Imagine you’re the director of music for king David. David comes in one day and says, “I’ve written a good one”, and he gives you Psalm 139. What tune do you put it to? So you read through it, and in your mind you think that beautiful strings would be apt, with the triumphant, “you know me Lord” and “you made me Lord”. But then you get to verses 19 to 22: “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (NIV) That sounds like it needs to be growled out over heavy metal electric guitars, doesn’t it? So what tune would we put the words to? And what should we do with final verses?
Yet the psalm is clearly meant to be read as one psalm as a unified whole. Verses 1 and 23 both pick up the language of “search” and “know.” And that is the prayer of this psalm. That’s reason David says everything else. So verse 1, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” Again, verse 23, “Search me, God, and know my heart”. These statements raise another question: do you want to be searched? Do you want someone to know everything in your heart and to know all your thoughts?
I have been watching the drama series, “The Crown”. Season 1 was fantastic. John Lithgow’s portrayal of the aging Churchill was unbelievably good. And the episode where Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint the great man was a stand out. That episode portrayed the great exchanges between the artist and the subject as Churchill sits for the portrait to be painted. And what became clear was that Churchill was petty and vain as well as being a genius. And finally when the painting is revealed in front of parliament, Churchill hates it. The artist has discerned a streak of cruelty in Churchill and captured it in the painting. And the result was that Clemmie Churchill burns the painting—this was true to history—because she sees that Winston cannot bear to have his nasty, petty, and cruel streak exposed.
Do you want someone to search every area of your thoughts and desires? Does that sound like a positive thing to you? But that is the prayer here, in verse 23, “Search me”. The whole psalm is heading to verses 23-24: “Search me, 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.” (NIV)
Perhaps that’s why some phrases are ambiguous. So in verse 5, David says to God: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” You hem me in and lay your hand upon me. Is that a good or a bad thing? Do you want to be hemmed in? It depends really if the person doing the “hemming” is a mugger or a lover! Again, the phrase “search me” might be positive or negative. God is a searcher of the human heart, and because we are sinful, we instinctively all want to withdraw and hide from him for fear of being exposed.
As we begin looking at this Psalm, I’m thankful that this psalm is “of David”. I am thankful that before I say the Psalm, it is a song of the Lord Jesus, David’s great descendent. Jesus is the ultimate messianic king that David foreshadowed. When Jesus sings this Psalm, it is true of him, and Jesus gives us this song to sing. Psalm 139 gives us the LORD, who is either frightening or reassuring. If we are Christians, we can sing this song joyfully, inviting God to “search me, O Lord”. We recognize that our hearts are a mixture of nobility and depravity. But legally, all that is wrong with us is taken by Jesus and replaced by his perfection. So Lord, I can be exposed before you and I know that you love me still.
The first six verses are deeply personal. In every verse, David is accutely aware of himself before God. Notice the personal pronouns, “you” and “me” in each verse. And notice the “knowledge” words. David confesses that God knows him again and again. In verses 1, 2, and 4, David says that God’s “knows” him. In verse 3, God “discerns” him and is “familiar” with all his ways. This is not an abstract knowledge but a relational knowledge, the same sort of intimate knowledge that the Old Testament says that a man has of his wife, meaning sexual relations. God knows what we do (v. 2), what we think (v. 2), where we go (v. 3), what we say (v. 4), and what we need (v. 5).
Do you swaddle babies in Australia? The advice varies, of course, but in the UK, we’re told to swaddle a baby, that is, to wrap it up really tight in a blanket or cloth. Apparently it makes them feel safe and secure, like they were in the womb. A believer has no fear of being hemmed in by the LORD. Rather, it’s a source of enormous comfort to us.
As I went to take our son off to play cricket last week, my wife said to him, “Do you want to take a sandwich?” “No I’m fine”, came the surly reply. “Have you got a jumper? It might get cold when you are fielding.” “I’ll be fine”, he said in dismissive tones. My wife of course still gave them both to me, and off we went to the cricket match. And sure enough, while he was waiting to bat, he says, “I’m starving”. And I hand him the sandwich his mother gave me for him. And as the temperature dropped into afternoon as he was fielding, he became cold. “Do you want a jumper?”, I ask. “Yep.” His mother knows him. She hems him in.
And so verse 6 expresses that being hemmed in is “wonderful”: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” It is too extraordinary for me, thinks David. And of course it is indeed wonderful to be both known and loved, isn’t it? To be known only might be good, or it might lead people to be wary around you. There is a saying that “No man is a hero to his butler”—we all have them in England—meaning that the butler sees what you are really like. To be known but not loved is not really that good.
And to be loved is great, but not if there’s a wretched secret you want to keep, that the one who loves you doesn’t know, and puts the love of that person for you at risk. Suppose you are a drug dealer, or on the run from the FBI, and the one who loves you doesn’t know this. What a terrible thing to have to keep such secrets out of fear of losing that person’s love! But to be both known and loved as well, that is a special combination. It is for this reason that long marriages can be special—for then we are both known by our spouse, and loved at the same time despite our sin. Knowing that we’re both known and loved gives real confidence in life.
Verse 7 is another ambiguous verse: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”
Why would you flee from God’s presence? You would presumably flee from God if you have something to hide, or if your conscience is guilty before him. Who flees from God’s presence in the Bible? Adam and Eve flee from God after they have sinned, and pathetically hide behind fig leaves. The prophet Jonah impotently tries to flee from God when he doesn’t wish to go to Nineveh to preach to them. These are almost comical attempts to hide from God, and David knows it’s not possible to run away or hide from God.
