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?".
- Capleton and Method Man's "Wings of the Morning".
Psalm 139:8 ("If I ascend up into Heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in the Underworld, behold, thou art there.") is referred to[by whom?] as a support for the theory that people do not necessarily go to Hell because of suicide alone.
- 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