Last week I was asked to read Psalm 139 at the funeral for James Steinmetz, a tiny fighter who passed into God’s hands after a seventeen day battle here on earth. God worked powerfully in the service and hope shone forth brightly, often breaking through the clouds of grief. As I studied the psalm prior to reading it, I discovered there a wonderful reminder of God’s commitment to each of his children—from those he rescues at 24 weeks to those whose lives take them into their aging years. His faithfulness spans the “days he formed for us” (Ps 139:16). Here are some of the things I learned:
God knows his children perfectly and uses that knowledge to love them perfectly (Ps 139:1–6).
The psalmist declares that this knowledge is “too wonderful” and unattainable (Ps 139:6). Often, intimate knowledge of a person is used to wound them and it might distress us to learn of God’s comprehensive acquaintance with our every way (v. 3). But God’s intention is never to harm, to make a list of wrongs and strike us down in justice. His perfect knowledge leads to perfect love—a lovingkindess designed specifically for his child. God protects us (v. 5, “hem me in behind and before”) and “cups” his hand of protection over us (“lay your hand upon me”). Spiritually, this knowledge means that he knows every sin and the core idolatry that spawned those sins, but proceeds to erase all of them through the gospel of grace (Col 2:14, cf. Ps 139:23–24). In life’s trials, this perfect knowledge means that he knows every danger—every faith-threatening trap of the evil one and every doubt generated by our deceitful hearts—and protectively leads us in the way everlasting (Ps 139:24).
For Baby James, this means that God was intimately acquainted with his tiny child’s needs and used that knowledge to love him. It means that God gave him two parents who knew the good news of Jesus. They made sure that his days were not filled with weeping (though I know they wept), but with joy and hope. Joy in their time with him in the NICU, and a certain hope (confident expectation) of his time with Jesus when safe in heaven. His days were short, but love-filled. For James’ parents, this perfect knowledge means that God will lovingly lead them through the treacherous journey of grief—this valley of the shadow of death—because for them, the way everlasting lies through that path. But his love is also preparing a table of blessing to meet them during and after this trial (Ps 23).
God is always near his children to love them everywhere (Ps 139:7–12).
I admit that I was stuck on verses 7–9, trying to figure out why the psalmists was fleeing, teasing out the symbols and poetry of them. That is, until I finally understood verse 10. Understanding came to me in the form of a question: In what places will God intervene to lead me and hold me in his powerful hands (v. 10)? The answer is in verses 7–9. The locations described are points on a circle that encompasses all of creation. God is everywhere: in Heaven, in Sheol, and—even if the psalmist was able to grab the first rays of the eastward sun and fly to the far western sea (as far as those rays would take him)—God would be there, leading and holding. And if darkness shrouds those places (Ps 139:11–12), what then? Gloriously, God reveals that even in the darkest of places he sees clearly and leads and holds his children even there.
For James, this means that God rocked him to sleep. I’m not simply being emotional here—I’m saying that God held James in his hands and sustained that precious life with his power because he loved him. Even though James couldn’t see, even at night when his exhausted parents tried to sleep, even when medical procedures were being attempted, and even to his last earthly breath, James was held in God’s hands of love and protection. And even now, when James is in the very presence of God, those strong loving hands are still providing a father’s embrace. For his parents, it means that God’s sustaining presence is with them at all times during this trial, leading them “in paths of righteousness” (Ps 23:3, cf. Ps 139:24). Indeed, it means that wherever they are, God knows the way forward, toward love and perseverance.
God plans his children and their days to love them…forever (Ps 139:13–18).
The Psalmist moves from God’s identity (his knowledge and presence) to God’s activity. How did God use his knowledge and employ his presence for the psalmist? First, He made him. He formed, knitted and wove together the Psalmist. All of these words indicate a purposeful creation. Of course, just the process of forming a human shows that God is praiseworthy (Ps 139:14). God makes everyone in his image to reflect him. And let’s not think that God has stopped enjoying the creative process. As he forms a new person he still thinks it is “very good” (Gen 1:31). But it doesn’t stop there. In verse 16 we see that God doesn’t just form people, but he also forms their days. Even before we are born, God has given attention to and determined the course of every single day in which we will live and and move and exist in him (Acts 17:28). And here is the wonderful part. These plans, these purposefully designed plans, are for us (Ps 139:16)! We have to see how the Psalmist responds to this understanding. In verse 17, he describes all of these thoughts as precious. “Precious” is the type of word used for God’s steadfast love (Ps 36:7) or God’s wisdom (Prov 3:15). It indicates high value or a vast sum of wealth. I believe the idea is this: God’s thoughts, during the creation of the Psalmist’s substance and the planning of his life, contained nothing but good. Thus, the Psalmist can be certain that each day is full of worth and he can rejoice for when “I awake, I am still with you” (v. 18). As God’s children, there is meaning for every life and that meaning is to be found in God’s purposes and plans for that life.
For James, this means that God designed both his little body and his short days here on earth with a good purpose in mind. God expended immense power and concentration (just because he has infinitely more concentration and power doesn’t lessen the feat!) to bring little James into being. That tiny body was delicately woven together with great attention to each precious and personalizing detail (Psalm 139:14). James’ 17 day existence points to a glorious God! For James’ parents, this means that the days formed for James, though short, were not without purpose. And here is the difficulty of it all. The question “why?” But though we may struggle to see a purpose, faith compels us to believe that a wonderful God made a wonderful baby for a wise and marvelous reason that we may not comprehend now. We do know that each of us whose life was touched by James’s journey, and the journey of his parents, has been changed. We have all been exposed to the brokenness of the world, yes, but we have also beheld the faith, made strong through grace, in the actions and words of James’s parents. They sorrowed, but not as those who have no hope (I Thess 4:13). James, tiny James, was a silent showcase of God’s glory down here. Now, he is no doubt a boisterous and joyful participant in praising God up there. As his parent’s held him tenderly, he awoke that final night still with his maker—and will be with him for all eternity.
I wrote this with specific friends in mind, but I hope that the fountain of truth that springs from Psalm 139 can be a comfort to any family that has experienced the loss of a child. Grief is strong, God’s love and power are stronger. Rest in him.