“You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.” (Ps. 139:1-3 NIV) In the lyrics of this song of king David is the focal point of God’s activities in the working-out of our everyday lives. We learn that God is intimately involved in every event at least to a great if not an exhaustive degree. The Psalmist begins by acknowledging God’s comprehensive knowledge. He has searched me, in the present perfect tense of the events of my life, and He presently knows me.
For example, He knows when I sit, when I rise, and He is exhaustively familiar with my thoughts. He scrutinizes the choices I make (“my going out and my lying down”); and He is meticulously aware of all my ways and mannerisms. Note two significant points here in verses 2-3: God knows my thoughts and God knows my ways. Why are these critical points? That God knows my thoughts and my ways is not synonymous with God having decreed my thoughts and my ways. So, if a Christian minister suggests that God influences our desires and decisions, as do Calvinists like Calvin himself, Wayne Grudem and many others,1 then I understand immediately the statement is false teaching. Yes, God is intimately familiar with my thoughts and my ways, but He has in no sense whatsoever decreed and rendered certain what thoughts I think and in what manner I behave. To suggest otherwise is to contradict Scripture.
The Psalmist continues: “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.” (Ps. 139:4) My opinion is that this verse challenges the notion of Open Theism. For God cannot, in Open theory, but predict what I might say, given His knowledge of my character, and given His acquaintance with the varying situations I may encounter and how I may react. But here, the Psalmist indicates that God knows completely, yada’ta chullah, knows the whole of my speech. But notice, too, that God’s knowledge of my words is prior to the actual speaking of those words. Notice, as well, that His foreknowledge of my words is complete and exhaustive.
Given God’s exhaustive knowledge of us as human creatures (Ps. 139:1), of our thoughts (Ps. 139:2) and of our ways (Ps. 139:3), we should not wonder, then, that He is also intimately and exhaustively familiar with the words that we shall speak even before we speak them (Ps. 139:4). In this sense, then, God can be viewed thusly: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” (Ps. 139:5) The New Living Translation quite accurately renders this verse: “You go [tsur] before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” The Hebrew word tsur renders the idea of God besieging, barricading, confining or binding an individual; and this activity is viewed from before and behind a person. We are reminded here of king David’s verse: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” (Ps. 34:7 NRSV) Wherever we go, whatever we experience, God is ever-present.
To have God’s hand upon someone is to experience God’s guidance or protection (Ex. 33:22; Ps. 16:8; 78:72; Isa. 8:11), blessing (Job 2:10; Jer. 1:9; Ezek. 1:3; 3:14; 8:1), discipline (Isa. 1:25; 5:25; Jer. 15:6), or the spiritual working in one’s heart and mind (Ps. 63:8; 119:173; 121:5, 6). Commensurate with God’s surrounding presence (Ps. 139:5a), the psalmist recognizes God’s “hand of blessing” in the life of the believer (Ps. 139:5b). Even when we have difficulty sensing God’s nearness, or His “hand of blessing,” by faith we herald the truth that He knows us in the fullest sense that one can be known — that, whether or not we can feel His presence, He remains ever with us. This knowledge renders the king to exclaim: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Ps. 139:6 NIV) But does God’s knowledge imply His control over our lives?
That God is ever-present is defended here by the Psalmist: no one can hide from God because He sees all (Ps. 139:7-12) and He knows all (Ps. 139:1-6). Moreover, God created our inmost being, and knit us together in the womb of our mothers. (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5; Job 10:8-12) In other words, there is not the slightest iota with which God is unfamiliar regarding His creatures, for He knows all that can be known, including what could occur but does not (cf. 1 Sam. 23:9-14), as well as what is impossible.2 Furthermore, “all the days ordained for [us] were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps. 139:16; cf. Ps. 56:8; 69:28) Are all our days ordained to happen as God has, allegedly, decreed to be manifested, including our actions in those days?
What the Bible student should immediately recognize, from a prima facie reading of this verse, is that the word “ordained,” yutzaru, is often translated as “were formed or fashioned,” “were devised,” “were planned,” and is seventeen times translated and referred to as “potter” and its variants. So, God was intimately involved in the manner with which our days were to unfold before they ever came to be. This truth is neither Calvinistic, nor Arminian, but the objective truth from God’s eternal perspective. But what does this mean for our understanding?
(ABOVE: MEDIEVAL PUPPET SHOW)
Lest we surrender the interpretation of this verse to the theologically-fatalistic errors of the Calvinists, we all do well to remember the difficulty inherent in this ancient text. For example, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains:
Others take it of the ball of the threads of destiny; but this is not a Hebrew conception. By inserting the word members [in lieu of days], the Authorised Version [and Darby] suggests a possible, but not a probable, interpretation. The Hebrew language likes to use a pronoun before the word to which it refers has occurred . . . ; and, in spite of the accents, we must refer all of them to “days” (Authorised Version, “in continuance”).
“Thine eyes beheld my embryo,
And in thy book were written
All the days, the days
Which were being formed,
When as yet there were none of them.”
