Psalm 139: Present Absence

Introduction: Psalms

The last weeks we’ve been mining the riches of the OT book of Psalms
This is the last week, on Psalm 139.
That last song was based on it.
we used to sing it at the annual tertiary students Christian conference.
 
I’ve also sung Psalm 139 in German, and a friend has in Chinese!
This is why Psalms has been called the hymn book of the church
Many Psalms, like 139, were written by King David,
a poet-musician, played the harp, the “sweet singer of Israel”
 
The Psalms show every human emotion from cynicism to celebration, despair to dancing.
Calvin called Psalms “the anatomy of all parts of the soul.”
And we see, as Peter has shown the last weeks, there are two ways to live.
We have a choice, to walk without God, or to live life the with-God way.
 
Theologians use big abstract words to describe God: like omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence.
In this Psalm, these are personally focused in David’s life with God.
 
 

Presence – God is now here: David’s loving present God

1: God knows me – omniscience

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit, and when I rise.
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path.  My going out and my lying down.
And are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue oh Lord, you know it completely (Psalm 139:1-4)
 
Theologians say God is “omniscient” – all knowing.
Here we see what that means for me – God knows me personally, intimately through and through.
 
Every action, every movement, every word, every thought.
 
So God knows all our needs.
Remember, Jesus’ words, even the hairs of our head have been numbered by God.
He knows that we need food, clothing, shelter, work, and he will provide (Matthew 10:30)
 
Some needs are hard to express.
Do you ever really want to pray about something, but frustration,
you just can’t find the words?
It doesn’t matter – God knows my heart before the words are on my tongue
 
 
5: you hem me in, behind and before,
you have laid your hand upon me.
 
The Hebrew for “hem” means a protective wall or a rampart around a city that defends against enemies:
Remember all those phrases in the Psalms:
The Lord is my hiding place.  He is my fortress, my strong tower. 
My shield against the enemy, so I need not fear.
“In the shelter of your presence you hide us safe.”  (Psalm 31:20)
“The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.”  (Psalm 32:10)
 
God lays his loving hand on me like Jesus blessing the little children (Matthew 19:13)
 
 
6: such knowledge is too wonderful for me; Too lofty for me to attain
 
He knows me better than I know myself – only he knows who I am
We are an open book to God, but he is incomprehensible to us.
His ways are inscrutable. (Romans 11:33)   
“his understanding no one can fathom” (Isaiah 48:28)
 
 
Those of you with analytical minds may be saying, hang on:
“before a word is on my tongue God knows it.”
if God already knows the future and what I’m going to say.  Why bother praying?  Am I free? etc etc
 
These comforting verses explode to a mind-boggling philosophical conundrum
 
Are there any Terry Pratchett fans here?
He writes fantasy comedy novels
In one of these, there is a comic witch character.  She sees a few seconds into the future
A young guy is talking to her:
She hears his words before he says them, replies to his question, and then he speaks!
So there’s a funny page of reversed dialogue
 
The young guy gets confused and thinks, why ask when she’s already replied
But she says.  “You gotta ask the question!  I get a terrible headache otherwise!”
 
A bit like us trying to figure out God and time.
It truly is too wonderful, too mysterious for our minds to attain.[1]
 

2: God is with me – omnipresence

Another big theological word is “omnipresence”
All presence – God is everywhere
So what does God’s omnipresence mean for me?
 
7-10: Where can I go from your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
 
If I go up to the heavens, you are there.
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there
 
If I rise on the wings of the dawn and settle at the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand hold me fast
 
Two weeks ago, Peter preached David’s Psalm 51 of repentance , where David cried.  “Don’t cast me from your presence or take your holy spirit from me.” (51:11)
Here David realises, we are never out of God’s loving presence or away from his spirit
 
 
When I’m on top of the world, on cloud nine, in heaven-God is there.
When I’m in what the Psalms call Sheol – the Hebrew world of the dead. 
The pit, the depths, the boggy swamp that sucks me down like quicksand.  God is there.
Where the morning sun rises in the East God is there.
When the first sunbeams shoot to the west from Israel, across the Mediterranean
the speed of light – they can’t outrun God, He is there.
Not moving quite as fast, remember Jonah, disobeying, sailing West across the Mediterranean to escape God’s presence.
But he couldn’t get away – in the West or the ocean deep!
 
