Was David Familiar With The Book of Job: The Enigma Of Psalm 139

As part of my continuing series on the Book of Psalms, I would like to examine Psalm 139. This psalm of David is not often studied, though it does form the basis of the Maori-influenced hymn “Search Me, O God.” After examining the contents of Psalm 139 we will examine one of its fascinating enigmas, and that is its possible signs of influence from the Book of Job, whose authorship and time of writing remains somewhat obscure. First, though, let us examine Psalm 139 on its own.

You Have Searched Me And Known Me

In the first passage of Psalm 139, David reflects on God’s awesome knowledge that extends far beyond human knowledge. Psalm 139:1-6 reads as follows: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You hav hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.”

This passage begins by asserting that God has searched David and known his thoughts, his way of life, his language, his behavior, and completely known it. David is saying that he has no secrets from God, and that God’s knowledge is far beyond his knowledge. But by beginning with the perfect knowledge of God, David is able to frame this whole psalm as a reflection on God’s perfect knowledge leading to His perfect care, which appears to be a gentle and ironic response to the central problem of the Book of Job.

Where Can I Go From Your Spirit?

Next, in the second passage of Psalm 139, David elaborates on the perfect knowledge of God by showing that there is no escaping from God’s presence. Psalm 139:7-12 reads as follows: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dell in the uttermost prts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You.”

Here David again (coincidentally?) reflects on a major theme of Job, the fact that it is impossible to escape from God, whether in the darkness, across the sea, in heaven, or even in the grave. God’s hand and protecting “hedge” follow a believer wherever they go, so that God’s care is everywhere. Unsurprisingly as well, this passage is also another reflection of the biblical understanding of resurrection, given that David understood that death was not the end, but that even if he slept in the grave, God’s hand would still be with him and bring him out of the grave once again.

How Precious Also Are Your Thoughts To Me

David continues his praise of God’s works by examining how God made him. We read of this in Psalm 139:13-18, which goes as follows: “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in seret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes say my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; when I am awake, I am still with You.”

Again, David offers an ironic reply to Job. While Job cursed the day of his birth because of his sorrows, David himself praises God’s skillful crafting of him within the womb. He knows that he is wonderfully made, complex, and showing evidence of great skill in his construction. These things scientists know as well, who study our body’s systems, our cells, and our genetic code. Additionally, David reflects on the difficult subject of predestination (see Romans 8:28-30), stating that God designed his life, and wrote out the days he would live before he ever drew breath. David also states that God knew David’s character and substance before it was yet formed in life, another fascinating glimpse at an aspect of our characters that God can see in the womb. These are deep and obscure matters, far too high for us to fully comprehend, but we ought to ponder them in our hearts nonetheless.

See If There Is Any Wicked Way In Me

As is typical of the chaistic format of many psalms (including Psalm 23), David ends at the beginning, by examining God’s knowledge and asking Him to search his ways and to keep his paths righteous and to punish the wicked to are hostile and rebellious to God’s ways. Psalm 139:19-24 reads as follows: “Oh that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against you wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate the, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them as my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

This passage contrasts the saving faith that David has with the hostility of those who are rebellious against God’s ways. It speaks an unpopular truth, that loving God requires hatred of actions hostile to God. If we will be friends with God, His enemies must be our enemies. To hate the deeds of the wicked is part of righteousness, a part of righteousness that we often seem to forget in our times (see Revelation 2:6). Just as David hates God’s enemies, though, he would hate for any evil way to be in himself, so he asks God to search his heart (as he commented on in the beginning) and keep him on the straight and narrow path to everlasting life.

The Importance of Psalm 139

Taken on its own merits, without comparing it to other parts of scripture, what is the worth of Psalm 139? Its importance is primarily in the way it combines God’s knowledge (and, it would appear, some measure of foreknowledge) with what that means for both those who are obedient and disobedient to God. Those who obey God will be protected by God wherever they go (even in the grave), their actions guided by God for His plans. Those who are hostile to God can only await destruction, for all the earth belongs to God, and no one can go somewhere that God cannot find them, whether for good or for ill. God’s justice and His power and His righteousness and His knowledge are all without limit—there is no escape from his providence.

Psalm 139 manages to combine a few different types of psalm together. A large part of the psalm is a psalm of individual praise, though it is also a “wisdom” psalm in that it preaches about God’s knowledge and ways, as well as an imprecatory psalm in preaching judgment to the enemies of God. The most quoted part of the psalm is the last part, where David prays that God search His heart, see if there be any wicked way in him, and guide him along paths of righteousness. But we would be remiss if we only thought of this part without reflecting on the rest of the psalm as a whole, including its reflection on God’s knowledge, power, reach, and justice against the wicked.

However, the importance of Psalm 139 is even greater when one considers that it bears numerous striking resemblances to the book of Job. The large number of references to Job within this psalm appear to be beyond the level of coincidence. The fact that the psalm as a whole reflects God’s providential care for the believer suggests that the whole theme of the psalm may be relating to a response to Job’s searching and questioning attitude about his trial and whether it meant that God had abandoned him. Therefore, let us examine the parallels between Job and Psalm 139, in context, to see whether the connections look coincidental because they are dealing with the same theme, or whether they suggest that David was consciously aware of the text of Job.

The Parallels Between Psalm 139 and Job

Let us therefore examine the parallels between Psalm 139 and Job, placing the verses next to each other with a brief explanation of the context in each, so that we may see if the parallels are merely coincidental or if they reflect some knowledge on David’s part of the content of Job. After all, if David was familiar with the content of the book of Job we can know that at the latest it must have been written during the course of his lifetime, even if its author remains obscure.

