Part 2 - Study of Psalm 139
Verses 7 -12:
"Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness
and the light are both alike to thee."
Verse 7: "Whiter shall I go from thy spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?"
The contemplation of the omniscience of God leads to a consideration of the possibility
of escaping from the presence of God.
David seems to be hemmed in by God.
Is there no way of escape?
Why should he wish to flee from God?
It could be that David is simply seeking to show in the abstract that it is not possible
for anyone to flee from the presence of God.
However, it is likely that the consciousness of his own sin leads him to ask
whether he can escape presence of God.
As a sinner, David would flee from the presence of God either in order to escape
from the judging hand of God or from the punishment which God would inflict upon him.
We remember that in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were foolish in thinking
they could hide from the presence of God in the midst of the trees of the garden.
So when God spoke to them, the first word of fallen man was: "Thy voice I heard in the garden."
It is from that voice from which many would escape, if it were possible.
Today, there are people who wish to hide from "thy voice".
When they hear the voice of God, they seek to stifle and suppress every thought of God.
It is sin that leads us to do the foolish thing of trying to escape from God.
However, from God there is no escape.
The only way to escape from God is to flee to Him, for it is in Him alone
that we find refuge from the punishment our sins deserve.
The psalmist does not expect an answer to his question.
He knows that there is no place to which he can go where the Spirit of God
will not also be present.
God maintains the life of all things by His Spirit, who is active and vigorous,
and a power that works everywhere.
Yet, the Spirit is far more than a mere power.
He is a Person.
He is the one who sustains life, and a mere impersonal power is not able to do this.
Although David may not have understood the doctrine of the Holy Spirit
in the fullness that was revealed in the New Testament, he did know
that this Spirit of God was the One who kept alive all men and everything that lives.
To speak of the Spirit of God is to speak of One who is God.
From the Spirit there is no escape.
Then to give force to his question, David asked another question expressing essentially
the same thought in parallel words.
"And whither from thy presence shall I flee."
The word translated "presence" actually refers to the face or countenance.
It is as though David had said that he could not flee from God's countenance.
Wherever he goes the countenance of God is before him.
The answer to these questions of David clearly require a negative answer.
There is nowhere that a person can go where he can be free of God.
Wherever we are, God's Spirit is there also.
God owns and runs his universe and there is no escaping his presence.
We must bow in praise and adoration before so great a God.
Verse 8: "If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell,
behold, thou art there."
Here David considers some of the possibilities for escaping from the presence of God.
Apparently, when people spoke in Israel of escape they looked to the height
and then to the depth.
In Amos 9:2 God considers Israel's sinners, and says,
"Though they dig into hell, thence shall mine hand take them;
though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down."
Neither hell nor heaven will provide an escape from God.
David mentions heaven first, for it is the height which is supreme.
If man should go to the highest height, he will not be free from God?
To ascend unto heaven or to scale heaven, is to go up to heaven.
In Genesis, we know that God created the heavens and the earth.
Again, the firmament which God placed in the midst of the primeval waters is called heaven.
Therefore, heaven is high above the earth, yet heaven will not provide an escape from God.
If David should succeed in ascending unto the heavens, the answer is abrupt:
"There art thou."
There, where David has ascended, even there is no place to escape from God.
"Thou, O God art there."
For David, it would be an exhaustive accent.
To scale heaven would be quite a task, no one could do that.
Man does not possess that power no matter high he could go;
he could never reach the heaven.
However, should he accomplish the impossible and reach that place,
after so much work and labor, there is God.
This language clearly stresses the omniscience of God.
And there is no escape from God in the opposite direction even if David could descend
to the place where departed spirits have gone in Sheol.
There is no escape from God.
The language of this verse brings out the infinite distinction between man the creature
and God the Creator.
God's omnipresence is shown by the simple statements, "There art thou",
and "Behold thee!"
God is omnipresent.
David is not omnipresent.
