If you grew up going to church, you already know Psalm 139. Even if you didn’t, parts of it are floating around your brain. It is a favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. (It is also—I’d bet money on this—the source of our hundred-year-old American expression “search me.”)
Psalm 139 gets my vote for being the most beautiful of the psalms in the King James version. The other day I happened to read it in French and it left me cold—it conjured up surveillance—whereas the high-low diction of the King James translators sings and is intimate, because you would only sing this way to a God you loved: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me.” It’s like an advertisement for the English language.
An old boss of mine used to claim that the most seductive words are not “I love you,” but “I understand you.” Surely a deep need is expressed by the line, “Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.” That fantasy, of someone who knows your every move—who sees the entire picture—and looks out for you all the same, may be pernicious or childish. But how do we outgrow it? To hear the poem, anyhow, is to feel the problem.
1 O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.
2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising,
thou understandest my thought afar off.
3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways.
4 For there is not a word in my tongue,
but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
5 Thou hast beset me behind and before,
and laid thine hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 Even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me.
12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
but the night shineth as the day:
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
13 For thou hast possessed my reins:
thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
marvellous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well.
15 My substance was not hid from thee,
when I was made in secret,
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect;
and in thy book all my members were written,
which in continuance were fashioned,
when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand:
when I awake, I am still with thee.
19 Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God:
depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
20 For they speak against thee wickedly,
and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee?
And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred:
I count them mine enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart:
try me, and know my thoughts:
24 And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Lorin Stein is editor of The Paris Review.