Psalm 139: Thereís An All-Seeing Eye

January 17, 1999

When I went to church as a child, we used to sing this song:

All along on the road to the soulís true abode,
Thereís an Eye watching you;
Every step that you take this great eye is awake,
Thereís an Eye watching you.

As you make lifeís great fight, keep the pathway of right,
Thereís an Eye watching you;
God will warn not to go in the path of the foe,
Thereís an Eye watching you.

Fix your mind on the goal, that sweet home of the soul.
Thereís an Eye watching you;
Never turn from the way to the kingdom of day,
Thereís an Eye watching you.

For each of its three verses, we repeated this refrain:

Watching you, watching you,
Evíry day mind the course you pursue;
Watching you, watching you,
Thereís an all-seeing Eye watching you.

Maybe it was just the same childish insecurities that made me afraid of unknowns in the dark, but I didnít sing that song with a sense of great joy and consolation. Maybe it was my penchant for a legalistic understanding of God as the "giant policeman in the sky," but that song gave me a sense of foreboding. Maybe it was the notion that had been drummed into me about how awful it would be to "get caught" doing wrong by a God of wrath, but that song pricked my tender conscience in every dark ó or even slightly gray! ó corner.

Since I know no way to discover the intention of the person who wrote that song, I donít know if J.M. Henson ó who apparently wrote both the words and music to "Watching You" ó meant for his composition to strike fear or foster faith. I can only speak to the way one person in his particular life setting reacted to it. When I was still so young and innocent that I had no personal basis for fearing Godís wrath, that song never failed to strike terror in my heart!

Godís Face

Although I know nothing about Mr. Henson, I do know a few things about King David of Israel. The superscription to Psalm 139 attributes this poem to him. And he clearly did not have in mind to create the reaction with this poem that Mr. Hensonís words evoked within my childish mind. Davidís theme is one of confidence in a loving God who pursues his people to bless them. When he writes "You hem me in ó behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me" (v.5), the meaning he intends is clear. The biblical metaphor of laying oneís hand upon another has to do with conferring a blessing or extending protection.

The All-Seeing Eye of Psalm 139 is not a snooping, sinister, ready-to-squelch eye. It is a penetrating, pursuing, eager-to-protect eye. It is not a policing eye but a parental eye. It is not a an eye that glares disapproval but one that sparkles approbation.

It was once my assignment to work with an artist to create a companyís Jesus figure for its Bible School literature. We went through several preliminary sketches that I rejected. My typical comment was that the characters he was coming up with were either too stereotypical for their ethereal, detached, otherworldly look ó you know, the float-on-air Jesus with uplifted hands ó or too harsh and forbidding. He seemed to sense what I wanted and came back with something I liked much better. But, since it was for childrenís literature, I thought the thing to do was to show it to some preschool children.

I will never forget the reaction of one of the children ó maybe four or five years old ó to whom I showed the picture. I lifted the cover sheet from the artistís pad to expose the larger-than-life face to him. He looked at "Jesus," glanced up at me, then moved toward the face. He kissed it! I knew we had the right face at precisely that moment. And it is still in use by the company that commissioned it. I believed then and now that it was the eyes ó intense but warm, strong but kind, penetrating but not threatening ó that made it appealing.

How do you visualize the face of Jesus? What is the configuration of his brow? What is the set of his jaw? How is his mouth framed? And what is communicated to you by his eyes?

Our English term "theology" fundamentally refers to oneís reflections on God. And there is wonderful theology in Psalm 139. David reflects on what we have come to think of as Godís omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Unlike most modern theologians, however, there is nothing abstract or obtuse in his reflections. He thinks of God in personal terms. He is not formulating doctrine about God but adoring him, praising him.

The Omniscient God

Is Davidís God omniscient (i.e., all-knowing)? Indeed! But it would never occur to him to use so abstract a term to describe Yahweh. So he writes in personal terms.

O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD (vs.1-4).

That God possesses such a complete knowledge of his human creatures is astounding to David. Again, it is not a threat but a blessing on his view of things. Perhaps this is a better way to express Davidís conviction about being "hemmed in" in todayís language: "I look behind me and youíre there, then up ahead and youíre there, too ó your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful ó I canít take it all in!" (vs.5-6, The Message).

