Theme: No Escape from God
In this week’s lessons, we see the importance and blessing of God’s omniscience.
Scripture: Psalm 139:1-12
H. C. Leupold denies that the psalmist is actually trying to flee from God, and he is right. David is not wanting to flee from God at all. But he is thinking about what would be the case if a person should attempt it. Leupold suggests that the right idea would be conveyed more effectively by translating verse 7 as, “Where could I go” from your presence. The New International Version gets close to this when it asks, “Where can I go?”
Well, where? In verses 8-12 David imagines three areas in which escape from God might be thought to be possible, but he dismisses each one.
1. Up or down. The first thought that might come to us is to climb higher than God so God can’t reach us, or descend so low that we will lie beneath his grasp. But the highest point to which we can rise is heaven and God is obviously there, and the lowest point to which we can descend is hell (the Hebrew word is sheol) and God is there, too. He is there in his judicial aspect. In fact, the thing that makes hell so terrible is that it is run by God. It is not ruled by the devil in spite of such popular descriptions of hell as John Milton’s in Paradise Lost.2
Amos uses this same language to describe the folly of people who think they can escape God’s judgments: “Though they dig down to the depths of the grave, from there my hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens, from there I will bring them down (Amos 9:2).
2. East or west. Well, if it is impossible to escape God by going up or down, perhaps we can do it by going east or west. This is what David considers next, in verses 9 and 10. Dawn rises in the east, and from David’s perspective in Israel, the far side of the sea was west. To “rise on the wings of the dawn” probably means to flash from east to west as fast as the dawn’s early light streaks from horizon to horizon. Would that help? Even if it were possible, it would not enable us to escape God. For when we get to that far distant horizon, we find that God is already there before us: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Jonah tried to do it, fleeing from Joppa in the direction of Tarshish on the coast of Spain. But God was present even on the expansive Mediterranean Sea. God pursued him in the storm and brought him back inside the great fish.
3. The darkness. People pursue evil in the dark, thinking, “Surely the darkness will hide me” (v. 11). But even the darkness is light to God. Light is God’s own creation (Gen. 1:3), and he does not need it to know what is going on in the secret places of the earth.3 These are the best-known verses of the psalm, and rightly so. They are magnificent verses. “Never has the pen of man more effectively described the omnipresence of God.”4 These verses are worth the most careful study. Indeed, we should memorize them and so hide them in our hearts.
1H.C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1969), p. 945.
2Milton imagines Satan constructing a “paradise” in hell, a new seat of his power called Pandemonium. He has Satan cry defiantly:
Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal World! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
(Paradise Lost, Book 1)
Dante is closer to the truth when he imagines Satan being imprisoned forever in the tenth and very lowest ring of hell.
3These verses, which describe the darkness, lead into the next stanza, which speaks of the formation of man in the womb. It is noteworthy that each stanza of this brilliant composition anticipates and leads into the ideas to be developed in the verses that follow.
4H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, p. 945.
In what sense does David talk about fleeing from God?
Where does David say we can try to go? What is the result of each path?
What does the phrase “rise on the wings of the dawn” mean? How does this help our understanding of what David is trying to convey?
Observation: The use of imagery helps us understand the meaning of the psalm on a deeper level.
For Further Study: Read the book of Jonah for an example of how fleeing from God is impossible.
Key Point: When we get to that far distant horizon, we find that God is already there before us.