Psalm 139 is all about God, simply and solely. If that doesn’t interest you, I doubt that you’ll find it of much help in life. That it might not interest you is, of course, tragic. That it ought to interest you goes without saying. But let me say it anyway. Better still, let Charles Spurgeon say it:
“There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can comprehend and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, ‘Behold I am wise.’ But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the . . . solemn exclamation, ‘I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.’. . . But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. . . . Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continuing investigation of the great subject of the Deity” (The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 1, 1855 [Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1975], 1).
As we saw in the previous meditation, David’s passionate concern in vv. 1-6 is with God’s knowledge of him: his exhaustive, comprehensive, infallible insight into his soul and spirit, into every movement and motivation of his life. In vv. 7-12 he turns his attention to God’s presence. His point is that God is inescapable:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Ps. 139:7-12).
Did David really want to escape God’s presence? Is this descriptive of an actual historical event in which he sought to elude the Almighty? There’s no evidence to indicate that such was his intent. In all likelihood David is speaking hypothetically: “If it were my intent to flee your presence, would I be successful? Where could I possibly go?” Of course, the answer is “Nowhere!” For you, O God, are “Everywhere!”
If ascent were David’s avenue of escape, it would be to no avail. No matter how high he goes, God is there. If he reversed course and descended into the depths of the grave, God is waiting patiently for him there as well. To seek to flee God’s presence in any and every direction is to fly into the center of the fire to escape the heat.
Perhaps if David were to make light itself his chariot (at 186,000 miles per second!), he could escape God’s presence. Alas, not even the lightning like rapidity with which the rays of the sun dart from east to west as they first break out over the horizon at dawn (“the wings of the morning,” v. 9) are sufficiently speedy to outrun God.
There’s one last chance (or is there?). If one might somehow sink beneath the depths of the sea, where no light can penetrate and no human has yet ventured, where strange and elusive creatures swim in utter anonymity, God would surely be absent. Think again.
Such extravagant efforts to escape God’s presence have all failed. Perhaps, then, something less dramatic is called for. Why not simply turn off the lights, pull the drapes, close the blinds, and draw up the covers over one’s head? No, again no, not even the most impenetrable gloom of night can shut God out. Darkness may conceal man from man, but not man from God.
Is there no secluded hideaway, some remote corner of the universe to which even the Deity has no access? Might we not there sin freely? Might we not there sin secretly? But where is “there”? Name it, find it on a map, describe it however you choose, and there you’ll find God!
Let’s be sure we understand the theological truth behind David’s language.
Theologians rightly make a distinction between immensity and omnipresence when they talk of God’s relation to space. Whereas immensity affirms that God transcends all spatial limitations, that his being cannot be contained or localized, omnipresence signifies more specifically the relationship which God in his whole being sustains to the creation itself. In other words, omnipresence (being positive in thrust) means that God is everywhere present in the world; immensity (being negative in thrust) means that he is by no means limited to or confined by it.
This means that it is probably inappropriate to speak of God as having size, for this term implies something that is measurable, definable, with boundaries and limitations. It would seem, then, that the question, “How big is God?” is unanswerable.
God, of course, is not “in space” in the sense that we or the angelic host are. We who have material bodies are bounded by space and thus can always be said to be here and not there, or there and not here. That is, a body occupies a place in space. Angelic spirits, on the other hand, as well as the dead in Christ now in the intermediate state, are not bound by space and yet they are somewhere, not everywhere. But God, and God alone, fills all space. He is not absent from any portion of space, nor more present in one portion than in another. To put it in other terms, we are in space circumscriptively, angels are in space definitively, but God is in space repletively.
Psalm 139 is hardly the only place in Scripture where this truth is found. Consider also:
“Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:24).
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27).
We should also remember that God is present everywhere in the totality of his being and not merely by the operation of his will. That is to say, he is essentially or substantially, not only dynamically, omnipresent. Some falsely contend that God is present in all places only by way of influence and power, acting upon the world from a distance, but not himself wholly present throughout. But as Herman Bavinck explains, “God is not present in creation as a king in his realm or a captain aboard his ship. He does not act upon the world from a distance; but with his whole being he is present powerfully here and everywhere with respect to his essence and power” (162).
Although God is wholly present throughout all things, he is yet distinct from all things. It does not follow that because God is essentially in everything that everything is essentially God. Pantheism asserts that the being of God is one and the same with the being of all reality, such that God minus the world = O. Biblical theism, on the other hand, asserts that God minus the world = God. The universe is the creation of God and thus, in respect to essence, no part of him. The creation is ontologically other than God, a product ex nihilo of the divine will, not an extension of the Divine Being itself. Consequently, although all things are permeated and sustained in being by God (Col. 1:16-17; Acts 17:28), God is not all things. Again, God is not present as each point in space but rather present with/in each point in space.
What practical implications does this marvelous theological truth have for us? In the first place, there is in divine omnipresence a stern warning to the wicked. Stephen Charnock elaborates:
“How terrible should the thoughts of this attribute be to sinners! How foolish is it to imagine any hiding-place from the incomprehensible God, who fills and contains all things, and is present in every point of the world. When men have shut the door, and made all darkness within, to meditate or commit a crime, they cannot in the most intricate recesses be sheltered from the presence of God. If they could separate themselves from their own shadows, they could not avoid his company, or be obscured from his sight. . . . Hypocrites cannot disguise their sentiments from him; he is in the most secret nook of their hearts. No thought is hid, no lust is secret, but the eye of God beholds this, and that, and the other. He is present with our heart when we imagine, with our hands when we act. We may exclude the sun from peeping into our solitudes, but not the eyes of God from beholding our actions” (174).
Spurgeon agrees, and reminds us that “this (truth) makes it dreadful work to sin; for we offend the Almighty to His face, and commit acts of treason at the very foot of His throne. Go from Him, or flee from Him we cannot; neither by patient travel nor by hasty flight can we withdraw from the all-surrounding Deity. His mind is in our mind; Himself within ourselves. His spirit is over our spirit; our presence is ever in His presence” (3:260).
If God’s omnipresence frightens the wicked, it should console and comfort the righteous. No matter what the trial, no matter the place of its occurrence; no matter the swiftness with which it assaults, no matter the depth of its power, God is ever with us! His loving protection ever abides. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).
Finally, Charnock reminds us of what a glorious and powerful incentive to holiness is the truth of God’s omnipresence:
“What man would do an unworthy action, or speak an unhandsome word in the presence of his prince? The eye of the general inflames the spirit of a soldier. Why did David ‘keep God’s testimonies’? Because he considered that ‘all his ways were before him,’ Ps. cxix. 168; because he was persuaded his ways were present with God, God’s precepts should be present with him. The same was the cause of Job’s integrity; ‘doth he not see my ways?’ Job xxxi. 4; to have God in our eye is the way to be sincere, ‘walk before me,’ as in my sight, ‘and be thou perfect,’ Gen. xvii. 1. Communion with God consists chiefly in an ordering our ways as in the presence of him that is invisible. This would make us spiritual, raised and watchful in all our passions, if we considered that God is present with us in our shops, in our chambers, in our walks, and in our meetings, as present with us as with the angels in heaven; who though they have a presence of glory above us, yet have not a greater measure of his essential presence than we have” (179).
Omniscient! Omnipresent! And now, on to Omnipotent!