Psalm 139

by the Maronite Subdeacon Peter Zogbi

Presented as a partial fulfillment of Theology and Religious Studies 602: The Psalms at the Catholic University of America – December 12, 2018


            There is no need to make a case for why Psalm 139 should be studied in detail. The beauty of its content alone is enough to inspire fascination. For that reason, it is one of the most beloved psalms in the psalter. Nevertheless, there are countless challenges that the psalm raises which also warrant a detailed study. The psalmist was apparently a very skilled writer, using complex sentence structures and very rare words. This leads to difficulty in translation. Furthermore, just about any Christian who is allured by the beauty of the first section of the psalm will be turned off by the last six verses which speak potently of the hatred of one’s enemies. How can the beauty and appeal of the first part of the psalm be reconciled with the vicious hatred portrayed at the end? This issue is part of the larger problem of the psalm’s form. The first part of the psalm does not seem to line up with any common form that is found in the Scriptures. This issue is compounded by the fact that the first part of the psalm is so different from the end. It is hard to imagine the entire gamut of the psalm’s content fitting into single genre, and yet both parts seem original. With hopes of settling these issues this study will present an analysis of the psalm’s structure, a detailed exegesis of the psalm, and a discussion of its placement in the context of the psalter. This will make it possible to identify the psalm’s form. This essay will argue that the psalm is a mixture of forms, but it is most especially an individual lament and wisdom psalm. Once the form is established, a synthesis of the psalm’s theology and anthropology will be presented. Finally, the study will conclude by identifying contemporary applications of the psalm and a homiletic sketch. 


            The basic structure of this psalm is virtually agreed upon universally. The psalm consists of twenty-four verses which can be divided easily into four sections of six verses. Each of these clusters marks a distinct shift in content.

  1. God’s knowledge of the Psalmist vv. 1-6
  2. God’s Nearness to the Psalmist vv. 7-12
  3. God’s Creation of the Psalmist vv. 13-18
  4. The Psalmist’s hatred and Innocence before God vv. 19-24
    1. Imprecation[1] vv. 19-20
    1. Dedication, Vow[2] vv. 21-22
    1. Petition[3] vv. 23-24

While there is agreement as to how the psalm should be divided, there is disagreement concerning what the main point of each section is. Harmon, for example, says that section one is about God’s omniscience, section two is about God’s omnipresence, and section three is about God’s omnipotence.[4] However, while these sections may strongly imply that God possesses these attributes, it is not clear that the purpose of the psalm is to expound that. The psalmist may have another purpose in mind. Miller sees that the psalmist was not so much thinking of God’s attributes for God’s own sake but was reflecting on them through personal experience.[5] Knowledge of God’s attributes comes from personal encounter, not distant deduction. This suggests a deeper purpose to the meditation then simply explaining God’s attributes in a poetic way. This will become important in the discussion of the form, because many have argued that this is the psalm of an accused victim making a case for his innocence, in which case he appealing to God to use His perfect attributes to testify to his innocence.[6]

The separation between section 2 and section 3 is important. The last two verses of section 2 (vv. 11 and 12) contain the most important lines of the psalm according to Gerstenberger.[7] Booij also notes that these verses are the most important, but for a different reason. According to Gerstenberger, the psalmist is terrified at the thought of being completely known by God, and these verses are the author’s final effort to escape God’s inescapable knowledge.[8] For Booij, the point is exactly the opposite. He instead believes that the psalmist enjoys being known by God and is grateful that not even the darkness itself can separate him from God.[9] Before deciding which interpretation is correct, it is enough for now to note that verses 11 and 12 of the psalm are important and signal a turning point for the rest of the psalm.

Gerstengerber acknowledges the four major sections of the psalm, but he has additional distinctions that are worth noting. The titles for the division of section 4 above are taken verbatim from his “Structure of the Psalm” chart.[10] They are considered significant here because these sections contain themes that are commonly found in individual laments, which this essay argues is the primary form of the psalm.

            The question of whether or not section four is original consistently arises. One does not have to perform an in-depth study to see that there is a sharp change in tone starting at verse 19. Though the shift is universally acknowledged, most scholars agree that the section is original. It shares several words in common with the rest of the psalm.[11] What’s more, despite the differences, the section also contains shared themes. For example, it will be shown that throughout the psalm, themes from the wisdom literature pervade. In verse 24 of the section in question, it is clear that “two-ways” imagery, commonly found in the wisdom tradition, is being employed.[12] The challenge is to find a way to reconcile the pleasing themes in the first three sections, to the hate-filled themes in the final section, in order to find the overall theology of the psalm.