The Omnipresent God

Is King Davidís God omnipresent (i.e., present in all places). Certainly! Again, however, he puts it in terms of Yahwehís continuous personal presence in the circumstances of his life ó from immeasurable depths to loftiest heights, from deepest darkness to most brilliant light, or, as modern might say it, from the outer reaches or limitless space to the inner recesses of a shattered heart.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you (vs.7-12).

Do you read these lines with the sense that the writer is trying to escape God out of fear? I donít. If there is any of this notion in his words, it is surely in the same sense that Peter once said to Jesus, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8). Both David and Peter surely felt unworthy to be the objects of concern to a God so high and holy as the one who had revealed himself in their presence. But this is not the pointless effort of a guilty, shamed person to flee God. It is a believerís astonished cry of rejoicing that there is no place or circumstance in which he can move beyond the Lordís reassuring, nurturing presence.

Does your own background, conditioning, or memory incline you to reply that you are different from King David? That you canít feel as he did because yours has not been the upright, godly life his had been? Hold on! This is the lustful, adulterous, murderous King David ó who had repented and accepted pardon!

David, you, or I could say, "I donít deserve to be loved by the Almighty." And we would all be right! David, you, or I could say, "My awful self-image and guilt are the result of my sinful behavior." Of course, it is! David, you, or I could cry, "Whatever punishment I receive is only just, and I deserve it." Of course, you do! David, you, or I could confess, "I am unworthy to stand in Godís presence ó except as a tearful penitent, barefoot in deep snow, pleading for mercy I should never receive."

No! These are medieval images of God rather than biblical visions of him! You are valuable because you are made in the likeness of God and loved by him. Because of what Jesus did at Golgotha, you are free from sinís stranglehold. You donít have to fear the wrath of God, for Jesus took all of it to himself on the cross. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). So that through his sadness you might have joy! So that through his bondage you could have freedom! So that by hanging his head to die you might raise yours to live!

The Omnipotent God

Is the God of King David omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful)? To be sure! Yet his power is not exploited to make us fear but to establish his ability to care for his people.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my motherís womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake,
I am still with you (vs.13-18).

While there are many psalms celebrating Yahweh as the creator of the vast universe (cf. Psa. 8; 104), this one visualizes him as the personal creator of individual human beings. David depicts the Lord "knitting him together" in his motherís womb. This is neither biochemistry nor embryology. It is a poetic celebration of the God who knows every detail of our being. It is worship for the God who cares about his creatures. It is confidence in the meaning of human life within a divine scheme. Indeed, he writes: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."

To the gods of the pagans, human life was expendable; humans were mere grist for their slow-grinding mills. To the despotic rulers of ancient and modern times, human life is cheap; men and women are mere fodder for their military machines or workers in their fields or sweatshops. To the materialist, we are all nothing more than DNA replicators; males and females of species homo sapiens are accidental outcomes of unplanned physical events.

From a biblical world-view, however, the nature and meaning of human life is very different. From womb to grave, God takes an intense interest in every one of us. He has stamped his own image upon each of us. His intention is to share his personal glory with us. It is not his will that a single human being should perish but that every one of us should enter his eternal kingdom (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).

The Uncompromising God

If all this is true, however, how can King David call upon such a deity to "slay the wicked" or be considered pious when he confesses "hatred" toward them? Here we encounter what appears to be a sharp turn from a theology of praise to a theology of imprecation. And many readers cringe to read the final lines of the poem.

If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting (vs.19-24).

Is this ending inappropriate to the majesty of what has gone before? I am willing to contend that it is the perfectly appropriate and warranted conclusion to all that has come before in this poem. If Godís holiness is praiseworthy, all that detests and defies that holiness is both abhorrent and insufferable. This is not an unworthy, coarse, sub-Christian conclusion to what had been on its way to being a spiritual gem among the psalms. It is a jewel precisely as it stands!

There is no such thing as a passionate love of truth apart from an equally passionate hatred of falsehood and its purveyors. There is no true love for justice in a society that tolerates or winks at injustice and bigotry. There is no affirmation of human dignity unless there is an authentic movement against the purveyors of prejudice and discrimination. And there is no pure love and praise for God from a human heart unless that same heart also deplores all that would defame him or violate the beauty of his holiness that pervades his universe.

