righteousness and truth in the earth, whatever sought to set up a lie. He felt that there were deadly powers which were working deadly mischief in God's world. In the inmost region of his being he had to encounter these principalities of spiritual wickedness. His hatred grew just in proportion to the degree in which he believed, trusted, delighted in, a Being of absolute purity and perfection.

III. Can it be that the blessing of our Christian profession consists in this, that we have acquired a patience of whatever hates God and rises up against Him, which David had not? Assuredly our Christian profession then does not mean the following the example of our Saviour Christ and being like Him. He was engaged in a conflict to blood against evil, in a death-struggle whether it should put out the light of the world or whether that light should prevail against it.

IV. Determine to hate that which rises up in you against God that first, that chiefly and you will hate, along with your indifference, cowardice, meanness, all your conceit of your own poor judgment, your dislike of opposition to it, your unwillingness to have your thoughts probed to the quick. And so with this hatred, deeply and inwardly cherished, will come the true, and not the imaginary, charity, the genuine, not the bastard, toleration.

F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. v., p. 309.

Verses 23-24

Psalms 139:23-24

I. These words express an appeal to the omniscience of God in proof of the sincerity of the Psalmist's love to Him. There is a frank affection and candour about the words to which the heart of our own personal experience readily corresponds. They breathe the quiet repose of one speaking in confidence to another whom he trusts, and whom he is authorised to trust.

II. The words express a single-hearted and undivided desire that nothing whatever may interpose between the soul and God, or interrupt the enjoyment of His presence. This second feeling is a necessary part of the first. Whatever there was in his heart, or in his thoughts, or in his manner and his conduct, displeasing to God, and which prevented his walking in the way of everlasting life that the Psalmist was prepared to give up, holding nothing back. His prayer implies a desire for holiness at any cost of discipline and chastisement, a wish to learn the lesson even though it should be beneath the rod, to get nearer to God even though the path should tear him away from all he loved below.

E. Garbett, Experiences of the Inner Life, p. 106.

The blessedness of God's thorough knowledge of us this is the subject of our meditation.

I. Think, first, of the blessedness of God's knowledge of our loyalty.

II. Think of the blessedness of God's knowledge of our struggles.

III. Think of the blessedness of God's thorough knowledge of our sins.

IV. Consider the power which every good resolve derives from the fact that we can make it known to God.

V. Notice the blessedness of the fact that He who knows us thoroughly is our Helper and Leader.

A. Mackennal, Christ's Healing Touch, p. 45.

References: Psalms 139:23 , Psalms 139:24 . J. Keble, Sermons from Lent to Passiontide, p. 253; J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons, 10th series, p. 222; Preacher's Monthly, vol. iv., p. 205.Psalms 139:24 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xv., No. 903; T. Wallace, Christian World Pulpit, vol. viii., p. 260. Psalms 139:0 P. Thomson, Expositor, 2nd. series, vol. i., p. 177; G. Matheson, Ibid., vol. iv., p. 356. Psalms 140:12 . J. M. Neale, Sermons on Passages of the Psalms, p. 310. Psalms 141:2 . E. M. Goulburn, Thoughts on Personal Religion, p. 50. Psalms 141:5 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii., No. 1049.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 139". "Sermon Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/sbc/psalms-139.html.