The Fathers on Psalm 139

This post is part of an ongoing series offering translations of various early Church father’s commentaries on the Psalms.

Psalm 139

Lord, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
Lord, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.

How precious to me are your designs, O God;
how vast the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands;
when I complete them, still you are with me.
When you would destroy the wicked, O God,
the bloodthirsty depart from me!
Your foes who conspire a plot against you
are exalted in vain.

Do I not hate, Lord, those who hate you?
Those who rise against you, do I not loathe?
With fierce hatred I hate them,
enemies I count as my own.

Probe me, God, know my heart;
try me, know my thoughts.
See if there is a wicked path in me;
lead me along an ancient path.

Athanasius: “Considering temptations as your testing, if you want to give thanks after the temptations you have Psalm 139.”[1]

Hilary of Poitiers: Therefore, intent on the study of truth, my mind took delight in these most pious teachings about God. For it did not consider any other thing worthy of God than that he is so far beyond the power of comprehension that the more the infinite spirit would endeavor to encompass him to any degree (even though it be by an arbitrary assumption), the more the infinity of a measureless eternity would surpass the entire infinity of the nature that pursues it. Although we understood this teaching in a reverent manner, it was clearly confirmed by these words of the prophet: Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea, Even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast. There is no place without God, nor is there any place which is not in God. He is in heaven, in hell and beyond the seas. He is within all things; he comes forth and is outside all things. While he thus possessed and is possessed, he is not included in anything nor is he not in all things.[2]

Pseudo-Athanasius: In this psalm, the prophet David indicates the incomprehensible profoundness of God’s wisdom and the calling of the Gentiles. As he trusts that he has firm faith in Christ—not having any association with those who crucified him—he calls as his witness the fashioned of hearts, he who also knows the impulses and thoughts of the mind, and seeks out every measure of the path (that is, our activity). Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all. And because he knows that there is no deceit on my tongue, for this he made me worthy of the imposition of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, far too lofty for me to reach. Yet I wondered at your knowledge and I was no match for it. Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea…. If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light.” For no one can be concealed from you anywhere: neither if he ascends to the heavens, nor if he descends to Sheol; or is hidden in the extremity of the sea and in the darkness that comes from luxury. Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one. You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. For all these are clear to you and evident, as to the one who also established our ordering, who are causes of fear of you. While I was still being carried in the womb, your providence was guarding me. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know. Therefore, I will confess you, for your works are awe-inspiring. My bones are not hidden from you, When I was being made in secret, fashioned in the depths of the earth. Even my first forming and decay into dust are known by you before their coming into being. How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them! Therefore also, your friends have been honored by me, so that for their sake I may obtain the honor that comes from you. When you would destroy the wicked, O God, the bloodthirsty depart from me! Your foes who conspire a plot against you are exalted in vain. Those who hate you—the men of blood—I have hated because they are quarrelsome in their thoughts. For such actions are characteristic of heretics, those who are anxious to seize your holy cities in their erroneous vanity. Do I not hate, Lord, those who hate you? Those who rise against you, do I not loathe? For this reason they were also enemies to me. Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts. But search me and known my heart and my ordering. See if there is a wicked path in me; lead me along an ancient path. Straighten every impious path of mine and lead me to eternal life.[3]


[1] Benjamin Wayman. Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms (Brewster, M.A.: Paraclete Press: 2014), 98.

[2] On the Trinity 1.6. FC 25:7-8. His igitur religiosissimis de Deo opinionibus veri studio detentus animus delectabatur. Neque enim aliud quid dignum esse Deo arbitrabatur, quam ita eum ultra intelligentias rerum esse, ut in quantum se ad aliquem praesumptae licet opinionis modum mens infinita protenderet, in tantum omnem persequentis se naturae infinitatem infinitas immoderatae aeternitatis excederet. Quod cum a nobis pie intelligeretur, tamen a propheta haec ita 6 dicente manifeste confirmabatur: Quo abibo a spiritu tuo, aut a facie tua quo fugiam? Si adscendero in coelum, tu illic es; si descendero in infernum, et ibi ades. Si sumpsero pennas meas ante lucem, et habitavero in postremis maris: etenim illuc manus tua deducet me, et tenebit me dextera tua. Nullus sine Deo, neque ullus non in Deo locus est. In coelis est, in inferno est, ultra maria est. Inest interior, excedit exterior. Ita cum habet, atque habetur; neque in aliquo ipse, neque non in omnibus est.

[3] Syriac. CSCO 387, SYRI 168V, page 87. For Greek and Latin, cx. PG 23: 529-536.

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