 
When King David wrote this, it was just a poetic image.
He never dreamed that thousands of years later, I could literally rise on wings to the heavens and fly across the sea. 
I’ve been at the airport waiting to fly, feeling very nervous and remembered this Psalm.
although I don’t know what it’s gonna be like away from home in a strange country, God is already there.
 
On a bigger scale, last week Bryce explored Psalm 137. 
the suffering of the Jews in slavery far from home “by the rivers of Babylon”
How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
But even in this dark distant place, God was with them.[2]
 
 
More recently, these same verses were significant to Jews after the Second World War Holocaust, heading back to the newly formed homeland in Israel
 
 
11: if I say, “surely the darkness shall cover me and the light become night around me.”
Even the darkness is not dark to you, the light will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
 
The Lord is my shepherd.
Though I walk through the darkest valley – even the shadow of death. 
I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23)
 
In the heights or the depths, the east or the west, the light or the dark
Vertical, horizontal extremes
God’s knowing, loving, protecting, guiding presence is with me.[3]
 
in St Paul’s words,
how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19)
 
 
 

3: God made and planned me – omnipotence

The third big theological “omni-word”, is omnipotence
God is omnipotent: all powerful, Almighty, in control.
So what does this mean for my life?
 
13-16: It was you who formed my inward parts,
You knit me together in my mother’s womb
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works, that I know full well.
 
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret.
skilfully woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
 
In your book were written all the days formed for me,
before one of them came to be
 
 
Many Psalms admire God’s power in cosmic creation.
“the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps 19)
Psalm 8, that Peter spoke on a month ago,
“I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers
The moon and the stars, comets and asteroids and nebulae and black holes, which you set in place”
 
But here, to quote Spurgeon, “the poet inverts his gaze from the blaze of suns, to the strange atoms composing his own frame.”
Psalm 139 zooms in on God’s intricate, personal, hidden, wonderfearful creation
He knew us before birth. He knitted our bodies, wove our character, moulded our future, as a potter shapes clay.[4]
 
These verses are one reason why most Christians oppose abortion. 
we believe that each person has value and has purpose. 
We are not anonymously mass produced, but custom hand crafted
 
 
17-18: how precious to me, are your thoughts, oh God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them – they are more than the sand;
When I awake – I am still with you.
 
The Hebrew may mean how concerning me are your thoughts –
how much God thinks about me!
 
Scripture elsewhere says, we are engraved on the palms of God’s hands. 
The apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10)
 
You can see David counting God’s thoughts like sheep until he falls asleep,
And waking to find “God’s mercies are new every morning.” – God is still with him.
 
 
=========================
 
So this is a Psalm of great comfort and security
God knows everything about me, he is always with me, he made me and planned my life.
 
Anything I do, anywhere I go, anytime of my life
God is now here![5]
 
******video*********
 

Bridge – the part we don’t sing

Now the funny thing is this.  All these wonderful songs, we sing based on Psalm 139, they all skip some verses
Why are we Bible believing Christians so selective?
 
Let’s read on and find out
 
19-22: oh that you would kill the wicked, oh God
And that the bloodthirsty would depart from me-
Those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
 
Do I not hate those who hate you oh Lord?
Do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
 
Vicious, violent, vindictive.  A bit of a shock.[6]
I suggested to our worship team that they could write another verse to sing the full Psalm.
What could be better for pious devotion?
But for some reason, Simon didn’t reply to that email!  I don’t know why.
 
Jesus said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38, 43)
Not curse them[7] – though you have to admit, David is praying for his enemies… death
 
These shocking outbursts against enemies often pop up in the Psalms.
 
