Psalm 139, 23 July 2017

What you see and what you think you see are not always the same thing. Is this an image of smoke-rings, a bicycle or a piece of post-modern art? Have you ever thought you knew someone well only to find out they have a very different side to them from that which you have known? This may be true of ourselves too. We don’t always analyse our own character and behaviour as objectively as we might. This, according to Psalm 139, is why we need to submit ourselves to the spotlight of loving but frank scrutiny:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (verses 23, 24)

Fine, but it’s not as simple as that, is it? It’s not as though you have a direct line or interactive web-site to fill in a survey form, get instant feedback. Steve Bell’s bluegrass version of Psalm 13 is entirely relevant here. It was all about that frustrating silence from the heavens. How long do we have to wait to get some sort of answer, comfort, guidance or voice on our doubts and dilemmas, let alone a personal report card? “How long, O God, will you turn your face from me?”

Who is God anyway?

Lurking behind these apparently conflicting poetic ideas is the question of how personal is your God. Is YHWH a powerful but vague force out there somewhere, a spirit moving upon the face of the waters sweeping silently in grand scale across the vast universe, unconcerned by a Western preoccupation with individualism yet benevolent toward the aggregate fate of a flawed humanity? Or an intimate and individual God whose eye instantly notices the fall of the sparrow, numbers the hairs of your head, and knows when you sit or stand? And somewhere in the middle is that still small voice of calm.

Depends on your viewpoint?Maybe like the bike in the water, our perspective will change with the light and times? Only you can answer that but the god’s-eye view, it would seem from the psalms, is crystal clear and all of the above, yesterday, today, forever. We trust that reflecting on the psalms from week to week —  How long? in Psalm 13, You see me in Psalm 139 and many other songs — will somehow clarify the picture.

As to the bike it’s real, visible through the cold waters of Lake Luzern from the long 15th century wooden foot-bridge over the lake. Just as the image is confused and masked by the waters, so we cannot know its story. Did age and infirmity or a nasty slide on gravel justify this watery grave? Was it thrown in anger, vengeance, or frivolous or drunken caper? The Psalms tell us that Divine omniscience has all this covered — but is often silent: waiting, busy on another line but your call is important, distant, leaving it to us to sort, time not yet come? Do we need to know? In any event, somehow music will soothe, enrich and catalyse the whole process.

IMG_2316 TanglesComplexity of situations, relationships or internal feelings can sometimes create such a tangled web that we are ensnared and immobilised. It would be easier if someone would just sweep in and ditch the unimportant things, whatever they are, and say: “Well, clearly, this is what you should be doing!”

In such times, Psalm 139 has much to say, acknowledging from the outset our essential transparency:

O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (verses 1-3)

Attitude and Altitude

The spotlight of divine wisdom, if we can find the switch, helps us see through the tangles of our own or others’ making. How that can happen is a personal matter that no set of rules, certainly not a psalm blog, can describe or prescribe. Attempting to align our frame of reference, our moral compass or our ethical sensibilities with divine wisdom, the creative spirit of verses 13 to 16 quoted below, is surely a good start.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8, 9)

Easier said than done, of course, but hope springs eternal. This is not formally a ‘psalm of ascent’ but that broad sweeping idea of dreaming on a higher plane is certainly present in stirring language typical of psalm poetry. Lectionary readings sometimes straddle but miss this:

Where can I go from your spirit? … If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 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. (verses 8-10)

… and Alternative Angles

What is not missed out, however, is the imagery of intimacy — pre-natal transparency, ultrasound plus. It’s at once captivating and unsettling:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret … (vv. 13-15)

Incredible, even allowing for doubts about the original textual meaning and interpretation from various sources.  The concluding lines draw on this transparency and seek that ‘righteousness’ that’s at the heart of Psalm 1 and also here:Sacred music, BnF

Search me, O God, and know my heart … lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23, 24)

Music

PFAS 139C also uses that same verse 1 with an easy tune for the refrain. Everett however focuses on the ‘wonderfully made’ line in verse 14 in a refrain that is at once, typically, more interesting and slightly more challenging.

There is a nice setting of this psalm by Michael Card.  The response, repeating a couple of bars of the tune after each verse, is:

Ps139 RefrainThe lower line is a plain pedal note on g that can be sung in harmony if the upper note is too high. If singing to a tone, another suitable response is a very short, transparent refrain from the New century hymnal by Jane Marshall.

Final image: from 6-part music in Recueil de plusieurs messes, Psaumes, motets, Te Deum & c.a.  MS dated 1630-1682, Bibliotèque Nationale de France

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