Psalm 139 (O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me)


A personal, moving setting of Psalm 139 that traces an inward journey from self-judgment to self-acceptance.  The “through-composed” work illuminates each section of text, culminating in a repeating chant on the text “I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” out of which a soprano solo rises to proclaim “marvelous are thy works.”  A tender, floating piano postlude concludes the work on a transcendent note.

A licensed copy is required for each member performing.



As I wrote this piece, I gradually realized the various feeling-tones that were gathering to be included in its expression.  Although I love this psalm especially for its beautiful affirmation of acceptance, I realized that the opening lines could just as well be expressive of shame and vulnerability — of being fully known whether we want it or not.  And who doesn’t have some shame hidden within?  I imagined an image of God that was external to the self, and pointing a finger of blame:

O, Lord, thou hast searched me and known me,
Thou know’st my sitting down and mine uprising,
Thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways.

For there is not a word on my tongue,
but lo, O Lord, thou know’st it altogether.

Thou hast beset me behind and before,
and laid thine hand upon me.

Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
Whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend into heaven, thou art there.
If I make my bed in hell, thou art there.

Reading the psalm in this way, there’s no escape from this finger-pointing God, this sense of “being tried, and found wanting.”  Our secrets, our sins, will be found out, no matter how far away we run, no matter how well we hide them.

But I sensed a change as the text continued to unfold, and I expessed it in the music:

If I take the wings of the morning,
and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea;

Even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.

For thou hast possessed my reins….

I imagined a far shore that the soul has fled to, a vast beach with quiet waves washing up upon it.  And perhaps now, instead of being an accusing finger pointing at us, the “hand of God” has now become gentle, like the enfolding hand that encloses a wounded bird, for its own safety.

This “turn” grounds the piece, and allows for the final revelation, which is expressed with the imagery of the mother’s womb; instead of a “distant God” that points a judging finger at us, now there is a “maternal God,” closer than our own breath — a God that we are inside, like a child inside a mother’s womb:

…Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.

I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.

When the choir echoes the opening lines of the psalm over the piano’s postlude, there is now a different kind of awe: not the awe of being uncomfortably known by an all-seeing God, but the awe of being fully embraced by an all-loving God.  There is now a different sense: a quiet joy — and relief from struggle — of the soul that has at last slumped upon the sands of that far shore, and entered the grace of allowing oneself to be fully known.

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SATB piano

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