22 June 2012

Psalm 139

"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 perfect hatred; I count them my enemies." (vv. 21-22)


This psalm, beloved of many, is often read as an expression of confidence in God's constant presence and saving reach. It suggests God knows each person intimately, from their formation in the womb to their end. This is the anticipatory knowledge of a parent, friend, or teammate, who can sense how the other will react. The psalm suggests great comfort is given by God's presence. Or does it?

Another way of reading, one that perhaps fits better with other wisdom literature, of which this psalm has close connections, is to regard God's pervasive presence as oppressive: "You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me" (verse 5). There is nowhere to escape God's judgement. In the words of an American folk song, "You can run on for a long time/ sooner or later God's gonna cut you down". The psalm, then, is a psalm of despair, and a recognition of God's scrutiny, under which all humans fail.

A third way to understand the psalm is as a challenge to God. Perhaps the psalm is a protestation of innocence in the face of suffering. This reading makes more sense of verses 19-22, since it allows the calls for vengeance to be directed against those who have caused the psalmist to suffer.

Often bracketed out of the lectionary reading, these four verses of violence and hatred complicate the question at the end of the psalm: "Search me ... see if there is any wicked way in me". Is this the righteous indignation of someone who stands distinct from the enemies of God? The rest of the psalm would suggest not. God's thoughts are as vast and unknowable, so how can humans rightly identify those who offend? It would seem that the psalm tempers religious zeal by denying that any human can bear the weight of God's wisdom.

So where might a reading of this psalm end? On a note of confidence in God's disturbing and comforting presence? Or with recognition of the arrogance of human claims to know who God hates?

To Ponder

Do you find the claim that God is everywhere comforting or troubling?

What would you like God to know about you?

Does God hate? And why do you think this?

Bible notes author

Rachel Starr

Rachel Starr is the Methodist tutor at The Queen's Foundation for ecumenical theological education in Birmingham, where she teaches studies in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Before that she spent three years in Buenos Aires completing doctoral studies at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Instituto Universitario ISEDET).