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A Study of Psalm 139:1-11

This study contains Greek or Hebrew words. They will appear as scrambled letters enclosed in <brackets> unless you have the appropriate fonts installed on your computer. See the Information about this web site page for more information.


There may be times when we feel abandoned by God and not sure that he is even aware of who we are. When my wife Lorna felt that way, she used to sing a song she learned as a child, "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go eat worms!"

When we begin to feel that way, it’s at those times we need to read Psalm 139. This psalm, written by David, helps us to realize that God takes care of us. Yates titles this psalm, "The Personal Concern of God." And Ballard writes about this psalm, "It has enabled some to sing in the midst of sorrows, to endure in the face of hardship, and to worship when aspiration had almost failed."

Verse 1

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.

The Hebrew verb < ynIt@ar:qaxj> chaqarttaniy "you have examined me" indicates a thorough searching. Brown-Driver-Briggs gives, "search through, a man, find out his sentiments...of examining thoroughly, so as to expose weakness in a case."

God knows our heart. He knows all our struggles and weaknesses. He knows what we have been going through. He knows all the frustrations, all the stress, all the temptations we have been battling. He knows all our hopes and desires. He knows all our dreams and aspirations. He understands the plans and goals we have set for ourselves. He knows everything about us, and he cares about our life.

Annie Johnson Flint wrote this poem about God’s care for us.

I know not, but God knows;
Oh, blessed rest from fear!
All my unfolding days
To him are plain and clear.
Each anxious, puzzled "Why?"
From doubt or dread that grows,
Finds answer in this thought:
I know not, but God knows.
I cannot, but God can;
Oh, balm for all my care!
The burden that I drop
His hand will lift and bear.
Though eagle pinions tire,
I walk where once I ran,
This is my strength to know
I cannot, but he can.
I see not, but God sees;
Oh all sufficient light!
My dark and hidden way
To Him is always bright.
My strained and peering eyes
May close in restful ease,
And in peace may sleep:
I see not, but he sees.

Verse 2

You know when I sit or stand. When far away you know my every thought.

God is with us throughout our day in all our activities. When we start the day by kneeling in prayer to him, he is there with us. As we go out to work, standing, he is there throughout our work day. When we come back home and are sitting and relaxing with the family, he is right there beside us. Even when we travel far away on business or family outings, he knows exactly where we are and what we are thinking and doing. He is ever beside us.

Verse 3

You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment you know where I am.

God charts the path ahead for us. He gives us direction as he guides our steps. There is never a time nor a situation when God is not right there with us. Notice this verse says God tells us when to stop and rest. He gives us time to stop and rest from the weariness of this life for spiritual refreshing. There will be times when the Lord will tell us to slow down and rest for awhile. There will come short seasons when we need to spend time meditating and resting in his presence to receive spiritual renewal for our weary souls. This verse ends with the words, "Every moment you know where I am." God knows exactly where we are. We are never forgotten or abandoned by him.

There was a wonderful true story in Bits and Pieces that illustrates this so well. A construction crew was building a new road through a rural area, knocking down trees as it progressed. A superintendent noticed that one tree had a nest of birds who couldn't yet fly and he marked the tree so that it would not be cut down right away. Several weeks later the superintendent came back to the tree. He got into a bucket truck and was lifted up so that he could peer into the nest. The fledglings were gone. They had obviously learned to fly so it was safe to cut the tree down. The superintendent ordered the tree cut down and as the tree crashed to the ground, the nest fell clear and some of the material that the birds had gathered to make the nest was scattered about. Part of it was a scrap torn from a Sunday school pamphlet. On the scrap of paper were these words, "He careth for you."

Verse 4

You know what I am going to say before I even say it.

God knows when we will be speaking helpful words and tries to encourage us in this area, and he knows when we will be speaking hurtful words and tries to discourage us in this area.

James points out the dilemma of our unruly tongue in James 3:2-13

2 If anyone can control his tongue, it proves that he has perfect control over himself in every other way.

3 We can make a large horse turn around and go wherever we want by means of a small bit in his mouth.

4 And a tiny rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot wants it to go, even though the winds are strong.

5 So also the tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do. A great forest can be set on fire by one tiny spark.

