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  • Nik Lingle

Known by God (Sermon)

Psalm 139


Whenever you meet someone for the first time, a stranger, we start asking questions. There’s an exchange of questions that occurs. We are getting to know each other. I’m getting to know you even as you’re getting to know me. Many of us like this process; we like to talk about ourselves if we’re honest, we like knowing other people and we like being known. Up to a point. There are certain things we’d rather not have known, aren’t there?

Our lives are like a giant theater. There is what happens on the stage and there is what takes places behind the scenes. Those things we push out into the spotlight for others to see and celebrate. And those things we keep in the dark passages behind the curtains, underneath the stage, outside of the spotlights.

One of the very tricky things about being known by others is that we have a hard time being honest, and further, being transparent about ourselves to others. But Psalm 139 teaches us that we are in fact fully known, not by others but by God.

BIG IDEA: We are known by God, and his knowledge of us shapes our identity.

TRANSITION: You are known by God, and there are at least three facets of this knowledge that David specifies in Psalm 139, first we are known inside out, second we are known everywhere and third we are known for all time.

1. Known Inside Out (vv. 1-6, 23-24)

We begin with the thought that we are known inside out, which the psalmist speaks of in vv. 1-6. The psalm begins with these penetrating words, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!” We are each known by God. We each could rightly say along with the psalmist, “You have searched me and known me.” You might be wearing a mask to others around you, but before God there is no mask. The real you is fully known.

The Hebrew word “to know” is vivid. It has a wide array of meanings, but can be very intimate. It is the word used to describe sexual relationship of a husband and wife (Gen 4:1, “Now Adam knew his wife and she conceived and bore Cain”). A close and intimate knowing. It can also mean simple awareness of a fact. Context determines. What does the context show us here?

Context shows God has an ingressive knowledge, knowledge that enters to our inward being. More than intimate, it’s exhaustive. There’s no one else who knows you like this. Look at verse 2, David says, “Lord, you know when I sit down and when I rise up.” Well other people know you like that. They know what you do, where you go. What kinds of activities you’re involved in. But then look what he says next, “You discern my thoughts from afar.” God knows not just what we do, but also why we do it, and what you are thinking as you do it.[1]

Sometimes someone will say, I could tell what you were thinking. But God’s knowledge is not an educated guess based on years of knowing the facial responses of another. His is absolute knowledge and it is from afar. Not a guess based on seeing the face. But absolute knowledge.

This is the doctrine of God’s omniscience.[2] God knows all things; nothing can be hidden from his sight. And this applies to each of us individually. All that can be known about you, God knows. “You discern my thoughts from afar.”

Another example of God’s knowledge of the inner workings of our person is seen in v. 4, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” God knows future events—words that are yet to be spoken. The words that are still inside of us, the words of resentment we keep buried away until some trigger releases the torrent of anger or the stinging sarcasm. Those things that wouldn’t reflect well on us if they came out, we keep those thoughts and those words backstage.[3]

Imagine yourself as a house. In our homes, there are rooms we’re proud of. They’re beautiful sunlight, our favorite artwork. But there are other rooms we might be ashamed of. It doesn’t cleaned that often, it’s a workspace, it’s a mess. Don’t go in there. That a private room. There’s another room you’re not necessarily ashamed of, but it brings up painful memories. You don’t want others in that room either, in fact you’d rather not go in yourself. You are this house with all these rooms. Some of us are very guarded with who comes into the house. But God is intimately familiar with every room in the house. No detail has escaped his attention or his care.

And so we ought to work work to cultivate a sober awareness of God’s presence, that’s he’s in the house, with access to every room. We would be wise to meditate not on what others think of us, but on what God knows of us. “You discern my thoughts from afar…before a word is on my tongue, you know it altogether.”

Reflecting on this leads David to say in v. 6, “Such knowledge…” Such knowledge. Knowledge of such a kind, one of a kind. This knowledge is wonderful, it is high, I cannot attain it.[4] While this knowledge is penetrating, which might feel very disturbing to us, David actually finds this knowledge profoundly comforting. It’s a source of great pleasure to him to be known so closely.

Why might it be comforting? God knows him fully, but loves him completely. God’s knowledge is not clinical, not critical, but intimate. Like a father knows his child, like how I know Olivia and Meredith. I know their sins and weaknesses, but I can’t tell you how much I love them.

It is wonderful to be known by God. The real you before the real God. No need for hiding. If God were merely just his knowing us would be damning. The sum of what can be known about us does not speak in our favor. There’s a reason our impulse is to wear a mask. We all have things to hide. And God would be just in bringing punishment. But he is not merely just, he is also merciful. So merciful that he planned for Jesus Christ to absorb the consequences of our inner corruption. So that we could be forgiven rather than condemned. This is the only way God knowing you is not threatening, but liberating.

