MY WIFE AND I RECENTLY WENT TO THE APPLE STORE in the Florida Mall in Orlando. I didn’t know people still went to malls. I was wrong. It was crowded. There are more than seven billion people in the world right now. About a third of them were in the Apple store the night we were there. There were people from Brazil, China, Central America, and at least two people from Florida. I don’t like crowds. My wife loves crowds. I love my wife, so I was willing to be with her in a crowd.
The biggest crowds I’ve ever been in were in football stadiums. My dad was an avid Miami Dolphin football fan back in the late 1970’s, when the Dolphins were a winning team. He had season tickets at the old Orange Bowl in Miami that had seating for 72,000 people. I remember going to games with my dad and feeling like a sardine in a can. I remember looking at all those people and thinking, “I don’t know any of these people and they don’t know me.”
I live in what a lot of people would consider a small town – just under 44,000 people. It’s amazing how rarely I see people I know even in a town this size. When I go to Walmart, I see people I have never met. I can feel lost in the crowd even in Titusville, Florida.
There are millions of people who claim to be Christians in the world right now. On a typical Sunday in the state of Florida, there will be somewhere between two and three million people in church.
Have you ever wondered, “How can God know all these people? How can God care about one person –me– when there are so many people in the world?”
A friend in our church family once said, “There are so many people with real problems. I don’t want to bother God with my little problems.” He couldn’t imagine God being able to handle the prayers and needs of so many people.
On a Sunday morning, when all those people are in churches all over the world, how can God listen to each person’s prayers when they are all praying at the same time? How can God keep up with all those prayers?
You know the theological answer: God is omniscient. He knows all there is to know. He is infinite in knowledge.
One amidst billions
But when you feel like just a number in a huge crowd; when you feel insignificant in relation to a big world, it’s hard to believe that God really knows you or that he actually wants to know you.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High” (Psalm 92:1).
You can be thankful and express thanks to a large institution that doesn’t know your name. I am thankful to the University of Miami for letting me enroll as a student and for the education they gave me. I am thankful that they let me graduate.. Sometime when I’m feeling thankful, I could write a letter of thanks. If I’m feeling particularly thankful, I could send a donation to the alumni fund.
Having driven on highways in foreign countries, I am thankful for good highways in the state of Florida. I could write a letter of thanks to the highway department.
I am thankful for safety and peace in America. I suppose I could write some letters of thanks to the military services or to the FBI.
But I am one person out of millions. I would probably be a rarity if I took the time to say thanks, but still, I would be thanking institutions that don’t know me and don’t particularly care if I’m thankful or not.
The person who opens my letter of thanks might see my name and appreciate my kind words. But they would soon forget about me and I would still be an unknown individual in a big crowd, speaking to busy administrators and bureaucrats who have a lot to do. There’s no personal relationship involved in an expression of thanks to an institution.
Prayer can feel like that. The psalmists tell us “It is good to give thanks to God.” Good for whom? Good for me? Certainly it is: it makes me humble to acknowledge that where I am in life is due to the kindness of a God who has provided for me in all kinds of ways. It makes me less selfish and self-centered to stop and say thank you. It’s good to stop and remember specifically how he has been good to me.
But I am one person in a world with billions. Does God really know me? Or when I pray is it like the angelic scribes are writing down notes to keep track, because God is pretty busy with more important details?
“Rejoice in the Lord; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:4-6).
To say “The Lord is at hand…” means God is near. He is not far off in heaven, unaware of your concerns. It’s not like he doesn’t know what’s going on in your life unless you somehow get his attention. He is near.
We know that is true theologically. We believe that in our heads. But we don’t believe that in our hearts. We don’t live like God is at hand. We don’t act like he’s close to us.
How does God know us?
How do we get a sense of God’s nearness to us into our hearts? How can we pray with a sense that God hears us, that God cares about us, that God has time to listen to us even when millions of people are praying to him at the same time?
