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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Psalm 139 begins this way:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is high; I cannot attain it.

There are few more rapturous selections of poetry about God’s omniscience, even among the psalms. The psalmist is completely floored as he explores the limitlessness of God’s knowledge as it relates to us, his creation. The word for “searched” in verse 1 has a meaning related to boring or drilling into the earth, as for mining operations. What a beautiful word picture of God piercing through the hard exterior that we present to the world, down into our very deepest, most secret hearts, and examining what truly lies there. The psalmist interrupts himself in verse 4, because he cannot even contain his excitement. Behold, he says, perhaps in an antiquated version of the more modern, “God, you literally know literally everything I’m going say say before I say it.” We can’t wrap our minds around the height and depth of God’s knowing, the psalmist says. It is too unattainably high.

Verses 7-12 move from God’s omniscience to his omnipresence. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” he asks in verse 7. He is not implying that he wishes to escape from God, but that he would be unable to if he tried. Many years later, in Athens, Paul preached to a group of Greek philosophers and, using a line from one of their own pagan poets, expressed this thought about God, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God, being spirit and not corporeal, is everywhere all the time, and there is nowhere we can go where he is not. Verse 12 returns to the idea of God’s omniscience in his omnipresence: “…even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” The darkness here is metaphorical; it is to say, as one commentator puts it, “that in the darkest night of sorrow, when there seems to be nothing but deep midnight, when there appears to be not a ray of light in his dwelling or on his path, that all to the eye of God is as clear as noon-day! For in that night of sorrow God sees him as plainly as in the brightest days of prosperity and joy.”

Only now, after fully meditating on God’s incomparable attributes of knowledge and presence, does the psalmist transition beautifully to an encomium on the wonder of our creation. “I praise you,” says verse 14, because any meditations upon the wonders of God should naturally lead us to a posture of praise. The words translated “fearfully” and “wonderfully” are both full of deeper meaning. “Fearfully” is quite simply fearful things, things that produce fear or reverence. It’s the same word used throughout the Old Testament for the fear of the Lord, and it’s the same word of comfort that the Lord often gives to his people when he tells them not to fear. The word translated as “wonderfully made” means to be separated or distinct. It’s used much less frequently, but most often when God is setting apart his people. The idea the psalmist attempts to convey is that a human is distinguished from among the other works of creation so as to create a sense of awe and reverence at the glory and power of God.

This, then, is what it means to be image-bearers of our God. We are to be so attuned to him, so shaped and imprinted by his spirit, that when others observe and know us, they are awestruck at the workmanship of our God. It is as though we bear his actual fingerprints upon our physical bodies, as though he signed his name with a flourish at the bottom of the masterpiece painting of us. No one looks at Michelangelo’s David and praises the marble for forming itself so beautifully. No, we praise the sculptor for his skill and precision and creativity! Just so with our God. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Immediately after marveling over God’s creation of man, the psalmist echoes his words from the beginning of the psalm. He says in verses 17 and 18, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.” The word translated as “thoughts” is an unusual one, found elsewhere only in verse 2; just as God discerns our thoughts with ease, so we are unable to fathom the boundlessness of the thoughts and purposes of God. Think about a man living in a desert country comparing the thoughts of God to the number grains of sand on the earth. And just like that, the psalmist has turned our attention away from ourselves and back to God. As he said in verse 4, “You hem me in, behind and before.” God is the beginning and the end, our sole motivation and purpose, the alpha and the omega.

John Piper has a very slightly edited version of the old Westminster catechism that answers the question “What is the chief end of man?” That is to say, why are we here? Piper says the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. The more that we learn about God, the more that we understand his nature, character, and majesty, the more that we love, worship, and glorify him. The more we glorify him, the more we enjoy him, so the more we glorify him, and so on forever. It’s a beautiful picture of our place in the world as God intended, attuning our lives to sing an unbroken hymn of praise to our creator.

Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass

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