A Psalm Transfigured

Grace has the power to transfigure a divine surveillance psalm into a love song

I’d long thought of it as the Divine Surveillance Psalm: “You have searched me and known me/ You know when I sit down and when I rise up … Even before a word is one my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” I didn’t want to be that well-known by anyone. If you’re supposed to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, I wanted to keep my secrets closest of all.

When a spiritual director assigned me Psalm 139 to reflect on for the beginning of a year-long retreat, I balked. “I have a bad history with this one,” I protested. “Give me something else.” She replied, nodding, “Everyone starts here. Explore your resistance.”

So what was my resistance? I wanted a psalm that talked about God, not to God. There are plenty of them. Psalm 100 speaks of “the Lord,” as in “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all you lands.” Psalm 18 affirms “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, … my rock in whom I take refuge.” As a trained theologian, I was far more comfortable talking about God than to God. I wanted to keep the divine mystery mysterious and at arm’s length, safely in third-person singular.  

Moreover, I wanted a psalm spoken by a group. There’s safety in numbers, and I gravitated toward psalms that used “we,” psalms voiced from a community or spoken to a community. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream…,” Psalm 126 begins.  It concludes with the community bossing God around: “Restore our fortunes…” As a Lutheran Christian, I was used to conversation with, about, and to God happening in the midst of the congregation of the faithful, the congregatio fidelium. If God had to be addressed directly, better to be able to hide in a crowd.

I returned to my spiritual director better acquainted with the psalter as a whole and armed with many and various ways in which the psalms talk about God. I have plenty of suggestions for alternative psalms that might go down easier in my prayer life.

My director nodded solemnly at my new-found erudition—and added a few forms of address to the Lord that I’d forgotten, for in her day job she taught law and was an expert in reading texts. She sent me home again with Psalm 139.  She did this week after week, until it was clear that my chief barrier was the psalmist’s repeated use of two words, “I” and “You.” 

Then, I had to work on the relationship I had always assumed existed between those two words. As a hyper-conscientious, responsible, hard-working person, I was pretty sure God wouldn’t need to bother with me unless I were doing something wrong. The only relationship possible between “I” and “you” was scrutiny. Above all, I wanted to avoid that. No wonder, I regarded Psalm 139 as a divine surveillance psalm!

I remember presenting this all to my director, who smiled and said, “if you can’t understand how much God loves you, stay with this psalm until you do.” I was stuck with the psalm I feared the most, and it was stuck with me.

But my director had also offered a key to unlocking the psalm, should I dare to pick it up. That key would not only open Psalm 139, but the whole of the psalter. What if these were words of love, spoken by a lover to the beloved? The psalm began to make a different kind of sense. Because, like everyone, I wanted to be known—right down to the deepest secret—and loved because of and in spite of it. I wanted someone to know my thoughts better than I did. I wanted someone to notice when I went missing. I wanted someone to weep with me, to laugh with me, to pull me out of the pits of darkness into which I constantly stumbled—or even dug for myself.  

Words that once threatened suddenly offered womb-like consolation, “even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day” (verse 11). If someone this close and this loving had “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (verse 13), there might be a way back to my best self. And, while I had and still have trouble with the verses of the psalm that speak about the wicked (verses 19-22), I like being given permission to hate them “with a perfect hatred” and then given the assurance that God will deal with them. I don’t have to.

As I worked through the psalm, week after week, committing it to memory and saying it when I was frightened or lonely or awake in the night, gradually, the psalmist’s voice became my own. The words gave voice to something I had always known, but never had the language for. 

And one day a very strange thing happened. Instead of beginning the psalm in my voice with the word “you,” I found myself beginning with God’s. “I have searched you and known you; I know when you sit down and when you rise up, I discern your thoughts from afar …”  The relationship between the words “I” and “you” had become a relationship of intimacy—indeed, love.  

Psalm 139 was a portal into the psalter as a whole, again, putting into words and emotions I felt deeply but struggled to articulate. I wasn’t alone in this. When his own words failed him, Jesus turned to Psalm 22 to cry out his anguish: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me … ” Through the psalter, I understand that before God, nothing is off limits; all emotions are welcome: anger, love, longing, lament, regret, sorrow, deep physical pain, and wild joy.

And it all started when grace transfigured a divine surveillance psalm into a love song.

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