Psalm 139 is a meditation: the psalmist is reflecting on the truth that God knows us intimately. As he thinks about God’s personal knowledge and speaks about this before God, he provides a great model for us. We would do well to ponder the things he says in this psalm and to pray the prayer at the end of this psalm.
Let’s walk through it.
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-3).
“Search,” “know” and “discern” are cognitive words. God analyzes me, examines me, tests me, and knows what is true about me. When he says God is acquainted with all “my ways” he’s not talking about God knowing where he had traveled that day as he walked the streets of his hometown. He’s talking about his character and conduct.
He says, “God, you know me as I am spiritually. You know who I am at the core.” For God to know like that doesn’t mean he has gathered all the data and recorded it in a heavenly computer that he can access later. The word know in the Bible is a word that often implies intimacy “Now Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived…” (Genesis 4:1).
For God to know someone like this implies a choice and intimacy, it implies care and protection. It might feel a bit threatening to think that God knows you completely. But God’s knowledge is not adversarial — he is not gathering information on you to use against you on the day of judgment. His knowledge is loving. It is personal. It is intimate. This is the staggering truth: God wants to know you. He actually chooses to know you.
Notice the contrasts in the first half of the psalm: sit down, rise up; on the path — lie down; behind — before; go, flee; the heavens — sheol (the grave); darkness — light/ day. There is no situation you can imagine where God would be unaware of what’s happening to you. God is all knowing and everywhere present. God knows you.
Sometimes that is a comforting thought, sometimes that is a very frightening thought. I’m not sure I want anyone to know me like that.
Psalm 139:4 “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.”
Is that a comforting thought? Probably not. God knows what you’re thinking. In one way, it is amazingly comforting to hear that God knows me completely. But that kind of knowledge is also uncomfortable. And that discomfort is there in the words and imagery the psalmist uses:
Verse 5: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”
Bruce Waltke says these are actually military metaphors. To hem me in has a chilling tone. The metaphor implies hostility. It can be translated, “to lock up.” The second half of verse five continues with this threatening imagery: You “lay your hand upon me.” Waltke writes: “When one rests his hand on another, the object is decisively under the subject’s control, not his own.” God’s hand can shelter you. But “more often the figure signifies the imposition of a will opposed in some way to another’s own” (Bruce Waltke, The Psalms in Christian Worship, p. 549).
Verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.”
That God knows me like that stirs up respect and awe. It also stirs up fear. Such knowledge is “too high” for me. This is another military term. The word can be translated, “impregnable, secure.” He’s saying, “I don’t have the power to get above your knowledge. I am powerless before you.”
Do you really want God to know you like that?
“God’s knowledge is being imaged as a cliff that even a warrior of David’s caliber is no match for” (Waltke). All he can do is bow under the mystery and power of God’s knowledge. The truth of God’s infinite knowledge leaves you feeling amazed, overwhelmed, and a bit restless inside.
Verse 7: “Where shall I go from your Spirit?”
He’s talking about God’s Spirit. As pure spirit, God is not limited to being in one place at one time. So you can’t find a place to get away from God.
“…Or where shall I flee from your presence?”
Most of the time when the word translated “flee” is used in Scripture, it means running from grave danger. That’s some amazing honesty. God knows what I’m thinking, what I long for, what I have said, and what I have done. God’s presence can be comforting at times, at other times it feels downright dangerous. He is infinitely holy and I’m not holy. It feels confrontational for God to know me like that. Being in God’s presence makes me feel overwhelmed by my sinfulness. And there is no place to go to escape God. There is nowhere to hide from his searching eye.
Verse 8: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
The contrast means the highest and the lowest places in the universe. Heaven would be the preferable space to be, the place of God’s presence. The grave, Sheol, is the place of the dead. You would think you could escape God’s frightening presence when you’re dead. But no, he is actively present in the realm of the dead.
We can’t go up high enough or down deep enough to get away from God. What about east and west?
