At my church we are in the middle of a month-long worship series called “Honest to God”. In it we take an honest look at the whole gamut of human emotions, from anger and despair to praise, comfort and justice. We are using the Psalms as a resource for expressing our deepest feelings – towards ourselves, towards God and towards each other.
It was my turn to preach last Sunday and I landed with Comfort. I chose Psalm 139, sometimes called “The Inescapable God.” It is one of my favourites and so I approached it with slight trepidation, remembering the time I chose my favourite Neruda poem (oh, go read it, it is stunning!) for a presentation to my seminar class in second year Spanish and the lecturer completely trashed my reading of it, spoiling it for me for years…but reading Psalm 139 in the light of where I’m at and with the desire to speak to others of God’s inexhaustible – inescapable – comfort was nothing like that. It was how I remembered it – heart-stoppingly compelling. Gut wrenchingly beautiful. Comforting almost to the point of being unbearable.
You see, God pursues us. The Psalmist – David – wants to run away from God, God who is too much for him, too much light, too much knowledge, too much comfort. He wants to run away to the heights, to the depths, to the far corners of the world, even to Sheol, that is, the deepest pit. He wants to hide under the cover of darkness. He wants to say “God, I am NOT fearfully and wonderfully made”. But God does not give up the search. God is there in all of those places. Even the darkness is not dark when God is present in it.
God knows us. God has “searched us and known us” (Ps 139). The Hebrew word for “search”here is a word that suggests searching by digging deep underground – like looking for hidden treasure. God sees our worth when we don’t. God sees our worth when other people can’t. God sees our worth even when it is buried underneath layers of earth and scar tissue. In another Psalm David writes “even if my mother and father forsake me, God will take me up”. The Amplified Bible gives alternate meanings here: God will take me up, will adopt me as a child, will carry me. God will hold me.
God’s comfort fills the gaps, the cracks, the wounds
It fills the void – the Sheol – left in us by the world.
At the end of Psalm 139 the speaker repeats the first phrase of the Psalm, but the perspective is changed. Instead of a statement – “O God you have searched me and known me” – the speaker asks God “search me, O God, and know my thoughts.” We can ask this of God. This is an excellent way of praying when sitting with inner turmoil we don’t quite understand. When we are in need of comfort in the deepest parts of our souls, we can truly be honest to – present to – God, our Comforter and our Defender. We can sense the Sheol within us, we can lay hands upon it and ask God to fill the lack.
Even if we run away, God will pursue us. He is the inescapable God.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any hurtful way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Amen and amen and amen!