This sermon is part of the sermon series "Lessons from the Psalms". See series.
Have you ever asked yourself how many times you are photographed in a day? When you walk into the bank or return your cart to the corral in the parking lot, somewhere there is a camera marking your every move. Our world is full of blue lights on street corners and whirring cameras mounted on walls. Yet David tells us here in Psalm 139 that at every moment of the day, we are under a much higher scrutiny. He reveals that the secret to understanding ourselves is to know the God who knows us. We shouldn't be surprised.
God knows us inside and out.
The Psalmist begins by acknowledging that God knows us better than we know ourselves. He is aware of every action and anticipates our innermost thoughts. What is more, David describes this as an active, rather than a passive, knowledge.
Verse 1 begins: "O Lord, you have searched me and you know me." I think it's important to note that David isn't addressing us. He is addressing God. This is David's way of saying that he knows that God knows him. As David continues, he describes the extent of God's knowledge. He points out that God's knowledge of him is expansive. David pictures God watching from a distance: "You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways." Is it possible that in this age of security cameras and satellite images, the wonder of this truth is lost on us? To be honest, I think we are so used to being under surveillance that we hardly notice anymore.
But the knowledge God has of us is not only expansive, it is also deeply personal. David describes God as seeing us from afar, but that doesn't mean that he thinks that God is far off. This God who knows us knows us from the inside. David uses the language of "perception" and "discernment" to characterize God's knowledge of him. "You perceive my thoughts," he says. "You discern my going out and my lying down. You are familiar with my ways."
People tell me that I am a fairly transparent "read" in meetings. They say they can tell when I'm bored. They can especially tell when I'm irritated. Then there is my wife Jane, who has lived with me long enough to read the signs that other people can't read. She usually knows what I am thinking even when I am trying to mask it. But the knowledge of God has of us goes one step further. It's not just that he knows us well enough to read us from a distance. His knowledge of us is so deep that he can see us coming and going. According to verse 4, this knowledge is so complete that it is predictive: "Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O Lord."
Is David saying that God can read his mind? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But he is saying more than that. He is saying that God sees our thoughts before they are fully formed. This is what he really means when he says that God perceives his thoughts from "afar." The distance the Psalmist has in view is temporal.
I suppose this could raise questions. For example, it could raise questions about prayer. If God knows what I'm going to say before I say it, why do I need to pray? Why doesn't he just look into the future, anticipate my request, and grant the answer before I put it into words? In fact, there are times when he does just that. Analyze God's answers to our prayers, and you will often find that in order for the timing to work, the answer had to be set in motion before we ever uttered the words! We often experience what God promised to Jerusalem in Isaiah 65:24: "Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear."
Still, some will ask: "Why go through the charade of asking God if he already knows what I'm going to say?" Is prayer some kind of game? Is God teasing me—like someone who holds my desire behind his back, waiting for me to use just the right words, all the while knowing what it is that I want and knowing that he can grant my desire?" The trouble with this view is not just that it reflects an unworthy view of God. Its root problem is that it misunderstands the nature of prayer. It assumes that prayer is primarily functional. It assumes that the main reason we pray is to get what we want. That may actually be true where we are concerned. I confess to you that if you were to analyze my prayers, you would soon find that they have more in common with a grocery list than with a conversation or letter. But there is more to prayer than the answer. There is more to prayer than the asking. Prayer is a relational encounter.
In his book entitled Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: " … it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God." Bloom warns that one of the great dangers we face in this area is the temptation to take an impersonal approach to prayer. There are many times when we are ready to pray, but we are not ready to receive God. "We want something from him but him not at all," Bloom warns. This can be true even of passionate prayer. Bloom asks us to think of those times when our prayers are marked by warmth and intensity, when the prayer concerns someone we love or something that matters to us. "Then your heart is open and all inner self is recollected in the prayer," Bloom writes. "Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matters of your prayer matters to you."
How do I overcome this tendency? Well, it is not a matter of methodology. The problem isn't that I have been using the wrong posture or language. No, the real problem is our angle of vision. The problem is that I haven't learned to see God as David sees him—to see him as a God who knows me deeply and personally, a God who is acquainted with my thoughts, a God who speaks my language and anticipates my words. This is a God who knows me better than I know myself. I don't know what I am going to say before I say it. I don't know what my thoughts are going to be tomorrow. But God does. He knows not only my thoughts but my ways; he knows the paths I travel.
