Psalm 139: Searching

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

Modern art, dream or reality?

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.

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 equally during the 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. A plainsong chanted response seeks guidance along ‘the everlasting way’. Verses are sung by cantor or small group in a tone that resembles, but does not equate to, some of the original eight Gregorian psalm tones (Tone 4 shown below).
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 during pandemic 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:

Finally an original refrain, with verses paraphrased and scanned to fit the tune:

A home-grown antiphon for Psalm 139


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’.

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