David is not in heaven.
David is not in Sheol.
The contrast between God and David is striking.
Also the contrast is striking between heaven and Sheol,
In the Old Testament Sheol is regarded as the place of the dead,
where the departed spirits have gone.
At that time, it was conceived to be in the heart of the earth, far below the surface of the earth.
In condemning the Babylonian king, Isaiah also made a contrast between
the height of heaven and the depth of Sheol.
In his haughtiness, this king had sought to be like the most High.
He boasted that he would ascend into the height of heaven and exalt his throne
above the stars of God.
He boasted that he would ascend above the heights of the clouds, and be like the most High.
Instead, he would be brought down to Sheol, the very deepest places of the pit.
Therefore, Sheol serves to indicate the opposite distance from heaven.
As heaven is in the height, Sheol is in the depth.
There is another contrast which should not be overlooked,
Not only are heaven and Sheol separated by distance, but they are also associated in character.
The throne of God is in heaven, and God's own are with Him.
Sheol is the place where the wicked go, and where they received their punishment.
Yet, both heaven and Sheol are in God's control.
God executes vengeance and punishment among those who are the children of wrath.
Neither heaven nor Sheol can escape from Him.
God is omnipresent.
There is something strange about the language of David.
Why should he speak of making Sheol his couch?
Matthew Henry remarks that hell is not the most uncomfortable place to make one's bed.
Probably David was well aware that Sheol was not the most comfortable place for a couch.
So, why does he speak in this manner?
It is possible that the reason is that he simply desires to make a contrast.
In mentioning heaven, he had spoken of action which was ascending to heaven.
Ascending involved exertion.
In Sheol, David would simply make his bed.
There is no action here.
There is only repose.
Whether David be active or whether he be in repose, wherever he is, God is there.
That is what he is saying.
No destiny can separate us from God.
Of course If we go to heaven, God is there.
And even if we could go to hell, we still could not escape God.
Of course, other Scriptures make clear that there is a vast difference between
the experience of God for one who is in heaven and for one who is in Sheol, or hell.
In heaven we shall experience to the full the love, compassion, glory and warmth of God.
In hell it is the other way around.
Those in hell experience the absence of God's love, and also experience the wrath of God.
The point is that God owns and runs his universe, and there is no escaping His presence.
In other words wherever we are, we cannot escape from God.
God's all-seeing eye is ever with us.
Here David is speaking in profound reverence.
He's deeply conscious of the fact that in reality and actuality there is no escape
from the presence of God.
Verse 9: "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;"
Ascent to heaven and descent to Sheol provides no escape from God.
But what about traveling in a horizontal direction?
Suppose one could go to the East with the West, can he find an escape?
Normally we translate the language of the psalmist by a conditional sentence,
but actually, the words are far much stronger.
It would be well to have a literal rendering of the Hebrew:
"I raise the wings of the morning, I would dwell in the uttermost part of the sea."
The abruptness of the clauses lends life and vigor to the expression.
Actually, David is uttering a condition.
He means that even if he should raise the wings of the morning,
he could not flee from the presence of God.
Some interpreters have said that one could not raise the wings of the morning,
unless he first had wings to raise.
So, they preferred to translate the first verb: "If I take the wings the morning."
This translation is favored because it is thought to be in accord with later uses of the verb,
and those who adopt it are largely influenced by the view that this Psalm is late.
But such an argument is not valid.
If one raise the wings of morning, it is to be assumed that he had the wings to raise.
What is meant is that if the psalmist could raise wings such as the morning possesses,
even then, he could not flee away from the presence of God.
What are the wings of the morning?
This unusual word that David refers to is the "dawn".
It is actually the wings of the dawn that David has in mind.
However what are these wings, and what is the purpose of his expression?
One view is that the language simply designates the East, as the place where the sun rises,
and so stands in contrast with the West, the uttermost part of the sea.
