December 2023
Spiritual formation
The Antipsalms We Sing

We sing the psalms, but we also sing plenty of antipsalms. The greatest psalm we sing is a person who makes us insiders with God.

Our heads may love the psalms from 20,000 feet—the passionate pleading, the glory in God's grandeur, the praise of his perfect providence. It's a captivating landscape of raw emotion and spiritual vitality. But our hearts sing plenty of antipsalms. There's a great distance between what we profess to believe on the outside, our doctrine, and what we ponder and pursue on the inside, our desire.

Many years ago, I read an article from David Powilson about what he called "antipsalm 23." The idea was to show the heart's sinful contrast to God's holy word. We could probably draft an antipsalm for all of the psalms. And one of the ones I've been thinking of lately deals with the sovereignty of God, which many Christians struggle with (again, not in the head but in the heart). On the surface, we get the whole "God is in control and never lets a hair fall from my head without his permission" thing. But the way our thoughts, words, and actions communicate in real life says something quite different.

Psalm 139

Psalm 139 can be broken into three sections, each focusing on a different attribute of God.* Verses 1–6 deal with God's omniscience. He knows all. His divine eyes pierce our thoughts before they form, our words before we mutter, and our actions before we lift a finger. Verses 7–12 speak of God's omnipresence. He is everywhere. There's no space in the universe without traces of the Trinity. God is Lord over all places because he existsin all spaces. Verses 13–16 focus on his omnipotence. All power is his. He weaves even the most potent created force—life—together in the secret places. His words wield power over all the days even before they are written. After these sections, the psalmist marvels at God's thoughts (vv. 17–18) and pleads for justice to fall on the wicked (vv. 19–22). He ends by asking the all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful God to search his heart, to sift him and lead him in the way everlasting. 

Antipsalm 139

Psalm 139 is a beautiful and poetic confession of God's sovereign Lordship, but it has an end goal that goes beyond this, as we'll see. We read it and pray the words along with the psalmist. But when our Bibles are closed, how do we really go through life? At our worst, our thoughts, words, and actions might reflect something of this "antipsalm 139."


O LORD, I doubt you really know me.
When I sit or rise or stare at screens,
My thoughts are my own.
I'm a private person.
I make my own way—
Always have and always will.
What does it matter if you know my words?
They're mine to do with as I wish.
When they get me into trouble, it's their fault.
When they help me succeed, it's to my credit.
Everybody knows this; there's no mystery.
The thought of you being around is comforting,
But there's no special providence going on.

Where can I go to really find you?
To feel you either far or near?
If I search the skies, I see stars and planes.
When I think about dying,
I don't see your face or hear your voice.
If I search the edges of my thought,
If I go to the deepest questions,
Even there I'm stretching toward smoke;
I'd rather trust my experience.
If I say, "Surely I can hide myself from you,
And be truly alone,"
I can make that happen.
Even the silence is silence from you;
I'm on my own.

I don't know how I was formed, really,
Or why I'm here in the first place.
I just . . . am. I showed up.
I praise something for the gift of my life,
But only when I find relief from suffering.
You've made some amazing things,
But my soul doubts there's a personal God
Behind the world I see and experience.
I feel as if I've been unseen
Since the beginning, whenever that was.
I want to believe that I'm seen by you,
That I've been written with your own hand,
That every second has been planned,
But sometimes it all feels like a complicated accident.

As for your thoughts, when I read them in the Bible,
They sound too good to be true.
So many promises; so much light;
So much of that ancient word: glory.
I wake up to the same question of your presence.
Are you here? Do you see me? Do you love me?

I want a warrior God to battle the dark—
Not just outside but inside me.
I still speak and act against you.
I'm surrounded by those who curse you.
But I don't like it when they do.
I want to believe.
I want to battle against doubt,
Against rebellion, with you, for you.
But I feel helpless.

You can search me and know my heart,
But I don't know what difference that will make.
If you sift me, won't I just suffer?
When you see my sin, won't you just punish?
I want you to lead me,
But I don't even know where I'm going.

How many lines resonate with you? What's the distance between your head and your heart?

We're always singing. No one's mute. It's either a psalm or an antipsalm, usually a mixture of the two. With our head, we cling to doctrine. And doctrine is good. We'd be lost and wandering without it. We need to know that God is all-knowing, ever-present, and all-powerful. But we turn the truth of doctrine into rote ritual, and then the ritual becomes white noise—humming behind and around us. Before long, there's a chasm between head and heart, between what we know and what we seek, what we profess and where our passions lie.

That's where antipsalms come from. They are the hymns of hedonism, the ditties of doubt, the lyrics of lust, and the melodies of materialism. Antipsalms start playing before we fully hear them. They rise amidst the white noise of disenchanted doctrine. We start singing them before we fully know the words, tripping into their rhythm, which at least seems to guide our steps to some end.

Psalm 139 builds upon doctrine so that the heart can ask the questions it needs to ask, in the manner it needs to ask them.

The real psalms call us back, often going through the head to get to the heart. They cut into the chorus of our antipsalms. They give us different words to sing, and those words lead us somewhere else. The psalms bring us truth, but not just in a way that invites a head nod. They give us doctrine, but they give us more than that. They situate the heart before its Maker. They instruct the soul in a broken world, directing our steps toward the Light of Lights. Put differently, the real psalms address us as relational creatures that need to be set right with their Creator. In Psalm 139, God's omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence are not doctrinal deadweight. They are stepping stones that bring the psalmist to request what is truly on his heart: the wickedness and brokenness in his world (v. 19) and in his own heart (v. 23). Psalm 139 builds upon doctrine so that the heart can ask the questions it needs to ask, in the manner it needs to ask them.

Psalms for Insiders

Whether your heart sings the real Psalm 139 or an antipsalm (or something in the middle), what's constantly at play is your location relative to the God of truth, the center of the universe, Lord of all that you see and all that you can't see. Where are you? Scripture has essentially two answers: inside or outside.

To be an insider with God is to be fully known and fully loved through Jesus Christ, God's promised Savior. To be an outsider is to seek knowledge and love in all the wrong places. And while we're sealed as insiders if we believe in Jesus, our hearts need reminders. We must be called back to know and love the one who fully knows and loves us. That's the beauty of Psalm 139. The psalmist knows and loves God, but he needs reminders of who God is so that he can know and love him more fully, so that he can trust that God will do what he said he would do: set all things right.

And that's exactly what happened in Jesus. Jesus is the Grand Insider, the incarnate second person of the Godhead. The omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Lord who came to unfold the prodigal love of God with a pulse and a fingerprint. In Christ, the world's evil is definitively defeated (John 16:33). In Christ, the evil inside us is stomped out because we've received new hearts (Ezek. 36:26; Heb. 8:10). Jesus is the divine Insider who makes us insiders with a holy God.

Jesus is now our psalm, the song of our salvation (Ps. 118:14). Our hearts sing him. And as they do, the Spirit sends us out into a world that needs our testament to the divine Insider, that needs our prayers, that needs earthly antipsalms to be interrupted by the heavenly psalm of Christ.

God has come in flesh and bone,
Christ incarnate giving life,
For sinners to be loved and known
And shaped into a holy wife.

Learn more in Insider Outsider

* In writing this article, I was inspired by and drew on the preaching from my pastor, Dan Ledford, in one of his sermons entitled, "Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility | Psalm 139."

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