God sees us coming and going.
Here the Psalmist shifts his focus from God's knowledge to God's presence, and in a sense he changes his perspective. In verses 5-12, the picture is not one of a God who discerns our thoughts from afar but of a God who is close up: "You hem me in, behind and before," the Psalmist writes. "You have laid your hand upon me." The biblical poet sees himself running into God again and again. Is God behind him? Well, yes he is. But God is also in front of him. David has been surrounded by God and God's hand is continually on him.
David conducts a kind of mental experiment, imagining what it would be like to try and escape God. He poses the test question in verse. 7: "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?" Then he establishes the boundaries of his experiment in verses 8-9: "If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea …." First, he explores height and the depth. If he ascends into the heavens above, God is already there. If he descends into the deepest part of the earth, God is there too. Next, he explores the expanse of the globe. If David were to "rise on the wings of the dawn"—if he were to rise with the sun and follow its course from horizon to horizon until he set with it on the far side of the sea, the result would be no different. He would find God there too. David concludes that flight from God is impossible. Not because God is relentless in pursuit, but because anywhere he might go God is already there. Everywhere that David goes, he runs into God.
But David makes a further point: not only is God with him wherever he goes, but God is also guiding him. Verse 10 says: "even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast." How we think about this overall picture depends upon whether we understand God to be dealing with us as a friend or a foe. If the policeman lays his hand on you to apprehend you, there is little comfort in that touch. You would feel very different if the hand that rested on your shoulder was that of a friend or a lover. If you are about to slip on the ice, the strong grip of someone who holds you fast is reassuring. But if your intent is to flee, you would feel about that grip the way a prisoner does his shackles. You would hate it; you would strain against it.
I noticed something about my two sons when they moved from childhood into adolescence. I noticed that my boys responded differently to my touch as they got older. When they were little, they seemed eager to hug me. They would jump into my arms and cling to me with all their might. When they became teenagers, things changed. Oh, they still let me hug them. But in their teen years, they stiffened, ever so slightly. Suddenly, there was a resistance that wasn't there before. What changed? Some of it I am sure can be attributed to the awkwardness of adolescence. Many teenagers seem to go through a stage where they feel uncomfortable showing affection. But I think the change was also a symbol of their growing independence. The autonomy they declared with their body language was matched by many of the choices they made. They stiffened against the constraints Jane and I had placed on them, just as they did my embrace. The rules and standards that we saw as an expression of love and a means of protection, they mistook for a prison.
So which is it for you, when it comes to God's strong hand of love? Is it a source of comfort to you or something that you stiffen against and resist? Does the inescapable presence of God make you feel protected? Is that steady footfall that you hear the mark of a faithful companion? A guide? A rear guard who's got your back? Or do you feel like God has laid siege to your soul? Do you see his relentless pursuit as the pursuit of an adversary?
If we are honest, we would probably have to say a little of both. Even David, as he describes his experience in this Psalm seems a little ambivalent. He seems comforted and uncomfortable at the same time. In verses 11-12, he seems to imagine what it would be like to try and hide from God under the cover of darkness: "If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you."
If you are trying to navigate an unfamiliar landscape in the dark, the thought that God sees as clearly in the darkness as in the light is good news. But not if you are trying to use the darkness for cover! In these verses David makes it clear: we are transparent before God. There is no way to cover ourselves. We can't run. We can't hide. We can't put up a smokescreen that obscures the true state of our heart or our actions. God sees everything with complete clarity. You may be able fool your neighbor. You can even deceive yourself. But God? Well, He's got your number. He sees you coming and going—and for good reason. He isn't just some heavenly spectator to the drama of your life. He is the author.
God is the architect of your soul.