Another interpretation would see a reference to speed.
The wings of the morning spread out rapidly, and is that thought of rapidity
that David is said to have had in mind.
In this interpretation, David is expressing the wish to fly with the speed of the early dawn
as it covers the entire sky.
Perhaps, it is difficult to decide absolutely positive between these two positions,
although in all probability, the latter is to be preferred.
As one looks toward the East, there is first the appearance of a faint light.
It grows stronger and stronger, and suddenly the rays of light, like long rosy fingers,
stretch out to the North and South.
Then the sun rises and light reigns upon the earth.
If David could travel with the speed of the fingers of dawn, even then he would not journey
with sufficient speed to flee from God.
In the second part of the verse, David turns his attention and talk to the West.
The verb used here contains the thought of wishing to dwell,
"Oh! that I could dwell!" Or "I would dwell".
Again, there is the contrast between movement and repose.
To travel with the wings of morning and to dwell stand in contrast one to the other.
David speaks of the farthermost part of the sea, by which he means as far as one can travel.
It is the western extremity of the Mediterranean that he has in mind.
Journey as far west as a person can, so the thought may be paraphrased,
nevertheless, even here one does not go beyond the presence of God.
God is found at the western extremity of the sea.
A young airman of the Royal Canadian Air Force wrote a poem which ties in beautifully
with what the psalmist is saying.
Killed at the age of nineteen, this is the way John Gillespie Magee described
his experience of flight.
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds -- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -- wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God."
--From Sourcebook of Poetry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968, p. 500
This pilot had experienced the truth that, "if I take the wings of the morning and dwell
in the uttermost parts of the earth," there God has gone before.
The presence of God is not a fearful thought.
It is so wonderful that no distance can separate us from God.
Verse 10: "Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me."
A conclusion is given in this verse.
Whether David raise the wings of the morning or whether he dwell in the farthermost part
of the sea, even there, far as that place is from Jerusalem, God leads him with His hand.
It is true that there is no escape from God, but David in the farthermost part of the sea
does not meet God as One who is ready to punish him.
He meets God as one who will guide him.
The hand of God signifies His power, and so David is saying that,
although he be far removed from his earthly home, yet the power of God leads him.
The uttermost part of the sea is conceived as being extremely distant,
and that is shown by the phrase "even there".
It is as though David had said, "Even in the uttermost part of the sea,
far is that be from Jerusalem, even there God's comforting power is present."
The power of God's hand leads David as a shepherd leads his sheep or a father leads his child.
The place is distant and David is not familiar with it, yet the power of God is leading him.
The thought is implied that wherever David is, the hand of God leads him.
In his own palace at Jerusalem God is with him to guide,
and even in a place as distant as the farthermost part of the sea, God also guides him.
He can neither escape from God nor flee from His providential care.
David expresses himself by saying, "Thy hand will lead me,
and there would take hold of me thy right hand".
He is pointing out more specifically how God will lead him.
The right hand of God will take hold of him so that he will neither stumble nor fall.
Earlier David had pictured life as a way.
It is to be expected that at home while David walks the course of life God is present with him.
What is wonderful about the present thought is that even though the Psalmist is as far away
as the uttermost part of the sea, God will still stretch forth His right hand to take hold of him
and lead him.
Even in that faraway place, there will be pitfalls and turnings from the way.
Yet there is no need for fear, for God is present, and He guides His own just as He does
when they are at home.
These thoughts are so great!
They distinguished the religion of the Bible from all false religion
and from all false conceptions of God.
The nations worship gods of their own devising.
They worship gods which they have constructed themselves in their image
and according to their likeness.
Yet the gods to which men bow down are unable to lead a person in the pilgrimage of life.
They have no right hand with which to lead a person in his earthly life,
and even if they did possess a right hand, it would be of no avail,
for they themselves do not know the way that man must travel.
The gods of the nations are only idols, and cannot help man.
