I’ve read Psalm 139 many times, and have preached on it several times for funerals and for Sunday morning. Yet a couple of weeks ago when I heard the psalm again as part of a group lectio divina, I heard it in a new way.
As the psalm was read a first time, I simply listened, ready to receive whatever God had in store for me. How ever much I had already read and studied the psalm before, this moment was not about information and more head knowledge, but simply about being receptive to God. I let the words wash over me:
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 far away.
On the second reading, we were asked to listen for a specific word or phrase, and I found my attention drawn particularly to verse 5:
You hem me in, behind and before.
To me this had never been a particularly positive image — I thought of being “hemmed in” as a negative thing — to be held back, to be restrained or cut off from something.
On the third reading, we were asked to listen for a word picture, and I immediately imagined a green expanse of lawn with a white fence enclosing a smaller space shaped like a diamond. I’m not sure where that came from since the psalm doesn’t mention grass or a fence, but for me it was an image of being “hemmed in,” and I was struck by the brilliant colours — the grass a vivid green, the fence freshly painted white.
On the final reading, we were asked to listen for an expression of God’s care. I’ve preached God’s compassion in Psalm 139 before — how God knows us through and through, even better than we know ourselves, and cares for us. This time I suddenly realized that being “hemmed in” was not entirely negative, but a positive expression of God’s care.
Just as the fence provided a clear boundary in my vision, good boundaries help give definition to my life. Good boundaries protect me — from my tendency to say yes when I really need to say no, from rushing in where wiser angels fear to tread. No wonder the fence formed a diamond and the colours were so vivid — being “hemmed in” by God was actually a beautiful thing and life-giving in a way I hadn’t thought of before.
It reminded me of verses 9-10 of the psalm where God’s hand holds me fast. I’ve always thought of that in a positive way — not as being held back from something, but being held by God’s care and protection. Now I understood being “hemmed in” by God in the same way.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Even there your hand shall lead me,
and you will hem me in with your care.