January 8, 2023
The first six verses of Psalm 139 convey the staggering truth that the Lord knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we do, where we go, what we think, what we say, all that we long for, and all that we need. Alistair Begg reminds us that there’s no safer place to put our trust than in Almighty God, who doesn’t love from a distance but searches us and knows us, sending His Son to lay down His life for us in order that we may also know Him.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn again to the Bible, to the Old Testament, and actually to the book of Psalms. And as we read this familiar psalm, we realize that in many ways, the song that we have just sung was written in a different form and in a fuller form thousands of years before the contemporary writer of what we have just sung. Psalm 139.
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
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.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
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.
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.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
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 was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.
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.
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!
Father, we often pray, but we do so sincerely,
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Chris Morphew is someone probably unknown to most of us. He’s an Australian. He lives in Sydney. He’s a schoolteacher, he’s a chaplain of a school, and he’s particularly gifted in working amongst teenagers and students. And in the last little while, he wrote a book with that audience expressly in mind. I had my hands on it. I have a copy in my study, and I was intrigued by it. The title of the book is simply Who Am I and Why Do I Matter? Who Am I and Why Do I Matter? And clearly, the emphasis is on identifying the many challenges that face young people as they try and make sense of their lives as they move into the early stages of adulthood, and they wonder, “Who am I, really? Am I my status? Am I my possessions? Am I my looks?—whatever I may be.” And it is a very, very helpful book.
But as I was looking at it, I said to myself, “You know, this is a book not simply for teenagers, but this really is a book for everybody.” Because that same basic question needs to be addressed and needs to be answered in a way that only the Bible can actually answer. And in many ways, this morning and these next few Sunday mornings are a follow-on from what we began to say last week about the importance of thinking Christianly about everything and therefore thinking Christianly about our personal identity.
I mentioned before that I have a very scant understanding of anything to do with art, and therefore, I would never pretend. But I do know that there is a painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that I still have on my list to go and see. And it was painted by Gauguin, one of the French Postimpressionist painters. And Gauguin, like Van Gogh or others, was really rejected in his life. People didn’t think much of his paintings at all. Unfortunately, he had to die for his paintings to become valuable. He never knew the value of them himself. But the largest of his paintings, which is there in Boston, apparently—and it’s known partly because of its size and the comprehensive nature of the theme—but it is of interest to me and has been always because he wrote on the canvas. And he didn’t write on his canvases at all—none of them, save this one. And the canvas portrays the totality of life—so, from the infancy of birth all the way through to some aged people who are there. He painted it in Tahiti, which is where he died, in the islands. But up in the lefthand corner, he wrote three questions. He wrote them in French, but in English they are straightforwardly this: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” “Where do we come from? What are we? And where are we going?” “Who am I and why does it matter?”
Now, Gauguin did not come up with an answer to that, despite the fact that he had been raised as a Roman Catholic boy. He had been raised within the framework of the catechism. He knew the answers to those questions in his head, but he did not know the answer to the question in a life-transforming way. And we know that because he made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide shortly after completing that great painting. And his friends knew that the longings of his heart were unanswered.
I ponder that, and I say, “If only somebody had said to Gauguin, ‘Why don’t you read the Bible? Why don’t you, as an artist, go to one of the great artistic books of the Old Testament? Why don’t you turn to the book of Psalms?’” After all, in the Psalms we find everything: all the emotions of life—joy and sorrow, grief, doubt, fear, the expressed longings of our hearts, and so on, and all of it set within the context of the infinite and unlimited goodness and knowledge and power of Almighty God; all here in the Bible, all the questions answered.
Calvin referred to it as the anatomy of the human soul. And Alec Motyer said of the people who wrote the Psalms—and this is a psalm of David here—they were “people who knew far less about God than we do and yet loved him a great deal more.” They did not have the fullness of the revelation of God that we enjoy as new-covenant believers. They looked, as it were, over the horizon without an answer to their questions. They understood the nature of forgiveness. They understood much. And I think Motyer has something when he says they knew a lot less, but by their songs, they appear to have loved God a lot more.
