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Never once did I think of this verse as negative. At first glance, the thought of God hemming me in sounded wonderful. But I found a surprise when I started studying Psalm 139:5. This verse took me on somewhat of a roller coaster ride. Up, down. Up, down.
Want to follow along?
We begin at the top of the roller coaster.
So far so good as we look up the verse in several different versions.
Psalm 139:5 …
ESV – You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
NIV – You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
NASB – You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.
KJV – Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
CSB – You have encircled me; You have placed Your hand on me.
NLT – You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.
If you had to pick a favorite version of this verse, which one would it be? I gravitated toward the NLT version. Bring on the blessings, right?
Buckle up, because we are headed down the roller coaster.
Most of the time you don’t see that many different translations for one word. These versions use hem, enclosed, beset, encircled, and “go before and follow” all in the same spot.
Hmm. Let’s look further into that word.
The Blue Letter Bible says the Hebrew word is tsuwr. It means to bind, besiege, confine, cramp.
What? Those don’t sound comforting at all.
And what does “beset” mean anyway? Merriam-Webster defines it as: to hem in, surround. Ok, got it.
Next we go up again.
My study Bible lists these cross references …
Psalm 34:7: The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Psalm 125:2: As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.
Ahhh, back to comforting, yes?
And just like that we head back down.
My commentary says, “David’s initial response to this staggering knowledge was that he was troubled. Like many who respond to the fact of God’s omniscience, he thought it was confining, that God had besieged him and cupped His hand over him. … The thought of such confining knowledge may have prompted David’s desire to escape, as verses 7-12 suggest. … Moreover, if he could fly at the speed of light (the wings of the dawn in verse 9) from the east across the sky to the west he could not escape from the Lord. God’s presence then began to take on a new meaning for the psalmist, as if the light were dawning on him. Now, he stated the hand of the Lord would lead and comfort him.”
Troubled? Confining? Can’t escape?
But then the light started to dawn for him.
Back up we go …
That paragraph reminded me of a valuable lesson. One I had recently read in Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin. Jen advises to always save commentaries (of course, trusted commentaries) for last … “They provide an indispensable service to the body of believers. But we must always keep in view that each of us individually is called to love God with our minds. This means that it is good for us to earnestly attempt interpretation on our own before we read the interpretations of others.”
So, what I should have done first was to read the verses around the verse – to take some time to read the whole chapter, which always seems to shed more light.
Chapter 139 starts with …
Verse 1 and 2: O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
Chapter 139 ends with …
Verse 23 and 24: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
So this Psalm makes a full circle. The writer, David, goes up and down with God, hashing it out. (We’re allowed to do that too, you know. He knows our thoughts anyway – see verse 2.)
And David’s conclusion? When we love the Lord, we want to be surrounded by Him at all times. We want Him to change our thinking to His. So we are not afraid to ask Him to search us, and know us, and change us. We are not bothered by His hand “confining” us. On the contrary, having the Lord cup his hand over us is a good thing – comforting and reassuring.
Yes, hem me in, Lord.
Exodus 33:22: and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.
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