But a much more satisfactory sense is obtained by adopting one slight change and following Symmachus in the last line — “The days which are all reckoned, and not one of them is wanting [lacking].” All the ancient versions make that which is written in God’s book either the days of life, or men born in the course of these days, each coming into being according to the Divine will. (link) (emphasis added)
Accordingly, the International Standard Version renders: “The days scheduled for my formation were inscribed.” (emphasis added) The Wycliffe Bible offers: “Thine eyes saw mine unperfect thing, and all men shall be written in thy book; days shall be formed, and no man is in those. (Thine eyes saw my imperfect substance, and all was written in thy Book; but when those days were formed, no man was there.)” The translation called The Voice renders: “Every detail of my life was already written in Your book; You established the length of my life before I ever tasted the sweetness of it.” The New English Translation notes grant: “Heb ‘and on your scroll all of them were written, [the] days [which] were formed, and [there was] not one among them.’ This ‘scroll’ may be the ‘scroll of life’ mentioned in Ps 69:28.” (link) The “days” referred to in the text may certainly include the exact day of one’s birth, as well as the exact day of one’s death, without indicating that each and every day was pre-scripted to be enacted in meticulous, causal fashion by an eternal decree of God. How can we make such an inference here?
With regard to evil events which occur, I think we can biblically and reasonably insist that God would not decree that we commit sin, abominable acts of idolatry and lust and greed and theft and murderous evil. That is, if we intend to perceive of God as pure justice and holiness and goodness and righteousness. In this vein, then, we are forced to ask how God could “ordain” all the days of our lives without the inclusion of the evil that we experience. If He has not ordained that we commit evil, yet we commit evil, then how are we to understand what the Psalmist is suggesting in this song of his to the LORD? We might rightly infer that God has ordained all our days, or times (Ps. 31:15), without suggesting that He has ordained all that we do in the days He has ordained. Does this deprive God of His rightful sovereignty? On the contrary, not only does this interpretation accord with the tenor of Scripture, but it also keeps intact the holy and just character of God as well as give the verse a proper perspective and context.
Arminius insists that God’s sovereignty be framed within His holy or divine essence. Concerning God’s understanding of possible or realistic events, the order follows:
(1.) He knows what things can exist by His own primary and sole act. (2.) He knows what things from the creatures, whether they will come into existence or will not, can exist by His conservation, motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission. (3.) He knows what things He can do about the acts of the creatures … consistently with Himself or with these acts. … He knows all entities, even according to the same order as that which we have just shown in His knowledge of things impossible.3
But make no mistake: “The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves. But this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will.”4 If God only knows the future because He has strictly ordained and fore-scripted the future, as Calvinists scandalously insist, then He could not have obtained any knowledge whatsoever about a non-event, as we see at 1 Samuel 23:9-14; nor would He have reason to complain when people disobey His revealed will while they, unbeknownst to them, are merely acting out what God secretly decreed for them to enact. God does not have split-personality disorder, does not maintain cognitive distortions, and is not schizophrenic. He is justice.
We believe, with Scripture and with Arminius, that God “enjoys His own perfection, that is fully known by His understanding and supremely loved by His will, with … a delightful satisfaction in it.”5 (cf. Ps. 16:11; Eph. 1:11) We believe that “whatever God does or says, He does or says it according to His own eternal decree,”6 and we believe whatever God decrees is good, just, and holy. This is not a denial of the fact that God has decreed the future in some sense, though. “God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,”7 insists a dogmatic Arminius on the issue. According to His exhaustive knowledge of future events, including the people living during future events, God is able to ordain or decree such events as the cross of Christ without the suggestion that God decreed for people to betray Christ, and hand Him over to be crucified, by the controlling, decretal hand of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27; cf. Rev. 17:17). Wicked people with wicked intentions freely acted according to the foreknowledge of God, which event was planned by God, and led to the crucifixion of our Savior for all humanity.
So we see that God is sovereign over the will of His creatures to the degree of genuinely allowing someone to act contrary to His wishes, commands, or will (note an explicit and emphatic rejection of the two-wills theory). (cf. Isa. 1:2; 30:1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13; Jer. 2:5-9; Ezek. 2:3-5; 16:59) God really hates sin (cf. Ps. 97:10; Prov. 6:16-19), and even hates the sins of the elect,8 and has in no sense rendered certain beforehand that anyone commit sin. Yet, no one commits any act, even sin, without the sovereign, concurrent hand of God. He is intimately familiar with every minutiae of our lives without having either decreed our responses to life-events or controlling us to respond in any given fashion. His justice and our depravity properly frame the problem of sin and evil. He is blameless and we are guilty. He is gracious and we are in desperate need of that grace. God is as involved in our lives as He need be without suggesting that He has rendered certain what we think, say, and do. This, we believe, is the biblical way to live and to think.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; see also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.
2 Arminius argues that, due to God’s essence, He “knows all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible.” See Jacob Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XVII. On the Understanding of God,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:341.
5 Ibid., 2:354.
6 Ibid., 2:350.
7 Ibid., 2:235.
8 Ibid. 2:725. “God truly hates the sins of the regenerate and of the elect of God, and indeed so much the more as those who thus sin have received more benefits from God and a greater power of resisting sin.”