by Pastor Cherie Johnson
Psalm 139 (NIV)
1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
5 You hem me in–behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake,
I am still with you.
19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
I’m not going to ask anyone to raise their hands, but…
How many here don’t feel comfortable praying? I don’t mean just out loud in front of people, but don’t feel comfortable doing it at all?
Of course, there’s a whole different level of concern when it’s a public prayer, but let’s put that aside. But, listening to people give public prayers can be intimidating. It can give some of us concern about whether we’re doing it right, using the right formula of words. If I say it wrong, will God get mad? Is that the reason why God didn’t answer my last prayer or said no? Sometimes you can feel like it’s supposed to be some kind of magic spell.
One phrase comes up, and I even use it quite frequently in my public prayers, is asking things in Jesus name. This comes from the Gospel of John chapter 14 vs 13-14 where Jesus says, “and I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
So, does that mean if you forget to add that on the end that you won’t get the answer that you want from your prayer? The short answer is No. Look at the Lord’s Prayer we just said a few minutes ago. That phrase isn’t even there, and it’s unquestionably one of the most universally accepted Christian prayers. (It deserves a whole sermon series all by itself.)
There’s another interpretation of those verses. It is that we’re allowed to pray for the kinds of things that Jesus would with the same kind of heart and motivation. But still, if that’s the threshold for appropriate prayer, I still don’t know if I could make it. I know I’m supposed to be Christ like, but you know I’m still a work in progress. I’ve come a long way. I do the best I can, but I’m not quite there yet.
That is why I’m so thankful for the Psalms. They illustrate the height and depth that prayer can be. And, while I would classify all of the psalms as poetry, I’m not saying that you must pray in verse, nor am I saying that you shouldn’t. It should be in the way that is most helpful and meaningful for you.
What I am talking about here are the topics for discussion with God. Like I mentioned last week, we have just about everything, prayers for help or laments, giving thanks, prayers for groups, and prayers of straight praise. There are ones were the psalmist sounds petty or petulant. There are others that sound so lofty and grand they remind me of the public prayers I mentioned earlier that can be so intimidating, and there are examples of everything in between.
What they demonstrate is sharing your whole unguarded self with God, developing a relationship. You can talk to God like you would your best friend, but there are no topics that are off limits. You don’t have to heap up empty phrases like Jesus mentions in Matthew chapter 6:7. Even saying something like “I pray these things in Jesus name,” can, and I emphasize the word “can,” be meaningless if you do not feel them in your soul when you say them, or you are using them as some kind of incantation or attempt to manipulate God. One, it won’t work. Two, you don’t need to do it. You merely need to speak to God with authenticity.
One of the things that I like about Psalm 139 is that it shows us so many of these aspects. It talks about this God that knows us inside and out and is always with us. Those are things that can be both a comfort and quite intimidating at the same time. It also has some of those uncomfortable requests, and you know what? They’re all OK because we are allowed to be real with God.
This is a poem of four stanzas each highlighting and aspect of God. There is a journey from a thoughtfulness about God to a desperate call to action.
It starts out in the first stanza talking about how well God knows the psalmist (and also us). God knows our thoughts, and knows what we’re going to say even before we do. It can make you wonder why it’s even necessary to pray at all. After all God already knows everything, right?
How many of you are familiar with CS Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and his book series The Chronicles of Narnia? In another book from the series, The Magician’s Nephew, the two main human characters, a couple of young children named Diggory and Polly, have been sent on a mission by Aslan. Aslan is what they call the character we think of as Jesus in our world.
So, Diggory and Polly have had to stop for the night while they’re on this mission, and they realize that they don’t have any food for supper. Wouldn’t Aslan have known that they need to eat? They get kind of indignant about it.
Their traveling companion, a horse named Fledge, has an interesting insight. He says, “I’ve no doubt Aslan would know, but I have a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”
There’s a saying that prayer doesn’t change God. It changes us. It doesn’t mean that our prayers have no effect on God. What’s meant by that is that the act of prayer draws us into a deeper relationship with God, a feeling of intimacy and trust. If you think about the people that you feel closest to, how did that happen? Often, it is by the sharing of yourself, your hopes, fears, dreams, losses, but, it has to feel safe. What could be safer than to share these things with someone who knows you completely? Who will never be too busy or gets tired of listening.
