We regularly hear that social media and governments have powerful tools which reach into so many aspects of our personal affairs – phone calls, email, social media and our online searches.
Psalm 139 tells us of another powerful source that looks into our lives – not just our activities, but into our very thoughts. In his psalm, sometimes described as the crown of Hebrew poetry, David speaks of a Watcher who is not a mere passive receptor of information, like the prying of cyberspace, but someone who knows and understands every detail of our existence. ‘You have searched me, you know me, God,’ David says. ‘I have no privacy, no place from which I can exclude you. There is no corner of my mind where I can shut the door against you. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I think, is wide open to you.’
‘You hem me in behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me’, he continues.
At first it seems that David is saying, everywhere I go, every step I take, I feel you breathing down my neck. But the larger context indicates that he doesn’t see it this way at all. The words you hem me in can also be translated, ‘you guard me’ or ‘you encircle me for my protection.’ He doesn’t view God’s all-embracing knowledge as a threat, but rather as a refuge. He is not at all resentful of God’s all-seeing intelligence.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? he asks. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast, we read in verses 9 and 10. David’s imagery of taking the wings of the morning is that of traveling at the speed of light to a far place. Even there he will still find God. The instant the thought enters his head that he might escape God, he realizes how impossible it is.
Many of us have felt the same as David, but we might have a note of frustration in our voice: ‘God, I want to get away from you.’ Perhaps surprisingly, David isn’t trying to run away. His reaction to God’s all-embracing knowledge is one of deep-felt gratitude. For unlike human prying eyes, God’s eyes are pure and he is just in all his ways. For when we truly turn to him, his presence is not a threat or a cause for anxiety, but rather a joy. David understood that God’s presence means guidance and protection.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (vv.11-12). David was anticipating the possibility that in a moment of panic he might find himself saying, ‘God has left me and forgotten me.’
Rather he was saying, no matter how dark the situation seems, God has infra-red vision – he sees in the night just as well as he sees in the day. God’s reassuring hand is there in the tough times and in the good times. In another psalm (Psalm 23) David could say: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.