More Pretty Than Nasty But Pretty Nasty, Still

11-Sep-16

Psalm 139:19-24

So far this morning, at least until a few moments ago, we’ve been having a pretty awesome experience with Psalm 139. It is a wonderful Psalm, chock full of nice stuff, glorious stuff, and some really majestic stuff that sends our hearts soaring into the heavens.

Who can ignore the wonder of verse seven? “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” Or verse fourteen: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” How awesome is that?

If we are in a meditative mood, as David was as he wrote this Psalm, there is plenty of material here to ponder and to delight in. We could spend hours reading and meditating on this Psalm and still not plumb the depths of it fully. That’s the beauty of the Scriptures.

Pretty much, the whole Psalm is lovely, except for verses 19-22. Compared to the rest of the Psalm, they seem horribly out of place, almost as if they do not belong there. And the sentiment that they express…nasty, very nasty. We would even be justified in calling them a hateful rant. Its not often that any of us would pride ourselves on cultivating a hatred that could be described as perfect. Not surprisingly, often, when this Psalm is read aloud in worship services, these verses are intentionally omitted. And that’s because they seem so jarringly out of place. They are shocking.

But, ultimately, they are part of this Psalm, they were intended by David, the psalmist, to be included in this Psalm, and so wish as we might, we are not justified in omitting them; or, as is our wont, ignoring them. And so we must try to discover why they are there, and what significance and relevance they have to the rest of this most lovely Psalm.

Psalm 139 is neatly divided into four stanzas of 6 verses each. The first stanza celebrates a God who is all-knowing. The fancy theological word for that is omniscience. In the first stanza, the Psalmist rejoices in the intimacy of a God who knows his every move, his every step and his every thought. He is comforted in knowing that God cares for him in ways that he cannot even begin to imagine. David is not frightened by this in the least. It is high encouragement to him that an Almighty God, far away in the heavens, has a desire to protectively focus on his daily routines and movements. It is awesome to him and wonderful. The Apostle Paul, when he penned the “love chapter”, picked up on this stanza, and gloried in his future hope that one day he would experience the love of God so intensely and so powerfully that he would attain what the Psalmist could not. Listen to his words: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1) What an awesome hope we have.

The second stanza celebrates a God who is all-present. Again the fancy theological word here is omnipresence. And again, the Psalmist is glorying in a God who is wondrously and marvelously inescapable. He tries to imagine all of the places that he could possibly go; places of grave danger, and even places of ultimate darkness, and yet God’s Spirit is steadfastly with him, leading him and guiding him. Oh, to grasp that tremendous truth in our own souls!

The third stanza celebrates an even deeper depth of intimacy with God. After soaring to heights of wonder, marveling over God’s intimate knowledge of his daily routines, and over God’s abiding and loving presence in his life, the Psalmist is overwhelmed and awed by God’s creative initiative in bringing him into this world. He discovers, much to his delight, that God had an intimate interest in him, even as he was being formed in his mother’s womb. It is one thing to glory in the beauty of the created order, to ascribe thankful credit to God for giving us a beautiful world in which to live, but it is quite another to look at ourselves and to know that the same care and craftsmanship that went into producing seas and trees and mountains was also at work in creating us as individuals. The Psalmist says, “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” He knows that he is a very special part of creation, that he is created in the very image of God, and in that, he has tremendous worth and value. And knowing this is not just esoteric knowledge. It is not a thought that he has simply pulled out of the air. He knows it because he has discovered that Almighty God, high and faraway in the heavens has lovingly condescended to know him intimately and to be powerfully present with him in all times and in all places, imaginable or unimaginable. To know this gives him great worth and value.

And so now we come to the hateful, misbegotten final stanza. How could the Psalmist make such an abrupt transition? “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—-those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”

What happened? Here, this morning we have joyfully and willingly joined the Psalmist with hands and hearts raised toward heaven in high praise and worship. We, along with the Psalmist, have gloried in a loving God who intimately knows our ways and paths, and who is protectively present at every step we take, and who has created and endowed us with high worth and value. But now, the Psalmist has suddenly, and without warning, turned violently hateful. How can he go so quickly from praise to hatefulness?

I think he lowered his eyes. When the worship was ended, he looked around, and he realized that as awesome as his world was, it was also broken. He saw people who did not share the wonder and the glory that he had for God. In fact, he saw just the opposite. He saw people who had no wonder and no glory for God. He saw people who thrived, not on the goodness of God, but on wickedness and evil. He saw murderers and blasphemers. He saw people who had no regard for God at all. He saw people who had elevated themselves to the place of God. He saw people who had become their own god, and he responded with raw, human emotion. He went from a state of high praise to a state of low loathing that was just as intense and just as filled with energy as was his high praise. It seems so wrong to him that others do not share his passion for God. And so he regards the enemies of God as his own enemies, so desperately does he want to be aligned with his God.

But not all is lost. The Psalmist is not yet in a place where he can love the enemies of God. He is probably also not yet in a place where he can comprehend or accept that God loves all persons, whether the are the self-styled enemies of God or not. It will be some time before the descendant of this Psalmist wanders on to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and says things like, “Love your enemies,” (2) and, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (3)

But if the Psalmist cannot yet imagine these things, he can imagine that some of the behavior traits that he loathes in others may be lurking inside of him. And so he prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” That, too, must always be our prayer, for there are things that lurk within us that ought not be there.

  • (1) 1Corinthians 13:12 NRSV
  • (2) Matthew 5:34, Luke 6:27 NRSV
  • (3) John 3:16 NRSV
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