God’s Knowledge of the Psalmist vv. 1-6

            V. 1 The word which is often translated as “search” comes from the Hebrew root חָקַר which usually means “to investigate,” and is often used in the wisdom tradition.[13] It is unusual to see the word being used to describe the knowing of a person, though it is not completely uncommon.[14] It’s use in this way is one testimony to the author’s skill in language.

The word often translated “know” is the common verb יָדַע which can have a deeper level of meaning to just the modern understanding of knowing. It can imply some form of intimacy as it does when it is used to describe Adam and Eve having relations in Genesis 4:1.[15] The verbal root occurs seven times total in this psalm.[16]

            Vv. 2-4 Miller points out that the “you” is emphatic in verse two.[17] This reasoning comes from the fact that the first-person personal pronoun is used reduntantly. This bolsters the case that the psalm is the plea of an accused innocent. God knows the psalmist, even if his accusers do not.

            A series of merisms are used throughout the psalm. Merism is a literary device whereby the universality of a claim is illustrated by noting how the claim applies to two opposed extremes.[18] Thus, when the psalmist says in verse 2 that God knows when the psalmist sits and stands, it really means that God also knows all of the actions of the psalmist.[19] It is important to note that this is a poetic device and should not be taken literally.[20]

            The term מֵרָחֹוק should really be translated, “from of old,” as attested to in Isaiah 22:22.[21] This makes more sense since, as will be shown later, the reason God knows the psalmist so well is because God made the psalmist. The meaning is not that God knew the psalmist’s thoughts from far away, but that God knew them from the beginning, even before the psalmist knew them.

            In verse 4, the author demonstrates again his poetic skill using the rare word מִלָּה instead of the more common דָּבָר. Both mean “word,” but the former is more sophisticated and is characteristic of wisdom literature.[22]

Vv. 5-6 Whether God’s intimate presence and knowledge should be interpreted as a source of comfort or a source of fear is a topic of debate, and much of the debate centers around verse 5. Gerstenberger notes that the root צוּר translated in the RSV as “beset” can have negative connotations of a city under siege in war.[23] The word “hand” can be used in similar contexts to imply oppression of some sort.[24] Booij, and those who suggest that the form is of an accused, innocent victim, say otherwise by pointing out that these expressions can be interpreted in multiple ways and do not necessarily have to imply that God’s presence is perceived as a threat.

God’s Nearness to the Psalmist vv.7-12

            V. 7 This verse is a classic instance of synonymous parallelism which can help the reader understand how the term רוּחַ, spirit, is being used.[25] This term in the first cola can be defined by its corresponding concept in the second cola which is, פָּנִים. This latter term literally means “face,” but is consistently used as a metaphor for “presence.” God’s spirit then is God’s presence.

This verse is introducing a new section of the psalm. The first six verses talked about God’ knowledge of the psalmist. Now there is a shift to talking about God’s presence to the psalmist. The verb בָּרַח, to flee, is used in instances when someone is running from danger or oppression.[26] Use of this verb supports the view that God’s presence is frightening to the psalmist.

            Vv. 8-10 The psalmist returns to the use of merism to explain how God is always present to the psalmist.[27] The NIV Application Commentary is careful to point out that since merisms are not to be taken literally, one should not be led to conclude that in verse 8, the psalmist is claiming that God is present in Sheol, which would be inconsistent with Jewish beliefs of the time.[28] Gerstenberger interprets these verses to be a journey that the psalmist makes to escape God’s presence.[29] This reads the merisms too literally though. The psalmist is not literally trying to escape God, but simply using a literary device to make the point that God’s presence is inescapable.

