Psalm 139: The Inescapable Intimacy of God – 7/1/12

“O Lord, you have searched me, and you know me.”  Psalm 139:1

What if your every action, every word, every thought, every potential thought, was known by another?  Is the possibility of being fully known something that you welcome or resist?

If your partner, spouse, close friend knew everything about you, would it help or hurt your relationship?  If you knew everything about yourself, were fully aware of all that makes up who you are, would you be the better for it or, not so much?

Socrates famously said, “Know thyself.”  It’s one thing to know thyself, and another thing to have thyself known.

The question of whether or not we actually want to know ourselves and be known is difficult to answer.  An example of the complexity of this is an ongoing project called Post Secret, by a man named Frank Warren.  The idea is simple.  People, anyone, can write a secret that they’ve never told anyone else on a postcard and mail it to Mr. Warren.  It’s encouraged that the picture on the postcard have some relationship to the secret being revealed.  The sender is to be anonymous, and Warren collects these postcards, posts them on his website,, and creates multimedia presentations that he takes around the country and, now, around the world.  The website has 237,000 likes on Facebook.  What started as an experiment on a blog, in 2005, has turned out to be a vocation for Warren, and a pretty lucrative one at that.  He has written five books about the project, most recently a 2009 book called PostSecret Confessions on Life, Death, and God.  He has been called, “America’s most trusted stranger.”

Here are some of the post secrets from the website, sent in from the past week:

“I don’t remember delivering my high school valedictorian speech because I was addicted to Xanax.”

“I hate it when people feel bad for me.  I love my scar.”

“I ate all the food you left in the company fridge after you got fired.”

“I’m an agnostic, but reading scripture gives me comfort.  I’m afraid of being a hypocrite.”

I suppose one way of looking at this phenomenon of Post Secret is that it indulges our more voyeuristic tendencies and keeps us anonymous strangers to one another.  Everyone gets to be let in on other people’s secrets without any real exchange of relational trust.

Another way of looking at it is that is addresses an unmet need that people have to be heard and to be honest with themselves and the world.  Has Frank Warren succeeded where the church has often failed?  Providing a non-threatening and non-judgmental space for people to reveal some of the deepest and most difficult aspects of who they are?  A confessional for the 21st century?  A place to bring into the light what has been kept hidden?  To be known?

Do you want to be known?

The Psalmist would seem to answer that question with a resounding, Yes.  But, again, at different points it’s not all together clear the writer entirely means it.

“O Lord, you have searched me and know 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.”

These are the opening words of Psalm 139.  It is a prayer of a reflective individual to an all-encompassing Divine presence that is intimately familiar with the human being.  Along with searching us and knowing us, there’s this sense in which The Great Source of Life knows me better than I know myself.  Even before we have moved our tongue to articulate a thought through speech, before we know what we’re going to say, the word is already completely known, says the Psalmist.

There can be great comfort in being known better than we can know ourselves.  Because it doesn’t take a whole lot of self-reflection to conclude that we don’t know ourselves.  We don’t know why we think what we think, where these desires within us come from, what combination of ancient ancestors are linked together in our DNA, giving us certain tendencies and certain physical gifts and limitations.

Thomas Merton, someone who took plenty of time for self-reflection, echoes this unknowing in a prayer he wrote:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”  (Thoughts in Solitude)

A humble statement from a monk who, we might think, if anyone is supposed to have this figured out, it might be folks in that line of work.

Psalm 139 has traditionally been interpreted as a Psalm of praise from an individual seeking refuge from false accusers.  The Psalmist has been accused of wrongdoing, or idolatry, but cries out to God who knows the truth.  Even if no one else believes in the Psalmist, this individual is an open book to God, who will not misjudge one’s actions and motivations.

It continues: NRS Psalm 139:7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

One commentator notes that here the Psalmist encounters God as the “total environment of life.”

