Psalm 139 is a prayer addressed to God, and is in many ways a contemplative reflection. The speaker acknowledges God’s greatness, but is bothered by the impossibility of escaping His towering presence. The psalm ends with an imprecation of enemies and a statement of dedication.
The speaker of Psalm 139 is overburdened by the impossibility of escaping God. In vv. 7-12 he complains, “Where can I escape from Your spirit?… If I say, ‘Surely darkness will conceal me, night will provide me with cover,’ darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same.” The picture attempts to portray a unification of darkness and light.
1c-6. Plaintive reflection
7-12. Personal distress
13-16. Acknowledgment of Creator
After Psalms 3-41 and 51-71, Psalm 139 begins the third major section of “Davidic psalms” (Ps. 138-145). The psalm was recited by an individual, and while the community does not appear they might have been behind the scenes.
In regards to message and form, Psalm 139 is one of the most unique psalms in the entire Psalter. It begins with a reflection on God’s omniscience: “You observe my walking and reclining, and are familiar with all my ways. There is not a word on my tongue but that You, O LORD, know it well” (vv. 3-4). While closeness to God is usually taken as a good thing, this section does not seem to be praising God. In v. 5 the speaker says, “You hedge me (tzartani) before and behind; You lay Your hand upon me.” The root tzwr “to enclose” is used to describe a besieged city (cf. Deut 20:12, 19; 2 Sam 11:1; 20:15; Jer 37:5; 39:1). One gets the feeling that the speaker is smothered by God’s omniscience.
The next section, which speaks of the impossibility of escaping God, makes it clear that the speaker is uncomfortable: “Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?” (v. 7). The section begins with the pronoun ‘anah “where?”, a word which often indicates imminent danger (cf. Gen 37:30; Deut 1:28; 2Sam 13:13; Jer 15:2). The speaker then confesses how he has nowhere to go (both the vertical and horizontal axes are occupied by God): “If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too. If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast.” (vv. 8-10) Even the darkness of the night provides no privacy: “If I say, ‘Surely darkness will conceal me, night will provide me with cover,’ darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same.” (vv. 11-12)
The speaker then praises God for creating him (vv. 13-16), employing a “strange and fascinating representation of creational beliefs unheard of in the Genesis stories.” (Gerstenberger) For example, v. 5 mentions being created in “the recesses of the earth,” something unheard of in Tanakh: “My frame was not concealed from You when I was shaped in a hidden place, knit together in the recesses of the earth.” While the previous section seemed to be critiquing God, this section seems to be more congratulatory.
The psalm takes an unexpected turn in v. 19: it asks God to do away with the previously unmentioned “wicked ones.” The speaker then mentions his unity with God, “O LORD, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries.” (v. 21) This phrase expresses a level of confidence seen in Ruth’s famous statement to Naomi, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16b-17) The psalm ends with a statement of commitment/innocence which is followed by a short petition, “guide me in ways everlasting.”
In regards to the psalm’s form-critical classification, Gerstenberger writes: “Psalm 139 is one of the most intensely studied poems in the Psalter. The discussion about its genre classification has been going on for a long time with no end in sight. Elements and inklings of various categories of psalms can be detected in the different subunits. The exegete who insists that one single aspect must be determinative for the whole psalm may choose among complaint, thanksgiving, hymn, and wisdom discourse.” In regards to the last genre, “wisdom discourse,” many have noted the psalm’s similarities to the book of Job: (a) it uses the name ‘eloha for God, a word concentrated in the book of Job, (b) v. 6’s message of inferiority and vocabulary is similar to Job 40:4, 42:2-3, and (c) v. 13’s description of creating man is similar to Job 10:11.
Was Psalm 139 used in a liturgical setting? Many scholars think so, but even Gerstenberger (a devout form-critic) writes: “Because of its meditative air, its elevated poetic language, depth of thought, and unusual modulations of form elements, Psalm 139 lends itself to other than liturgical analyses. Thus many interpreters study literary structures and discover a treasure of literary devices (wordplays, strophes, inclusions, symmetries, chiasms, etc.). Others dedicate themselves to its philosophical and theological insights (main problem: the ‘omnipresence’ of God), the result being the elaboration of a clear thought structure detached from all liturgical background. The text itself seems open to ever new expositions.”
In regards to the psalm’s date of composition, scholars feel that the unique vocabulary (there are many hapax legomena) and the use of late Biblical Hebrew indicate an exilic or postexilic (i.e. 2nd Temple period) date for the psalm.
V. Important Verses
vv. 7-12: Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too. If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast. If I say, “Surely darkness will conceal me, night will provide me with cover,” darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same.
v. 21: O LORD, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries.