His Intimate Knowledge of Us: Psalm 139


Psalm 139 (NIV)

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

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In this psalm, David celebrates God’s intimate ­knowledge of us. The opening phrase “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me” summarizes the entire psalm. He knows us when we rise in the morning; he knows us when we go about our daily activities; he knows us when we lie down at night. There is no place to hide from his presence. He is in heaven. He is even with us when we are in the depths of Sheol (the place of the dead). Even if we move and settle on the other side of the world, “even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (v. 10). He even knew us before we were born, knitting us together in our mother’s womb. This psalm is the inspiration for those familiar words in the liturgy known as the Collect for Purity, dating back to the eleventh century: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid . . .”
We live in a time when life is regarded as a personal commodity. We are told that we are the masters of our own lives and have autonomy over the direction of our lives. This is not the worldview of the Psalms. God’s eyes saw our unformed bodies in the womb (v. 16). Even before we draw our first breath, he has already ordained the very number of days we will live (v. 16). Our lives from inception to the grave belong to him. He alone sets the path of our lives and directs us according to his gracious plan. The fact that we are his creation means that there are certain moral boundaries to the decisions we make regarding our lives. When we feel overwhelmed and think our life is going all wrong, we must remember that he knows so much more than we do: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (vv. 17–18). Life is not a random sequence of days determined simply by chance or even by the feeble choices we make. Ultimately, our lives are in his hands.

When we reflect on God’s intimate knowledge of us, it should bring us both comfort and disruption. On the one hand, it is comforting to know that God knows everything about us, including all our sins, fears, cowardice, and just plain kookiness, and yet still loves us everlastingly. On the other hand, it is disquieting, to say the least, that he knows everything about us, including every inner thought, every impure motive, every jealousy, and so on. This psalm even goes so far as to say that he not only “perceive[s] [our] thoughts” but even “before a word is on [our] tongue[s],” he knows it “completely” (vv. 2, 4). When this psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (v. 7) it is both comforting (God is always with me and will never forsake me) and terrifying (I cannot hide from him; his eyes are always upon me).

At times, all of us resist this great truth and want to maintain control of our own lives. We want to determine our own destiny and do it our way. Alternatively, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can hide from God. When this happens, we should turn to the concluding prayer of this psalm: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (vv. 23–24).

Before we leave this remarkable psalm, we should clarify two rather disturbing verses that appear just before this final prayer. David says, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies” (vv. 21–22). These verses are not about any personal vendetta that David has against his enemies. Rather, he is zealous for the preservation of the glory of God and this is expressed by the word “hatred”—which, as we have noted earlier, means his “standing against” all those who plot and scheme against the rule and reign of God in the world. The New Testament will, of course, redirect this zeal by showing the even greater power of love. In the end, God’s foes are defeated, not through an exercise of power and righteous vehemence, but through kindness, love, and prayer. Jesus’ admonition for us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) is, remarkably, not the cancellation or erasure of David’s prayer. Rather, it is the fulfillment of it. It was through Jesus’ own sacrifice, bearing the curses that were deservedly cast upon the wicked, that a “new and living way” is opened up (Heb. 10:20). The way of love is an even more powerful way of standing against evil. The zeal of David in these closing verses is not cancelled by the New Testament, but we are shown a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31 ESV) in how that zeal interfaces with those who defy God’s rule.


Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.