"For all its vehemence, the hatred in this passage is not spite, but zeal for God."1 Indeed, there is nothing here that is not also in Paulís exhortation to the church at Corinth:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."

"Therefore come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you."
"I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty."

Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor. 6:14 ó 7:1).

The people against whom David inveighs are not the sinful-but-struggling believers who take their covenant with God seriously. They are not people like him who sinned terribly and then repented with a broken heart. They are "wicked" and "bloodthirsty" persons who have set themselves as Godís "adversaries." They "misuse [Godís] name" and "rise up against" him. These are arrogant, disdainful folk who have no regard for anything holy.

The Old Testament knows a category of sin that is called "defiant" or "willful" sin. It is not the sin of ignorance or weakness. It is not an unintentional offense against God. It is not even Abrahamís lie or Davidís adultery ó a serious sin that nevertheless can be owned as sin, repented of, and forgiven. "But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORDís word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him" (Num. 15:30-31). This sort of sin is so serious that David prayed: "Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression" (Psa. 19:13).

The New Testament speaks of the same category of sin. Jesus warned of a sin against Godís Holy Spirit that "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matt. 12:31-32). That sin is not murder, child molestation, or drug trafficking. It is not a particular deed but an attitude one may take toward anything he or she does against God ó so that it is defiant and willful, defamatory and arrogant to the degree that one can never bring himself to acknowledge it or seek forgiveness for it. "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (Heb. 10:26-27).

Sin, you see, is far more serious than we tend to think! God is not a sentimental old grandfather whom we defy with impunity. Salvation is not prayer or baptism or church membership. Discipleship is not something we can claim without the evidence of transformation in our lives. And those who believe they can mock God in these holy things without becoming Godís enemies and tasting his wrath only fool themselves.

After all, the greatest fear David has is not the brazen evil in the lives of some he might name but the faithless treachery of his own heart that could lead him astray from God. Thus, having already been "searched" by God (v.1), he closes his prayer with a plea that Yahweh would again "search" and "know" his inner being. He wanted to be so sensitive to the Lord that nothing "offensive" could be tolerated in his heart. Above all things, he wanted to share the fellowship that God wills for all his creatures, to walk with him "in the way everlasting."


Having started this sermon with something of a lament that I had originally known "The God of the All-Seeing Eye" only in terms of a law-enforcing judge whose eye was critical and judgmental, I want to try to balance that lament now with a bit of circumspect gratitude.

I am glad that someone or something in my childhood impressed me with Godís holiness and with the fact of my accountability to him. It is healthy both to hate and fear evil. And I am concerned that some people in some churches in some places may be learning about a God who has no higher standards than the latest Gallup or Harris poll and who is so anxious to have devotees that he will take just anyone on his or her own terms.

Both these views are horribly, horribly wrong and leave people with limited prospects for knowing the true God. Some of my friends who started where I did have long since given up on God altogether as an impossible-to-please overlord. And I know others whose God is made in their image and who will never enter the kingdom of God that requires submission and obedience as proof of faith.

So that we could see the God who always sees us, he came among us as Jesus. He knew Nathanaelís initial scorn for a Messiah from Nazareth and resolutely challenged him to faith. He stood with an adulteress in her humiliation and gave her a second chance at life. He gave Peter another chance, and another chance, and another chance. But he discerned that some of the people he met were hopelessly hypocritical and "wrote them off" to the kingdom. He saw that others were children of Satan, so enslaved to evil that they could not desire to be free from it. He gave up on Judas ó but only after the disciple from Kerioth chose to let Satan fill his heart.

Now there is a true picture of God. He is totally worthy of our praise for his holiness, perfect understanding, and flawless insight. He is altogether worthy of our devotion for his loving overture to us in teaching, modeling, and inviting us into the life of the kingdom of God ó then dying to provide us entrance into it. And he is equally worthy for his unalterable hostility toward the things that are destroying the nobility, joy, and prospects of those creatures in his universe who are closest to his heart.

Do you see the one who sees you? Do you see that he is perfect in all his ways? And, with David, do you want to walk with him in the way everlasting?


1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73ó150 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 467.

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