Lots of people get very excited about Psalm 139. And with good reason. It’s surely got to make it onto Volume One of ‘Now that’s what I call Psalmody’. It’s up there with Psalm 23 and 51 and 103. It’s an absolute classic.
We studied it in our Growth Groups this week. And people seem to have loved it. I even got a text from a couple who weren’t able to make it telling me how sorry they were to miss out because it was Psalm 139. (I think they took it as read that we’d realise that they were sorry to miss Growth Group because they’d miss us).
But it’s one of those Psalms with a disturbing key change three-quarters of the way through. Most of us love the first eighteen verses. And what’s not to love? For there, we’re reminded of God’s exhaustive knowledge of our situation, God’s pervasive presence in all our circumstances and God’s creative power in making us just as He intended. It’s heady (and hearty) stuff. And it’s all good. It’s comforting and reassuring. We feel protected, comforted and valued by this God. And so we should.
But then there’s verse 19. ‘If only you, God, would slay the wicked’. And that’s just the start. Verses 19-22 are a full on tirade against David’s bloodthirsty adversaries. Even when we allow for some poetic licence or assume that these guys were especially wicked, it’s still a rude interruption in an otherwise thoroughly pleasant reading experience. But this is where the Psalm has been heading since verse 1. It’s not tacked on unnecessarily at the end. It’s where the Psalm lands. It’s what all the preceding material about God has been laying the foundation for. A responsible reading of the Psalm means that if we don’t factor this in then we’re not really dealing with it in the way that the author (David) or the ultimate author (the Lord) intended. We need to repent of our inclination to be selective with scripture. Even in the Psalms.
At the moment (and I’ll admit I’ve been round the block a few times on this one) I’m persuaded that this is a prayer for protection. David prays to the God who knows everything that there is to know about his circumstances, who’s present with him in each and every situation and who thinks the world of him because he’s a product of the Lord’s artistic creativity. And he asks for protection. He wants protection from everything that prevents him from being led in ‘the way everlasting’ (24). He wants to travel the way that leads to everlasting life. And so he wants the Lord to deal with and get rid of anything that threatens his path of discipleship. And that’s fair enough. But it means dealing with enemies. Both the external ones and the internal ones. The external ones are easy enough to identify. It’s the bloodthirsty adversaries who oppose the Lord and oppose his anointed king (David). The internal ones are ‘the offensive ways’ of verse 24. David asks God to examine him to identify and root out anything in his heart of hearts that offends Him. It’s an extraordinary prayer. He’s asking for the Lord to recognise and convict him of his sin.
Now, if our study was anything to go by, we get caught up in a discussion about the enemies. Understandably. But I think we were convinced that these words, though uncomfortably vitriolic, expressed a deep zeal for the Lord and His cause rather than personal vindictiveness. But I wonder whether verses 23&24 aren’t more shocking. They ought to be. Because David has the audacity to invite the Lord who’s just discovered the very worst about him to guide him to everlasting life. What was he thinking? How did he think that the God who had just discovered the depth of his sinful depravity could guide him safely along the journey to everlasting life? And why would he? Because of His character revealed in (1-18). And so it’s a prayer that finds its answer in the gospel. That any sinner can be welcomed into God’s sinless presence is only possible because Christ ‘became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). And so pray Psalm 139. Ask this breathtakingly magnificent God for the protection we need to bring us safely to His eternal presence.