Now, all of this to say that our focus on the next four Sunday mornings that we’re together is going to be on this 139th Psalm. It is without question one of the high peaks, if you like, of the vast array of psalms that are here—the vast array, if you like, of Old Testament poetry. What you have in the Psalms is poetic theology or theological poetry, written in such a way that we can understand that all the tiny thoughts that we may have of God, all the ways that we may think to constrain him or marginalize him or make him biddable to us, all of those thoughts are transcended when we read the Psalms.
And what we’re reminded of in Psalm 139 are a number of really big things—big theological words, words like omniscience and omnipresence and omnipotence. And they’re all here, but not the words. All those truths are actually in the psalm, but they’re not conveyed by means of a kind of academic statement of theology. And that’s one of the great benefits—at least I find—of the Psalms, in that this truth, these truths are conveyed in a way that is entirely personal. It’s entirely personal. And I try to read it that way. I put the emphasis on “my” and “I” and “mine” and so on so that that might come across.
Let me give you the overview of the psalm—how we’ll handle this in four sections. Verses 1–6, David says, “You know me;” verses 7–14, “You encompass me,” or, “You surround me”; verses 15–18, “You created me”; and verses 19–24, “You test me.” So at least you have some idea of where we’re going. You can read ahead, and that will help you and probably help me, because I’ll be able to assume a great deal, and I won’t have to study quite as hard.
But this morning, verses 1–6: “You know me.” “You know me.” Look at how it begins: “O Lord”—Yahweh, the God of all creation—“O Lord, you have searched me and known me!”
In the Communion service in the Book of Common Prayer—which we refer to seldom, but it’s familiar to some of us—the opening prayer before the celebration of Communion reads in part like this: the man officiating at Communion says, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, we come to you.” That’s very, very good. Let me just read it again: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, we come to you.”
In other words, God knows everything. Google and other Google-like things have ambitious, hugely ambitious plans for collecting data. And they are collecting data. But they cannot hold a candle to this. How many billion people are in the world this morning? I don’t know. Eight? Seven, eight? Now, just think about this for a moment. What is the psalmist saying? That in a personal way, the entire eight billion—let’s call it eight—population of the world is known to Almighty God. Calvin says, “How few of us acknowledge that he who formed the eye, the ear, and the mind himself hears, sees, and knows everything.” Everything!
Now, you see, what a staggering statement this was! For David to sing it in his day and for others to join him in singing it, they were affirming something to be true of Almighty God that was distinct in every aspect from the surrounding gods of the nations. God had taken his people, he had taken Abraham out of that kind of context, and he’d revealed himself to him, and Abraham had made these amazing discoveries of the provision of God. Abraham had ended his life under the promise of God, trusting in it unreservedly.
And the people were led out of Egypt. They’re led in the wilderness wanderings. They find themselves in the promised land. The declension comes. They’re exiled and so on. They eventually find themselves despairing: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land like this?” That’s about the 137th Psalm. Because the gods or the idols… In fact, you can see it if you just go back to Psalm 135. Here’s this great contrast. Psalm 135 and verse… Incidentally, what I just mentioned is 137; I’m glad that it is:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
Psalm 135, let’s just look at verse 13: “Your name, O Lord, endures forever, your renown, O Lord, throughout all [the] ages.” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, all the rest—Ruth—all the way through; Peter, James, John; Eric Liddell, Jim Elliot, Helen Roseveare. All the way through! And here we are in 2023. “For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.” And then look at what he says in verse 15:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do[n’t] speak;
they have eyes, but do[n’t] see;
they have ears, but [they] do[n’t] hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them,
so do all who trust in them.
