Psalm 139, 19 July 2020

Search me O God and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts. (v. 23)

First instincts, you would think, would be to hide away known failings, bad habits or secret prejudice. Other-approval can be a strong influence on what we say, on whether we open up. Here, however, David feels transparent in the spotlight, and asks for clarifying scrutiny. His song tells that he can run but he can’t hide:

If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

David lays out in detail an image of a divine creator who has intimate knowledge of each individual. He wonders at our very nature, and that the Creator maintains such intimacy even as a child is developing in the womb.

Do kookaburras qualify?

This is the God who sees the sparrow fall and cares, who numbers the hairs on your head. (Luke 12:7)

But just three weeks ago in these interminable days of social distancing, we were singing in Psalm 13: “How long must we wait; why have your turned your face aside from me?” For many, the sounds of silence, the remoteness and even unreality of God are a more familiar ostinato background to rare moments of assurance and intimacy.

Lurking behind these 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 who knows when you sit or stand (v. 2), the one whose sparrows Mahalia Jackson celebrated in song? The Psalter seems to cater for both ends of the belief spectrum.

Somewhere in the middle, is that still small voice of calm. If we are created in the image of God, then the guidance of divine values and standards should be available internally any time we call, perhaps by meditation and mindfulness. However, internal guidance, conscience and bootstraps are insufficient. Self-reference to flawed human nature, and just plain ethical complexity, leave open the slippery path of good intentions. That is one reason why we invoke Psalms like 119 with its reminder to check those biblical precepts of love, justice and equity.

… and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice …

1 Kings 19:12,13


Music for Psalm 139 is varied and interesting. Its imagery and themes — the spotlight on the soul, the transparent unborn child, flights on the wings of the morning — have made this poem attractive to many composers. Many contemporary versions are available online, although as usual good quality is sometimes elusive.

Some great composers like John Blow and Lassus wrote well for this song. But for most of the best classical settings, search for Domine probasti me. Here is a setting by One Gentleman of Verona, sixteenth century Vincenzo Ruffo, sung by the Ars Cantico Consort from Milan:

Whilst his is not a household name hereabouts — he is not listed in some major references, nor is this work listed in either IMSLP or CPDL online resources — nonetheless Maestro Vincenzo was evidently an established composer, director and musician. Two of his settings made it into the Dow Partbooks (at numbers 135 and 136), an important collection from the 1580s now held in Christ Church, Oxford (MSS 984–988). Here Ruffo sits among Renaissance greats like Robert White, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Detail of one part in a Dow Partbook, not Psalm 139 in this case. The singer had no view of the music for other part singers. Image: facsimile used at a Song Company concert at Wesley church in Canberra, March 2019.

Closer to home, Psalms for All Seasons offers a handful of versions. Perhaps more usefully during isolation, two songs based closely on Psalm 139 are included in Together in Song at numbers 87 and 88:

  • TiS 87, ‘You are before me Lord, you are behind‘ to SURSUM CORDA (listen>) will be known and loved by many. It skips the first four verses, but the ideas are picked up later in verses 22 and 23 anyway. It is in the form of a hymn with no refrain.
  • TiS 88 is a plainsong chant, again not quite covering the Lectionary verse selection but catching the moment, if you favour this traditional, widely used but restrained style.
Some songs seek seriously spiritual settings. Video conference doesn’t quite do it, does it? (St Augustine Museum, Freiburg im Breisgau.)

Both of these songs, but especially 88, really ask for a leading group of practised singers in a suitable reverberating space, maybe even one reminiscent of ancient days.

TiS 88 could be recorded by a single cantor of course but even then, the refrain might be a little difficult for individuals or families to sing confidently in isolation.

A setting by prolific author and musician Michael Card, Search me O Lord, was introduced by one of our members some years ago. He sang it to good effect several times over the years, as it nicely captures the text and intent of the psalm. On those occasions we inserted a refrain from the song for the enjoyment and engagement of all:

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