Psalm 139: A Nocturnal Prayer

What is your favorite psalm? Many would say Psalm 23, and a close second might be Psalm 139.

For several years I had a project of recording psalms in the voices of friends. Whenever someone new came to visit, I would have them choose a favorite psalm and record it for me. As someone who loves the sound of the human voice—even more than faces!—having this collection of audio snapshots has been more meaningful than an album of photographs. I was amazed at how many people wanted to record Psalm 139, and finally I had to stipulate that they choose a psalm that hadn’t yet been recorded. I was hoping to collect all 150, but nobody wanted to do Psalm 88, which is bleak all the way through, or Psalm 137 about dashing Babylonian babies against the rocks. 

Not until I came to write a book on nighttime prayer, however, did I discover that the most beautiful and well known portion of Psalm 139 was composed at night.

“Winter Windows and Praying Boy” by William Kurelek

Listen to verses 12-18:

Even the darkness will not be dark to You;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to You. 

For You created my inmost being;
    You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    Your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from You
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in Your book
    before one of them came to be. 

How precious to me are Your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them! 

Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand.
    When I awake, I am still with You. 

That last line—is it not puzzling? Even startling? Does it not seem oddly out of place? Why is the psalmist suddenly talking about waking up? He hasn’t mentioned being asleep, has he? 

Actually, he has. Back at the beginning of the passage he mentions “darkness” and “night” four times in three lines, and what follows, as I interpret it, all happens while he is lying in bed at night, perhaps dozing, half-sleeping, or meditating. These are night thoughts, thoughts about “my inmost being,” “my mother’s womb,” “the secret place,” “the depths of the earth.” These are the sort of musings a person might have while alone in the dark, and that is what gives them their arresting beauty and intimacy. No wonder this is a favorite passage of scripture for many people. These are the kind of thoughts you too will have if you cultivate intimacy with your heavenly Father in the wee hours of the night. You too will know that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

Coming to that final line—“When I awake, I am still with You”—it’s as if the psalmist was expecting that all his nighttime intimacy with the Lord was a kind of dream that might vanish in the daylight. But behold—it’s real! The same could be said of Psalm 17, which begins, “You probe my heart and examine me at night,” and ends, “When I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing Your face.” 

Psalm 4:4 instructs, “When you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” Why? Because the bed is the most private place for reflection, an ideal setting for examination of conscience, and perhaps the place of greatest intimacy with the Lord. Do you have trouble sleeping? Try drawing close to God at night, and you will see the results in the daylight.

(The above is an extract from my forthcoming book, The Night Stair: A Spirituality of Sleep, coming later this year.)

Next Post:  Moira and the Total Solar Eclipse: A Short Story

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