Sheol is the closest thing in the Old Testament we have to hell.  The King James reflects this: “If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”  God in hell?  How’s that for a theological conundrum?  There is absolutely no where one can go to escape the persistent presence of God.  Not even hell.  God is present in the hell of war.  The hell of cancer.  The hell of broken promises and relationships.  The fact that we have such difficulty perceiving God in these situations does not change the reality that we are perceived by God: seen, heard, and known.

But why is the Psalmist even thinking about taking a trip to hell?  Why even ask the question: “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?”  Can all of this divine intimacy and full disclosure get a little stifling?  Does the Psalmist need some space from all this 24/7 surveillance?  It’s hard to tell from this Psalm, but elsewhere this is exactly what we see.

If any character in the Bible has made his bed in hell, it would be Job.  He didn’t exactly make his bed himself, but had it made for him, as each of his children die and he experiences a period of extreme physical agony, made all the worse by his lousy friends who try and give him the standard theological justifications for why bad things might happen to good people.  Misery loves company, but Job would prefer to be alone.

Here is Job’s prayer, spoken to that same abiding Divine Presence:

NRSV Job 7:16-19 I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath. 17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, 18 visit them every morning, test them every moment? 19 Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?  If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target?”

To which his good buddy Bildad the Shuhite replies: “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?”  Bildad cannot bear to hear what God indeed can bear to hear.

Job’s remarks remind me of an album cover for a band called the Cranberries.  On the cover is a man crouched down, hiding his face in his arms and knees, with his back turned, to a big eye hovering in the sky just above him.  On the inside of the cover the man has stood up and turned around and is shaking his fist at the eye, and the eye has jerked back, now wide open with surprise that this object of its gaze has spoken back in this way.

What if your every action, every word, every thought, every potential thought, was known by another?  Is the possibility of being fully known something that you welcome or resist?

Psalm 139 is a classic for devotional reading and contemplation and shows up several times throughout the lectionary cycle.  But, whenever it shows up in the lectionary, there is always the same cluster of verses that get edited out.  Perhaps you noticed them when they were read earlier.  They kind of stick out like a sour thumb in what is otherwise a rather gentle Psalm.  Here they are:

NRSV Psalm 139:19-24 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me– 20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 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 perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

And then we’re back to the gentle prayer:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

These aren’t words that you read in church!  These are not loving and kind and edifying.  This is not the kind of viciousness we want to hear about.  We strain out the ugliness of the Psalm and unpalatable inclinations of the Psalmist and hear only the pious remarks.  Kind of like Bildad the Shuhite, I suppose.

But the Psalmist does not filter these thoughts.  Does not hold back.  Does not seek to hide them in the darkness.  They are not beautiful.  They are not verses in the Bible I will be having my kids memorize.  They are not loving.  But they are real.  They are part of the innermost thoughts of the Psalmist that God has already searched out, these secret wishes.  And even these words can be expressed openly, held up to the light, pathetic offering that they are.

The fifth of the 12 steps for recovery from addiction is this: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  There is a recognition here that it can be healthy, liberating, even transformative to be known.  Of course, one chooses that other human being carefully.  One does not confide in one whom one does not trust, who does not have your wellbeing in mind, or whose primary response would be one of condemnation.  And herein lies a key to the goodness and comfort of being known by Holy Spirit: Trust, wellbeing, no condemnation.

Spiritual director Kathleen Henry has re-written Psalm 139 for difference personality types.  She works with the enneagram, which has nine different types, and here are a few lines from two of those rewritten Psalms.

For Type 4’s – people who perceive themselves as different, who are isolated, who have often lived through pain and a lack of sense of self:

Indwelling Spirit God

You are the one I see

–          If only I could –

In the mirror backstage.

In the pain – in the plummet and pitch –

You abide in me, vigilant,

Proclaiming against the empty darkness

That I am alive.


For Type 1’s – those who avoid expressing anger; perfectionists who hate to waste time:

Spirit-Source of All Life and All Truth,

I come from You.

All that I am is known to You.

Even if I bury, in the soil of resentment,

The seeds of my anger, deep,

Even then,

You are there –

Seeing through to my inmost self,

Claiming me as your own.