6 And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is full of wickedness, and poisons every part of the body. And the tongue is set on fire by hell itself and can turn our whole lives into a blazing flame of destruction and disaster.

7 Men have trained, or can train, every kind of animal or bird that lives and every kind of reptile and fish,

8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is always ready to pour out its deadly poison.

9 Sometimes it praises our heavenly Father, and sometimes it breaks out into curses against men who are made like God.

10 And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Dear brothers, surely this is not right!

11 Does a spring of water bubble out first with fresh water and then with bitter water?

12 Can you pick olives from a fig tree, or figs from a grape vine? No, and you can't draw fresh water from a salty pool.

13 If you are wise, live a life of steady goodness so that only good deeds will pour forth. And if you don't brag about them, then you will be truly wise!

We need to let God take control of our tongue and direct the words of our mouth.

Verse 5

You both precede and follow me and place your hand of blessing on my head.

This verse tells us God goes both in front of us and in back of us. He goes ahead of us to prepare the way. There are so many events that God causes to take place before us that we would probably be overwhelmed if we were told how often he intervened on our behalf to help us get where he wanted us to be. It is only after we have been serving God for many years that we can truly begin to understand how God’s hand has been upon us and guided us and prepared us in the different areas of our life. But he is doing it all the time. We are mostly unaware of what he does for us.

God also goes behind us to prevent our mistakes from coming back to haunt us. We often fail and trip up. But God in his mercy is cleaning up the messes we leave behind, and keeps those things of the past from coming back to trip us up again in the future.

David ends this verse by saying God places his hand of blessing on our head. In other words, he blesses us along the way. Even though we don’t deserve them, God’s blessings keep flowing toward us. God has us in his care and watches over us both ahead and behind.

As Matthew Poole wrote in 1690, "Thou keepest me, as it were, with a strong hand, in thy sight, and under thy power."

Verse 6

This is too glorious, too wonderful to believe!

Do you find this too wonderful? So did the psalmist! As Hengstenberg writes, "Before the Psalmist advances farther in the representation, begun in verse 5, of the divine omnipresence, he breaks out in verse 6, into admiration of this superhuman glory, so far exceeding even all human conceptions...."

Verse 7

I can never be lost to your Spirit! I can never get away from my God!

We can never be lost. God’s Spirit always finds us and helps us. No matter how far it may seem we have wandered from the godly path, no matter how alone and abandoned we may feel, we are never lost. God knows exactly where we are, and he is there to comfort us, encourage us, and to help us find our way back into his grace.

We can never get away from God because he is always there by our side. Even though we may be surrounded by trouble and despair and feel helpless and alone, we can never get away from God’s presence. As Psalm 46:1 tells us, "God is our refuge and strength, a tested help in times of trouble."

Yates comments, "By means of two rhetorical questions, the psalmist shows that he can never move beyond the reach of God’s personal concern." And in 401 A.D. Augustine wrote, "Who can in the world flee from that Spirit, with whom the world is filled?"

Verse 8

If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there.

We know God will be there for us in heaven. As Jesus promised us in John 14:2-3, "In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also."

But even as we are dying, God is with us to make our journey smooth and easy. No matter where we go, we cannot run away from God. He is there — whether we rise up to heaven, or we descend into the grave, or even if we try to flee into hell, we cannot escape his presence.

As Keil and Delitzsch write, "God, however, is omnipresent, sustaining the life of all things by His Spirit, and revealing Himself either in love or in wrath, — what the poet styles His countenance. To flee from this omnipresence, as the sinner and he who is conscious of his guilt would gladly do, is impossible."

Verse 9

If I ride the morning winds to the farthest oceans.

This is a beautiful metaphor of going as far away as imaginable. We would probably say,

If I rode the morning sunrays to the farthest star. Or as Matthew Poole paraphrased this verse, "If I should flee as swiftly from thy presence as the morning light doth, which in an instant scattereth itself from east to west."