To extend the thought of the Psalmist, we may declare that all religions and all philosophies
and explanations of the meaning of life which are the product of mere human thinking,
and so have man for their author and originator, are unable to help man.
Man himself as he travels through life is in error.
So then how can the gods which he has made or the philosophies of life
which he has constructed lead him in the right way
along the difficult past that he must travel?
Only God, who is both omniscient and omnipresent, can lead man.
God has a right hand, and that right-hand can guide man so that he walks in the right path
that leads finally to the city of God.
There is one more point to notice about this verse.
There is a remarkable contrast between "Thy" and "Me" which brings to the fore
both the dependence of man upon God and also the great difference between God and man.
The distance between God and man is infinite, but even in the uttermost parts of the sea
God is present to lead David wherever he must go.
Wherever we are upon this earth, the matter how distant it may be from our homes,
God is there and is strong to lead us so that we will not fall.
Verse 11: "If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me."
Inasmuch is there is no escape from God by journeying to the far corners of the universe,
possibly there is another avenue of escape.
Possibly, the darkness can cover David so that God's eye cannot pierce it and see him.
Apparently, it was the practice of some in those ancient times to look upon darkness
as a kind of magical covering, which could protect one from any piercing eye.
The psalmist is pointing out that no darkness, which might be thought to be so thick
that no one could see to it, is nevertheless not so thick but that God can see through it.
To God, it is as though it did not exist.
It is just like the light to God.
So before we consider the words of David more closely, we must know precisely
what these words are.
Does David wish to say that, inasmuch as separation by distance from the presence of God
has shown itself to be impossible, and for that reason he has spoken?
If that is his thought, we may paraphrase it somewhat as follows:
"If I could ascend to the height or descend to the death,
if I could travel with lightning-like rapidity and even go to the uttermost part of the sea,
it is clear that I could not escape
from the presence of God.
Therefore, since I cannot escape His presence I have spoken."
That is one way of considering the opening words of this 11th verse.
However, another way is to regard them as simply introducing one more hypothetical suggestion.
On this interpretation David is saying, "If I should say", or "Suppose I should say, etc."
Probably this latter interpretation best brings out the actual force of David's language,
but of this we cannot be sure.
David gives expression to the belief that the darkness will cover him.
The verb that he uses actually means "to bruise".
The verb is found in Genesis 3:15, where the Lord says that the Seed of the Woman
will bruise the head of the serpent.
But how can such a word be employed of darkness?
Possibly the thought is of oppressive darkness that closes in upon one
and seems to overwhelm him.
At any rate, two of the ancient translations of the Bible, the Septuagint and the Vulgate,
have been content to understand the word like this.
Strange as the figure is, it may be that it's actual meaning is the correct one.
Then, David is speaking not merely of the covering of darkness, but of the fact
that darkness is thick and heavy and closes in upon him.
Under such conditions, when men might think that they could perform evil deeds with impunity,
since they love the darkness more than the light, can there be an escape from God?
With respect to the latter clause of the verse, there are two possible interpretations.
One interpretation would continue the thought introduced by the first clause.
The thought of the whole verse then would be,
"And I said, Surely the darkness will cover me, and night will the light be about me."
On this interpretation the word "night" is placed first, and so it is made emphatic.
Light for David has departed and has become night.
The second clause is thus made to be a parallel to the first and the whole verse
is incomplete in its meaning.
To complete the meaning, we must wait until the 12th verse.
On the other hand, it is possible that the verse is complete in itself.
So, on this view David is saying, "And I said, Surely the darkness will cover me,
yet tonight will be light about me."
If this interpretation is correct, then the thought is that even though the oppression
of darkness covers David, the night will be like light about him.
It will no more be able to hide or obscure him from the eyes of God than the broad daylight.
If this be what David means, he then goes on to explain how it is so.
Perhaps we cannot decide with any certainty between these two positions,
for a strong case can be made for each one of them.