What’s going on?
A few brief ideas[8]
note they are firstly God’s enemies – David is partly angry, because they abuse God’s name
 
The Bible shows raw, uncensored emotion
– God prefers honesty to superficial piety.
David lived in a violent warlike time
our age is more inhibited – people rarely try to kill us,
 
but do we harbour any resentment, bitterness, jealousy, anger against anyone in our hearts?
‘cos those are roots of murder,
we may not be so different from David at heart
 
This less palatable section grounds the Psalm in reality
The loving God is present, but the malicious bloodthirsty enemy is also present. 
 
Life is often messy and unfair
 
In the Old Testament, Job was a good and righteous man whose life fell to pieces
– his possessions were lost, his kids were killed, and his skin rotted in a stinking disease. 
 
When our lives collapse like that, sometimes like David we experience God’s loving presence.
But sometimes, we don’t
Though living with God, Job felt without God.
Sometimes it even seems like this malicious bloodthirsty enemy is God.
 
Let’s revisit this psalm from Job’s perspective
 

Absence – God is nowhere: Job’s hostile, absent God

David wondered at God’s personal creation.
Job shouted at God:
“Your hands shaped me.
Will you now turn and destroy me?
You moulded me like clay.
Will you now turn me to dust again?
Did you not cloth me with skin and flesh, knit me together with bones and sinews?”  (Job 10:8)
 
“Cursed be the day I was born…
May darkness overwhelm its light,
Because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb…
Why did I not die at birth?…
Why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child?”
(Job 3:3,11,16)
 
David found God’s presence heartening, for Job it was threatening:
 “God has kindled his wrath against me, and counts me his enemy.”
Like a besieging army, “His troops come on,
they throw up siege works against me and encamp around my tent.”  (Job 19:12)
 
Like a hunter, God hems him in (5)
“God has drawn his net around me.
Blocked up my way, so I cannot pass
Set darkness upon my paths
Uprooted my hope like a tree” (Job 19:6,8).
 
 
David thought God’s presence in the heavens or the depths, east or west was wonderful.
Job may have identified more with the prophet Amos:
 
“God said: I will kill them with the sword.
Not one shall flee away, not one escape
Though they dig down to the depths of the earth,
Though they climb up to heaven,
Though they hide on top of Mount Carmel,
Though they hide at the bottom of the sea,
there I will search out and take them
there I will command the sword to slay them
I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good.”
(Amos 9:1-4)
 
David sensed God’s gracious hand of blessing on him, but
 Job cried, “You stalk me like a lion” (10:16).
“God assails me and tears me in his anger and gnashes his teeth at me.
He fastened on me his piercing eyes
He shattered me
He seized me by the neck and crushed me
He made me his target, his archers surround me.
He rushes at me like a warrior” (Job 16:9)
 
 
Sometimes Job wishes he could flee God’s hostile presence:
“Will you never look away from me, or let me alone?”  (Job 7:19)
“Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy” (Job 10:20)
“Withdraw your hand from me, stop frightening me with your terrors.”  (Job 13:21).[9]
 
 
For David, even the darkness will be light to God.
For Job, “even the light is like darkness.”  (10:22)
 
Sometimes God is simply absent:
“I cannot see him, I cannot perceive him” (9:11)
“If only I knew where to find him…
But if I go to the East, he is not there
to the West, I do not find him.
In the North, I do not see him.
To the South, I catch no glimpse of him.”  (Job 23:3,8)
“Why do you hide your face?”  (Job 13:24)
 
 
“Every phrase of confidence and gratitude the Psalmist mustered has been turned on its head by Job.
God’s loving protection? Nah, rather God’s vicious besieging.
God’s meticulous creation? Yeah, but only to destroy us more cruelly.
God makes darkness light? The other way around: darkness swallows light.”[10]
 
 
Jesus promised:
Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened (Matt 7.7)
 
And indeed like David sometimes we find God’s answering, opening presence.
But like Job sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes we find only God’s hidden, silent absence.
We send prayers like emails into cyberspace, never knowing if they arrived
Is he even there at all?
 
