Psalm 139: Too Wonderful for Me

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 afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.

–Psalm 139:1-3 (ESV)

It is with words of incredulous awe that Psalm 139 opens.  Indeed, this could easily be classified as one of the most personal, even intimate psalms in Scripture.

I was first introduced to the rich depths of Psalm 139 in a sermon that Rev. Rich Kuiken of Pompton Plains Reformed Bible Church delivered at West Sayville back in 2010.  This was the first exposition of a psalm I had heard in sermon form (or maybe just the first one I was truly paying attention); perhaps it could even be said that this sermon sparked my desire to learn more about the divinely-inspired songbook.

In any case, Rev. Kuiken pointed out the basic structure of Psalm 139: the awestruck psalmist David marvels with both head and heart at God’s omniscience, his omnipresence, and his omnipotence.  Of God’s transcending knowledge, David says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (v. 6).  Of his limitless presence, the psalmist asks in incredulity, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (v. 7).  And, reflecting on the Lord’s marvelous work even in creating his own body, David confesses, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (v. 14).

The psalmist pauses to reflect on the greatness of his God:

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

–Psalm 139:17, 18

This revelation of the Lord’s might serves as a double-edged sword.  It affords joy and comfort to the believer, but to the unrepentant it affords little of either.  David complains to God of those who “speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain” (v. 20).  Righteously he calls upon the Lord to judge the wicked.

Then comes the conclusion of Psalm 139, which contains possibly some of the most poignant words in the entire Psalter.  This is where David’s head knowledge becomes heart knowledge, where theology becomes practice, where doctrine becomes life.  For him, there is only one possible response to God’s greatness:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

–vv. 23, 24

It must be nearly impossible for any songbook to do justice to Psalm 139.  Nevertheless, I believe the Psalter Hymnal does a nearly flawless job.

288, “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me”

(Sung by West Sayville Reformed Bible Church on Long Island, New York)

I referred to this Psalter selection not too long ago in one of our Featured Recording posts.   Psalter Hymnal number 288 is straightforward, beautiful, and easy to sing—all qualities of a great psalm-song.  In the few places where it deviates from following the Scripture literally, “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me” still resonates with poetic beauty:

My words from thee I cannot hide,
I feel Thy power on every side;
O wondrous knowledge, awful might,
Unfathomed depth, unmeasured height!

Although the tune of “Just as I Am, without One Plea” may conjure up images of Billy Graham crusades, its heartfelt inflections and connotations are perfectly put to use here.  Even the musical climax of the verse, at the end of the third line, coincides with the key words of each stanza.

289, “All That I Am I Owe to Thee”

(Sung by West Sayville Reformed Bible Church on Long Island, NY, and Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“All that I Am I Owe to Thee” picks up where number 288 left off, versifying Psalm 139:13-24.  This section of the psalm is treated a little less literally than the first part, but it remains serviceable.  For instance, the first stanza versifies “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” as,

All that I am I owe to Thee,
Thy wisdom, Lord, has fashioned me;
I give my Maker thankful praise,
Whose wondrous works my soul amaze.

Thankfully, unlike many songs in the Psalter Hymnal, number 289 does not shy away from  fairly treating the imprecatory section of this psalm:

The wicked Thou wilt surely slay,
From me let sinners turn away;
They speak against the Name divine,
I count God’s enemies as mine.

I have no complaints to make against the tune, FEDERAL STREET, except to comment that it seems rather boring and mundane for such a moving text.  Personally I am very fond of the tune ST. CRISPIN, which is used with this text in the 1912 Psalter.  Below is a recording of a Christian high school choir from Michigan singing “All that I Am” to this tune.

Actually, number 289 is one of the most frequently-occurring selections on Reformed YouTube channels.  Here are a few more enjoyable recordings (1 2 3).

290, “O Lord, My Inmost Heart and Thought”

(Sung on YouTube)

Although number 290 is only a partial versification of Psalm 139, it is a good one.  The text is fairly literal, and the tune, BINGHAM, fits it well.  I ought to mention, however, that my personal favorites will always be numbers 288 and 289.

Search me, O God, my heart discern,
Try me, my inmost thought to learn;
And lead me, if in sin I stray,
To choose the everlasting way.

–MRK

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4 Responses to “Psalm 139: Too Wonderful for Me”


  1. 1 Pamela Compton March 25, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Michael,

    What a gorgeous choral tone that MI hs choir has! Please give more info about that conductor, school, arrangement, etc… Thanks.

    Pam


  1. 1 Psalm 140: Deliverance from Evil Men | URC Psalmody Trackback on April 9, 2013 at 7:01 am
  2. 2 Psalm 142: From Prayer to Praise | URC Psalmody Trackback on May 20, 2013 at 7:01 am

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