Verses 9-10: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
Morning breaks in the east, so to take the wings of the morning is a way of describing the sunrise. The uttermost parts of the sea, for people who lived in Israel, meant looking toward the west. So east or west, as far as you might go, God is there. The sun set over the Mediterranean Sea. If you keep going west, in this imagery, you end up in darkness.
Verses 11-12: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
Bruce Waltke says, “Darkness in the Bible is more than the absence of light: there is something about the darkness that is destructive to life. It is a realm that is cut off from light, hostile to that which provides safety, freedom, and success; it is the realm of evil and of the wicked…of disaster…and of death…” (Ibid, p. 556).
But even those dark places are not dark for God.
Lovingly, carefully, uniquely created
Psalm 139 is probably best known in Christian circles for these next verses:
Verse 12: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”
Think of a weaver, skillfully weaving threads together to make a beautiful tapestry. God created us like that. He created each of us with that kind of personal care and artistry.
We know about DNA and genetics: when your mother’s egg and your father’s sperm came together, 23 chromosomes from each parent were combined in a unique sequence, unlike that of any other person who has ever been born. All the information that told those cells how to divide and which traits to bring out in you were there from the moment of conception.
You won’t hear scientists who understand and study genetics and the DNA code praising the creator of the DNA strand very often. Sadly, for many modern scientists, God has no place in their view of reality. But scientifically, that’s how God made you. He used the genetic information passed down from your parents to shape you.
But the psalmist is not making a scientific statement about genetics. He knew nothing about the genetic code. He is making a theological statement: God’s thoughts were directed toward you in your mother’s womb. God did not passively observe the developing embryo in your mother’s womb – he actively programmed it. He wrote the code and sovereignly brought together the genetic information that produced you. As one who had grown up in an agrarian society (David had been a shepherd, after all), the psalmist knew something about hereditary characteristics that cause the offspring to be like the parent. But he looks behind that and sees God at work in the formation of each individual human being.
Verses 14-16: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 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 were none of them.”
God is writing a story, and he has written you into his story. He made you the way you are for his good purposes. Loving care is implied in God’s work of fashioning you in the womb. God chose when and where you would be born. He determined ahead of time how many days you would live even before you were one day old.
He knows everything about you. He knows far more about you than you know about yourself. You don’t understand why you have certain genetic characteristics, but God does. You don’t know how many days you will live on this earth, but God does.
Verses 17-18: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God. How vast is the sum of them. If I could count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
So far, so good. But why are these next sentences in this psalm?
Verse 19: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God. O men of blood, depart from me.”
Caring how God is treated
It may be that pondering God’s intimate care and love makes him think of how God is treated in our world. He is ignored, hated, dismissed, and considered irrelevant. If you love someone, it hurts you to see that person mistreated or maligned.
Still, to ask God to slay the wicked is unusual, even in the psalms. Usually the petitions you find are pleas for deliverance from those who hate God, maybe asking God to deal justly with them, to punish them for their evil. Here, he asks God to destroy them.
Verse 20: “They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.”
He has been speaking honestly and respectfully about God. But there are a lot of people who speak hatefully and disrespectfully about God.
Verses 21-22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
I’ll let Bruce Waltke explain this kind of language:
“He hates those who hate God, not with malevolence and vindictiveness, but because in the covenant community God’s enemies are Israel’s enemies. In this spiritual battle there can be no middle position” (Waltke, p. 565). “I hate them” doesn’t just mean I don’t like them. Zeal for God comes through powerfully in these words. “His zeal for God could not be stated more emphatically than within these dozen words; unrestrained zeal is necessary to counter effectively the enemy in the battle of religious affections” (Waltke, p. 566).
John Calvin put it like this: “Our attachment to godliness must be inwardly defective if it does not generate an abhorrence of sin, such as David speaks here of” (quoted by Waltke, p. 567).
David has been speaking honestly, in contrast to the false, hateful language of those who hate God. But he also knows that his motives may not be pure. So he shifts gears and asks God to assess the truth of his words:
Verses 23-24: “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.”
