Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 139

The Hound of Heaven

Though we deeply long for God, we try to evade him too. So our loving God pursues us relentlessly, knowing that those who don’t embrace him fall prey to evildoers intent on keeping us from him.

For the leader. A David psalm.

YHWH, you’ve searched me and know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
You discern all my thoughts from afar.
3 Scrutinizing my every move, my every pause
you’re well-versed in all my ways.
4 Not a word comes out of my mouth, YHWH
that you don’t fully comprehend.
5 You’ve hemmed me in, before and behind
and you’ve got your hand on me too.
6 Such knowledge is utterly staggering to me—
far above anything I can take in.

7 Where could I go from your Spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
8 If I soar through the heavens
I find you there.
If I lie low in the underworld
there you are!
9 If I take wing with the dawn
and settle on the sea’s farthest shore
10 even there your hand guides me
and has a firm grip on me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
as day fades to night around me”
12 darkness isn’t dark to you.
Night is as bright as day
since darkness and light are alike to you.

13 It was you who fashioned my inmost being
knitting me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you that I’m uniquely set apart—
how wonderful is your workmanship
as I know deep down.
15 Nothing about my body was hidden from you
as I was being formed in complete secrecy
woven together in earth’s inmost sanctuary.
16 You saw me before my body took shape
having already recorded every day of my life
before a single one had passed.
17 How momentous your thoughts are, God
how vast in number!
18 If I could count them all
they’d outnumber the grains of sand…
and in the end
I’d still find myself with you.

19 If only you’d make an end of the wicked, God!
Get away from me, you cutthroats!
20 They talk about undermining your just rule
all the while throwing your name around
to legitimize what they do.
21 See how I hate those who hate you, YHWH
and abhor those who defy you?
22 I can’t stand anything about them
and count all your enemies my enemies!

23 Search me and know my heart, O God
probe me and know my thoughts.
24 Make sure none of my ways offend you
and lead me on eternity’s path.

As uplifting as this psalm is, many would prefer it if David had omitted verses 19-22. But even in the psalm’s first sections, he speaks of God’s being everywhere in relation to not just his gracious care, but also his inescapability. God knows everything about David—his future included—and has been fully involved in his life from the very start. David speaks of not just God’s understanding of him, but also the flip-side of that truth: David’s inability to hide anything from God. So we see God’s relentless pursuit of him and David’s sense of the folly of refusing to yield to God’s embrace.

In verse 19, David wonders why a God who knows everything, is present everywhere, and has absolute power doesn’t immediately set things right by ridding the world of evildoers. God’s not doing so leaves David surrounded by ruthless thugs determined to ensnare him in their evil ways. Though they’re full of pious talk, they use God’s name only to hide their defiance of his rule. Loving God, David wants nothing to do with them: he fervently hates everything about them.

Having recalled the evil alternative and professed his fierce loyalty to God, any ambivalence David has toward God melts away as he implores God to search him thoroughly so that there’s nothing left to divert him from the true path. Thus, like Francis Thompson’s surrender to the “Hound of Heaven,” David sweetly submits to God’s loving embrace.

In the gospels, we see David’s embrace of God mirrored in Jesus’ giving himself to his Father without reservation—and that despite the extreme opposition he faced from evildoers. To be like him, we must likewise embrace God with open arms—whatever opposition we face—trusting that he’ll search our hearts and keep us walking eternity’s path.

Parading their false piety, Jesus, ruthless men tried to trap you in their evil ways. But being fully open to your Father’s embrace, you walked the path of eternity, fully embracing him and his holy will. Search me and know me, Lord. Keep me walking always on your path. Amen.

During your free moments today, pray these words:

Search me and know my heart, O God
probe me and know my thoughts.

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.