We are apt to speak in this connexion of omniscience, but there is nothing about omniscience in the Psalm. Omniscience is an abstract noun, and abstract nouns are unequal to the intense feeling of the passage. The important thing in religion is not the belief that God is omniscience, but the experience that God knows me, and it is on this the Psalmist dwells. It is almost implied in the connexion of his words that in the heart of the writer there was a kind of passive resistance to this experience, a resistance which God’s overcame, piercing and discovering all his inner life. We are slow to know ourselves, and sometimes do not wish to; purposes form in the background of our minds, of which we are hardly conscious; latent motives actuate us; perhaps own words or deeds, in which they suddenly issue, startle us; we are amazed that we should have said or done such a thing. But it is no surprise to Him. “Oh thou understandest my thought of far off.” Such knowledge of man by God is quite different from omniscience. Omniscience is a divine attribute, but what here is experienced is a divine action — it is God through His searching knowledge of us entering with power into our lives. It is God the besetting us behind and before, and laying His hand upon us. The Psalmist does not dwell particularly on the divine motive, so to speak, and the searching of man. It might be felt as the shadowing of the soul by an enemy, or is the over-shadowing presence of a friend. The one thing on which he does dwell is its reality and its completeness. It is too wonderful for him; it baffles him when he tries to understand it; but incomprehensible as it is, it is real. He only knows himself as he is conscious of being searched and known by God.
Preaching: Denney first works out his argument by overturning the assumption of the words: This is not about omniscience (although God is omniscient, and God’s omniscience stands behind God’s conduct here), but rather it is about the personal knowledge of God.
He explains the error of misusing this text by means of doing what should be done with the text. He shows how the wrong reading misses the intensely personal knowledge which the text conveys.
He describes the Psalmist’s experience so that it is well understood.
He ends the paragraph with a statement that the proposition ultimately baffles and with the proposition, “He only knows himself as he is conscious of being searched and known by God.”
Good preaching should open up one’s ways of thinking and transform one’s categories of understanding. There is a great deal of argument that we must make the Bible relevant to people in their current circumstance. While it is necessary to understand one’s culture, the important thing is that Christian thinking is conformed to biblical categories and methods – not that Christians have the Bible translated and defanged; domesticated to the culture.
This last sentence explodes our normal manner of thought: How does God prove himself to me? Here, Denney explains, it is only as God knows me that I can even know myself. God is the ground, the subject – I am the observed, the object.
Doctrine: Here is a strange thing: Another person, wise, eternal, knows me inside and out: There is God at hand with my thoughts, knowing my inclination before I admit to myself what I know of myself. The Greek aphorism γνῶθι σεαυτόν Know Thyself hangs dependent upon God’s knowledge: “He only knows himself as he is conscious of being searched and known by God.”
Such knowledge, whether we seek to avoid it or long for it, stands at the heart of human and Divine life: Adam sinned and sought to hide himself from God. God’s question, “Where are you?” Does not reflect ignorance by God, but rather the penetrating search of God – Adam cannot and does not hide.
Am I what I think myself to be, or am I what God knows me to be? This is one element of the basic tension between God and humanity. We seek to define ourselves, but the believing heart knows that it is only God’s opinion which matters. Indeed, what is “confession” but saying the same thing of my sin as God?
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Psalm 51:4 (ESV)
Now consider this as a true proposition: not as an abstract doctrine but as an actual knowledge/experience. He does not say that God speaks to him in any propositional manner. But rather that he knows that God knows him.
The propositional content will be in our reading of the Scripture: It is in the reading of this Psalm that I become aware of this knowledge. Hebrews 4 explains that it is in the operation of the Word of God that we are known by God:
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Hebrews 4:11–13 (ESV)
Thus, my conscience, my joy and sorrow, my affections and thoughts as they are informed by the Word of God become my valuation of who I am – it is not my judgment of myself, but God’s judgment of me which matters:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 1 Corinthians 4:3 (ESV)
But there is something even more profound in this observation.
In fact, God at times makes fun of human hubris on this point. In Genesis 11, the people seek to build a tower to heaven; a fortress so great that God cannot overcome it. But verse 5 reads, “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower”: the tower was so tiny, God could not see it from heaven!