Psalm 139, Karen J. Bowles

Our liturgy today is a little different.  There will be three parts.  And there will be only one reading.  In each of the three parts we will be considering a different part of psalm 139.  There will be the reading, a teaching and our response. I have said we are considering prayer today.  Last week we considered the why of prayer and this week we will consider the how of prayer – we will look at the content of prayer. And what better place to look than in the Psalms.  Each of the 150 psalms is a prayer.  

A preacher in the south chided the congregation saying “the real problem with most people’s prayers is that they haven’t got any suction!”  These psalms are prayers with suction.   They are frank, spontaneous, conversations such as you would have with a lover or a friend.  Too much of our prayer has become rote – flat unable to move our own selves let alone facilitate an experience of relationship with God. This is not to say that the prayer with the most fervent declarations or intense repetitions is the one that is answered, is the one that has the most suction.  No, prayers with suction can just as easily be one in which no words are spoken.  Have you ever been in a silence that communicates deep love, understanding or support?  That is a prayer with suction.  That is prayer worth praying.  The suction is there if there is recognition of relationship, if there is honesty (it would be entirely ridiculous if one prayed dishonestly) and if there is longing.  The true feelings of the person praying, of the psalmist, are front and centre.  There is no sugar coating or cozying up.  He prays in the certainty that he has a right to be heard and the right to an answer.  It is as if the prayor is an adopted child who, realizing they are secure and a real part of the family, can begin to complain.  And there is quite a bit of complaint of anger of fist shaking at the heavens in these Psalms.  And psalm 139 certainly has its share of that – but I have chosen it this morning because it answers the how of prayer, not in the sense of physical postures or prescribed words but in the recognition first and foremost of the intimate relationship it is grounded in and also because it does so in relatable exquisite heart grabbing language.

The psalms are prayers with this suction.  And Psalm 139 is no exception.  

First teaching – Yada

Psalm 139.  For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

You have searched me, Lord,

    and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

    you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

    you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

    you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

    and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

    if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there your hand will guide me,

    your right hand will hold me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

    and the light become night around me,”

12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;

    the night will shine like the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.

The title for this teaching is yada.  Some of you will recognize this word if i say it in repetition the way it was made famous in an episode of Seinfeld.  It is used to fill in the details of a story.  Details of a story are shortened but related by the expression ‘yada, yada, yada…’  What you may not know is that yada is the Hebrew word to know.  It occurs seven times in this psalm.  

Yada’ is a rich word in biblical Hebrew, covering a whole range of meanings – from simple recognition to intimate sexual relationship. In Genesis 4, we read that Adam “knew (yada’) his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1). Elsewhere, God tells the people they will “know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 6:7, 13). In Psalm 46 is the wonderful ‘Be Still and know that I am God.’   Some form of this word occurs sixty times in the Psalter, emphasizing that the concept of “knowledge” is a critical element of meaningful relationship.  We ‘know’ God, just as God ‘knows us.’  ‘Yada’ing – this is the content of our first teaching on how to pray.  

Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, offered these words on the content of this portion of the Psalm concerning that relationship between God and humankind:  Register what these words bring in you – 

Where I wander – You!

Where I ponder – You!

Only You, You again, always You!

You! You! You!

When I am gladdened – You!

When I am saddened – You!

Only You, You again, always You!

You! You! You!

Sky is You, Earth is You!

You above! You below!

In every trend, at every end,

Only You, You again, always You!

You! You! You!2

Do you feel hemmed in, liberated, comforted, claustrophobic, supported, in communion with?  Be honest.  If we are honest these verses will at different stages in our spiritual growth evoke most if not all of these emotions just as in any relationship. I spoke in a recent message at some length about atoms and the building blocks of the universe and ourselves – about the science we have uncovered that points to the truth God in all things including ourselves.  This is as intimate as it gets.  The psalmist speaks of a omnipresent God.  Physics confirms spiritual intuition and experience.  