Psalm 139:3 reads: “You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” This verse parallels Job 14:16: “For now You number my steps, but do not watch over my sin.” The verse also parallels Job 31:4: “Does He not see my ways, and count all my steps?” Both of these statements from Job reflect Job’s awareness of the knowledge of God’s paths, and share the same sentiment that David expresses in Psalm 139. While Job’s awareness of God’s knowledge depresses him, since he feels abandoned and cut off, David’s awareness of God’s knowledge gives him hope that God will deliver him from evil. It would appear therefore that the relationship between the context of Job 14 and 31, two despondent prayers from Job, and David’s much more encouraging Psalm 139 may not be coincidental.

Psalm 139:5 reads: “You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand on me.” Job 1:10 records Satan’s complaint about Job: “Have you not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.” Here we see both a comment on God’s hedge of protection from a believer (David) as well as from the enemy (Satan) about a believer (Job). The language is the same, and suggests again that the concept of a hedge around a believer being referred to in both places was not coincidental.

Psalm 139:6 reads: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.” A similar sentiment is expressed in Job 42:3: “You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Both David and Job, at the end of his experience, come to the same understanding that there are some matters of God, some aspects of His knowledge, that are simply far beyond human understanding. Again, this particular reference between Psalm 139 and Job does not appear coincidental either.

Psalm 139:8 reads: If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in the grave, behold, you are there.” Job 26:6 reads: “Sheol [the grave] is naked before Him, and destruction has no covering.” Job 14:13 reads: “Oh, that You would hide me in the grave, that You would conceal me until Your wrath is past, that You would appoint me a set time, and remember me.” Again, the level of connection between these verses suggests a level of coincidence that is beyond coincidental. Both Job and David realize that the grave cannot hide someone from God’s care, and this leads to a hope in the resurrection to come, and the knowledge that the dead will rise again to face God’s judgment, or to enjoy eternal life.

While Job complains in Job 30:26: “But when I looked for good, evil came to me; and when I wanted for light, then came darkness,” David replies in Psalm 139:12: “Indeed the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You.” Again, the book of Job appears to ask a difficult question and David gives the answer of faith in Psalm 139, as it has been previously, time after time. The fact that these parallels are all between David’s words and Job’s words within the book of Job suggests that it is not a matter of mere “cherry-picking” of examples, but a deliberate attempt as part of a dialogue. After all, David’s words mirror Elihu’s in Job 34:22: “There is no darkness nor shadow of death where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves.” David thus endorses Elihu’s wisdom, and thoughtfully answers Job’s pointed questions and serious laments.

Psalm 139:15 reads: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.” Job 10:8, another lament from Job, speaks as follows: “Your hands have made me and fashioned me, an intricate unity; yet You would destroy me.” Both Job and David understand that God formed the body skillfully and intricately, and David’s statement as a statement of faith contrasts with Job’s searching lament. Again, the connection is between David and Job, and again the reference does not appear to be coincidental. At the very least, they are both making the same points about the skill of the construction of human beings reflecting the skill of the creator who made us.

And, finally, Psalm 139:23 reads: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties.” This verse echoes Job 31:6, which reads: “Let me be weighted on honest scales, that God may know my integrity.” Both David and Job, as godly believers, long be judged by a just standard. Job is lamenting that God’s standard to him appears unjust, and he longs to be treated fairly. Both David and Job want God to guide them righteously, and both accept, in the immediate context of both Job 31 and Psalm 139:19-22, the judgment of God upon evildoers. Again, this close relationship does not appear to be coincidental.

The fact that both Psalm 139 and Job share many points of contact dealing with the same points either in agreement or where David provides an answer of faith where Job provides a lament in suffering suggests that Psalm 139 is meant as a just and godly answer to the searching questions of the book of Job. The frequent and close points of contact, and the fact that David merely deals with Job’s comments, and does not deal with the foolish comments of Job’s so-called friends (and only once comments in agreement with Elihu), suggests that David was aware of Job’s text and was directly responding to it. The fact that nearly one third of all of the verses of Psalm 139 share a direct link with Job, besides the thematic agreement as a whole, does at least strongly indicate that the book of Job was known to David, which would place the latest it could be written within his own lifetime, suggesting that Job is at least 3000 years old in its present form—including its prologue and epilogue (both of which are referred to by David).

Conclusion

Apparently I am not the only person to make this connection between Job and Psalm 139 [1]. However, not everyone who sees the connection draws the link in the same way. While I see Psalm 139 as a response to the searching questions of Job, others see Job as questioning and turning inside-out the pious and orthodox statements of this psalm, arguing that Job is an exilic document [2]. Correlation does not prove causality, but is it not at least as probable, if not more so, that David’s Psalm 139 is a midrash on Job than that Job is a midrash on an obscure Davidic psalm, especially given that Job as a historical figure exists in the time of the patriarchs, long before David? I leave it to the reader to decide for himself. Unfortunately, correlation does not prove causality, only that there is a relationship between the two texts. At any rate, it would appear that the relationship between Psalm 139 and the Book of Job is not coincidental, though it leaves many enigmatic questions remaining about the relationship, and about the authorship and date of writing for the Book of Job.

[1] http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/vox/vol10/faith_allen.pdf

[2] http://www.drbilllong.com/Jobfolder/Advanced/JobandPsalm139I.html

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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18 Responses to Was David Familiar With The Book of Job: The Enigma Of Psalm 139

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  10. E B Hayes says:

    Psalm 23:4 and Job 10:21 – talk about “the shadow of death”, a common phrase between the two texts

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  13. Heidi De Jonge says:

    I just wrote a blog post juxtaposing Psalm 139 and Job 7:6-21. After writing, I found your piece and linked to it. This was great. Thank you. https://blog.perspectivesjournal.org/2018/08/15/woven/

  14. Pingback: On The Purposes Of Job’s Suffering | Edge Induced Cohesion

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