So the contrast is vast. And what he is pointing out as he goes through and writes in this way is the absurdity—and it is an absurdity—for men and women to seek ultimate answers from substitute gods. But that’s what we do. You see, when we turn away from God as he has made himself known, we don’t trust in nothing; we trust in all kinds of things. Because we are made in order to worship—to worship the true and living God. And when the peoples turn back and when they turn aside, where do they end up?
Well, let me just read it again—the folly of it all, graphically portrayed. The ironsmith makes his piece. The carpenter makes his piece. “He shapes it into a figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak,” and he “lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar … the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel …. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire”; he “bakes bread.” So far, so good. But wait a minute:
Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. … He warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm …! [Great fire!]” And the rest … he makes [it] into a god, his idol, and [he] falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
Now look back at Psalm 139: “O Lord, you have searched me and [you know] me!”
Now, here is the fascinating and vitally important thing—and I’ve read this psalm ever since I was wee, but I’m not sure that I really focused on this till I began to look at it this past week. The knowledge of God is, as I have said, comprehensive. It spans the globe. But the point that he’s making here is not the comprehensiveness of the knowledge of God but the fact that David says, “You know me.” “You know me.” It’s one thing to say, “You know everybody in the world.” “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” True. But David says, “You have searched me, and you know me.” See, we’ve got to be able to say these things to our teenagers. We’ll go on through the psalm and see how vital it is that they understand that they’re not the product of chance, that they’re divinely put together, and that God knows them. And he knows us.
Now, let’s just look at how he outlines this. Some of you will remember Warren Wiersbe. What a wonderful man he was! I met him in the early days of my life here, enjoyed him very much, and he always had a funny story. But he was masterful at outlining passages of the Bible. And when I found out what he did with this section, I said, “That’s for me. That’s for me.” And now it’s going to be for you. Because this is how he worked his way through it. The headings, some of them are his, and some are a corruption.
But there, look at this in verse 2. First of all, “You know what I do.” “You know what I do.” “You know when I sit down and when I rise up.” So the psalmist says, “You know my actions, and you know my movements. You know whether I brushed my teeth or whether I didn’t. You know everything. You know what I do.”
[Verse] 2b: “You discern my thoughts from afar.” “Not only do you know what I do, but you know what I think. You know what I think. All that goes on in my mind is known to you, Almighty God.” In other words, David is acknowledging the fact that it is impossible for him to deceive God, because God knows even our secret thoughts. God knows the motives of my heart as well as the actions in my life. “You know what I do—whether I’m moving around, whether I’m sitting up or lying down. But you know my thoughts. You know them from afar.” Distance is no issue to God.
Then, in verse 3: “You know what I do. You know what I think. You know where I go.” “You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” We sang it, didn’t we? “All my ways are known to you.” Do we actually believe that? All my resting spots? All the lay-bys? All the spare time in the airport? “You search out my path … [you’re] acquainted with all my ways.” Are you following this? “You know what I do. You know what I think. You know where I go.”
Verse 4: “You know what I say.” “Even before a word is on my tongue…” There’s a “behold.” Remember, we said a few weeks ago, we don’t often say, “Behold, there is McDonald’s!” So when you come to a “behold” like this, he’s saying… It’s an exclamation mark, almost. He says, “You know, even before a word is on my tongue, behold!”—“Think about this!” he says—“You know it. You know it altogether. Behold, you know everything. You know it altogether.” In other words, what he’s saying is “You know me better than I know myself.”
It’s quite staggering, isn’t it? It’s wonderful—unless you’re scared by it. It’s a threat to the unbeliever, for sure. That God knows all this? Mm-hmm. In other words, I may be a master of disguise before you. You can conceal where you go during the week; so can I. You and I can cover up our pasts if we choose. You and I can exaggerate what we do, how clever we are, what we have achieved. You and I can cover our hearts’ secret longings from those who sleep in our own beds. But we cannot before the searching gaze of Almighty God.