And we respond by singing together some of the lines from the psalm put to music.  We will sing this together 4 times.  May this be a sung prayer for each of us.  Yada Yada Yada. 

Second teaching – Yara

13 For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts,God!

    How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them,

    they would outnumber the grains of sand—

    when I awake, I am still with you.

The second teaching today is entitled Yara.  Again a Hebrew word and this time found in verse 14:  ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’

“Fearfully” is derived from the verbal root yara’. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. Yet yara’ encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” “cling to” and “serve”. At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. Thus, a better translation of the word in verse 4 might be as follows:  I praise you because I am awesomely and wonderfully made.  When we come to prayer – how often do we come without a sense of what the psalmist is describing – without a sense of being worthy without a sense of connection without a sense, first and foremost, of gratitude?  And I don’t mean superficial gratitude for things or positions but a recognition of deep seated, far seeing thankfulness for your precious, sentient life on this tiny planet even and perhaps especially in the pain of a present predicament.

Hear this prayer as it is written for you.

Dear God, intimate Creator and Friend,

long ago you breathed life into me.

You blessed me with DNA and fingerprints,

family and personality,

interests and personal freedom.

I am filled with wonder and awe.

Your Spirit calls me to be the one you intimately created,

the one uniquely blessed, the one true self I am.

I cannot escape this call. I cannot escape you.

Your gaze, ever loving, ever yearning, is upon me.

Be close, see me, form me,

and help me to love the me you intimately created.


Yara Yara Yara

We respond with our offering – and a solo by Mariana.

Third Teaching – Tfilia

A note before the reading.  The first 4 verses of this part of the psalm are often excluded from lectionary readings.  They are difficult and jarring to hear.  But I include them intentionally not to jar but to teach the third ‘how’ in how to pray. 

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!

    Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

20 They speak of you with evil intent;

    your adversaries misuse your name.

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,

    and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

22 I have nothing but hatred for them;

    I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

24 See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

We move from the almost sublime and soul expanding words we have heard to words that convey the opposite of love and unity.  But they are honest – and they are humbling.  We are not God – our knowledge of relationship with God our inherent worthiness does not mean we have it all figured out.  The psalmist doesn’t and neither do we.  The psalmist is letting it all hang out in his prayer and here is the third how of prayer.  Without expressing this anger or hatred no matter how unenlightened or misguided, the prayer would be less than it is.  The Hebrew word for prayer is Tfilia.  It is not only a request making session.  For the Jews it is also and more importantly creating a state of introspection that leads to greater awareness of the bond between God and the one praying.  It is about spiritual growth and awareness.  It is about the to and fro of relationship and it is about discerning the change that will come with that awareness.  Tfilia is about bonding with the one you’re talking with, not about or to.  It is a conversation that results in collaboration.  The psalmist is judging who is in and who is out – who belongs and who does not – and wishes harm on those he has found to be out.  And he admits this in the last 2 verses.  Through the vehicle of his prayer he asks to be corrected, to be redirected, to move from the ‘offensive’ to the way everlasting.  

The third teaching is praying to make progress in a spiritual life – pour out your real self in your prayers – hold nothing back particularly those thoughts or feelings or actions of which you are ashamed and would like to keep as hidden as possible.  And ask for help.

How then to pray a prayer with ‘suction’? – Know God, know you are worthy, know you are a work in progress.  Yada yara tfilia

And our response is the first 3 verses of 676 God make us servants of your peace.  This is based on the prayer of St Francis of Assisi.  St Francis who founded the order of monks the Franciscans saw the incarnation – the presence of God on earth – as being present in everything from the beginning of all things.   Works of art that depict the incarnation almost always depict a saint or Jesus arms spread staring into the sky – Francis is different – he is depicted arms spread looking lovingly at the ground beneath his feet.  Both are true.  

We sing our response, our part in the incarnation, our prayer, as we come to the communion table.