Psalm 139: The Pathos of Praise

Article excerpt

I OCCASIONALLY HAVE a recurring dream that, I am fully convinced, should rank as the nightmare of all nightmares. It is the end of a college semester and I am in a math class to take the final exam, when I suddenly realize with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I have for some reason or another missed all the class meetings until now. Racked by guilt and gripped with panic, I realize I cannot take this test the professor is handing out. I try to get out of my seat to leave, but somehow I am unable to, and before I know it, the exam, which is all Greek to me, is staring me in the face. I cry out in despair and awake in a cold sweat.

I suspect that such a dream is not unique to many of us who have spent much, if not most, of our lives studying, earnestly gaining the necessary knowledge and skills to lead an informed and successful life. To be caught off guard at a moment of both guilt and ignorance is an unpardonable sin. On the one hand, innocent ignorance is excusable and "forbidden" knowledge is considered too enticing in the academic arena. On the other hand, ignorance through willful negligence is worthy of unmitigated condemnation.

This much beloved psalm, by contrast, speaks not of that lamentable convergence of ignorance and guilt, but of the wondrous intersection of knowledge and integrity. It is often suggested that this psalm was originally the desperate plea of an individual unjustly accused of a crime who, as a last resort, appeals to God for vindication (cf. w. 19-24; see the extreme example in Robert B. Coote, "Psalm 139," in The Bible and the Politics of Exegesis, ed. D. Jobling, et al. [Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1991], 33-8). Perhaps so, but the language is unfortunately much too vague to specify any original context with certainty. Fortunately, what scholars have long regarded as a frustrating liability is in fact the psalm's greatest asset, namely the open-ended and evocative nature of its language, which has enabled generations of believers to use, pray, and sing this psalm in times of both woe and wonder, in agony as well as ecstasy. Characters of the Bible such as Jonah and Job, for example, could easily have prayed this psalm or portions thereof. The former attempted to flee from God's presence but to no avail, finding God's wondrous and protective grace even in the "belly of Sheol" (cf. Ps. 139:7-12 with Jonah 1:3; 2:2). The story of Job, on the other hand, is all about the test and pathos of moral integrity. His character defamed by his friendsturned-enemies, Job held fast to his righteousness against all odds, calling upon God to vindicate his integrity in the presence of his detractors (cf.Job 27:5-12; 31:6 with Ps. 139:23-24).

Both Job and Jonah are narrative demonstrations that this psalm is the impassioned cry of praise from an individual whose worth as a child of God is wondrously affirmed as well as vehemently attacked. Indeed, our world, conflicted as it is, hardly permits the former without the latter. Psalm 139 serves as an eloquent cry of praise and pain, the vulnerable voice of holy dignity that must be heard anew whenever the inviolable worth of any human being is called into question. Such voices, perhaps, can be found closer to home than one thinks, even within the church. Such voices refuse to adopt the strident rhetoric of grievance or to wallow in self-righteous indignation; rather, they praise God for creating and comprehending every fiber of their being over and against a world that would deny them that right and privilege. Such is the pathos of praise.

The psalm begins with a pronouncement of God's infinite and intimate knowledge of the self. Relational by nature, God's encompassing knowledge crosses time and space to find and probe the psalmist. Not simply a passing familiarity, God's knowledge comes to accompany and lead, an irresistible knowledge that is welcomed as a long lost friend. Perhaps "knowledge" is not what is really described here. …