And that is the point that he’s making: “You know what I do. You know what I think. You know what I say. You know me better than I know myself. You know where I go.” “You have searched me and known me!” This is quite wonderful. A God before whom we could conceal all these things would have to be one of these made-up gods. I mean, it’s like Augustine says: a God who doesn’t know the future is not God. I mean, a God that didn’t know this, he wouldn’t be much of a God.
So that’s why, you see, we want to make a god in our own image. We want a manageable god—you know, a god who kind of looks after things generally so that the floods don’t finally overwhelm us, that the equilibrium of our existence is managed and so on, so that we can get by. But surely not a God like this! “Yes,” he says.
And sixthly, “You know what I need”—verse 5. What do I need? “I need your presence every passing hour.” “You hem me in, behind and before, and [you] lay your hand [on] me.”
Now, we do not know in what context David wrote this psalm. I’ve thought about it a lot, and perhaps you will later on today as you think all your way back through 1 and 2 Samuel, at all the points and places along the journey where we followed his life, that he might have sat down and written this particular psalm. If there is any indication of a context or occasion, perhaps it is to be found in the verses to which we’ll come in the end of this study: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! [The] men of blood, depart from me!” If, then, the occasion is that he is confronted again by those who oppose God, who oppose David as God’s covenant king… Remember, we said that David’s response to things like this—not to anticipate the final study—but David’s response was the response of he who was the covenant king. He was the Lord’s anointed. And David, who writes this psalm, sings this psalm, and he recognizes—verse 5—that he needs the sheltering protection of the hand of God: “You hem me in, behind and before.” It’s like being hedged around. It’s protected. I don’t think that we ought to read it, although some of the commentators do, in terms of restriction, so the picture of one as being hemmed in by way of restriction—I don’t think so—but rather by way of protection.
I don’t want to go to the same old analogies I always use about grandchildren and putting pillows around them to stop them from collapsing and so on. But the picture of being hemmed in, of the hand of God, of being watched over is wonderful. You think about it: I just mentioned Elliot. He was in my mind this week. Somebody sent me a picture from a notice board of a church in the North of Ireland, and it had Jim Elliot’s picture from Wheaton College, and it had the dates of his life. He died at twenty-nine as a martyr, as you will know. And the great statement from his diary: “He is no fool who gives [up] what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And if you know the story that his wife Elisabeth Elliot wrote of him, you remember that before they encountered the forces that finally took their lives, they stood on the beach, and they sang,
We rest on thee, our Shield and our Defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in thy strength, [and] safe in thy keeping tender,
… [It’s] in [your] name we go.
“You hem us in, behind and before.” You say, “But how does that work? They lost their heads.” “As for God, his way is perfect.”
We’ll see later on in the psalm that all the days that he ordained for us were written in his book before one of them came to be. And again you have that lovely picture of the hand of God, don’t you? The psalmist mentions it frequently; the prophets mention it always: “I am the Lord. I will take you by the hand. I will keep you.” If you’ve started to read in Ezra this past few days of the year, then you know that that was a recurring word concerning all of the kindness of Artaxerxes towards the people of God. And Ezra says on more than one occasion, “And he was aware that the hand of God rested upon me.”
You think about hands, think about God’s hand. God doesn’t have a hand. If you think about it, when a child takes a father’s hand: it’s a tiny hand inside a big hand. “You lay your hand upon me. You protect me. You’re watching over me.” We sing of it, don’t we? “Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting, [so] to take, as from a father’s hand…” Jesus sang the 139th Psalm. As a boy he sang this. Jesus not only sang it, but in many ways he fulfilled it. He lived it. We can’t import Jesus back into the psalm, but the psalm will always send us, ultimately, forward to Jesus. And maybe your mind goes where mine went when I sat for a while thinking about the hand of God, and then I said, “Well, isn’t that what Jesus said from the cross? ‘Father, into [your hand] I commend my spirit.’”
Well, just a few closing thoughts. But let me give you a paraphrase of the six verses. See if this helps to register it. David says,
I’m an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, [as I come] and [go].
