Psalm 139: Being Known By God

Chelsea Kelly  |  June 13, 2019

In a recent conversation, a student ended a story she was telling me about her childhood with the phrase, “I’ve never told anybody this before.” It was not the first time that I’d heard that phrase from a student, but it stood out to me this time because the story she’d just told had struck me as fairly unremarkable. To my mind there was nothing in the story that needed to be hidden, but clearly to her there was something about the story that made it hard to reveal to others. And while I may not have seen it with that particular story, I do understand the tendency to hide parts of myself from others. To be deeply known can be terrifying. There are parts of myself that are hard to share because I fear that they disqualify me from being loved.

This is why it has always struck me as crazy that David ends Psalm 139 with these words in verses 23-24: “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!” David has just spent the first 22 verses of the psalm detailing the fullness of God’s knowledge of him: God knows his actions, his thoughts, his past, present, and future. This knowledge cannot be hidden from, because God is in all places. And the response with which David ends the psalm is not fear; it’s not hiding; it’s invitation! He invites God to search his heart, to know him in all his fullness.

I remember reading this psalm as a kid and wondering how a person could ever be that confident. How could somebody be confident enough in their righteousness or obedience to willingly invite that depth of knowledge? I knew I wasn’t there, and I didn’t think I’d ever be.

But as I studied this psalm with my students last semester, I realized that I’d misinterpreted David’s confidence. The confidence he displays isn’t in his own character but rather in the character of the One he invites to know him. David knows that the God to whom he’s talking is the God who described himself this way in Exodus 34:6-7: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” This is a God who defines himself by his mercy and grace, his steadfast love and forgiveness. This is not a God who is looking for reasons to reject David. He is a God who stands ready to show mercy.

Of course, if you’re familiar with Exodus 34, you might have realized that I rather conspicuously cut off verse 7 before the end: “…but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” The characteristic that the Lord leads with in his self-description is his mercy, but he is also a God of justice. And if we’re honest with ourselves about what is in our hearts, that is the part that we deserve. So how do we know which side of the scales we’ll fall on? How do we know if we will receive God’s mercy or his justice? How do we know if we, like David, can confidently invite God to search our hearts and know our thoughts? 

As New Testament believers, we can answer this question even better than David could, because we know how God’s justice and mercy are reconciled. God’s justice and mercy come together in Jesus. Our Lord shows us mercy not by ignoring what we’ve done, but by taking on himself the consequences of our wrongdoing. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). This is why we are accepted. We are accepted not because our good outweighs our bad. Not because there’s some line we haven’t crossed. Not because God doesn’t care about the ways we’ve messed up. Not because he doesn’t know the depth of our sin. But because he took it all for us. He paid for it all on the cross. If we have placed our faith in him and claim him as our righteousness rather than trying to achieve righteousness on our own, we have nothing to fear.

So what happens if we follow David’s lead and invite the Lord to search us, to know our hearts and thoughts? What is at risk? Nothing! There is nothing in our hearts that could be uncovered that hasn’t already been paid for by Jesus on the cross. There is nothing he could find that would disqualify us from receiving his mercy. The Lord searches our hearts not to find reasons to condemn us, but to reveal every nook and cranny that has already received his mercy.

If we have placed our faith in Jesus, inviting the Lord to search our hearts is not only safe, it is also a source of great joy. As is clear in the rest of Psalm 139, the Lord knows us fully whether we invite him in or not. But when we follow David’s lead and invite him to search our hearts, it opens us up to the joy of being known and loved. It allows us to experience more fully what is already true of us. To know that we are fully known and still fully loved allows us to stop hiding. It allows us to stop being defensive or making excuses for our behavior, because our failures do not put our identity at risk. It allows us to search our own hearts, because we don’t have to fear what we will find since what is in our hearts does not define us. It allows us to reveal ourselves to others, because the only one whose acceptance matters has refused to reject us. It allows us to live in the light, because there is nothing that can be discovered that will change the way God sees us.

To be fully known feels deeply risky, but in Jesus that risk has been put to rest. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our actions and our thoughts, our pasts, presents, and futures, and there is nothing that can surprise him. He knows it all and still loves us so deeply that he would take the consequences of our failures on himself so as to not let us go. We can experience the deep joy of being fully known and fully loved, because his love rests in his character, not in ours. Hallelujah!

Written by Chelsea Kelly, Campus Staff at Mary Baldwin University.

Chelsea grew up in Iowa City, IA and then attended Northwestern University. After an internship with RUF at the University of Nebraska, she attended Covenant Seminary and got a Master of Divinity. She is excited to be back with RUF as campus staff at beautiful Mary Baldwin University!