O Lord, thou hast searched me and know me – Psalm CXXXIX.1
I once heard a well-known man, speaking of difficulties in the Bible, express himself between jest and earnest in this fashion: “The Gospels are a story, and a story may conceivably be untrue; the epistles are arguments, and arguments may conceivably be unsound; but the Psalms are the immediate reflection of personal experiences, and we can take them as they stand without asking any questions.” Certainly that is true of the 139th Psalm, which even in the Psalter has an eminence of its own, and brings us into contact with elemental religion, with the soul’s direct and overwhelming experience of God. None of us could have written it, but there is none of us in whom there is not an echo of its sublime and solemn utterance; and that echo is the spirit of God, bearing witness by and with His word in our hearts.
The Psalm has four strophes, each of six verses; and in each of the four an essential aspect or element in the soul’s experience of God absorbs the mind of the writer. It will repay us if in following his thought his experience in any degree becomes ours.
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.
I suppose most of us have wrestled with arguments intended to prove the existence or personality of God. Well, I am not going to raise any philosophical questions about the powers are in capacities of human reasoning in this matter. No religion ever took its origin in such reasoning, however it may have succeeded or been baffled and trying to justify itself at reason’s bar. The being and the personality of God, so far as there is any religious interest in them, are not to be proved by arguments; they are to be experienced in a kind of experienced here described. The man who can say, O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me, does not need any arguments to prove that God is, and that he is a person, and that he has an intimate and importunate interest in his life. If that is a real experience — and who will deny that it is? — And if it is not a morbid phenomenon, but one which is sane and normal, then the thou in it is just as real as the me. The psalmist is as certain of God as he is of his own existence; and indeed it is not too much to say that it is only as he is conscious of being searched and known by God — only as he is overwhelmed by contact with the spirit which knows him better than he knows himself — that he rises to any adequate sense of what his own being and personality mean. He is revealed to himself by God’s search; he knows himself through God. Speaking practically — and in religion everything is practical — God alone can overcome atheism, and this is how he overcomes it. He does not put arguments within our reach which point to theistic conclusion; he gives us the experience which makes this song intelligible, and forces us to cry, oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. “After that he have known God,” says St. Paul to the Galatians, “or rather” — correcting himself — “have been known by God.” Yes, it is the overpowering sense that we are known through and through by another which seals upon our hearts that knowledge of God on which religion rests.
2. The second strophe of the Psalm deals with another aspect or element in the writer’s experience of God. There is indeed something unreal and calling another, for all experiences of God are interdependent. Still, it inspires the psalmist anew; his soul, which has sunk exhausted under the thought of God’s absolute knowledge of him, rallies itself to speak of God’s wonderful and inevitable present with him. And here again we should take care not to lose ourselves in the prophet of his high experience by speaking of God’s omnipresence. No doubt if we are constructing a doctrine of God, we should have need and room for such a term; but in religion the important thing is not the idea that God is everywhere, with the experience that wherever I am God is with me. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit, our whither shall I fly from my presence?” Why, it may be asked, should we want to go anywhere? Why should we try to escape from God? The answer does not need to be given, because everyone can give it for himself. The first man tried to hide from God, and so have all his children, but always in vain. Willful boys try, experimenting, with their new-found liberty, and God makes his presence felt through all their riot. Worldly men try, absorbed in affairs they had rather keep to themselves, renouncing church and Sabbath, Bible and reflection; but when they least expect it, a light or a shadow falls on their path, and they know that God is there; sensual man tried in dissipation, and desperate men even in death; but there is no height nor depth nor distance nor darkness that can shut him out of their life. As St. Augustine says, the only way to flee from God is to flee to him. The voice which says that our hearts, where art thou? Is not meant to drive us from him, but to make us conscious of his presence, and to urge us to turn consciously to him. There is only one thing which could really separate us from God, and that a secret. The secret always divides. It divides more in proportion as the relation which and dolls is close. It may divide fatally husband-and-wife; it divides he fatally the soul and God, raising and invisible and insuperable wall between them, and keeping us far from him even while he is intimately near us. Do not cut yourself off from God by any unconfessed sin, by any on about hope, but anything but make sure straight prayer or try to avoid his presence. It is not far to seek and find him. He is near to all call upon him in truth. To find his presence not a good read but it inspiration, he asked nothing of us but that we should walk in the light as he is in the light, and have no secrets from him.
