In the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer — on whose psalms and canticles we have been meditating — Psalm 139, a wisdom psalm of transparent beauty and deep emotional impact, is divided in two distinct parts. Today we will look at the first part of this composition (see verses 1-12), namely, the two first stanzas that exalt the fact that God knows everything (verses 1-6) and is present everywhere in space and time (verses 7-12).
The purpose of its powerful images and expressions is to celebrate the Creator: “If the works of creation are so great,” Theodoret of Cyr, a Christian writer of the fifth century, affirmed, “how great the Creator must then be!” (Discorsi sulla Provvidenza, 4: Collana di Testi Patristici, LXXV, Rome 1988, p. 115).
The psalmist’s meditation seeks, above all, to penetrate the mystery of God, who is transcendent yet near to us. The essence of the message that it presents is straightforward: God knows everything and is present amid his creation, which cannot isolate itself from him. However, his presence is not threatening or controlling, though, of course, he looks harshly upon evil, to which he cannot remain indifferent.
Nonetheless, the fundamental element is a saving presence that is capable of embracing the totality of both existence and history. For all practical purposes, this is the spiritual context to which St. Paul was referring when he was speaking in the Areopagus of Athens and quoted a Greek poet: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
The first stanza (Psalm 139:1-6), as was noted, celebrates God’s omnipresence: In fact, verbs of knowledge such as “to probe,” “to know,” “to understand” and “to be familiar with” are repeated throughout. As it is well known, knowledge in the biblical sense far exceeds plain and simple learning and intellectual understanding; it is a kind of communion between the one who knows and the one known. The Lord, therefore, is in an intimate relationship with us whenever we think and act.
The second stanza of the psalm, on the other hand, is dedicated to God’s omnipresence (verses 7-12). In this part, man’s illusory desire to evade God’s presence is described in a very vivid way. It encompasses all of space: the vertical axis of “heaven” and “abyss” (see verse 8), first of all, and then the horizontal dimension, which extends from the dawn — namely, from the East — to “beyond the sea,” the Mediterranean Sea — namely, the West (see verse 9). God’s presence is at work in every realm of space, including the most secret ones.
The psalmist then introduces the other reality in which we are immersed — the reality of time — which is symbolically represented by night and light, shadows and day (see verses 11-12). The Lord’s gaze and the Lord’s manifestation in being and time penetrate even the darkness, in which it is difficult to walk and to see. He is always willing to take us by the hand and guide us on our earthly journey (see verse 10). His closeness, therefore, is not one of terrifying judgment, but rather of support and freedom.
In this way, we are able to understand the ultimate and essential content of this psalm. It is a song of trust. God is always with us. Even in the darkest nights of our life, he does not abandon us. Even in difficult moments, he is present. Even in that final night, in that final solitude in which no one will be able to accompany us, in the night of death, the Lord does not abandon us. He accompanies us even in this final solitude of the night of death. For this reason, we, as Christians, can be confident that we are never alone. God’s goodness is always with us.
We began with a quote from the Christian writer, Theodoret of Cyr. We will end by letting him and his Fourth Discourse on Providence guide us, for, in the final analysis, this is the theme of the psalm. He reflects on verse 6, in which the psalmist exclaims, “Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach.” Theodoret comments on this passage by analyzing his inner conscience and personal experience, and makes the following affirmation: “Having looked at myself, having become intimately familiar with myself, and having removed myself from any external distraction, I wanted to immerse myself in the contemplation of my nature. … Reflecting on these things and thinking about the harmony between mortal and immortal nature, I was overcome by so much awe that, when I could not contemplate this mystery, I recognized my defeat. Moreover, as I proclaim the victory of the Creator’s knowledge and sing songs of praise to him, I cry: ‘Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach’” (Collana di Testi Patristici, LXXV, Rome, 1988, pp. 116, 117).
of Dec. 14 General Audience)
- January 1-7, 2006