The following portion of Psalm 139 is in our lectionary for next week. (I found a discussion board for such things on a “Desperate Preacher’s Site.”. Interesting.)
1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
5 You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
The Commentary and Reflection on this Psalm in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, note that “[e]xplicitly theological concepts like omniscience and omnipresence are often applied by interpreters of Psalm 139 [but] almost inevitably these terms will fail to do just to the psalm, since the psalmist did not intend to articulate systematically a doctrine of God.”
That’s good, because if the psalmist was articulating a systematic doctrine, we would pretty much have to accept predistination, not to mention the idea that life begins at conception. I don’t want to do either of those things.
As it is, all I have to do is figure out what it means for God to know me so intimately that I cannot hide from God. Is that good, or does it “hem me in”? This psalm seems to play with the comfort and accountability of knowing you are never alone. It’s like when a friend or loved one reminds you of “who you are.” Sometimes it can be a joy; sometimes it can be hard.
2 replies on “Lord, you knew me in the womb”
Jim, this is my favorite, favorite Psalm – says important things about relationship – look for it in worship next Sunday.
all I have to do is figure out what it means for God to know me so intimately that I cannot hide from God. Is that good, or does it “hem me in”?
I think it is precisely because of that thing about being known that I love this Psalm. As you’ve said, sometimes it can be a hard thing to imagine that God (or anyone) knows me that well, especially if that Other is willing to tell me the difficult truth as well as the feel-good truth.
But there is immense comfort for me in the practice of turning internally to God when it feels like others don’t understand me. It is there in that communion that I can actually examine myself most honestly, even if it is uncomfortable. Even if I stumble across judgment in my reflection, in this intimacy with God I discover grace.
The Psalmist’s phrase “hem me in-behind and before” is to me an image of safety. (I understand your use of the phrase to suggest being boxed in, restrained, something you might want to resist.) A few years ago I went on a backpacking trip through some fairly rugged areas, including across a glacier. There I learned how important it can be to have someone walking ahead of you and someone walking behind you. The lead hiker is watching for danger and finds the way for the rest. The hiker at the end of the file is watching for missteps and accidents, coming to the rescue if someone falls. This verse conjures up a memory of that hike for me.
I often neglect the psalms. I recognize that is unusual because many people access the divine through celebratory expression like music and poetry.