3. The third strophe of the Psalm, the third element in the psalmist experience of God, seems at the first glance to be of a different character, yet it is closely connected with what precedes. Observe how it is to be linked on by for. “For Thou hast formed my reins: Thou hast knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Here, it may be said, we are not dealing with immediate experience; there is an element of inference for the writer’s conviction which is introduced by the for. God is at first, so speak, an observer, and then a companion; but what is implied in observer so searching, and a companion so close inseparable? To the mind of the psalmist what is implied is that his very being has its ground in God, and that the whole Marvel and mystery of what he is go back to him. If it were not so, God could not have the knowledge of him were the nearness to him by which he is so deeply impressed. At first he thinks of himself as an inhabitant of the moral world, and their God is an awful Observer, and inevitable present; now he thinks of himself as a native of what we will call the physical universe, only to realize that there also the presence and action of God are as pervasive as in the higher sphere. It is not exaggerating or misrepresenting him if we say that the truth to which expression is given in the third section of the Psalm is the truth of the physical and the moral worlds, as we call them, are one in God — that he’d whose moral sovereignty has been so deeply felt them so wonderfully described in the world of conscious life is the author of nature to — and that nature and human life, and each individual human being, draw variations of condition circumstance, are determined by him and are continually in his hand. “My frame was not hidden from the when I was made in secret . . . in thy book were they all written, even the days which were ordained, when as yet there was none of them.” And all that we are, in the very frame and texture of our being; and all that the false us, and the links of our life and its visitors, we are actually dependent on God. That in a manner explains how we can have the wonderful experiences of God before described; only the author of our being could have such a close an unremitting interest in us.
There are few things more to be desired at the present moment than the power to realize his truth. Partly we have got in the habit of defining the physical and the moral worlds simply by contrast with each other, as if we had not to live at the same time in both, and as if that did not imply their alternate unity; and partly we are accustomed to speak to the lower against the higher. How, a man asks, can I., a creature with such a nature, if a spiritual calling? How can I ever be anything but what I am? There is no proportion between the constitution which nature has given in the location with which God summons me. Were the same thing is said about circumstances. How can anyone born the conditions in which I was, and compelled to live in the environment in which I live, be anything but the miserable creature you see? Of these are dangerous things to say. No one ever says them for himself with quite a good conscience, and their moral unsoundness is shown by the fact that compassion for others which they inspire Trent only too easily into contempt. Surely the psalmist has the deep truth in his grasp when he reminds us that God is not only intimately with us and our moral life, but that he is in and behind her nature under circumstances — but he fashioned us in the womb and that all our days were written in his book — but he commits us to know conflict in which he does not stand behind this — but no nature so disabling, as to shed a man out from the care of that Providence of his maker. One of the striking things in the psalmist atonement which the writer speaks of this at the close of the strophe. The admissions and on the presence of God, as they, home to the individual conscience and the moral world, have something oppressive in them; they all and overwhelm us; but as resting on God’s creation of us, and his providential ordering of our lives, they are transfigured with tenderness; the psalmist is not haunted by God, but abandons himself with a joy to his care. “How precious also are thy thoughts on to me, O God; how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand; when I awake, I am still with me.” No doubt these words repeated in new connection what has authority been set in the first section — “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain onto it” — but they contain something more. They are an echo of the touching words in the 103rd Psalm: “like as a father pitieth his children, the Lord pitieth them that fear him”; they are an anticipation of St. Peter’s words in the New Testament — “commit your souls to him in well doing as a faithful Creator.” Whoever betrays us, or Creator will not. With all its disabilities and limitations, and in spite of all its corruptions, human nature is dear to its author. I will give thanks unto the, for I am awfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are thy works, and that my soul know what the right well.” It is only when we shut God out of her nature — as no one can do who has had in his nature the experience out of which man cries, oh Lord, that was searched me and known me — that we can look on in in ourselves or others with contempt or despair. For the human nature to know the faithful Creator is to know that he has not been made in vain, and to be assured that through whatever conflicts he can rise and live in the world were inspired utterances like those of the Psalm will fall upon his ear true nature and awakened echoes in his innermost soul.