            Two very rare verbs are used in verse 8. The verb translated in the RSV as “ascend” is not from the common root עָלָה, but is instead from the root סְלַק, a hapax legomenon in the Hebrew Scriptures.[30] Scholars look to the corresponding Aramaic root to come to a definition. Also, the root יָצַע, translated in the RSV as, “make my bed,” is also an exceedingly rare verb in the Old Testament.[31]

            Verse 10 makes God’s presence sound pleasing in English translation, but the Hebrew is ambiguous. The root אָחַז, translated as “hold,” in the RSV can connote entrapment like an animal caught in a snare.[32]

            V. 11-12 These verses are the thesis of the psalm. For better or for worse, they are the definitive statement that God’s presence is inescapable. Translators have difficulty with וָאֹמַר, the first word of verse 11. It is parsed as a G stem, consecutive preterite, 1st person common singular of the verbal root אָמַר which means, “to say.” Nevertheless, the RSV translates the word as “If I say.” Nowhere else is this common word translated in this way.[33] The reason scholars have difficulty with this verse is because of the insistence that the author is fearful of God’s presence. Gerstenberger, for example, sees this verse as the author’s last-ditch effort to escape God. Adding “if” at the start of the verse is to show how even the attempt to hide in darkness is a failure. Booij, on the other hand, says that the author is not trying to escape God, but rather, this verse is the definitive expression of the author’s confidence in God. He has reflected on the reality of God’s knowledge and presence and is ready to make a conclusion. He introduces his conclusion with וָאֹמַר, “I say,” and calls on the darkness to envelop him, confident that not even this will separate him from God.[34] This is the best way to understand this verse. In further support of his view, the rare word שׁוּף seems to be best translated as “assault,” (though it is translated in the RSV as “to cover.”)[35] Here it is the darkness, the absence of God, which is perceived as the threat, not God’s presence. Verse 12 shows that where we see light and darkness as different, they are metaphysically the same in God’s eyes.[36]

God’s Creation of the Psalmist vv. 13-18

            Vv. 13-15 At this point in the psalm, the psalmist has wrestled with God’s omniscience and omnipresence, and come to a conclusion that God is inescapable. In this section, the psalmist seeks to explain why that is the case. That is why verse 13 begins with כִּי, “for.” The psalmist remarks that God was present when he was created in two wombs. The first is the womb of his mother in verse 13, and the second is, “the depths of the Earth” in verse 15, which was considered by the Hebrews to be a type of womb (RSV).[37] In between these two wombs is verse 14, which praises God for the wonder of His creation.

            Vv. 16-18 God’s creation of the psalmist is the explanation for God’s knowledge and presence to the psalmist. Verse 16 mentions something written in a book. That something could either be the psalmist’s “frame,” or “the days that were formed for me

[the psalmist]

” (RSV). Either way, when something is written in a book, it has permanence.[38] It exists not just in the mind of the knower, but forever in the pages of the book. This is an explanation about why God knows the psalmist. Since creation, the psalmist’s frame or future was written in God’s book.

            In verse 18, the verbal root קוּץ is translated as “awake” in the RSV. It can also be translated as “end.”[39] The end could refer either to the end of God’s thoughts or the end of the psalmist’s life. The latter would explain why God’s thoughts are so precious to the psalmist (verse 17).[40] God’s thoughts preserve the psalmist at the end of his life in God’s memory.[41] If the verb were translated as “awake” then it could be tied back with verse eleven. The covering of darkness could refer to the psalmist’s falling asleep.[42] In verse 18, the psalmist wakes up and is still safely in the presence of God.[43]

The Psalmist’s Hatred and Innocence Before God vv. 19-24

Imprecation vv. 19-20 Here the psalmist curses the “men of blood” (RSV). This expression is common in laments, and is also found in the wisdom literature.[44] In the book of Proverbs, men of blood are people who try to kill the just man.[45]

Dedication, Vow vv. 21-22 It is important to separate a modern understanding of the term hatred from the Hebrew idea which is employed in the use of the word שָׂנֵא. While in English, “hate,” the “strong word,” denotes a loathing, and even a denial of dignity, in Hebrew, that is not necessarily the case. In this particular context the word is being used in relation to what it means to be loyal to God. If the just man has a positive relationship with God, he must have a negative relationship with God’s enemies, and that is what is conveyed with שָׂנֵא.[46] Here the psalmist aligns himself with God’s cause negatively by showing how he gives a hateful response to God’s enemies.

Petition vv. 23-24 After declaring his loyalty to God negatively, through hatred of his enemies, he declares his loyalty positively. This is done subtly when the psalmist allows God to search his heart. In the Old Testament, evildoers deny God’s omniscience because of guilt, while the righteous allow God to see into their hearts.[47] The psalmist’s transparency with God is a sign of his loyalty.