However, in either case the meaning is essentially the same.
And so it frequently is the study of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
There are times when the meaning of a verse is not as clear to us as we may desire.
In such cases, when it seems that two interpretations are possible,
we should note they often do not differ from one another to any serious extent,
and the meaning is usually essentially the same.
It does not matter whether David is saying that if the darkness will press him,
the night will be as light about him, or whether he is declaring that in the darkness oppress him,
the night will be as light about him, then the darkness cannot hide from God,
for the meaning of the two is essentially the same.
In either case what is clear is the fact that the all seeing eye of God can penetrate
even the of obscuring darkness.
Thick as the darkness may be, and oppressive as it may be, he cannot hide from God.
One thing is surely clear.
David is convinced that the darkness cannot hide him from the all-seeing eye of God.
The darkness to God is like the light.
If one would flee from God, he needs something better than darkness to hide him.
Men are still so foolish as to prefer night and darkness for their evil deeds;
but so impossible is it for anything to be hidden from the Lord that they might
just as well transgress in broad daylight.
"Darkness and light in this agree;
Great God, they're both alike to thee.
Thine hand can pierce thy foes as soon
Through midnight shades as blazing noon."
A good man will not wish to be hidden by the darkness, a wise man will not expect any such thing.
If we were so foolish as to make sure of concealment because the place was shrouded
in the midnight darkness, we might well be alarmed out of our security by the fact that,
as far as God is concerned, we always dwell in the light.
Verse 12: 'Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day:
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee."
We need to see the relationship of this verse to the preceding verse.
If we have translated verse eleven: "And I said, Surely the darkness covers me
and night is as the light about me," we are left with a clause hanging in the air,
|and we must complete the clause.
So it takes verse 12 to complete the thought.
Verse 12 would fill out or bring to completion the thought introduced in the eleventh verse.
If, then, according to this construction, the darkness covers David and the light is
as the night about him, even this darkness cannot hide us from God.
On the other hand, if we have taken the eleventh verse as complete in itself,
we should consider the present verse as giving an explanation why the darkness
cannot obscure us from God.
The darkness is thick, and if anything could hide from God, it would be darkness.
Men seem to think that the darkness is a sufficient covering so that in its protection
they can perform their evil deeds.
Other men cannot see them clearly.
However as good as darkness is as a protection and covering,
even darkness cannot obscure us from God.
Again, David employs a picture word.
"The darkness cannot make dark from Thee."
Darkness before God cannot do what darkness is supposed to do.
It cannot make darkness before God.
It is as though there were no darkness, for it loses its power,
so that it is not able to hide or concealed anyone.
Nor does the night have any protecting or concealing power.
Not only does it fail to hide David from God's all-seeing eye,
but the night instead causes light to shine just as it does in daytime.
In other words, the night acts like the day.
It is the function and purpose of the night to make darkness.
It is the purpose of the day to cause light to shine.
Yet the night does not do what it should do.
Instead the night causes light to appear.
The night takes over the purpose of the day and brings forth light.
Night gives out light from itself as though it were day.
It acts like its opposite.
In a succinct phrase, David presents the whole matter:
"Like the darkness, like the light."
This is a forceful way of saying that the darkness and the light of the same thing.
No distinction is to be made between them, but neither of them can hide from God.
In God's sight, it is immaterial whether there be night or day, light or darkness.
Neither can influence or affect God.
Neither can condition God, for He depends upon neither.
God is above all that He has created, and this includes both the night and the day.
The light of the sun does not give God light, and the darkness of night does not give God repose.
God dwells in light unapproachable, and is Himself, light.
No earthly light or darkness are needed by God.
So the last means of escape fails to hide one from God.
This concludes Part 2
Links to Psalm 139:
Part 1 - Verses 1 - 6
Part 2 - Verses 7 - 12
Part 3 - Verses 13 - 18
Part 4 - Verses 19 - 24