“O Lord, you have searched me and known me… (Ps 139:1)
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!” (Ps 139:23-24)
This is the first part in a two-part series on Psalm 139.
The Psalms exemplify the kind of personal relationship that the true and living God wants his people to have with him. God doesn’t listen to us through a speaker system or watch us perform on a screen. It’s as if God listens to us via a stethoscope and uses a CT scan to explore the deepest crevices of our hearts. As the Lord said to Samuel the prophet, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
The Lord was referring to the unassuming shepherd boy, David, who was later to become Israel’s greatest king and the author of Psalm 139.
Lord you have known me.
The Lord searches our hearts and exposes what’s really there. He wants his image-bearers to enjoy an intimate, authentic relationship with Him by faith in Jesus Christ. No secrets, no duplicity, no hiding our sins behind flimsy fig leaves. No matter where a believer goes, we can never be far from God’s comforting and convicting presence– His Holy Spirit.
Psalm 139 is one of my favourites, because it reminds me that the greatest privilege and purpose of life is knowing and being known by God, warts and all. This Psalm also gives us a framework for how to respond to crucial contemporary questions like, “What does it mean to be human” and “What makes a human life valuable?”
David’s Psalm offers believers assurance but also accountability for how we live our lives. Let’s ask the Lord to search our own hearts as we read Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.
19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
God searches me (Ps 139:1-6).
David knows that the Creator God is everywhere and inescapable (Ps 139:7-12). No human can hide from His searching gaze. God is infinite and personal, which is both comforting and frightening.
The writer to the Hebrews says something similar: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).
Apart from nudists like the late Beau Brummell, most people don’t like to be naked and exposed! Literally and figuratively, we prefer to keep some things hidden.
Some of us don’t want people to know us completely, because we’re afraid that they’ll discover something that spoils our image. Who of us hasn’t been shocked at the darkness lurking in our thought life and the filth that gushes out of our mouth in an unguarded moment? If we’re honest, we know that there are many ‘grievous ways’ in us.
Sometimes we don’t let people see who we really are, lest they ridicule, judge or reject us. We may feel unseen and unheard by those around us who are wrapped up in themselves. We may not want to overburden our loved ones, so we pretend that all is well when it isn’t. Often, we disguise our anxious thoughts and hidden sins, which we know we have no power to overcome.
But David says, “Remember, God knows every problem we face, every fearful thought, every feeling and every sinful desire”, even if they’re invisible to the people around us. It’s useless concealing anything from God. David describes a personal, infinite God who is present everywhere at the same time, a God who knows everything about us.
He sees our anxious thoughts (Ps 139:23-24), darkest fantasies and habits of life (Ps 139:2-3; 11-12), even the motives behind our words (Ps 139:4). God is familiar with of all our ways (Ps 139:3). He knows everything about us, including the bits we’d prefer to keep hidden.
But it’s precisely this reality that leads David to invite the Lord to test and expose his heart—the seedbed of all sinful thoughts, words and deeds (Ps 139:23-24). Why would David want to expose himself to God in this way at the end of the Psalm?
Search me, O God!
Instead of avoiding a divine biopsy, David wants to be known by God, even if it exposes a malignant tumour that must be removed before it proves fatal (Ps 139:23-24). God’s thoughts and opinions are precious to him (Ps 139:17-18). He treasures the intimate relationship he has with the Lord, no matter what sin and frailty is exposed by His searchlight (Ps 139: 13-18).
No doubt King David had learned a painful lesson from his own ‘secret’ adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. He had thought he would get away with his lust affair, but God saw what he had done. The Lord sent Nathan the prophet to confront him in his duplicity, saying, “You are that man!” (2 Sam 12:7).
It cut David to the heart to realise the great evil he had done evil in God’s sight (Ps 51:4) and his subsequent plea for mercy and forgiveness is recorded for us in Psalm 51:
“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.”
David’s restoration was what drove him to seek a life of candour and integrity. He didn’t want to run or hide from God anymore. He actually wanted the Lord to find him out and arrest him before his sin landed him in a prison from which he could never escape.
He wanted to know and be known by God, thoroughly and completely.
Likewise, for Christ followers, Psalm 139:23-24 reminds us that exposure is the only path to repentance and forgiveness. It’s always God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4). And repentance is how we are freed from the destructive power of sin in our lives, to continue on God’s ‘everlasting way’.
We must not fool ourselves—Sin will always entangle us in its deceptive web. It will weigh us down and spoil our relationship with God (Heb 12:1). Sin is rebellion against God’s rule in our lives.
