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Comfort for Those Who Are Doubting God’s Presence

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Writing in Psalm 139, David asks several thought-provoking questions. Having already marveled at the fact that God knows everything (vv. 1–6), he probes further: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (v. 7). In other words, David asks whether a believer can hide from God. “Can I find an escape route,” the psalmist wonders, “from the God who searches me and knows everything about me?” It’s a question that deserves our attention.

Others in biblical history certainly tried to run from God. Adam and Eve hid from Him in the garden after their first disobedience. Jonah boarded a ship heading away from the place to which God called him. The Prodigal in Jesus’ parable leaves his father’s care in exchange for worldly pleasure. In truth, by nature, we all hide from God. But thankfully, the story of the Bible is that while we don’t seek after God, He is seeking after us (Luke 19:10).

David wasn’t looking for the possibility of escape, though. In asking the question of verse 7, he was actually comforting himself in the fact that escape is impossible (Jer. 23:24). That we can’t hide from the Almighty is a reassuring consideration. In Psalm 139:7–12, David employs three strategies—each introduced with the word “If”—to remind himself and believers everywhere that we can’t hide from the God who sees everything.

Up to Heaven, Down to Sheol

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Ps. 139:8)

To paraphrase verse 8, we might say, “What if I go up to the heavens, and what if I go underground?” Sheol, the place of the dead, is described in the Old Testament in various ways: a tomblike cavern, a stronghold, a wasteland, a place of nothingness, etc. It’s poetic language, painting for us a picture of what we know is true. “Sheol” is, in one sense, shorthand for the realities that life is short, death is decisive, and eternity hangs in the balance.

No distance can separate the believer from God’s presence.

But we shouldn’t read David’s exclamation as some disparaging, hopeless cry. He isn’t denying God’s sovereignty beyond the grave. In fact, what’s so striking about verse 8 is that God is present in both the high places and the low places. There’s no place the believer can go where He is not already there!

Sometimes we need to read our Bibles backward. David, who was an Old Testament Israelite, wrote without the full benefit of the knowledge that believers now enjoy—namely, that Christ came and triumphed over sin, death, and the grave. In His death, Jesus “descended into hell.”1 He went low to the grave, to Sheol, the abode of the dead. But He didn’t stay there. As Peter declares in his Pentecost sermon, “This Jesus God raised up” (Acts 2:32)!

Because Christ was brought low in His death and raised up in His resurrection, we are able to say with David, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). In this present life, God dwells within us. Even death is but a door to paradise—the place where God’s presence is.

To the West and to the East

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me. (Ps. 139:9–10)

“What if I travel at the speed of light in one direction,” David asks, “or into the middle of the ocean in the other? Might I escape God’s vision there?”

For the Israelite, the Mediterranean Sea was the point that marked the far west. Israelites weren’t sailors or students of the sea, like, for example, the Assyrians (Micah 7:12). Old Testament believers would have viewed the ocean like an infinity pool, at some point spanning far enough toward the sunset into who knows what! So when David ponders God’s presence extending to the depths of the sea, he’s painting a vivid picture of God’s far-reaching presence.

The message, in other words, is this: whether we go east, where the sun rises, or to the west, where the sea meets the horizon, God is there. No distance can separate the believer from His presence. And because all things are under God’s jurisdiction, we can enjoy His power in those places. His hand leads us; His right hand upholds us (Ps. 63:8).

Under the Cover of Darkness

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. (Ps. 139:11–12)

What about darkness? Of course, we can hide from others in the dark—but the dark can’t hide us from God. His gaze pierces the gloom. He knows us personally and positionally.

Verse 12 makes sense only when we understand who God is. “God is light,” the apostle John reminds us, “and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). When David claims that even the darkness is as light with God, he’s affirming the qualities that are essential to His being. Even if we tried to hide from God in the dark, His presence, by virtue of who He is, would expel the darkness.

God’s inescapable eye, far from being restrictive, is liberating. There is no corner of the universe that is hidden from God. High and low, east to west, dark or light, God is there.

God Is Everywhere—but He’s Not Everything

The contemporary person reading Psalm 139 might misinterpret David’s words, dealing with them in terms of modern spirituality—a combination of the various religious claims of the New Age movement, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. A common claim in such worldviews is that nature enfolds the sacred. Where nature is, there is God, because (they claim) He fills all. In response to this ideology, we must say with Scripture that while God is everywhere, He is not everything.

The dark can’t hide us from God. His gaze pierces the gloom.

David Wells in his book on the Trinity is helpful here. He says Christians affirm that “God is … one in his being, but he is not one with nature.” Father, Son, and Spirit exist eternally together, one in divine essence and yet each a distinct divine person of the Trinity. Despite the fact that in Christ we are united with God (Rom. 6:5; Eph. 1:10), still He is distinct from His creation. Wells continues, “He is outside the range of our intuitive radar. … It is he who must cross that boundary if we are to know him.”2 In other words, while we can never run from God’s sight, we are nevertheless alienated from Him in our sin. A boundary separates sinful man from holy God. And in Jesus Christ, God crossed the boundary.

In this way, Psalm 139 has implications for our evangelism. A friend may say, “I don’t know about God. I don’t know where I can find Him. I looked within myself, but I didn’t see Him.” We can then lovingly respond, “You’re looking in the wrong place and using the wrong means. The story of the Bible is one of a personal God who searches out those whom He created. He knows you. He made you. And He sees you.”

Today, we know in full what the psalmist knew only in part: we can’t hide from God because He sent Jesus, true God and true man, to be our Immanuel. In Him, Jesus not only sees us but also is “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).

This article was adapted from the sermon “God Is Everywhere” by Alistair Begg.

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  1. The Apostles’ Creed. ↩︎

  2. David F. Wells, What Is the Trinity? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R, 2012), 11. ↩︎

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.