7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7 NRSV)
To many of the world’s people, God is deus absconditis, the hidden God. They behold the cruelties of a seemingly indifferent world and ask, “Where is God in all of this?” The psalmist (the person speaking in the psalm) has presented God as quite the opposite – as God ever-present, always near with hand upon my shoulder. So, the psalmist asks, how do I get away from this God who cares about me and all my doings, who knows even my thoughts and is concerned with all my choices and experiences? It sounds as though the psalmist might want an answer, might desire to find a place apart from this caring God, but as we read the suggestions for leaving God’s presence, we discover a different meaning. In a series of possible escapes, the psalmist names the places commonly regarded in that culture as outside the sphere of God’s presence and beyond the limits of relationship between God and a human being.
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139:8 NRSV)
Hebrew poetry works with parallelism in couplets and triplets. Here we find a couplet, but the outcome is unexpected because it contradicts the accepted beliefs of the time. If I could go up into the heavens (the upper realm in the ancient world’s three-story universe), surely I would be approaching the throne of God, moving directly into God’s presence. I obviously cannot escape God by going directly to the place where God is. The second line would be expected to read, “if I lie down in Sheol (the shadowy place of the dead), you are NOT there.” Sheol is almost by definition the place from which God cannot be praised; it is the creature’s condition after God has withdrawn the breath of life. So, the question, “Where can I go from your spirit?” would seem already answered, but for this psalmist it is not. The surprising answer is I cannot escape God by dying.
Christian have so gravitated toward the opposite pole of belief that it might seem that for us the way to enter God’s presence truly is to die, but such a belief is unbiblical and contrary to the gospel of Jesus whose “kingdom of God” is a transformed condition of this world, not a realm where this world is of no further concern.
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
(Psalm 139:9-10 NRSV)
In the ancient world, gods and goddesses were tied to geographical places with boundaries. When journeying from one land to another, it was considered wise upon crossing a border to offer a sacrifice to the god of the land entered, even if that god’s name was unknown to the traveler. Best to cover one’s bases and not be caught trespassing. In the Bible’s story, when Elisha the prophet has cured Naaman the foreigner of his leprosy, Naaman, wishing to devote himself to the God of Israel, takes as much as his donkeys can carry of Israel’s soil back to his own country so he can stand upon it to pray (2 Kings 5). The physical connection between a god and a certain plot of land was considered that strong. When the Babylonians take some of the Jews away from Judah into exile, the question becomes, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4 NRSV) To be away from the land of the covenant was to be apart from the covenant God. The prophet Ezekiel portrays God as leaving the Temple in Jerusalem and going to be with the exiles in Babylon, and the Prophet of the Exile (Isaiah 40-55) declares all the world to be the LORD’s and assures the faint-hearted people that their God is coming for them to lead them home. Here, in Psalm 139, we hear a very personal affirmation that the psalmist cannot leave God’s presence by leaving the land of Israel, not even by journeying as far away as geographically possible.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
(Psalm 139:11-12 NRSV)
God is light. What would God be doing in the darkness, and if God were there, how would it be dark? This one has many important ramifications for human life and faith, for our attitudes toward ourselves and toward each other. Does God abide only the pure, the cleansed, the holy? There are many ways in which people descend into darkness: addiction, depression, and dementia are quite common ways, and so are disgrace, alienation from family and friends, mental illness, terrible guilt, and often (because of the attitudes of others) victimization. There are still places on earth in the 21st Century where a girl or woman who has been raped must be driven out or even killed for the sake of the family’s honor and the religion’s purity. Some places of darkness we choose to enter, either by a direct choice or through the consequences of poor choices, but do we thereby condemn ourselves to being alone in the dark? Other forms of darkness come upon us through no fault of our own. What, short of warfare and torture, frightens people more than Alzheimer’s Disease? Most of us would prefer death. In my next post, I will relate Psalm 139 directly to my experiences with people drawn into the darkness of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and with those who have loved them.
But first, I believe we, especially if we are religious, need to let ourselves be confronted by the radical faith expressed in this psalm. It’s about purity. No human, of course, is pure as God is pure, but that seeming confession of the shared condition our humanity most often serves, I find, as a shield the relatively pure use to protect themselves from fraternity with the relatively impure who disgust them. If I am defiled or self-defiled, does God keep away from me? Have I been driven or self-driven from God’s presence, concern, and love? This psalmist declares that God is with us in the darkness, that God finds us when we cannot find ourselves, and that God stays with us when other people abandon us and even when we detest being with ourselves. God sees us and cares to see us even when we wish not to see ourselves.
In knee-jerk reaction, the person who loves norms and standards asks sarcastically, “So it doesn’t matter then that I defile myself, huh? God doesn’t care, you say? It’s all the same to God? So, why not live it up, and to hell with being religious, moral, or responsible?” Whether such defenses are naive or disingenuous, they are absurd. What is it with the hyper-religious or self-consciously moral that they believe debauchery and defilement are so much fun? Which kind of darkness I named above is a carnal paradise on earth? Depression, addiction, guilt, shame, mental illness? With any such paradise, who needs a hell?
This psalm changes religion’s question from purity to compassion. God goes into the darkness with the person who by choice, error, or circumstance is plunged into darkness. There is no darkness, this psalmist declares, in which I am left alone, no matter how alone I feel. There is no place far enough away to be gone from God.
If this were a sermon, I would ask what then must be our responses to people who dwell in some form of darkness? It’s not a sermon, so I’ll leave it at that.