In verse 24, the term עֹצֶב can mean “idol” (translated as “wicked” in the RSV).[48] Those who propose that this is a psalm of an innocent accused use this to determine that the charge is idolatry, but that cannot be certain.

The strongest evidence that this problematic section is original is that verses one to three form an inclusio with verses 23-24.[49] At the end of the psalm, the author returns to the themes of searching, knowing, and the psalmist’s ways.[50]

Placement in Context

            We find Psalm 139 in the fifth and final book of the psalter. This book, which includes psalms 90-150, consists largely, but not exclusively, of hymnic psalms and thanksgiving psalms. The psalm is also placed at the beginning of the Second Small Davidic Collection which consists of psalms 138-145. This collection gets its name from the fact that all of the psalms are attributed to David. Indeed, the title has no abnormalities or extra descriptions, but is simply, “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.” (RSV).

            The preceding psalm, the first of the Second Small Davidic Collection, has many common themes with Psalm 139.[51] Both emphasize God’s knowledge, both talk about the psalmist’s enemies, and both talk about the hand of God. The Navarre Bible Commentary sees the latter psalm being used to deepen some of the ideas developed in the former.[52] Comparing the two psalms in this way can be fruitful. In 138, God knows the lowly to help them, and knows the proud to punish them. In 139, this idea is expanded into a six-verse analysis of God’s omniscience. It is also a more personal analysis, since it focuses on God’s knowledge of the author, and not of other people. In psalm 138, the psalmist can have confidence in God because He administers justice to his enemies. In Psalm 139, the psalmist relies on this fact to be true, aligning His loyalties with God and calling on Him to deal justice to the enemies.

            The use of the word “hand” in Psalm 138 is especially noteworthy. It has already been stated that God’s hand is mentioned in verse 5 of Psalm 139, but it is difficult to tell if the hand is comforting or oppressing the psalmist. In Psalm 138, God’s hand is mentioned three times. Two times it is mentioned in the same verse: verse 7. It both defends the psalmist against his enemies and delivers him. In the final verse, the psalmist is called “the work of thy hands” (RSV). It seems that in Psalm 138, God’s hand is referred to exclusively in a positive sense. Perhaps, God’s “hand” in psalm 139, should be interpreted the same way.

Form of the Psalm

            In discussions of the form of this psalm, scholars press themselves to identify a single form that the psalm can identify with; however, it is not necessary that the psalm be ascribed to a single form. Throughout this exegesis, an effort has been made to show the skill of the author. He was clearly very educated and thoughtful, using very rare words to make his point. Even words which are common are sometimes used in in unique ways. He uses various literary devices like merism, inclusio and metaphor. It is no wonder the psalm is so difficult to translate. His skill and creativity should be a signal for scholars to recognize that this author has the creativity to go beyond normal genres, or use multiple at a time. As the form is discussed, two difficult paradoxes need to be reconciled. The first is how the hymnic first three quarters of the psalm can be reconciled with the last quarter, full of hatred. The second is whether or not God’s presence should be understood as a comfort, a threat, or both. Ultlimately, the two main forms at work in this psalm are wisdom and lament.

            Many suggest that this is the psalm of a falsely accused innocent. The psalmist looks to God to be His witness against His enemies, knowing that God knows Him better than anyone else. The main weakness to this view is that there is no charge explicitly mentioned except for a possible, vague reference to idolatry at the end of the psalm.[53] As Gerstenberger points out, individual complaints tend to be more specific about the difficulties the psalmist is undergoing.[54] There is no way to prove or disprove this view, but it is better to look for a simpler solution to the problem of form.

            Many have suggested that this is a wisdom psalm. There are countless references to wisdom books, especially Job, and images that are commonly found in wisdom literature. The “two ways” imagery, common in wisdom literature, is very important to this psalm since it concludes the piece and forms the bookend of an inclusio.[55] With all of this evidence, it is safe to say that the wisdom genre is one of multiple genres in this fusion of forms.

            Gerstenberger proposes the form meditation for this psalm.[56] For him a meditation is a form used liturgically in a communal gathering. Though the psalm seems to be prayed by an individual, he argues that the individual is praying on behalf of a community.[57] Indeed, the psalm shares several common themes found in other meditations like psalm 39, and 90.[58] However, the psalm is too personal to be classified as a prayer used for worship. It is not only prayed by an individual, but is about God’s relationship with the individual. It is hard then, to say with confidence, that this psalm’s form is one for use in a communal worship service. Even Gerstenberger, in his discussion on the setting of the psalm, suggests that a communal response to the psalm is missing from the text. This shows that he too struggled to place a psalm so focused on the individual in the context of a communal worship service.

            Another form that is fused into this psalm is the individual lament. This psalm does not meet all of the requirements for a lament since it does not have an explicit complaint and promise of praise. Nevertheless, it does have an appeal to God do administer justice to evildoers. Another feature that this psalm possesses which is common to laments is the alignment of the psalmist’s motives with God. Take Psalm 22: 9-10 as an example: “Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou dids’t keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.” (RSV). Here the psalmist points out both how God has been with him since birth, and how the psalmist has been loyal to God since that time. It even has a similar reference to the womb of the psalmist’s mother. This same kind of declaration of loyalty is happening in the first three-fourths of Psalm 139. The psalmist is distancing himself from the wicked by allowing God to search him. He knows that the wicked people are afraid of God’s omniscience and omnipresence.[59] He is likewise intimidated at first, but ultimately he declares his loyalty through his full confidence in God in verse 11. With his loyalties thus aligned, he can proceed to declare his hatred for God’s enemies. Though the psalm does not possess all of the qualities of an individual lament, both paradoxes, the shift in style and the paradox of whether God’s presence is oppressive or comforting, are resolved.

Theology and Anthropology

This analysis of the theology of the psalm will proceed in two steps. The first step will be to present the direct theological message of the psalm. The second step will be to develop the broader ideas that the theology implies.

Theology of the Psalm

            The first half of the psalm is about how God is with the psalmist. God is with the psalmist in two ways: first through His knowledge of the psalmist, and second through His presence. He is intimidated by God’s presence at first, unsure whether to regard God as a threat or a comfort. The psalmist fully surrenders to God in verse 11 where it is clear that he does not fear God’s presence and, as a result, does not fear the darkness and evil that may assail him.  This verse is followed by praise and an explanation about why God is always present to the psalmist. His omniscience and omnipresence are due to the fact that He created the psalmist. The final step in his declaration of loyalty is to adopt God’s enemies as his own.

Omniscience and Omnipotence

The terms omnipresence and omniscient have been used in this essay for the sake of convenience, but Krawelitzki has argued that there are no explicit doctrines of omnipresence or omnipotence in the Old Testament.[60] In addressing the psalm she makes the point that the knowledge that God has is of the psalmist and the presence of God is to the psalmist.[61]She offers that these doctrines may be implied in the Old Testament, but they are not mentioned explicitly.

She may be right with regard to this psalm that these doctrines are not explicitly present. The only way that they could be is if the author’s intention were to explain the doctrines. They are, however, very strongly implied. The reason God knows the psalmist so intimately is because God created the psalmist. Since God created the world, it must be inferred that the same knowledge God has for the psalmist, He has for the entire world. The same reasoning can be applied to God’s presence. Therefore, according to this psalm, God must be both omnipresent and omniscient.

Reliance on God

            There is a spiritual point to be made from this psalm about the proper way to rely on God. Initially, the psalmist seems to believe he has perfect loyalty to God, especially in verse 22. In the final verse though, the psalmist backtracks, apparently acknowledging that he may not have total loyalty to God. The psalmist realizes that God, through His omniscience, knows the psalmist even better than he knows himself. It is better for the psalmist to rely on God’s knowledge about his intentions, than the psalmist’s own knowledge, which is prone to self-deception. A true commitment to the, “way everlasting” is not an individual effort, but one that requires communication with the God who can uproot human hypocrisy. It is not our own attributes that can make us holy, but God’s.

Contemporary Applications

On Hatred

Passages in the Scriptures about hatred are always troubling to contemporary readers. Peel’s analysis of the term שָׂנֵא, meaning hatred, is helpful for resolving this issue. It has already been explained that the term is used, in this particular instance, relative to a loyalty.[62] Showing a positive loyalty to God means giving a certain kind of response to God’s enemies. That response is captured in the Hebrew term שָׂנֵא. It is also important to remember that revelation in the Old Testament is, “incomplete and temporary” because it foreshadows who was yet to be revealed: Jesus Christ.[63] In light of the Gospel, what it means to show hate is transformed. To hate one’s enemies now means, as Christ put it in Matthew 5:44, to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (RSV). Love is now the appropriate response to give to the people one hates. This is difficult to understand using the English word hate because hate and love are incompatible, but that is not the case with the Hebrew שָׂנֵא.

Reliance on God

            It has been explained that the psalmist relies on God to keep him on the “way everlasting,” because God knows the psalmist better than he knows himself (Psalm 139:24 RSV). The mystery of reconciliation can be presented as an opportunity to rely on God’s omniscient knowledge of ourselves. If we do not speak our sins and open our hearts to God, we run the risk of deceiving ourselves. When we open ourselves up to Christ in confession, we have the opportunity to hear God speaking to us about the true condition of our souls. Nevertheless, the principle applies especially to confession where Christ is mysteriously present.

            Lest this principle only be applied negatively, it is worth noting that when we deceive ourselves, we never give ourselves more value than we have, because that would be impossible. Self-deception, even if it appears on the surface to inflate the ego, actually blinds us to our true value so that we end up degrading ourselves. This is why it is so important to let God’s omniscience penetrate our ignorance, so that we can see our infinite worth in His eyes.

            This principle can also be applied to discernment. People can feel temped to plan their own lives without consulting God. There is a false sense of security in knowing the details of your life and planning for your future accordingly; however, when we accept an honest view of ourselves, we realize that our knowledge is imperfect and unreliable. God’s, however, is perfect. We should feel more secure consulting and trusting God, than trusting in ourselves. Reflection on this psalm can help us to have the confidence to place our full trust in God as we discern His will for our lives.

On Love and Knowledge

            Love has a necessary relationship with truth. Love affirms the goodness of being, so if being is not known, it cannot be loved. Herein lies the reason Psalm 139 is such a well-beloved psalm. It tells us that God knows us completely and fully, from our strengths to our weakness, and so it reveals that God is in a position to love us perfectly. God can affirm the entire person, because He knows the entire person, and this love is a source of security to believers. We do not have to feel threatened by God’s presence, but even before we are perfect, we can embrace the merciful love that He has for us, just as the psalmist does.

            This can be a source of encouragement for us in our own relationships. Realizing that God loves us, even with our flaws, we can find the strength to love others: our spouses, our friends, and members of our community with all of their flaws. We should especially keep in mind the need to know those who are close to us. Love between spouses can grow cold if they stop getting to know one another. The same is true for any relationship. This is because love, severed from knowledge, becomes a hollow and meaningless word. Love cannot be sincere if it is disconnected from knowledge. This psalm gives us an example to strive for. We should strive to love one another as God loves us.

Homiletic Sketch

            Creating a homily based off of Psalm 139 is difficult because it is hard to imagine a situation in the Maronite liturgical year when it could be preached on. The psalms are not part of the liturgy in the Maronite Church. The only time the psalm comes up at all in the liturgical year is during safro (morning prayer) for the fifth week of Pentecost. Since the Prayer of the Faithful is hardly prayed with a congregation, especially in the morning, it is hard to imagine a situation when someone would preach on the psalm.

            Thankfully, the Maronite seminary hosts a discernment weekend every year where young men are invited to participate in seminary life in order to discern their vocations. One could imagine this psalm being read for an hour of adoration, and a homily being preached according to the following sketch:

  1. A shallow view of discernment-do whatever makes me happy
  2. Problems with this view
    1. We do not know what we need to be happy
    1. Examples
    1. Problem: how can we plan our lives if we don’t know what makes us happy?
  3. Solution: Discernment involves trust in God
    1. God’s knowledge revealed in vv. 1-6
    1. God knows us better than we know ourselves v. 24
    1. God can make us happier than we can make ourselves.
  4. Conclusion, discern by letting God show you what can truly make you happy

The proposed homily has four sections. In the first section, a flawed understanding of discernment is presented. The idea is to begin with a flawed concept that the listeners may have, and elevate it to a higher concept that they can believe. In this flawed concept of discernment, a person seeks only after what he thinks can make him happy.

The second section explains that the real problem with this understanding of discernment is that human beings do not know what truly makes them happy. Examples should be given to illustrate this concept. The homilist can start with simple examples, like a child who eats too many cookies despite his mother’s warnings and ends up with a stomach ache. Then he can work his way up to deeper life experiences. This leaves the congregation with a problem: how can we plan our lives if we do not know what truly makes us happy?

This problem allows the homilist to develop a deeper view of discernment. We do not know what can make us happy, but God does, so we should communicate with Him to know His plan for us. This psalm can be used to illustrate the depth of God’s knowledge of the soul. Verses 1-6 can be elaborated on. It would be good to explain how verse 24 demonstrates that God knows the human soul better than the human does. All of this serves to make the point that God is trustworthy and can make us happier than we can make ourselves.

The homily can conclude with the overall lesson: we should discern by allowing God to show us what makes us truly happy.


            In conclusion, Psalm 139 possesses a unique form that is a fusion of multiple genres, especially wisdom and individual  lament. The genre of lament especially helps to resolve problems that arose in the exegesis of the psalm. Through an analysis of the structure, an exegesis, and a look at the psalm’s placement in the broader context of the psalter, a theology has come to the surface. The theology can be applied to the modern context in many ways that have only begun to be named in this analysis. One way this psalm can help modern Christians is by providing a deeper reason to discern God’s will in one’s life. A homily was developed based on this idea that could be preached to those who are at a crossroads in life. Ultimately the depth and mystery in this psalm can never be exhausted. It will always pose many challenges of interpretation, but the psalm continues to be a wellspring of insight that never runs dry.


Booij, Thijs. “Psalm CXXXIX: Text, Syntax, Meaning.” Vetus Testamentum, 55, no. 1 (2005): 1–19. EBSCOhost,

Casciaro, José María et al. The Navarre Bible: The Psalms and the Song of Solomon. New York: Scepter, 2003.

Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Psalms, Part 2 and Lamentations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

Harmon, Steven R. “Theology Proper and the Proper Way to Pray: An Exposition of Psalm 139.” Review & Expositor 104, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 777–86.

Krawelitzki, Judith. “God the Almighty?: Observations in the Psalms.” Vetus Testamentum 64 no. 03 (2014): 343–444. 

Miller, Jr., Patrick D. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Peels, H G L. “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22).” Tyndale Bulletin 59, no. 1 (2008): 35–51.

Second Vatican Council. “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 18 November, 1965.”

Tucker, Dennis W., and Jamie A. Grant. The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life, Psalms vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018.


[1] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 2 and Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 401.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Steven R. Harmon, “Theology Proper and the Proper Way to Pray: An Exposition of Psalm 139,” Review & Expositor 104, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 779,

[5] Patrick D. Miller, Jr. Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 146.

[6] Ibid. 145.

[7] Gerstenberger, 403.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thijs Booij, “Psalm CXXXIX: Text, Syntax, Meaning,” Vetus Testamentum 55, no. 1 (2005): 5, EBSCOhost,

[10] Gerstenberger 401.

[11] W. Dennis Tucker Jr. and Jamie A. Grant, The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life, Psalms vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 915.

[12] H. G. L. Peels, “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22),” Tyndale Bulletin 59, no. 1 (2008): 42,

[13] Tucker and Grant, 917.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Harmon, 780.

[16] Tucker and Grant, 914.

[17] Miller, 146.

[18] Tucker and Grant, 917.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Booij, 3.

[22] Tucker and Grant, 918.

[23] Gerstenberger, 402.

[24] Tucker and Grant, 918.

[25] Miller, 146.

[26] Tucker and Grant, 919.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Gerstenberger, 402.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Tucker and Grant, 920.

[33] Booij, 1.

[34] Ibid., 4.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 7.

[38] Ibid., 8.

[39] Miller, 148-9.

[40] Miller, 149.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Booij, 11.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Tucker and Grant, 924.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Peels, 43.

[48] Peels, 41.

[49] Peels, 39.

[50] Peels, 40.

[51] José María Casciaro et al., The Navarre Bible: The Psalms and the Song of Solomon (New York: Scepter, 2003), 448.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Peels, 41.

[54] Gerstenberger, 405.

[55] Peels, 39.

[56] Gerstenberger, 406.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Peels, 43.

[60] Judith Krawelitzki, “God the Almighty?: Observations in the Psalms,” Vetus Testamentum 64 no. 03 (2014): 441.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Tucker and Grant, 924.

[63] Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 18 November, 1965,”

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