In verses 8-10, there is no distance that David can run to escape God: “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, Even there your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.” (NIV)
And in verses 11-12, David knows that no darkness can cover him from God’s sight: “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.” (NIV)
When does darkness descend upon the worst of shame? It is when God judges the guilty in Jesus upon the cross. As darkness descended upon Jesus as he hung on the cross, he bore the judgement of God on our sin and bore God’s wrath for us. How wonderful that Jesus said at that point to his Father, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.”
When the Christian asks the question of verse 7, “Where can I go from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence”, it is because the Christian doesn’t want to go from God’s presence. “Your Spirit” here is placed in parallel with “your presence”, literally, “your face”. This reminds us that God indeed is present with us to bless us by his Spirit. We are never alone. The Christian believer knows that no matter what we’ve done, no matter how guilty our consciences are before God, this does not mean we have to hide from God. Rather, we return to God with our guilt and say to him, “Father, I praise you for the Lord Jesus. I am ashamed at what I’ve done, but I know that Jesus has taken my shame, so that I can stand before you as an unembarrassed child.”
I was with a young family the other day, and the mum had just fed a young baby of five months. The mother burped her, lifted her up, and said, “Have you got a smile for mummy?” And as the young mum opened her mouth, at that very moment the baby had reflux and vomited straight into mum’s mouth. It was one of the most disgusting things that I’ve ever seen. But here’s what mum didn’t do. She didn’t say, “That’s it. You’ve crossed a line. I can feed you, change your nappy, and wash you, but that is unforgiveable!” No, she said nothing of the sort, for nothing can stop mum from loving baby. And there is nothing that can stop your heavenly Father from loving you, because the very worst sin that you have or will commit is paid for by Jesus. God your Father will always be with you. He will never let you go.
David confesses that God has made him, verse 13: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” In verse13, the “inmost being” is the “inward parts”, literally the kidneys, and stands for the emotions and the emotional life. It is God’s work to create each of us in the wombs of our mothers. This of course is why Christians place such a high value on life in the womb.
David can’t help but have a little burst of praise about in verse 14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” How the Lord shapes us in the womb determines so much about us: how clever or strong we might be, what weaknesses we may have, and what diseases we are susceptible to. All of this is God’s work! You did this Lord, you gave me all that I have.
In verses 15-16, David returns to contemplate God’s creation and plan for his life: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV) What does David do with this truth that God has ordained everything that will occur in David’s life? He doesn’t say, “So then everything I do is pointless”, because the Bible also insists that humans have responsibility for their choices. Neither does he say, “so then life will be easy and without any humps in the road now that God has planned out my life”, because in verse 19, David clearly is having a difficult time with enemies: “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!”
Rather, the knowledge that all David’s days were written for him by God before one of them came to be causes David to praise God in verse 17: “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!” Your thoughts are splendid, O God! What a God you are!
That does make a massive difference! Think of the Marvel superhero films, one of the more recent ones being “Avengers: Infinity War”. In this blockbuster, half of the heroes die, including Spiderman, my favourite. It’s sad, sort of. Because you know there’s a sequel, and also a trailer out for a new Spiderman movie, so you know before you see it that “Avengers: End Game” will have a pretty happy ending.
The book of your life has a happy ending if you’re a Christian. The plot may have many twists and turns. There’ll be sad moments and tragic moments. But know that the last page has you standing before Jesus in glory. So verse 18, “when I awake, I am still with you.” Those words, “When I awake” are true every morning, and they will be true when you wake from the sleep of death.
In the week before Easter three people I knew at church died. The resurrection of Jesus meant more to me this year than a long time as a result. Easter Sunday was wonderful. One day you will close your eyes in death, and then you will wake up, and the living God will be there.
What is David’s chief cause of anger? It is not that he has been wronged. We’re quick to get angry when someone does something against us. But the reason David is angry is given in verses 19-20: "If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name." (NIV)
David is angered because his enemies speak against God and take God’s name in vain. And so, in verses 21-22, David expresses his hatred for them: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” Hatred is fine if it’s hatred of evil. If you don’t rejoice in the overthrow of evil, there’s something wrong with you. If wickedness is replaced with goodness, that is a wonderful thing.
David says in verse 23, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (NIV). Search me and see if my thoughts are aligned with your thoughts. Try me out and see if I love what you love and hate what you hate. At points in his life, David was indeed a “man after God’s own heart”. But we know that if God searched David, he would find sin, because we see it in Scripture.
Do we really want everything about us searched by the all-seeing God? A friend of mine recently visited some Palestinian friends in Israel. At Tel Aviv airport, he was asked who he had visited. He did not receive a positive response when he told them who he visited, so he was searched. It was the “taken to a room and strip off everything” type of search. He felt unbelievably exposed.
Given that this is the sort of search God can do, it is only Jesus Christ who can pray “search me” in verses 23-24 and expect Father to reply, “Yes my precious Son! You love what I love. Your thoughts are my thoughts!”
“Search me, 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.”
For you and me, we can’t pray “search me” as a sinful man or woman, because God will of course find our many sins. But we can say, “Jesus, thank you that you sang this song perfectly and have given it to me to sing as I trust in you.” For the “way everlasting” is open for us, and God knowing us is wonderful news. He knows us and loves us and will hold us fast until glory.