We can throw open the doors and invite him in. There’s nothing to hid for those who have been forgiven.

TRANSITION: So in verses 1-6, David ponders the reality that God knows him inside out. And then in vv. 7-12, David highlights that fact that we are known everywhere.

2. Known Everywhere (vv. 7-12)

Look again at v. 7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” If the first six verses remind us that God is omniscient—he knows all things, exhaustive knowledge—then verse 7 reminds us that God is omnipresent. God is “every where present.”[5] David uses three images to describe the everywhere-present God.

First, God is present from heaven to Sheol (v. 8). “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol you are there.” Sheol means grave or deep pit.[6] From the heights of heaven to the depths of the grave. Jonah went down in a boat, then down in the belly of a great fish, but when he cried out God heard him. No place you can be, no height of happiness of pit of suffering where God is not present with you.

Second, God is present in the uttermost parts of the sea (vv. 9-10). “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.” A declaration of God’s presence? No not just his presence, his protection. His presence is his protection. To say “God is with me” is not only a very significant doctrinal statement, but it is a great comfort in the face of threat. The “uttermost part of the sea” for the ancient mariner was the edge of the world, the forsaken place, the dangerous place.

Perhaps this was David’s own reflections as he read the book of Joshua, where he read the words of the Lord to Joshua, “I will never leave you nor forsake you… Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, [why??] for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” For the Lord’s children, his presence is his protection.

No one will be spared the suffering that is inevitable in this life under the sun, but even there your hand shall lead me, you right hand shall hold me. So from highest heaven to deepest grave, to the uttermost parts of the sea, and thirdly…

Third, God is present even in the darkness (vv. 11-12). Darkness is as light to him. Look at v. 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.”

Does the psalmist 1) determine to cover himself in darkness or 2) is he afraid that darkness will overtake him? Is he trying to hide, or is he afraid of being left in the dark? I think he’s afraid, but in either case, God’s gaze is not limited to those places on which the sun casts its rays. In the dangerous places (uttermost sea), in the darkest places, God is present, and he is protecting.

So God the Creator is present, the everywhere present God. God is distinct from his creation, but not distant.

This is the great doctrine of God with us. In sheol, the place of death. In the uttermost part of the sea, a place of danger. In darkness, a place of despair. God knows

And if is any doubt in your mind doubt about God’s determination to be present with you, that doubt is removed as we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, whose very name is Immanuel, God with us. In fact the gospel of John, the first chapter portrays the world as covered in darkness. And Jesus is the light who pierces the darkness and dispels the darkness. And he does this especially through his death and resurrection. In his death he bears the punishment of sin and in his resurrection he brings us into life as well. So be relating to God through Jesus Christ, we are assured of always living in the light of God’s presence, where we have forgiveness and hope beyond the grave.

TRANSITION: So the Psalmist is comforted in recalling that he is known inside out, he is known everywhere by the God who is with him, and then third, in vv. 13-18, we are known for all time.

3. Known For All Time (vv. 13-16)

Let’s read again vv. 13-16, “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.”

David contemplates God’s creative act, God is the one who brings human beings into existence. The science is spectacular, confirming that God is behind the science. A baby in the womb can be accurately explained in two ways. One way is that sperm finds egg, zygote is formed, cells multiply, becomes a fetus, internal organs develop and so on until that baby is ready to come out. Some of you ladies may be awaiting that moment. But there’s another way to accurately explain that baby in the womb. “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”

The image of God is the work of God. Embryonic life is “intricately woven together” by the Creator. You were known by God in the earliest facets of formation. Your physical and mental attributes, the things that are “in your genes”—gender, ethnicity, intelligence, stamina, height—that identity was not accidental, but purposeful, never to be despised, whether your own physical and mental attributes, or those of another person. Because they are the work of God, to despise or deny the gender given to us, or ethnicity, or intelligence—is to despise the work of God. Those elements of your identity were lovingly given to you. “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. That’s not prideful, that simple praise.

And then having contemplated God’s creative act, David says something that is really amazing. “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” When as yet there were none of them. Before he came to be. Before God conceived David in the womb, God had conceived of David in his eternal plan. God says the same thing to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1:5).

And a thousand years after David, Paul the apostle says of God’s children, “he chose us [to be in Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4; cf. Rom 8:29-30). This foreknowledge has particular persons as its object.[7] God was thinking before the creation of the world, about those whom he would create, those whom he would redeem.

So God has known you before your life began, as your life began, and you will be known by God. “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me.” God knows the end of your life and beyond. You will never be forgotten.

