Summary of the text:
Some psalms begin with a thesis statement, which is quite a gift to the reader. This is true of Psalm 139: God knows the psalmist because God made him, and God even knows his outer life (“when I sit and when I rise,” v. 2a) and his inner life (“you discern my thoughts from afar,” v. 2b). This psalm is dominated by ”I”/“You” language, signaling that it is an exchange between God and David, an excellent example of a meditative psalm. In fact, the verb “know” occurs six times in the psalm and the noun “knowledge” once. God has searched David and knows him—that is the thesis statement, and David prays that this truth will always be the divine operation: “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” (v. 23).
It might surprise us when we hear in a pericope not included in the lectionary reading (vv. 7-12) that this man, whom God thinks about all the time (vv. 17-18), had sometimes thought about fleeing from God, a thought that we might never be inclined to own as ours. There are two searches going on in this psalm: God’s search to know the psalmist thoroughly, and David’s search for God. The latter search extended to the nooks and crannies of the universe, so to speak, and David discovered that his attempt to sneak away from God’s watchful eye had turned, surprisingly and gloriously, into the discovery that the Lord was always looking for him. The rhetorical question, “Where shall I go from your presence,” obviously reflects the negative notion of fleeing from God, fleeing, in fact, to some place where the darkness is so black that even God cannot see through it (v. 12). But when he engages in each exploratory engagement—heaven, sheol, the farthest distances of the sea—the psalmist discovers that the Creator-God had already posted his claim “Mine” on every nook and cranny—“you are there!”—and is carrying out an active operation of “search and seizure”—“even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (v. 10). There is an implied joy, in reality an exultation, in knowing that God is there, in fact, everywhere, and when we flee from him we only flee to him.
It is beyond comprehension that God cares so much about us that he pursues us down paths that lead, not to a dead end, but to a cul-de-sac of grace: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (v. 5). Like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” (The Hound of Heaven is Thompson’s metaphor for God’s love), he realized that all along it had been Love that had driven his search. In Thompsons’ beautiful words: “I am He Whom thou seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.” Indeed, God’s profuse thoughts about him were “precious” (v. 17), reminding us of Isaiah’s delightful metaphor about God’s love for Jerusalem: “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:16). It was God’s “tattoo” of grace that keep reminding him that he could never forget Jerusalem. Psalm 139 reviews the story of the Lord’s pursuing love that is anchored in his own nature, implanted in humans at conception, and is always present with us (vv. 13, 18). This is the “way everlasting” (v. 24).
- Hassell Bulloc
 Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven,” 56.
We read Margaret Wise Brown’s 1942 children’s book, Runaway Bunny to all three of our now “nearly” grown children. It was read numerous times. Many of you know the story, a little bunny declares that he is going to run away from his mother and she replies that if he does then she will run after him, “For you are my little bunny.” If he becomes a fish, she will become a fisherwoman; if a rock on the side of a mountain, she will become a mountain climber; if a crocus in a garden, she will become a gardner; if a bird, she will become a tree; if a sailboat, she will become the wind; if a flying trapeze in a circus, she will become a tightrope walker; if a little boy, a mother to catch him up in her arms. In the end, the little bunny says, “Shucks…I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” Isn’t that the way God works with us? We run away to become something other than his son or daughter, to escape his presence, and he runs after us. He finds us when we try to hide. This is the heart of Psalm 139, “when we flee from him we only flee to him.”
Augustine of Hippo
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
Call to Worship
Adapted from Psalm 100:1-3
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with Gladness.
Come into his presence with singing.
Knowing that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his.
We are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Lord, please help us to whose we are as we worship you today.
Austin D. Hill
Prayer of Confession
Our gracious God, you repeatedly move towards us, even when we pull away. You are not deterred by our rejection of you nor our running from you. Your love is persistent. We confess our distrust of your promises and misunderstanding of your character. Restore our faith in your unfailing love so that we might live and love as you have taught us.
Submitted by Laura Murray
Assurance of Pardon
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
The will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.