 
The author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis, felt like this when his wife died:
Meanwhile, where is God?  This is one of the most disquieting symptoms.  When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him…   if you turn to him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms.
But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.  The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.  There are no lights in the windows.  It might be an empty house.  Was it ever inhabited?  It seemed so once.  And that seeming was as strong as this.  What can this mean?  Why is he so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
A Grief Observed, 4-5
 
 
Sooner or later many of us will encounter this:
apparently unfulfilled promises, unanswered prayers, unopened doors and the mystery of a hidden or even hostile God.
 
 

Present absence, hide and seek – godisnowhere

 
The question debated by philosophers, screamed by sufferers, is Why?
 
Here’s the secret –
The only definitive 3-word answer is this: we don’t know.
 
How do we fill in the blank of God’s absence?
We have only hints and guesses
We’re all different,[11] but here’s a few ideas I find helpful.
 
 
Firstly, God’s absent silence is a normal part of Christian life and spiritual growth,
We see it in scripture:
many Psalms and prophets like Jeremiah complain to God like Job did[12]
 
We see it in church history:
those closest to God often suffer long, dark nights of the soul, with no tangible divine comfort.  It’s God’s painful process of soul-making.
 
Many would agree, that:
You cannot be a person of faith unless you know how to doubt…  Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart has turned to stone. 
Thomas Merton (1915-1968)[13]
 
 
2 good people, David and Job.
Opposite experiences, presence and absence, of the same 1 God.
 
Maybe God is both infinitely close to us, and infinitely distant.
“a God near by and a God far away” (Jeremiah 23:23)
Many say the journey to God brings both
increasing intimacy in his loving grace,
and ever-growing awe at his holy otherness.
 
David says in another Psalm, “In his presence there is fullness of joy.”  (Psalm 16:11)
Yet Job is “terrified at his presence” (Job 23:15)
We meet God with “fear and great joy”, “rejoicing with trembling.”  (Psalm 2:11).
 
He is a terrible good,[14] fearful and wonderful: the lion and the lamb
 
We cannot endure his total absence.
But if we see his face, his overwhelming unveiled presence,
says the Bible, we die. (Exodus 33:20)
 
So he gives us himself in diluted form,
watered-down baby-food formula.[15]
Yes, God’s presence is a gracious gift
But I suspect his absence is also a gift, a merciful present of absence
 
 
elusive presence and tantalising absence,
 
God’s relationship with us is like a bittersweet game of hide and seek.
The game began in the garden of Eden,
when we first hid from God in fear and guilt and shame,
and he first began to seek.
He seeks us tenderly as the good Shepherd for his lost sheep,
he pursues us relentlessly, as the hound of heaven hunting his prey
 
but sometimes “he is a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15) and we are the seekers
His hiddenness shatters our pride – we can’t find him
His absence shows us our need –only he fulfils
His silence calls us to seek
As the deer in the desert thirsts for water, so our souls long for Him (Psalm 42:1, 63:1)
 
 
As Peter said a few weeks ago, he is no moralistic therapeutic deity
He is no idol – Aslan is not a tame lion
God reveals and hides himself, comes and goes as he chooses
 
 
Like a teasing mother with her child, God plays peek-a-boo
– now you see me, now you don’t
Sometimes I feel he’s just round the corner, I just missed him
Like a coy lover playing hard to get,
he pierces our hearts with a flash of joy or beauty, then vanishes into darkness
 
 
CS Lewis felt his deceased wife’s “absence like the sky, spread over everything”, A Grief Observed, 11
If you feel like this over God’s ever-present absence,
“Console yourself, you would not seek Me if you had not found Me.” Pascal
Because “whoever has not God within, cannot feel His absence” Simone Weil[16]
 
 
I found a blog by a priest last month.
God’s absence gives us space and freedom to love:
 
As the years have gone by, I have come to see the Presence within the absence.  
I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love.
The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs. 
The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born.
Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift.
(fatherstephen.wordpress.com)
 =============
 
David and Job, very different feelings of God as present or absent,
yet both lived life the with-God way, and we leave them both in prayer.
 