My grandma, an amazing and wonderful woman, has been living with my parents since I was in college, but she was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. And just after her diagnosis, when her mind was still with her, she was afraid. Afraid of forgetting. Afraid of being forgotten. She asked my mom to promise that they’d never put her in a nursing home. Great fear of being forgotten. Timothy Swinton wrote a book about dementia, the subtitle is Living in the Memories of God, and he says personal identity is not in our memories, but in being known and loved by God. And then he says this, “If our identity is held in and by the memory of God, then we can be certain that dementia does not destroy us now or in the future…. We are not what we remember; rather, we are remembered….Our identity is safe in the memory of God.” And so, “the deep fear of forgetting is overcome by the deeper promise of being remembered.”[8] He will not forget you. God is the God of old age just as he is the God of all of life.

Listen to what God says in Isaiah 46:3-4 (NIV), “[3] Listen to me…I have upheld you since you were conceived and have carried you since your birth. [4] Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”[9]

TRANSITION: Being known by God means being known inside out, everywhere, and for all time. And then in vv. 17-24 the psalmist responds to being known. From which we learn what our own response to being known should be.

4. Our Response to Being Known (vv. 17-24)

Comfort (vv. 17-18)

David responds first with comfort in v. 17-18, “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.” Why is God’s knowledge comforting? Because the one who knows him loves him. The sum of God’s thoughts about you are vast, you’re not out of sight out of mind, but constantly in his sight and on his mind.

One translation reads, How precious are your thoughts about me (NET Bible, NLT). And I think that idea get the right sense of things. The reason God’s knowledge is precious to David is because God is thinking about him.

I know some of you have a hard time believing this. You feel insecure about yourself, always trying to prove yourself, ashamed of yourself, what you’ve become, or what you’ve failed to become. But if you are in Christ, then you are one of God dearly loved children. Forgiven for all failures, inseparably joined to his eternal family. God’s thoughts about you should be precious thoughts to you too.

Warning (vv. 19-22)

But then second David responds to God’s knowledge with a warning. Look at the disturbing language in vv. 19-24. “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.”

Now this really challenges our thinking, doesn’t it? Anyone who knows anything about the teaching of Jesus, knows that Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for them” (Matt 5:44). Well, notice that David is not talking here about his enemies (his own personal enemies[10]), rather he is talking about those who have made themselves God’s enemies. The wicked men of blood (v. 19); they speak against you, they take your name in vain (v. 20); they hate you, they rise up against you (v. 21). These are not first of all David’s enemies, but God’s enemies. They are murderers, and unrepentant. They are vicious and unrelenting.

David declares that his sympathies are with God. And isn’t that right? In a court of law, if someone is proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, you want the judge or jury to sympathize with justice, not with the convicted. And likewise, when the wicked stand justly condemned by God’s justice, our sympathies must lie with God the offended, not the wicked condemned. David is simply declaring this affirmation of justice.

But one other question may arise, why does David say this here? What does this condemning prayer[11] have to do with God knowing those who are his? And I think the answer is something like this. God knows his own, but God also knows those who have rebelled against him. And they will face God’s judgment. God’s internal, eternal, everywhere present knowledge is a comfort to his children, but a great threat to those who oppose him.

TRANSITION: So there is comfort and warning, and then we see a third response to being known by God as David concludes this psalm. This is the response of invitation.


Invitation (vv. 23-24)

In the final lines of this psalm, David invites God’s knowledge. “[23] Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! [24] And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

The search me prayer. David invites God to search him. He seeks God’s assessment of him. And not only that, but he wants to be changed. If some grievous way found in him, he wants to turn away from it, and for God to lead him instead in the everlasting way, walking by faith, doing what is right. So the search me prayer is really a change me prayer. Search me and change me.

This is how God knowing us shapes our identity. Because God knows who we are, God can tell us what we are to become. We are known by God, and his knowledge of us shapes our identity. How does God’s knowledge of us shape us?

Words of someone who you know and respect, when they know you well and love you—the words they speak to you can be powerful, can shape your identity. You can probably think of words that people have spoken to you that have shaped how you think about yourself. [12] Identity is not something created in isolated self-introspection, but something that arises within relationship, most fundamentally in our relationship with God, and secondarily in our relationship with other people. Identity is not constructed, it is given.

