Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? – Psalm 139:4-7 ESV
As far as David was concerned, God knew everything about him. He was acquainted with all his ways. God knew when he was lying down, sitting up, walking around, and even what he was thinking about. Not only that, according to David, “You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord” (Psalm 139:4 NLT). Now, that’s a scary thought. God not only knows what we’re thinking, He knows what we’re going to think. He not only knows what we say, He knows what we’re going to say before we do. That is the incredible nature of God’s omniscience. He is truly all-knowing. And David’s response to this fact is rather unique. He tells God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5 ESV). The word David uses is an unusual one, because it has a predominately negative connotation. It is the Hebrew word, tsuwr and its primary meaning is to “bind, besiege, confine, cramp” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). It can also mean “to show hostility to, be an adversary, treat as foe.” It is the same word God used when He spoke the following promise to the people of Israel: “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exodus 23:22 ESV). Even modern translators have wrestled with what David meant. The NET Bible (NET) translated verse 5 this way: “You squeeze me in from behind and in front; you place your hand on me.” The Bible In Basic English (BBE) translates it as, “I am shut in by you on every side.” Other translations take a more positive tone. The New Living Translation (NLT) reads, “You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” The New American Standard Bible (NASB) says, “You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.” One of the reasons for the more positive nature of some of these translations is the less common meaning of the word used by David. It can sometimes be used to mean, “to form, fashion, delineate.”
So the question becomes, is David feeling hemmed in by God, a little bit hampered and hindered by the thought that God has him surrounded? Or does he find this idea comforting and reassuring? In a way, I think it is both. There are times when we feel like we can’t escape the gaze of God, that no matter what we do or where we go, He is there. When we are living in a way that is displeasing to Him, that awareness manifests itself in guilt and regret. It has a negative connotation. When David sinned with Bathsheba, he knew that God knew. David fully realized that God was aware of every sordid and intimate second of his affair and every thought that went through his mind – all the way up to the plan for her husband’s murder. It is at those times that God’s omniscience and omnipresence feel overwhelming and less-than-encouraging. But there are also those moments when we feel all alone and in great need. It is on those occasions that we need to remember that God is there. He knows and He cares. He has us hemmed in “before and behind.” His hand is on us. He is watching over us. He has us surrounded.
My conclusion is that David was using this word to convey the undeniable nature of God’s presence in his life. There were times when it felt overwhelming and probably a bit oppressive. But those times were related to David’s sin. But when David was in trouble, he found great comfort in knowing that his God was all around him. The Old Testament refers to the hand of God often. “The Lord’s right hand gives victory, the Lord’s right hand conquers” (Psalm 118:16 NET). “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy” (Exodus 15:6 ESV). “Let your hand be ready to help me,for I have chosen your precepts” (Psalm 119:173 ESV). Overall, I think David found the nature of God’s pervading, inescapable presence reassuring. That’s why he said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” It was all too much for him to take in and comprehend. A bit overwhelming and intimidating at times? Yes. But also reassuring and incredibly comforting. There had been times David had wanted to run away and hide from God. But he knew he couldn’t. There were other times when he felt like God had abandoned him. But He hadn’t. God was always there. He had David surrounded at all times. And that is as true for us as Christ-followers as it was for David. Our God is everywhere. He knows and sees everything. When we are sinning, that is an intimidating thing to consider. But when we are in trouble or need, it should bring us great hope and comfort. You are never out of God’s sight, apart from His presence, out of His thoughts, or devoid of His love. He is always there. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” (Psalm 139:6 NLT).