This past Sunday, our choir sang a beautiful rendition of Psalm 139, and I was truly touched by its powerful words. While some may say it is a psalm of lament or sorrow, I want to say it is a psalm of great comfort.
Before I go further let me refer you to Psalm 88, which is a very clear and scary understanding of Jewish thought when it comes to death, Hades, Sheol, Hell and the afterlife, and it isn’t very pretty. A quick translation, “God, I am a thing of horror and I am no better than one who has died and I know You have little or nothing to do with the dead.” Folks, I am not arguing with the theology, but I am stating what was common knowledge to the ancients.
As the music pulled me in emotionally, I was almost overwhelmed with the words that spoke to me. “Lord, You know me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. Where could I run and hide from You? If I am in heaven, You are there. If I find myself in hell, You are there!” Even the footnotes in my RSV tell me that this is a new thought! Well, sure, I feel God around me in this great cathedral of a church and on sunny days when it’s about 82 in the morning and a crisp 62 at night. He’s even more present when the kids behave, the bills are paid and all is well in the world. Sometimes, I must confess that God seems to have forgotten me when I cannot emotionally or physically deal with too many tragedies and problems that come in great bunches. While the word “hell” seems to be relegated to a place reserved for the heathens of this world, there are moments in life that “hell” is not far off but is a very real here and now.
As a pastor, there were times I had the honor of preaching at a number of churches around the Presbytery. I always had to ask, “During the Apostles’ Creed, do you folks descend or just leave those words out?” I was referring to the interjection, “He descended into hell.” The fact is that those words are perfectly acceptable if we turn to I Peter 3:18-20, where we read about what Jesus did between the time of crucifixion and resurrection.
Now the words of Psalm 139 take on a whole new meaning. In fact, the entire psalm speaks volumes to me. “Almighty God, You really know me! You’re with me at work and play, when I sleep and toss and turn with nightmares, and especially when I am miserable, depressed and want to be left alone.”
The more I read this extraordinary psalm, the more I realize that this is not something written by an uninvolved poet who might have been writing for the masses, much like some of the liturgy I read now and then. This was written by an individual who had lived, was living and had survived a terrible time in life.
He makes no apologies for his outbursts, his doubts or his failings. If anything, his honesty is for all those who hear or read his words. “Is there any place where I could run and hide from you? Is there any circumstance that might keep you from me? Might I be so miserable, unworthy, worthless, useless or undeserving that you will ignore me for a time being to teach me a lesson?” The answer is a great big, resounding, all powerful, “No!”
What is left for the psalmist? What words of wisdom does he leave for us?
In my own limited way, here is my answer. “Lord, since You have created me, kept me, marveled at me and still loved me, I ask a great favor. Keep searching me and continue knowing what is in my heart and in my mind. If there is anything in my very soul that is hurtful, remove it and please continue to lead me on the path you have destined for me.”
Lord, I believe I have a long life yet to live and it cannot be numbered by birthdays and years. I am not interested in what tomorrow can or might bring, but I am sure interested in what you want me to be today, tomorrow and the days to come.
Continue to lead me on the path you have destined for me.
Is it all right to say, “Thanks?”