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 Bullock
 Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven,” 56.
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.
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 gardener; 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.”
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.
Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions