Psalm 139 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!/ Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;/ thou discernest my thoughts from afar. / Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,/ and art acquainted with all my ways./ Even before a word is on my tongue,/ lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether./ Thou dost beset me behind and before,/ and layest thy hand upon me./ Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;/ it is high, I cannot attain it./ Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?/ Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?/ If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!/ If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!/ If I take the wings of the morning/ and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,/ even there thy hand shall lead me,/ and thy right hand shall hold me. / If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,/ and the light about me be night,”/ even the darkness is not dark to thee,/ the night is bright as the day;/ for darkness is as light with thee./ For thou didst form my inward parts,/ thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb./ I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful./ Wonderful are thy works!/ Thou knowest me right well;/ my frame was not hidden from thee,/ when I was being made in secret,/ intricately wrought in the depths of the earth./ Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;/ in thy book were written, every one of them,/ the days that were formed for me,/ when as yet there was none of them./ How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God!/ How vast was the sum of them!/ If I would count them, they are more than the sand./ When I awake, I am still with thee./ O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God, / and that men of blood would depart from me,/ men who maliciously defy thee,/ who lift themselves up against thee for evil!/ Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord?/ And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee?/ I hate them with perfect hatred;/ I count them my enemies./ Search me, O God, and know my heart!/ Try me and know my thoughts!/ And see if there be any wicked way in me,/ and lead me in the way everlasting!
Meaning and Historical Note
The psalm addresses God, or, in Jewish tradition, YHWH, and the speaker calls out and establishes a salutation and an understanding of what he knows God to be. He goes on to marvel at the omnipresence of God even in the most secret of places, and praise God for His vast knowledge of the future. Finally, the psalmist concludes by asking God to “slay the wicked” and stands against them, assuring God of his fervor, asking to be tested and led in the correct path. Some scholars have interpreted this psalm to be a response to an accusation of idolatrous sun worship, something forbidden in the Jewish faith, but incredibly common in rival religions of the time.(See Ancient Egyptian religion) The psalmist praises God in common terms that were attributed to sun gods of other religions at the time; terms of supreme authority, and being able to witness everything on heaven, earth and in the underworld.  Through this psalm, the psalmist insists on God being the only true god and challenges anyone to question his faith.
Scholars divide into three groups when concerning the structure of Psalm 139; the strophic group, the group of bipartition, and the third group, which insists upon the unity of the psalm, but admits that there is minor tripartition.
Biblical scholars disagree when considering different structures as the best way of categorizing this psalm, claiming that problems arise in all three structure groups.
Strophic structure as a possible interpretation of Psalm 139 becomes a problem because it fails to acknowledge the caesura between lines 18 and 19. Breaking the psalm into strophes also glosses over the unity of the psalm as a whole, focusing purely upon each strophe as a separate section.
The problem that arises when considering bipartition structure as a possible interpretation of Psalm 139 is that bipartition structure fails to fully recognize the unity of the psalm as a whole, preferring instead to focus on the caesura between lines 18 and 19, going so far as to say that each part could be separate psalms altogether. Psalm 139 establishes the use of inclusion with the repetition of specific words, aiding to the theory of a bipartition structure. Also lending credence to the theory is the use of characteristic vocabulary and grammatical mode, which distinctly separates the two sections (lines 1-18 and 19-24). The first section (lines 1-18) alone has a symmetrical structure, showing a similarity of theme through the utilization of synonymous words.
The problem that arises when considering unity structure as a possible interpretation of Psalm 139 is that unity structure fails to give much credence to the separations between the various sections of the psalm.
Psalm 139 in Music
- William Gillies Whittaker’s Psalm 139.
- Johann Sebastian Bach’s Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, Cantata on the eighth Sunday after Trinity.
- Johann Nepomuk David’s Psalm 139 for Mixed Choir.
- Ernst Pepping’s Der 139. Psalm for Alto Solo, Mixed Choir and Orchestra.
- Franz Koglmann’s 139. Psalm for Mezzo-soprano, Trumpet, Trombone and Tuba.
- David Evan Thomas’ The Wings of the Morning, for medium voice and piano.
- Rudi Spring’s Psalm 139 for Alto, Mixed Unison Choir and Organ.
- Michael W. Smith’s Psalm 139.
- Charlotte Martin’s Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.
- MercyMe’s Psalm 139.
- Jeremy Camp's You Will Be There.
- Sarah Reeves Psalm 139.
- Eden Burning If I go up
- Trijntje Oosterhuis Ken je mij?
[St. Louis Jesuits] You Are Near
- The Holy Bible- Revised Standard Version . Catholic Edition. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 561-562. Print.
- Holman, Jan. "The Structure of Psalm CXXXIX." Vetus Testamentum. 21.3 (1971): 298-310. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1517138?uid=3739840&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101738529923>.
- Van Biema, David, and Religion News Service. "One Psalm, Two Causes, Two Meanings." USA Today [New York] 28 March 2012, n. pag. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-03-28/psalm-139-anti-abortion-gay-lesbian/53836158/1>.
- The Artscroll Tehillim page 329