Instead of resisting God’s knowledge of his heart, he lays his heart open and bare to God. He feels like his motives in asking God to destroy the wicked are clean, but knows that he doesn’t know his own motives.
Know my heart
So he pleads with God, “Search me. Test me.” He doesn’t ask God to search and test his enemies. He says, “Search me.” He is asking God to do an examination of his heart that only God can do. And the purpose of this search is that God might know him intimately and completely, in the depths of his being — “know my heart.” In biblical imagery, your heart is the place of your deepest thoughts, motives, desires, longings and feelings.
Having asked God to destroy the wicked, it’s as if David thinks, “Am I as completely devoted to you as I just said I was? I need God to show me if there is any wicked way in me.” “If” means the psalmist doesn’t know with certainty what’s there in his heart.
The prophet, Jeremiah, said: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). He doesn’t say, “Once my heart was deceitful and wicked, but now that I have come to love God, my heart is pure. It no longer deceives me. It no longer produces sin.” He says the heart is still is beyond his ability to cure it.
David is saying something similar. He is unable to know and judge his own heart completely. There are depths to it he can’t fathom. There are motives there that he doesn’t understand, desires he doesn’t see.
Only God knows what it is in your heart.
For God to find an “offensive way” in your heart means for God to see some offense that causes God pain. As frightening as it might be for God to search you like this and to show you what’s in your heart, it is by opening yourself to God like this that you change.
“His own integrity is not sufficient for this. His own ways could, in fact, carry him toward pain and destruction. Only if Yahweh will lay his hand on him, to guide, sustain, and control him utterly, can the poet hope that his ways will conform to Yahweh’s way” (Lovitt, quoted by Waltke, p. 569).
You and I say we want to learn to pray and to experience more joy in prayer. We say we want a deeper intimacy with God. But the truth is, there is a part of each of us that doesn’t want that.
Intimacy can be defined as the experience of closeness that comes from knowing and being known in a relationship that is secure. It’s fine to know more about God, but it is uncomfortable to think that God knows more about me than I want him to know — more than I know. It’s frightening to think that He knows what’s in my heart.
By nature, as sinners, we do what Adam and Eve did in the garden — we hide from God, from others, from ourselves. When Adam and Eve knew that they were sinners, they sewed fig leaves together to make protective covering not only to hide their nakedness from each other, but to hide themselves from God. They hoped God would not notice that they were changed.
We who are descended from Adam and Eve and inherit a sinful nature from them do the same thing: We create impenetrable defenses to protect our hearts from being known. We say to ourselves (consciously or unconsciously), “I don’t want anyone to know me — to really know me. I’ll let them know the person I create that is safe for me to have them know. But I will wear a mask to guard myself from being too deeply known.”
We don’t trust anyone with the kind of knowledge Psalm 139 attributes to God. It doesn’t feel safe to be known like that. And we instinctively take this posture toward God:
“Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down. Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Isaiah 29:15-16).
To experience a deep, honest relationship with God, you have to confess that you can’t escape God’s knowledge of you, you can’t hide from him. You need to be honest with God about what’s in your heart.
No need to fear
God knows everything about you. You might as well be honest with him about what you’re thinking and feeling. You can welcome his knowledge of you or you can resist the idea that God knows you like that.
But this is what the Scriptures affirm: God is not against you. He is for you. He is not your adversary. His motivation in knowing you completely is love.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all things…For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-32, 38-39).
You don’t have to be afraid of what God will find when he searches your heart. He already knows what is there, and still loves you. God doesn’t need to be informed about what’s in your heart, but you do. You don’t understand what is driving you in the choices you make and the words you say every day. There are depths to your heart and soul that you don’t understand. For God to show you the truth about the sin that is driving your heart is a good thing. Sin always creates bondage. To the degree your words and actions are driven by sinful assumptions and motives, you are not free. God wants you to experience real freedom. But you can’t experience that freedom until you begin to see what is there in your heart.
So what if you pray, “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.”
What would it look like for God to answer that prayer? How would God show you what he wants you to see about what’s going on in your heart?