David’s prayer in Ps 139:23-24 shows that he understood the danger of sin that the writer of Hebrews later confirmed:
“Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
Hatred of God’s enemies.
Rebellion against God is serious. That’s why David’s imprecatory prayers (Ps 139:19-22) are not embarrassing verses that we should skip when we read this Psalm. Even Christ and Paul quoted some of the imprecatory Psalms, which call down divine curses and express hatred for God’s enemies (John 15:25= Ps 69:4; John 2:17=Ps 69:9; Ps 69:22-23=Rom 11:9-10).
David’s imprecatory prayers assume the biblical truth that evil people can reach a point of such extreme, persistent hard-heartedness, rebellion and contempt towards God, that the time of redemption is past and their judgment is inevitable. It’s a consolation that violent, malicious men who set themselves up against God and His people, will finally be stopped in their tracks. They will face God’s justice.
Moreover, in these Psalms, David spoke as God’s inspired and anointed king. David foreshadowed Christ the Messiah, who was opposed by evil men and given authority to pronounce final judgment on all God’s enemies (Rev 19:1; 11-21). Since the Lord is perfectly holy and all-knowing, his justice will always be proportionate and appropriate. There will be no leakage or collateral damage, as is the case when we take revenge or harbour bitterness in our hearts.
And so, David is not being self-righteous or bitter in these verses. He has seen how truly vile sin is, including his own, and is expressing moral repugnance, not personal vengeance against God’s enemies. Like Christ, David entrusted himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).
David is acutely aware of his blind spots and need for repentance, as we should be (Ps 139:23-24). After all, weren’t we all God’s enemies until we were mercifully reconciled to God by Christ? (Rom 5:10)
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Even though David never saw Jesus in the flesh or the Spirit’s outpouring on the day of Pentecost, he prayed, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps 139:7)
When I forget that God is the omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (all present) and omnipotent (all powerful) Creator of the universe, I tend to make Him small in my mind. I try to do things in my own strength. I don’t consult with Him when I have an important decision to make. It is always because I have forgotten his eternal attributes and exaggerated my own.
Likewise, when I forget the Holy Spirit—the Helper who is with us forever (John 14:16) and who helps us in our weakness (Rom 8:26-27), I start seeing Christ as aloof from my struggles. I feel hopeless and anxious. I get overwhelmed by challenges too big for me to handle. I feel no peace, just turmoil.
But it’s remarkable how David trusted Yahweh, the personal God who is active in his past, present and future, the God beyond time and space (Ps 139:13-16). He saw God as transcendent and imminent at the same time. And this understanding of God both as Creator and providential ruler gave David great consolation, confidence and courage. He was utterly convinced of the Lord’s personal protective hand and guiding light in his life (Ps 139:10-12).
How much more should we cherish the Lord’s presence, power and purpose as we look back at the cross and at the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our world, the Spirit who will continue to work in future generations? Three thousand years since David died, Christ has not left us alone as orphans–as those without comfort. Wherever we find ourselves, the risen Lord has made his home with us by His Spirit (John 14:23).
And so, we should ask ourselves every morning, “Where can I go from his Spirit? Where can I flee from his presence?”
Of course, the answer to these rhetorical questions is the same every day– Nowhere!! The Lord knows us warts and all, and yet he still loves and accepts us. His Spirit is there to help us when we’re struggling in ways that we have not yet dared to admit or express to anyone else. We can never escape his loving presence, no matter how fast or far we run. We are never isolated, because of God’s Spirit in us:
The Comforter has come to settle our troubled hearts and direct us to Jesus (John 14:26; 15:27; 16:33). Each new day, the Helper is reminding us of all that Christ has taught us in His Word (John 15:26).
The Spirit of truth is always stirring our hearts, convicting us of sin and empowering us to overcome and produce good fruit (John 16:8; 13; Gal 5:22-23). Instead of fear and slavery to sin, Christ has given us the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
And the Holy Spirit will search and know us until we see the glory of Christ face-to-face.
Knowing and being known by God.
Psalm 139 reminds us that God accepts and loves his children intimately, despite seeing and knowing everything about us. Is it not the greatest privilege in the world to know and be known by God?
Imagine if we lived each day as if it were true.
Listen to this song based on Psalm 139, and thank the Lord that his searching eye is always on you.
Join us next week as we focus on Psalm 139:14-16 in “Fearfully and wonderfully made.”