“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!”
In all of the psalms one senses how deep theological convictions are developed out of personal experience reflected on from the perspective of faith. Nowhere is that more evident than in this psalm, which, not surprisingly, is one of the best known to those who nurture their devotion to God on the psalms, while also being frequently cited by systematic theologians as they formulate a doctrine of God. One would not, of course, expect a single psalm to lay out a full constructive statement about God—and certainly not this one, precisely because it is highly personal and dialogical, formulated as conversation with God rather than formal statement about God. From beginning to end it is “I” and “you.” It may translate into the poetic expression of Francis Thompson's “The Hound of Heaven” as easily as or better than into a systematic theological expression. It is poetry, rampant with figures of speech. The psalm, therefore, is not composed of careful, critical language, but it does express some profound thoughts about God that gain their validity as much out of their experiential authenticity as out of their presence in Scripture.
Psalm 139, however, despite its popularity, is also disturbing at some points, and those need to be addressed. Most obvious is the hatred of one's enemies that is expressed so vehemently in vv. 19-22. That theme will be dealt with below. Somewhat less shocking but also understandably resisted by Christian sensibilities is the fact that this is one of several psalms that seem to function primarily as protestations to God of the psalmist's innocence. In this case the chief clues to this intention on the part of the one praying are at the beginning and the end. Here is a