David recalls his first verse, ending where he began:
23-24: Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.
 
 
Once again, the two ways to live, of the very first Psalm and this whole series:
The short-lived way of the wicked, without God
or the everlasting way of the righteous, the with-God way.
 
But a dangerous prayer – God’s heart-searching, thought-testing way
may lead through Job’s darkness.[17]
 
 
In his last chapter, Job again echoes Psalm 139,
this time not twisted in despair, but like David in fearful yet wondering worship:
“I have uttered what I did not understand.
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  (Job 42:3)
 
Job accepts life is a riddle, seen through a glass darkly.
but now he trusts God’s way of present absence
 
He hopes that
“one day we will see face to face and know fully,
even as we have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
 
Because one day God himself will cry “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 
(Psalm 22:1)
 
 
 
Oh nearer me Thou than myself to my self,
More inner to me than my innermost,
Yet you elude all grasping or touch
And break containing in any naming
Edith Stein
 


[1] In Paul’s words, “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments.  His paths beyond tracing out” (Romans 11:33)
[2] One manuscript of Psalm 139 has the heading: “in the dispersion” – meaning the exile in Babylon.  Perhaps the Psalm was written in this most despairing of situations.  Although the temple was destroyed where they previously met with God, perhaps they struggled through the darkness to realise they could sing the Lord’s song anywhere.
[3] “God is a circle, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere”, was one definition in the middle ages.
[4] God said to Jeremiah, “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).  And back in Genesis 3, God took clay from the ground to shape Adam.
[5] One author called God the “already” God:
Whatever I say – my words – God knows already.
Wherever I go – my travels – God is there already.
Whoever I am – the true me – God has planned already
Whyever I do things – my hidden motives – God has searched already
And supremely for the Christian reading verse 18,
Whenever I fall asleep for the last time in death, Christ is risen already!
[6] Many books say things like: this could be the most beautiful Psalm in the Bible, if it ended at verse 18!  Last week Psalm 137 was even worse: “happy is he who seizes Babylon’s infants and smashes them against the rocks” (137:9)
[7] “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. This ought not to be.” (James 3:10)
[8] Some scholars think “the enemy” is someone in court falsely accusing David of idolatry, which carries the death penalty – thus, they are “bloodthirsty”.  So David is appealing to God as the all seeing witness to testify that he is innocent of this crime, and as the all powerful judge, to vindicate him.
[9] James K Baxter:Who is harsher than this God of ours?   The God they imagine, and pray to very often in the churches, is a God of sugar compared to the terrible One who grips our living entrails… He comes like a sandstorm out of the desert, or the avalanche on a mountain village, or tons of black water from the depths of the sea.”
[10] http://www.drbilllong.com/Jobfolder/Advanced/JobandPsalm139I.html          
[11] So what helps me might not help others.  Each person has a unique relationship with God, not quite like anyone else.  In the words of psychologist Scott Peck: “Our religion must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience.”
[12] Unlike Jonah, the Prophet Jeremiah was not disobeying God.  And yet he wrote: “Cursed be the day on which I was born.  Why did I come forth from the womb to see trouble and sorrow?” He wished he had been killed in the womb, “with his mother as his grave.”  (Jeremiah 20:15-18).
[13] That man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, ‘Thou art my refuge.’  George MacDonald.
[14] “A terrible good” is a phrase from Charles Williams’ spiritual novel, Descent into Hell.
[15] “These are but the outer fringe of his ways.  How faint the whisper we hear of him.”  (Job 26:14)  The words are written on a stone plaque above the Chapel at Arthurs Pass Village.
[16] in many ways, the sense of absence depends on presence:
“Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night,
the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay.
Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust.
Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood,
the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.”
Barbara Brown Taylor
[17] Sometimes in church, we sing the song “show your power O Lord our God”, which often strikes me as an insane wish: do we realise what we are asking? Do we really want to die?