4. And now we come to the last strophe of the Psalm. I’ve spoken of all the others is expressing some aspect or element of religion in simple as to deepest form — is uttering the soul’s fundamental experiences of God — but can we say the same of this? Or does it not carry us into another world when we read: “oh that thou wouldn’t slay the wicked, God! Depart from me, therefore, ye bloodthirsty men. Do not I hate them, oh Lord, that hate me, and do not I loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred, account the mine enemies.” How, it may be asked, the soul which has been flooded with the consciousness of God, of his intimate nearness, that is all penetrating love how can such a soul be overcome by such a temper? Surely these are not pious prayers? But savage and inhuman, a melancholy illustration of begin system sees which lower human nature even at its height.
I cannot think that a mind so great as that of the writer of the Psalm — and one might even say in a work of art so perfect — there should be an unprovoked and sudden lapse into mere inconsistency. There must be a connection and thought between these passionate words and what proceeds, and I believe it is not hard to find. The psalmist has been dwelling on what I have called the unity of the natural and the moral worlds, the truth that God is behind both, and that it is the same power which speaks in conscience, revealing man to himself, and which originates and sustains that physical being in which man lives his moral life. These are real truths and experiences, and religion depends for its varied being on the recognition of them. But it is possible to recognize them in a way which is fatal to religion. It is possible to loosen the sins of the unity of nature of the moral life as a light dependent on God the sense of the vital differences with which they confront us. It is possible to become insensible to the fact that God is not only the source of all being, but of the distinction between good and evil, and that to assert the distinction is as essential to religion as to assert the unity of God and the dependence of all things on him. Christ, says a French writer, has two great enemies, but god Priapus and the god Pan, and the latter is the more and practicable of the two. The most dangerous enemy of religion is the mood in which all the differences in the world seem to become unreal and the face of the unity of God. The difference between nature and spirit, between the personal and the impersonal, between freedom and necessity, between what we were born and what we make of ourselves, between corporate responsibility and the responsibility of the individual — the difference in a last resort of right and wrong — all these are relative, evanescence, never to be fixed; that is all, when we try to grass them, and a kind of moral or non-moral haze. This is the supreme illusion of the truth of the corruption of the little bastard is worse; for there is no better or more inspiring truth than that of the dependence of all being, natural and moral, upon God; and no error more deadly or degrading then to God all things are alike. It is against the temptation to let the truth which he has just recognized in such a moving word sink into this deadly falsehood but the soul of the psalmist reacts with instinctive and passionate vehemence. He knows that the world in every human being in it are absolutely dependent upon God; but he knows also that what is going on in the world is a battle, and that it is the Lord’s battle, and that it is vital to be on the Lord’s side no doubt the passion with which he cast himself into the battle is less than Christian passion. He is ready to kill in the battle, and perhaps not ready to die. But in the Lord’s battle to sign under which we conquers the cross. It is not by shedding the blood of others, but by the sacrifice of our own life, that we can contribute to the Lord’s victory. For the psalmist is right, and where we must not fall beneath his insight, is in the clear perception of the reality of religion in false conflict — but what is going on among men in the world is a battle in which the cause of God is at stake — a battle, and not a sham fight. God is not in the same sense on both sides. It is not a game of draughts in which the same hand moves the blacks and the whites. It is a matter of life and death, and the psalmist is in in it for life or death, with his whole heart. So must everyone be who would prove what the presence of God in life means. The cross of Christ, where he died for the difference between right and wrong, and declared it to be as real as his agony and passion, teaches the same truth is that vehement psalmist, and makes the same appeal. “Who is on the Lord’s side?” It calls to us as we look out upon life. And it is only as we enlist under that inside, and commit ourselves to fight the good fight to the last, that we can share in the experience which inspired this wonderful Psalm. There is something peculiarly touching in the closing lines. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” It is as if the psalmist shrinks suddenly from his own impetuosity, felt his rashness and judging others, and realize that it is easier to slay the wicked than to be inwardly separated from sin. It is humbler movie does not shrink from God’s odd longs for it. He feels that for God to take knowledge of him is his hope. Salvation does not come from his zeal, but from the Lord, who knows them altogether. It is exactly and the key in which the Samaritan woman speaks of Jesus: “come, see a man which told me all the things that ever I did; is this not the Christ?” It is only one who knows us better than we know ourselves who can give is the life which is life indeed.
 “Elemental Religion,” in The Way Everlasting: Sermons by James Denney, D.d. (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 1.