The very thought of being known for who you really and truly are as a person cuts like a double-edged sword of bane and blessing.
On the one hand, 94 percent of respondents to a recent poll agreed with the statement, “Nobody really knows me.” While some folks might take clandestine comfort in such anonymity, experience tells me that most of those feeling unknown to others are speaking from marginal places of deep loneliness and tearful isolation.
On the other hand, most of us are understandably uncomfortable with the prospect of total strangers having access to our personal and private information. With just a few clicks on a computer screen, any number of bad actors can hack their way into any number of ubiquitous, worldwide databases and discover plenty of confidential or downright embarrassing things about each and every one of us. Our fear and loathing of such invasive possibility provide plots for at least two popular stories.
In Franz Kofka’s early-20th-century novel “The Trial,” the main character, Josef, finds himself living in a world where authorities are able to track his every movement. Every single thing he does is known, tracked, and recorded, and Josef feels like the entirety of life has become a kind of extended courtroom-like trial where his every act, decision, and utterance stand accused.
Closer to our own time are the John Grisham novel and later Tom Cruise movie “The Firm.” Lead character Mitch McDeere is a newly minted, hotshot lawyer who gets hired by a prestigious law firm that showers him with gifts and encouragement. They even buy Mitch and his wife, Abby, a new home.
But soon it becomes clear that the law firm is knee-deep in risky business and shady dealing, and eventually, Mitch discovers an appalling, spine-chilling reality: The lovely new home he shares with his wife is bugged in every corner with hidden microphones that are recording everything. “The firm” is privy to every burb and sneeze they loose, every conversation they hold, every private thought they share, and every sigh they utter while making love. When Mitch whispers this disturbing revelation to his wife, Abby momentarily becomes unglued and flees their new house at a pace to rival the fastest of Olympic sprinters.
You can hardly blame her. Who wouldn’t literally follow in Abby’s harried footsteps if caught up in such a sweeping, tightly woven web of highly intrusive surveillance? The personally violating scenarios of “The Trial” and “The Firm” fit the very dictionary definition of “creepy” like a glove.
And “creepy” is one way of hearing this morning’s Scripture lesson, which lays out the deeply intimate information that God freely accesses and closely holds about each and every one of us. Psalm 139 lays out verse after verse of potentially disturbing truth that God knows everything about us, and sees everything we do and leave undone, and hears everything we say or leave unsaid.
What’s even more alarming, none of us can do what Abby does in “The Firm.” Neither you nor I can run away or get away from God. Go high, go low. Go wide, go deep. Juke left, juke right. Stand in daylight, cower in the shadows. None of it matters! God is here, and God is there, and God is everywhere. And God is watching, and God is listening. We stand before God like crystal-clear glass with our brokenness splayed wide under the scrutiny of heaven. And yes, that’s more than a little bit eerie and creepy.
But, of course, the Bible doesn’t serve up the all-knowing God of Psalm 139 to creep us out. The psalm affirms an all-knowing God as a supreme good and incredible gift! Its author finds comfort in the all-encompassing knowledge and always-everywhere presence of God.
Why? How come? What for?
The answers are as obvious as hidden microphones and stealthy cameras are as camouflaged: Only God can be trusted with knowledge of our innermost thoughts and closely guarded secrets. Only God is wise enough, compassionate enough, forgiving and gracious enough, to know all of our dirty little secrets and hidden faults, and yet still be able to be our loving and faithful God.
In that spirit and by the Spirit, experience, now, the tenderness of God in the Word of the Lord that most surely is Psalm 139.
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 far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know 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 beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.
O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me – those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 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 perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139)
Go figure! God knows us better than we know ourselves! That’s downright extraordinary!
It is testament to the trust that this psalmist holds for God, and it is an invitation for each of us to follow the psalmist’s lead. Because God can handle the full knowledge about ourselves – up to and including even the most gory details of our lives that even we find difficult and embarrassing to bear.
God’s knowledge of you and me isn’t merely intellectual. God’s knowledge of you and me is relational. The frequency of the pronouns “I” and “you” in Psalm 139 highlight that relationship.
God is not an idea, or a force, an “it.” God is a divine person of three in one who can and should be addressed personally and spoken to as “you.” The psalmist, as well as you and I, are not merely faceless ciphers mixed randomly among the billion grains of sand on the beaches of heaven. Each of us is, to God, a distinct person, an “I” who’s known by name. God knows us not “from a distance,” as the lyrics to an old Bette Middler song once put it. God knows us up close and personal as a lover cherishes his or her betrothed.
The God that the Holy Spirit urges us to adore is not an idea to be comprehended but a divine person who has acted concretely in real, physical events happening in, around and through all our lives. The Lord is known far and wide by his deeds.
And though the relationship that the Lord strives to establish with his people is as close as close can get, that relationship nevertheless is not equal.
We can never know God in the way that God knows us. God hems us in, but we can’t hem God in. We are utterly dependent; God is completely independent. God is, after all, Yahweh – the great “I am who and what I am.” That difference makes the intimacy of God’s covenant with us all the more glorious and gracious. That the eternal, self-sufficient creator and ruler of the universe should commit the divine self to us so completely is mind-blowingly beyond human comprehension.
And that’s OK.
Because completely comprehending God is not the key to life. God’s knowledge of me and you is the key to life. The knowledge that creates a life abundant and eternal is the kind of relational knowing that Psalm 139 is all about. Which explains why the Gospel of John early on proclaims, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:18) God not as an idea but a person – at first, solely divine, but through Jesus, a person knit together in his own mother’s womb.
What a comfort to know that Somebody really knows me – just as I am, that Somebody really knows you – just as you are, and that this Somebody is the Savior who in flesh and blood entered your space and time as well as mine to save me and you from our sins.
That reality makes Psalm 139 an ode to grace, a celebration of the No. 1 divine trait for which all the psalms give the most consistent praise: God’s lovingkindness. Absent that, the sentiments expressed of Psalm 139 just go back to being creepy. But given God’s innate lovingkindness toward us, the feelings of Psalm 139 end up providing comfort in the extreme.
And in the end, despite the psalm’s major hiccup of concluding insults against the enemies of God and the psalmist, it’s as if the author comes to a full stop, takes a deep breath, moves away from worrying about other people and says to God, “But tell you what, Lord. You just search me, and know me, and find what’s wrong with me, and then help me become your better and more faithful follower, as we together walk down the path of life everlasting.”
Yes, we surely can and do fret about the brokenness of others until the cows come home. But when all is said and done, God has enough work to do on and within each of us, re-casting every blessed one of us more closely into the divine image that God intended us to bear at Creation’s get-go. And since God knows each of us better than we know ourselves, God knows just what to do. So, go ahead and trust that God’s got this – and us.
Indeed, great things happen when God mixes with us! Great and beautiful, wonderful things!
Not-so-ancient words mixing with ancient words, but ever true as they’ve always been – just like God – from this time on and forevermore!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. It is the eighth in his series “Summer in the Psalms.” Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, Tim Keller, Stan Mast, and J. Clinton McCann Jr. inform the message.