Psalm 139: on the Embodiment of Good and Evil

September 7, 2021

One of the most beautiful aspects of Christ’s incarnation is the reminder of the inherent goodness of the human body: Christ came to us “in the flesh” 1 and we are being saved mind, body, and soul. Rather than being disembodied, listless spirits, we who are in Christ are made whole and have been promised future incorruptible bodies. 2 Especially in this age of viruses, famines, fear, and systemic injustice, the hope of seeing wholistic salvation is precious indeed. 

That’s the good news. The flip side of the coin, however, is that while embodied love came to us in the Messiah, embodied evil exists, too. Yes, our battle is against the “principalities” and “powers” 3 , against the “prince of the power of the air” 4 , but we experience the corruption of sin in a very real way in the decay we experience daily. We harm others in thought, word, and deed; we sin and are sinned against.  

This makes imprecatory Psalms (those which wish bodily harm against enemies) all the more tricky to deal with. Where do we read them as descriptive: as a psalmist’s prayers wrestling with these desires, and where do we read them as prescriptive: as prayers for the people to emulate? While some Psalms are mostly oriented toward punishment for God’s enemies (most notably Psalm 137), many have a mixture of judgment against the wicked and hope for God’s people. 

Psalm 139 is uniquely instructive because it contains both of these elements in the context of our embodied nature. Though it might be all-too-often taught as a series of rather disembodied truths, it is full of the language of bodies which sit, sleep, and run. It is no mistake that God inspired the psalmist to reflect on the enemies of God and the beauty of the human body. 

This particular psalm is full of grief and anger at the end, where David asks God to “slay the wicked … the bloodthirsty” and those who “misuse his name” (verses 19-20). David’s declaration to “hate those who hate you, LORD … abhor those who are in rebellion” might strike our 21st century ears as harsh and even seem to our New Testament-focused eyes as sinful. The psalmist does not end his proclamation there, however. He continues in asking God to check his own motivations and actions. In a more regularly quoted part of the psalm, we see a desire for God to “test me and know my anxious thoughts … see if there is any offensive way in me” (verses 23-24). 

Sometimes we are the wicked and bloodthirsty ones who must be corrected and restrained. Another more commonly memorized part of Psalm 139 tells us one way that we and others fall into the trap of being God’s enemies: we forget the fundamental truth that God “fearfully and wonderfully made” (verse 14) every single one of us. Every human being is one of God’s marvelous works, created in his image 5 , and the people of God are seeing this image “renewed in knowledge after the image of creator.” 6.  

When we deny this truth, we live into the old person, the old age. When we harm others, we are harming the very image of God, and thus are blaspheming against God’s name as Creator, Redeemer, and Friend. Attacks against God’s people are attacks against him, and those attacks come from both without and within. 

“When we harm others, we are harming the very image of God, and thus are blaspheming against God’s name as Creator, Redeemer, and Friend.”

Judas became embodied evil, betraying his Lord and friend with a kiss. But Peter also misunderstood and forgot the fullness of God’s image in his only begotten Son. Jesus had to fight the words of Satan which were uttered through Peter’s eager exhortations. 7 Though Peter loved his Lord, he failed to see him as both fully God and fully man, so he failed to focus on the work of God. When Peter was more worried about his own human goals than echoing the David in saying “How precious to me are your thoughts, God!” (verse 17) he stepped back into the identity of an enemy of God. 8  

It is right and good to pray for protection when people harm us by not seeing us in our fullness, 9 by ignoring the imago dei that we bear in all its nuance and grace. We also must pray for God to search and correct us when we are not seeing each other and ourselves in our fullness. Throughout human history, violence has come when human beings lose sight of the imago dei which bestows inherent worth and dignity in every person. It is far too easy to justify abuse, injustice, and cruelty toward another when we willfully forget that everyone has been made in the image of God. Whether we are overtly denying God, as Peter did after the crucifixion, or more subtly denying the “knowledge is too wonderful” (verse 6) by harming another person, our physical utterances and actions can be the embodiment of evil when we fail to meditate on what scripture teaches us about God’s good creation. 

It is only in the context of the rest of Psalm 139—the difficult parts that we’d like to ignore—that we can truly appreciate the joyful parts that we blithely mention at baby showers and Sunday School classes. The reality of God working to “knit together” (verse 13) is in direct defiance of the evil in the world. The beauty of being “woven together in the depths of the earth” (verse 15) comes in the face of an uncertain world and those who would bring harm to other human beings. Rather than being a merely “spiritual,” whitewashed, disembodied sentiment, the fact that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” (verse 14), is both a timely reminder and an eternal refutation of the very real presence of death and destruction that we see all around us. 

The thoughts of God are also not merely sentimental. They are life, creation, and redemption. His thoughts are indeed “vast” (verse 17) and powerful. Within them are the power of life and death. And his thoughts, miraculously, are of us! His active, efficacious thoughts find us hiding and bring us into his light: “where can flee from his presence?” (verse 7) For those he has called his own, his thoughts are full of care and kindness. His thoughts do not leave us behind, but seek us out and work miracles of transforming love in us. His thoughts bring true repentance and cause true peace. And this is made manifest in the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” 10 for “all the days ordained for were written in book before one of them came to be” (verse 16).  

“The thoughts of God are also not merely sentimental. They are life, creation, and redemption.”

Those works are to use the bodies which God has so carefully knit together to bring glimpses of his justice and love into the world. To use our physical selves to speak truth in word and deed, as we combat the very embodied evil in the world. So, as we strive to think God’s thoughts on what it means to be knit together both in our individual bodies and as God’s people, I offer this blessing: 

May we know full well that all God’s works are wonderful 

in mind, body, and soul. 

May we find conviction that even now there are offensive ways in us 

in mind, body, and soul. 

May we find repentance as we remember that darkness is a light to God 

in mind, body, and soul. 

May we find comfort that God leads us in the way everlasting 

in mind, body, and soul. 

And may we celebrate that all humans are fearfully and wonderfully made 

knit together in mind, body, and soul. 

About the Author
  • Chandra Crane (B.S. Education, M.A. Ministry) is a Multiethnic Initiatives Resource Specialist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a member of the multiethnic Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multiethnic/multicultural family in the Southwest and now happily transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. Chandra is the author of Mixed Blessing: Embracing the Fullness of Your Multiethnic Identity (InterVarsity Press). She is married to Kennan, a civil engineer, and they have two spunky daughters.  Chandra is a fan of hot tea, crossword puzzles, Converse shoes, and science fiction. She thoroughly enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane and on Instagram: @MixedBlessingBook.

  1. 1 Jn 4:1 

  2. Phil 3:21  

  3. Eph 6:12 

  4. Eph 2:2 

  5. Gen 1:27 

  6. Col 3:10 

  7. Mark 8:33 

  8. It’s also important to note that the psalmist acknowledges that God’s knowledge is “too lofty” (verse 6) for us; but we pursue our limited knowledge of God in the spirit of Eph 3:18-19. 

  9. Seeing each other in our fullness is helped by seeing Jesus in his fullness as someone who came to us in poverty, with a multiethnic heritage, who remained celibate, and who wrestled with the illnesses and grief that we all bear. 

  10. Eph 2:10  

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