Psalm 139

This psalm is a favorite for many. The first eighteen verses are some of the most intimate and lofty descriptions of the God-human relationship in the Psalter. Most find it comforting, even affirming.

But then a jolt hits us when we read Psalm 139:19-22. What does that have to do with what came before it? Why does this meditation turn toward a passionate rejection of evil and a wish-prayer that God would destroy the bloodthirsty? Where does that come form?

For this reason, some liturgies ignore 19-22 and only use verses 1-18. Some simply stop reading at verse 18 as if verses 19-22 make no contribution to the point that verses 1-18 raise. As it stands, however, Psalm 139 is a unit, and there is some reason (at least to the mind of the author/editor) for verses 19-22 to follow verses 1-18. It is important, I think, to come to grips with what is happening in this psalm and make some sense of this transition which is not only appropriate but telling.

Allen (in his World Biblical Commentary commentary on the Psalms) suggests an interesting scenario which might account for this seemingly disturbing conjunction of thoughts (Brueggemann and Goldingay generally follow his suggestion.) He places the psalm in a setting where a person is falsely accused (as in Psalm 7) or where one is pursued by violent people who want him to participate in their activities. In other words, the psalmist is under such pressure that it is important that God know him/her so that God knows (and the community as well) that the psalmist remains committed to God’s agenda. This person will not be lured or pressured into evil.

Verses 1-18 explore the point that God fully and truly knows the psalmist.  The word “know” (in some form) occurs six times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, 23).  God knows this believer because:

  1. God has searched the heart thoroughly (1-6).
  2. No one cannot escape God’s presence (7-12).
  3. God created the psalmist (13-16).

The psalmist concludes that God is always with him/her, even thought the thought of this is more than the brain can contain. The wonder of divine knowledge and presence transcends the human capacity to fully understand (and perhaps even to appreciate).

The majestic descriptions in the first part of the psalm are often regarded as pleasant reminders of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibeneficence. God can even appear cute and cuddly in some readings of this section.

But perhaps it should be read with a bit more ambiguity.  Is the divine searching of our hearts something that comforts us or alarms us? When do we really want such? Do we really want anyone to know everything that is in our heart? Are we really comfortable with God probing every aspect of our being and discovering who we really are? This searching is open-ended, and it may have an uncertain end.

Nevertheless, the psalmist does take some comfort in God’s searching, presence, and creative intent. The reason, I suggest, is that the psalmist knows his/her own heart, and the psalmist wants to be known by someone given the circumstances. Yet the danger of self-deception remains, and this why the psalmist wants God to search the heart and root out any evil that lies in it. The psalmist knows his/her commitment to God, even if it is sometimes flawed and we are sometimes self-deceived. The psalmist seeks holiness and at the same time seeks vindication against those who would do him/her harm or corral him/her into violent and evil acts.

It is as if the heart cries, “please, somebody, know me…understand me…and be assured that I am committed to God!”  The psalm’s response is: God knows, and God understands. God knows the psalmist’s commitment and integrity.

The psalmist’s problem, however, is that his/her world is filled with violent and “bloodthirsty” (a lust for blood) people who want to involve the psalmist in their activities. They want the writer to join them and take up their way of life.

The psalmist’s response seems rather harsh to modern ears. The psalmist “hates” the wicked and hates those who hate God.

This is certainly not “polite” language. Some call it malicious language or hateful language. It is certainly intolerant language, and it is not surprising that one dedicated to God is intolerant of evil, especially bloodthirstiness.  But before we pour all our modern emotive dislike for the word “hate” into this language, it is important to remember that this language is about one’s priorities. To hate one thing and love another reflects one’s commitments and values. It is not necessarily a malicious personal dislike but an ethical commitment to a life void of violence and bloodthirstiness. It is a prov0ctive and emphatic way of saying, “I am a God-follower; and I will not follow you into violence.”  In other words, “I hate you” is a succinct and bold way of saying, “I have different ethical commitments than you and I will not participate in your activities.”

But how can “hate” your enemies here square with Jesus’ call to love our enemies? Just because “hate” and “love” stand in opposition in our common speech does not mean that this is the case in two widely different texts with different contexts. “Hate” and “love” are not necessarily opposites. Even Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we must hate our parents (cf. Luke 14:26). He did not mean that we must have a personal dislike for them. Rather, he was talking about priorities, just as Psalm 139 is doing.

Commitment to the divine agenda–seeking first the kingdom of God–involves both a hatred (rejection, opposition) of evil and a love for enemies.

So, how might we pray this prayer? Under what circumstances would it be an appropriate and right thing to do?

Imagine this scenario (and others come to mind as well). Suppose a young teenage believer, living in an urban environment, is pursued by a violent gang. They want him to join their group and participate in their next initiation evening, which includes a rape. He feels the pull of the gang since it is a protective community (at least for them), but he also knows it is not consistent with God’s intent for the world.

So, he prays. What does he pray?  He prays that God will thoroughly search his heart and know every aspect of his being so that whatever he prays is something that arises from his own integrity and commitment to God’s cause rather than out of personal vengeance. He recognizes God’s abiding presence and that no matter what happens, God is with him. And he trusts in God’s goals for him and knows God already knows the days that lie ahead for him.

On the strength of this intimate and trusting relationship, he prays that God will destroy this gang and keep them far away from him. They are violent people, and they seek to involve him in their cycle of violence, which always has negative consequences (it leads eventually to their own deaths in many cases). So, he passionately prioritizes the reign of God over the reign of this gang, and consequently “hates” them with a godly hatred that recognizes the evil that pervades their violent community.

On the one hand, he loves these gang members and would hope for a better life for them, and some of them are good friends whom he has known all his life. But, on the other hand, he hates them, that is, he hates the movement of their lives toward violence and intimidation.

His prayer is not about personal vengeance, and neither does he take violence into his own hands to destroy the gang. Rather, he entrusts this outcome to God and leaves it in God’s hands. Further, he asks God to search his own heart and to root out any evil motives or intent in his life or prayer. God is the ultimate arbitrator of both his own heart and the gang’s lifestyle. God alone knows the human heart, and God alone is the judge.

Psalm 139 is, in fact, an individual lament. It laments the violence of those who would drawn God’s people into their way of life, and it is a lament that contains an imprecation against evil.

Indeed, it is a prayer we might pray for all the victims of violence and for every woman enslaved by the sex-trade. It is a prayer for victims as well as a commitment to pursue justice.

With the psalmist, can we say, “I hate the bloodthirsty?” I think so.

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