Psalm 139, 17 Jan 2021

Where can I go from your spirit? (7)

This extended lyrical song of praise to a pervasive divine spirit who knows us intimately — “for it was you who formed me; I am fearfully and wonderfully made” — also seeks justice and guidance in the ways of truth:

Search me O God, and know my heart; … lead me in the way that is everlasting. (23-24)

Click or clack, choose your track. Siding points on the old Cooma railway.

Despite the psalmist’s feeling that every movement and thought is laid bare, the mood is one of trust, almost relief. Attention on the individual is not so much surveillance as the permanence of a pervasive creative and prescient presence.

And now, choose your own adventure:

  • For the central theme of the psalm — and a musical setting by One Gentleman of Verona, sixteenth century Vincenzo Ruffo — see the main page Psalm 139: Searching> OR:
  • Read on for a whimsical excursion by a more meandering side path.

This song is definitely and intimately about the individual in the divine spotlight. David makes no reference to other persons until, towards the end, he suddenly wishes death and destruction on ‘the wicked’ — anyone who opposes his god. Almost apologetically for that outburst, he then in the closing verses (quoted above) seeks both clear assessment and guidance into truth.

Image: Rowing Girl Productions

Early models of the atom depicted electrons in neat orbits and energy levels around the nucleus like a miniature solar system. Later quantum theory imagines a more diffuse sea of electron wave-functions. According to scientists like Nils Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger (of cat fame) their precise identity, location and momentum, cannot be determined. So counting electrons is less like numbering the hairs on your head and more a general impression of a floating sea of probabilities that somehow adds up to a firm material universe. In that view, each particle, each individual merges into the cloud.

Quarks and friends galore; the standard model. Image: University of Zürich

Similarly, the nucleus is not just neat balls of neutron and proton. The atom is imagined as a complex zone made up of myriad particle/waves with science-fiction names — fermions, quarks, leptons and bosons — whose precise characteristics are still under debate.

To stretch this metaphor to the limit, imagine the little incognito Higgs Boson whizzing around the 27 kilometre CERN accelerator tunnel in Geneva together with all its siblings and cousins and uncles at warp speeds. Little Higgs, hitherto unseen save in theoretical studies, is saying: ‘Look at me, I am important!’ The eyes of scientific communities all around the world watch every move, every report, every problem. Thousands of dollars flow to sustain the experiment. Nobel prizes are being polished up for the next award, once the mass and properties of the boson are revealed. Popular science rejoices that the standard model is looking even more credible.

Yes, Little Higgs is vitally important. But not the centre of the universe. That focus was at a moment in time. The analytical and remedial spotlight moves on to the next unknown, to solve the next conundrum. Many other particles and theories wait to be considered.

Well, sure enough, the poetry of the psalms is far removed from quantum theory’s mathematical mysteries. The point is that our individualism is not the end of the story. We are part of society. This psalm concentrates on the individual, its situation and orbit known precisely like the planets. So this may be the right moment in life for self-honesty and a renewal of personal directions.

Then again, perhaps David’s angry outburst is a valid intrusion, if only to mark that it’s not all about us. The constellations of other souls making up societies and cultures, virtuous and ‘wicked’, are also important.

Other psalms speak to the collective view. The previous psalm 138 assumes the individual viewpoint but the next one 140 shifts the focus towards ‘those who surround me’ and ‘justice to the needy’.


If you chose option one in your adventure, you saw that main page also describes some good music options, including a nice Michael Card song ‘Search me O God’. The two songs offered in Together in Song, 87 and 88, are also introduced there.

While there is no sung psalm planned for our local community Sunday, we take a moment to look at a home-grown refrain.

The refrain draws on the first two verses to respond:

O God you have searched me and known me, acquainted with all my ways.

This retains the idea of acquaintance, rather than intimate knowledge, a mild reminder that we are not alone. The refrain and verse tune was originally composed some years ago with a sound character that might fit in with a Taizé service. (It was not used and has not yet enjoyed its world premiere.) Here it is in the G minor version:

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