Now look at verse 6. What is his response to all of this? His response is wonder. It’s wonder. He says, “This is actually beyond my ability to fathom.” “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” “This is… I never completed this course. I can’t complete this course!” It’s very clear, isn’t it, that David, as representative of the Psalms and the psalmists, thinks very differently about God than we are prone to do? I said to myself as I was reading it this week, “You know, I think in many ways I’ve become a practical atheist. ‘You know my thoughts’? ‘You know the words before I even get them on my lips’? That’s somewhat daunting!” In fact, Jim Packer, in a wonderful little statement in his book Knowing God, he says, “Living becomes an awesome business when you realise that you spend every moment of your life in the sight and company of an [all-knowing], [ever-present] God.” He’s got that dead-on. It “becomes an awesome business.” Awesome.
So there’s two ways to look at this, you see? You can look at it and say, “Oh, this is a terrifying reality,” or you can say, “This is an unbelievable privilege. Almighty God, you’ve got, what, eight billion people to look after, and you know my every thought? You care about me that much? You watch over my coming and going. You’re interested in all my ways. You know my fears. You know my failures. You know my starts, my stops, my missteps, my disasters, and yet you love me.”
I said to Sue through the last few days… She said, “Are you ready for Sunday?” I said, “Well, I know how to start, but I don’t know how to finish.” She said, “Well, I think it’s pretty important that you get to a finish.” So here’s the best I can do with the finish. I was thinking about it just this morning when I woke up. You say, “Well, you’re running close to the deadline, aren’t you?” Well, there’s nothing like the thrill of that scare, I tell you.
I woke up thinking about Nathanael—not my son-in-law, but that’s his name, one of them. Not that one. No, the Nathanael of John 1. Philip has found Nathanael, and he says to him, “[Nathanael,] we have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathanael says to him—this is not very complimentary—he says, “[Well, hey, wait a minute.] Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” So he says, “Okay, I’m going to go see Jesus.” “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’”
How could he do that? Because he’s the Messiah. Because he’s God. Because he’s the Shepherd of the sheep—which brought me to my concluding observation; I hope it’s helpful to you: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand…” Remember David was a shepherd? “He who is a hired hand … not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming … leaves the sheep … flees, … the wolf snatches them … scatters them. He flees because he[’s] a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” Now listen: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” And then further down—it’d better be further down. Yeah: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Fantastic, isn’t it? He knows. We sing it sometimes in that song: “You know all the things I’ve ever done, and yet your blood has canceled every one.” O God! O God!
Well, just a moment of silence, and then we’ll sing a final song.
This is wonderful, Father. It’s high. It’s beyond our ability to comprehend. Thank you for giving us an inkling of it. Help us to live in the light of it.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 J. Alec Motyer, interview by Robert P. Mills, The Presbyterian Layman, May 9, 2000, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2000/j-alec-motyer.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849), 5:219. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 137:4 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 137:1 (ESV).
 Isaiah 44:13–17 (ESV).
 Dustin Smith, Jonny Robinson, Michael Farren, Rich Thompson, “All My Ways Are Known to You” (2016).
 Henry Francis Lyte, “Abide with Me” (1847). Language modernized.
 Jim Elliot, quoted in Elisabeth Elliot, The Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 15.
 Edith Gilling Cherry, “We Rest on Thee” (1895).
 Psalm 18:30 (KJV).
 Ezra 7:6 (paraphrased).
 Karolina W. Sandell-Berg, trans. Andrew L. Skoog, “Day by Day” (1865).
 Luke 23:46 (KJV).
 Psalm 139:1–6 (MSG).
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 76.
 John 1:45–46 (ESV).
 John 1:47–48 (ESV).
 John 10:11–15 (ESV).
 John 10:27–28 (ESV).
 Kate Simmonds and Miles Simmonds, “When I Was Lost” (2001). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.