So we must train our ears to listen to God’s word about us. To form a sense of our identity based above all else on the words of God. Here’s what God’s word says about you. That you have dignity because you are created in the image of God. Your thinking ability, your capacity to love, your skills and wiring, you’ve been fearfully and wonderfully made, reflecting the glory and majesty of the God who made you. [13]

Though we were made to bear God’s image and to reflect his glory, humanity and all creation has been corrupted. Though we still possess great dignity, we live in a context of brokenness. We are broken. That too is part of our identity. We can’t eradicate the brokenness inside of us. And it all to often comes and hurts so we have broken relationships. We grow in humility as we agree with this part of God’s assessment of us. He knows our frame (Psalm 103). And in mercy he sent Christ that we might be forgiven. So we are valuable, broken, forgiven, and then we are in process (sanctification). What God is making us into, the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit “beautifies” us.[14]

This is how God’s knowledge of us shapes us, the story of the Bible tells us who we are. And then we agree with God’s assessment of us and say, Take me the way you want me to go, make me who you want me to be. God’s knowledge of us shapes our identity, who we are to become. To be known by God is not only to be known as we are, but to be changed into what he wants us to be.

And so we conclude as David did, praying David’s search me prayer. “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!”


This sermon was originally preached at Christ Covenant Church (Raleigh, NC) in May 2020.


Endnotes

[1] He knows what motivates the compliments you give or the kindness you showed to someone. Sometimes what appear to be good deeds are actually sinful because they come from a selfish heart. [2] In the gospels, there are several places where Jesus knows the thoughts of others. Jesus shares attributes that are otherwise unique to God. One of many confirmations of the divine nature of Jesus (see Bavinck, Wonderful Works, 298). John Piper has a wonderful sermon on the omniscience of Jesus, “He Knew What Was in Man” (Jan 11, 2009), from John 2:23-25, a relevant excerpt of this sermon is available at https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/he-knew-what-was-in-man/excerpts/fully-known-and-truly-loved [3] We always attempt to mask the hidden evils of our heart. We can’t or won’t eradicate from inside of us, but we go to great lengths to either pretend it’s not there or at least to hide it from others. There was a Pulitzer-prize winning series of articles on the impenetrable corruption of Russian government and the suppression of journalism that would expose it. Journalists who did any kind of investigative work on the corruption in government networks often wound up being savagely beaten by a gang of thugs outside their home. So corrupt…but going to great lengths to suppress exposure of that corruption. We are like the Russian government, knowing our own inward corruption, but making great effort to cover it up, not to let others see it. Not to admit it when it is exposed. Clifford Levy and Ellen Barry, “In Culture of Graft and Impunity, Russian Journalists Pay in Blood” (May 18, 2010); along with other articles available at https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/clifford-j-levy-and-ellen-barry, referred to by Platinga, Reading for Preaching, xx. [4] 1 Cor 2:11, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Job 11:7, “Can you find out the deep things of God?” Job 26:14, “Behold these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” [5] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 7, “What is God?”, available at https://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/LargerCatechismwithScriptureProofs1.pdf [6] Three views on the meaning of Sheol: 1) two compartments, grave and later hell 2) underworld, dark place where all spirits go after death 3) simply the grave, the place where bodies go, not souls “The royal tombs of Ur were dug thirty feet deep.” R. L. Harris, TWOT, 893. [7] Bavinck, Wonderful Works, 248. [8] Timothy Swinson, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, cited by Brian Rosner, Known by God, 202. [9] See also Ps. 23:6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and 2 Tim 2:19, “The Lord knows those who are his” (cf. Num 16:5). [10] How should we think about our personal enemies? “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). [11] The genre of Psalm 139 has been a matter of some discussion. Hermann Gunkel classifies Psalm 139 as a Hymn of Praise, yet vv. 19-21 shift into the framework of the psalm of lament (specifically of cursing and vengeance), see also Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, 269. [12] See J. I. Packer, Knowing God, on knowing and being known, p. 41. My wife Stacy just finished reading Just Mercy, by a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson who fights for justice for wrongly accused death row inmates. Stevenson tells the story of growing up in a traditional African-American family with a strong matriarchal figure, his grandmother. But he was one of the younger of many cousins and always vying for grandma’s attention. One day while he was playing with the cousins he noticed his grandma sitting on the side of the room staring at him, and just watching him for quite some time. Finally, she came over and took Bryan outside, and told him “I’ve been watching you. You’re special.” Those words have shaped his identity in many ways over the course of his life. Bryan Stevenson, “We Need to Talk About an Injustice,” Ted2012, available at https://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice?language=en [13] In 1847, Leonard Black, who escaped slavery and became a prominent abolitionist, said, “Do you talk of selling a man? You might as well talk of selling immortality or sunshine.” He knew what we were worth. We are free things gifted by our creator with the ability to love and laugh and learn and pursue our dreams. Leonard Black, The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black: A Fugitive from Slavery, 59. Found in “Ahmaud Arbery and the America That Doesn’t Exist,” Esau McCaulley, New York Time, May 10, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/opinion/ahmaud-arbery-justice.html? [14] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, 85.

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