He might give you insight into your sin as you pray or as you read Scripture alone in your times with him. He might make you aware of something you need to confess and show you where you need repentance. He might stir your conscience without anyone else being involved. But usually, we need some help to see what’s in our hearts. Would you be willing to hear what God might say to you about the sinful motives, desires, or patterns in your heart through another person?
Those who are closest to you know some things about how you sin that you may not see for yourself. Your wife, your husband, your parents, your child, an honest friend – would you be willing to believe that God might show you your sin through someone close to you?
You say, “Willing? Maybe if I can’t avoid it. But I am not about to seek out that kind of scrutiny. I don’t want to hear someone’s thoughts about my failings. It’s too painful. It tears down what I’ve been trying to believe all my life: All my life I’ve been trying to do for myself what needs to be done, to do it by myself, and to do it as quickly as possible. To hear that someone sees imperfections is painful.” We would never say it, but what we think is: “I want to be perfect, or at least reasonably and consistently super-adequate.”
Trying to hide
In a very helpful book, The Trauma of Transparency, the author says:
“I want to be perfect. I know I’m not. So I hide my imperfections. From whom? Well, there are a lot of things that are true about me that I either don’t know about or won’t admit to myself. I hide from myself. I hide from others. I hide from God. …when will I stop hiding?”
The answer is:
“I’ll stop hiding when I’m perfect. Then it will be safe and easy to be open and honest with everyone, all the time, about anything. I’ll have nothing to hide. But that isn’t going to happen in this life on this earth. So we keep hiding….refusing to face what we need to deal with.” (J. Grant Howard, p.41-42).
You can keep hiding from others, but you can’t hide from God. Because he loves you, he wants what is best for you – he wants you to be free from the sinful assumptions, beliefs, motives, and actions that enslave you. So he is going to expose your sin in one way or another. It is only when you see your sin and are made aware of your inability to change your own heart that you will run to Jesus for grace. And to know the depths of the love God has for you, you need to see what Jesus did for you on the cross more clearly. You need to see the enormity of God’s work of grace for you in Christ’s suffering and death in your place.
If you can believe that God exposes your sin because he loves you, you will be more willing to pray, “Search me and know me…”
What if, after you said some unloving or angry words to someone you loved, you calmed down enough to really consider what just happened? What if you prayed, “Father, where is the truth in this? Would you show me what I need to see about my heart and give me the grace to change?”
What if you prayed, “Father, work in me, change me, set me free from the bondage of sin that remains in me. I don’t understand why I do this and act like this and I feel so unsafe for you to know me like I really am. But you chose me in love. You adopted me as your child. You’ve promised you will not reject me or hide from me. Give me the grace to trust you to show me my sin and clean up my heart.”
Those kinds of honest, deep, heartfelt prayers can change your life.
Ask God to search your heart
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Hallowed be your name,” what did he have in mind? It’s valid to pray that God’s name would he held in honor (hallowed) by people in your town or in our nation. It’s a good thing to ask that people in cultures and tribes and nations who don’t know Jesus as Savior and Lord would come to hallow God’s name. But what about God’s name being hallowed in your heart and mind? We need God’s Spirit to show us where we don’t honor God in our hearts. We need God to show us the truth about our sinful desires, motives, attitudes and assumptions.
Asking God to search your heart and to know you is asking God to hallow His name in your life. “Lord, show me your holiness, that I might see the depths of my sin more clearly. And don’t leave me there, but show me how the work of Jesus on the cross is sufficient to bridge the vast chasm that distances me from you. Only as I see your holiness more clearly and long for your name to be hallowed in my life will I face the truth about the depths of sin in my heart. If I refuse to face the truth about what is driving my heart, I will not value your mercy in Christ highly enough.”
Coming to God with this kind of honesty, inviting his search of your heart and asking him to show you any offensive way that is in you opens you up to a deeper understanding of yourself. That, in turn, leads to a greater intimacy with Jesus, the “lover of your soul.”