The point is no matter where we are, no matter how lonely it may seem, or horrible the circumstances or dark the situation, God will be there. He will never leave us nor forsake us. How far have you gone? Do you feel that God is far away and help cannot be found? Don’t despair. God is there. You may not see him, but if you look for him through the eyes of faith, you will find him.

Verse 10

Even there your hand will guide me, your strength will support me.

No matter how far we think we are from God, he is there. Even when we are too weak to go any further, God’s hand will pick us up. He will set us on solid ground, and he will guide us into the right pathway. If we are too tired and weary, he will give us strength to finish the journey. He will strengthen the weak knees and refresh our downcast spirit. And he will support us when we feel we can go no further. It is his strength that will carry us through. So why do we worry when we face difficult times? God has promised that he will take care of us.

Verse 11

If I try to hide in the darkness, the night becomes light around me.

The Hebrew for the last part of this verse is unclear, and various translations render it differently. I like the way The Living Bible translates it, "The night becomes light around me." That’s one of the reasons why I have used this translation for this study. Martin Luther also preferred this rendering. He gave, "so must the night become also light about me."

From this verse we can learn that even at the darkest times of our life, God shines his light on our circumstances. With God there are no dark times, there are no valleys of the shadow of death, there is no darkness closing in on us. As 1 John 1:5 tells us, "This is the message God has given us to pass on to you: that God is Light and in him is no darkness at all."

What darkness are you facing? What black storms seem to be threatening you? Don’t react with fear and panic, but respond in faith. These verses in the 139th psalm teach us that God will take care of us. He knows everything about us, and he is always close by.

As David wrote in verse 6, "This is too glorious, too wonderful to believe!"

Additional Comments by Others:


McCullough: "The psalmist is deeply impressed with the omniscience and omnipresence of the Lord, not however as formal attributes of a sovereign God, but as what he has found to be true in his own experience. The psalm therefore is not an exercise in speculative theology.... It keeps within the range of the psalmist’s knowledge and convictions and reflects what his own humble walk with God has taught him."

Ballard: "Never, we may suppose, have men been so destitute of a sense of literary and religious values that they have been indifferent to its beauty and power. It has enabled some to sing in the midst of sorrows, to endure in the face of hardship, and to worship when aspiration had almost failed."

Verse 1

Ballard: "There is much written and spoken about man’s knowledge of and search for God. There is little said about the Almighty’s knowledge of and search for us."

Verse 2

Hengstenberg: The Works of Hengstenberg, vol. 7, Commentary on the Psalms, pg. 495, Mack Publishing Company, "The sitting in verse 2 denotes rest; the rising up, the raising of one’s self to go to work...."


This study of Psalm 139:1-11 1997 by David Humpal. All rights reserved.
All scriptures unless otherwise noted are from The Living Bible 1971, Tyndale House Publishers

Yates: The Wycliffe Bible Commentary pg. 547 1962, Moody Press

Ballard: The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, pg. 712 1955, Abingdon Press

Brown-Driver-Briggs: A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament pg. 350, Clarendon Press: Oxford

Bits and Pieces, November 1989, pg. 23

Matthew Poole: A Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. II, pg. 203, Hendrickson Publishers

Hengstenberg: The Works of Hengstenberg, vol. 7, Commentary on the Psalms, pg. 496, Mack Publishing Company

Yates: The Wycliffe Bible Commentary pg. 547 1962, Moody Press

Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 8, pg. 637, Hendrickson Publishers

John 14:2-3 from the New King James Version 1984, Thomas Nelson Publishers

Keil and Delitzsch: Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, pg. 347, Hendrickson Publishers

Matthew Poole: Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. II, pg. 204, Hendrickson Publishers

Luther: quoted in The Works of Hengstenberg, vol. 7, A Commentary on the Psalms, pg. 499, Mack Publishing Company

McCullough: The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, pg. 712 1955, Abingdon Press

Ballard: The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, pg. 712 1955, Abingdon Press

Ballard: The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, pg. 713 1955, Abingdon Press

Hengstenberg: The Works of Hengstenberg, vol. 7, Commentary on the Psalms, pg. 495, Mack Publishing Company

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