God is your creator. And he has been involved in your life from the very beginning. Verse 13 reads: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." The Hebrew word that the NIV translates as "created" in this verse is a word that means to "purchase" or "get." God is pictured as the artisan who purchased the material that makes up our innermost parts and has woven them together. This is intricate work that causes David to marvel at God's skill. More importantly, he describes it as something for which to be thankful: "I will give thanks unto thee;" he declares in verse 14, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." When he speaks of being made in "the secret place" and "woven together in the depths of the earth" in verse 15, he is using poetic language to describe human conception and development. The Psalmist sees his "frame" and his "unformed body" not only as a work of God, but as the work of an artisan.
This is a radically different worldview than the one that would see the unformed fetus as a blob of tissue. According to God's word, human conception is not an accidental process but an intentional one. The modernist looks at the human form as a machine, a mere collection of cells, or a consequence of random forces. But the Psalmist sees it as a work of God. What is more, he sees God at work in the entire scope of his life. Not just at his conception, but also during "all the days ordained" for him. The same God who is at work in the womb continues to work in my life once I leave the womb. He saw me when I was unformed. He keeps a record of my days.
This thought moves David to praise in verses 17-18: "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you."
The contrast between Psalmist's view and that of modern man is not only striking, it is tragic. The Psalmist sees the human embryo as something sacred. "Fearfully and wonderfully made" are the words he uses. He sees it as the intricate weaving of God—a mysterious work, a marvelous work. It is a work of art—a work of God. The Psalmist sees human life as something to be celebrated and for which God deserves praise. And modern man? Well, modern man treats the human embryo the same way he treats a tumor—something to be scraped away and discarded. Or else he treats it like a commodity—something to be harvested for the benefit of others or something to be bought and sold in the market place. This is a base, degraded view of humanity. It is a view that can only lead to further degradation, because if you do not value life while it is in the womb, how can you value it outside the womb? Do not be deceived by the rhetoric you hear. This is not a political issue. It is a moral issue. And make no mistake about it: there is no common ground between those two points of view. The distance between them is the distance between light and darkness.
How did we come to this place? How have we fallen so far? How have we come to have such a low view of ourselves? The answer is a simple one and it resounds throughout this Psalm: We lost sight of ourselves when we lost sight of God. It is God who gives us life. It is God who gives us purpose. It is God who gives us dignity. Rule God out of the equation and what do you have? A mass of cells and little more. A piece of tissue. A commodity.
John Calvin begins the Institutes of the Christian Religion with the assertion that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are related. "Nearly all the wisdom we possess," Calvin writes, "that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." Calvin goes on to say that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating God to scrutinize himself. But, Calvin points out, what we learn about ourselves is not entirely comfortable. Because when we consider ourselves in the light of God, we see both "what we were like when we were first created and what our condition became after the fall of Adam."
This is precisely the trajectory the Psalmist takes in his thinking, as he moves from contemplating the wonder of God's work in conception to considering himself. In doing so, he does two things: he aligns himself with God's purposes, and he asks God to search him. He aligns himself with God's purposes by differentiating himself from the wicked. Verse 19-22 read: "If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies." We are embarrassed by his sentiment—David's words sound harsh to us—but that is only because we have lost our moral compass.
The Psalmist's uncomfortable words are a reminder that there really is such a thing as evil. And it is right to denounce evil. But those who denounce evil in others must be prepared to confront a more subtle enemy: they must be prepared to face the evil in themselves. That's why the Psalmist concludes with a prayer for himself in verses 23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
In a Christianity Today article entitled "Looking for Monsters," Kay Warren writes that the first time she visited Rwanda, she went expecting it to be easy to spot the monsters who had perpetrated that country's terrible genocide in 1994. "What I found left me puzzled, and ultimately terrified," she writes.
Instead of finding leering, menacing creatures, I met men and women who looked and behaved a lot like me. They took care of their families, went to work, chatted with their neighbors, laughed, cried, prayed, and worshiped. Where were the monsters? Where were the evildoers capable of heinous acts? Slowly, with a deepening sense of dread, I realized the truth. There were no monsters in Rwanda, just people like you and me.
The good news is that the God who is your creator is also you redeemer. This God who knows you inside and out, the God who sees you coming and going, the God who is the architect of your soul, is also the architect of your salvation. He is the God who became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the one who shed his blood. Your creator is also your redeemer—Jesus Christ: the only one who saves us from our sin.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.