The next stanza highlights God’s omnipresence. God is everywhere. The psalmist does it in a beautiful way, “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, if I settle on the far side of the sea.” Up, down, east (with the dawn), or west (referring to what we now call the Mediterranean Sea, which is west of Israel). In other words, anywhere in creation.
To me, there’s a hint, or maybe more than a hint, of this being a threatening, oppressive feeling. “Where can I flee?” Expressing the desire to be hidden, but there is no escape. Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to escape from God?
There’s the stress of being under constant surveillance or “being watched.” That’s especially true if you know what you’re doing is wrong, or it might be wrong. Or, if you inadvertently make a mistake. Have you ever tripped on a crack in the sidewalk or stepping on a curb? The first thing you do is look around to check if anyone saw you, or is that just me? If someone did see you, putting on the attitude, “I meant to do that.”
There is this feeling that the psalmist isn’t entirely comfortable with God’s presence everywhere, but overall in the psalm there is such an expression of trust in God that it isn’t an overwhelming concern. In fact, when you realize that you’re in trouble, maybe in a dangerous place, that God is available to you even there, it can be a great comfort, even, or especially, when we don’t feel God’s presence.
The expression of trust in God continues in the third stanza, detailing the thought and care that God has when creating each of us. It shows how all of us belong to God in a unique way whether we acknowledge it or not. “For you created my inmost being… I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
It’s almost like the psalmist is reminding himself. He knows it intellectually, but isn’t feeling emotionally. I know that I have this feeling sometimes. Again, we have this sharing of vulnerability with God. We’re allowed to do that. We are not expected to have it all together all the time. Self-sufficiency and independence is an American ideal, but it’s not biblical. Benjamin Franklin said, “God helps those who help themselves,” but the Bible says in Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
The last stanza demonstrates this kind of trust, but it’s one that makes many Christians uncomfortable. It starts off asking God, “If only you would slay the wicked…” We may think that from time to time, but are we supposed to pray for that? For one thing, with Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek, to forgive others, and to love our enemies, how can it be right to ask God to do violence or otherwise punish people on our behalf?
There is this idea that we are supposed to patiently endure suffering. There is truth in that. God walks with us through our trials and tribulations. However, one of the ways that God does that is by allowing us to express the deepest pains and longing of our hearts. Even to say, “Why have you forsaken me?” When we don’t feel the presence of God, as Jesus did on the cross… Quoting Psalm 21 verse 1.
These kinds of requests to punish enemies actually do come back to a trust and reliance on God. They are called imprecations. They are asking God to bring justice in what the particular psalmist finds an unfair situation. Instead of taking retribution themselves, they are asking for God’s help. This comes from Deuteronomy 32:35. God says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.”
So, the psalmist is leaving it in God’s hands. When you think about it, it is a very faithful thing to do. He shows us how it’s okay to be upset about something, but give it over to God. The challenge is to leave it there and not try to take it back.
Perhaps, we don’t have to ask God to slay our enemies, but we can certainly cry out when we think something’s unfair and ask for justice for something that we don’t know how to handle. “God please take care of this as you see fit.”
That’s how we pray to wholeness, not by pretending that we’re okay when we’re not. It’s knowing that whether we are happy, sad, thankful, looking for comfort, we can go to God about it. And, the Psalms as a whole can give us great examples. Not every one is going to match up with where we are every time, but no matter where we are, spiritually or emotionally, there is probably a psalm that speaks to it.
Complete this phrase for yourself. Prayer is _____. What it never has to be is intimidating. But, if you aren’t used to praying for yourself and would like form to guide you as you get started, you can try ACTS. A. C. T. S.
- A for Adoration: Oh Lord, how great you are.
- C for Confession: I know I am not perfect.
- T for Thanksgiving: but, I thank you for loving me anyway.
- S for Supplication, a fancy word for request: Please, help me with this thing on my heart. Or, bring healing to my family member… And so on.
Or, you can just have a chat. I do that kind of thing all the time.
And sometimes, I look up and see a beautiful sunset and pray, “Thanks Lord! I know that’s you!”
And next week, we’ll be talking more about “Complaining in Faith to God” a look at the Psalms of Lament.