The key to true authenticity – Psalm 139

Who in your life knows you best? Who knows your deepest thoughts and walks with you through the highs and lows?

We all long to be known. But we’re also afraid to be known. In fact, sometimes it’s right when we approach real, vulnerable intimacy with someone that we instinctively pull away. Perhaps you’ve opened yourself up to someone and experienced the profound pain of rejection or betrayal.

Whoever you had in mind – partner, friend or confidant – what are you too afraid or ashamed to reveal even to that person? We wonder what they would think of us if only they knew. Even from those who know us best, we hold back the darkest parts of ourselves.

It’s perfectly logical. We naturally expect people to pull away when they see our flaws, so it’s safer not to get too close in the first place, not to reveal too much. Of course, there’s an inherent connection between being known and being embraced. But there’s also an inherent tension. If I were fully known, how could I ever be fully embraced?

There must be a sweet spot – the right amount of openness and the right amount of hiddenness. I wonder how much of our time and energy we devote to finding this sweet spot. From the early stages of a relationship to navigating a workplace conversation about politics to choosing the day’s outfit, we constantly calculate how to reveal just enough to earn approval but not enough to risk rejection.

We might become hurt or defensive, but we still long to be known and embraced.

Is there any alternative?

If there were, we could be genuinely authentic. We would be free to trust others with our whole selves, right down to the deepest longings of our hearts. Is there any way to resolve the tension – to be fully known and fully accepted?

Intimate knowledge

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” So begins Psalm 139, that beautiful and treasured poem about the God of the universe’s intimate knowledge of you and me.

You won’t find a word of theory in this psalm. Yes, the psalmist implies that God knows everything, is present everywhere and has created everything. But what he says is, ‘God, you know me completely (v1-6). You are with me everywhere (7-12). You created me wonderfully (13-18).’ What the psalmist declares about his God is not disinterested information; it’s personal knowledge.

Whether I sit or rise, declares the psalmist, you discern all my thoughts. Whether I go out or lie down, he marvels, you are familiar with all my ways. You surround me, he says, and you make your presence known to me.

Even if I tried to run away, the psalmist says surely with a smile, you would be with me everywhere I could go. If I fled up to heaven or down to the pit; if I stayed with your people in the East or settled on the coast in the West; if I remained in the light of day or let darkness envelop me – every I could go, you would be with me.

You knit me together in my mother’s womb, he proclaims. You wrote the book on my life before I was even born.

Have you ever experienced the pleasant surprise of someone remembering something unexpected about you? Maybe a close friend remembers something obscure you told them a long time ago. Maybe someone with an impressive job title remembers your name and takes interest in you.

Isn’t that a joyful moment?

Or think of young kids desperate for their parents’ attention. It’s always, “Mum, watch this!” or “Dad, guess what happened to me today!”

That desire never goes away. We might become hurt or defensive, but we still long to be known and embraced. The joy of being known by people gives us a tiny glimpse of the joy of being known completely by God. Every obscure detail, every excited plan, every anxious expectation. God knows you completely, he is with you constantly, and he is working out the purposes he has had for you since your very beginning.

Inescapable presence

Wait a second, though. Didn’t we say there was an inherent tension between being known and being embraced? How can the psalmist declare God’s complete knowledge of him and his constant care for him?

The question leads us to the darker side of this psalm. Depending on who you are, God’s inescapable presence might be an intimate comfort or a terrifying threat. “Instead of our reading it,” comments British Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, “this psalm reads us.” He suggests that psalm 139 may have been used in Israel as a liturgical ‘commitment against wrongdoing’.

How could David, whose sin was always before him, declare God’s intimate care for him?

Imagine standing before the authorities, innocent, and hearing the comforting declaration that God knows you completely, is with you constantly, and is working out his purposes for you.

Now imagine standing before the authorities, guilty. Imagine the fearful chills of hearing the threatening assertion that God knows your every intention and action, that his presence is inescapable, and that he wrote the book on your life before you were even born.

This is not a psalm to sing if you are guilty before the Judge of the universe.

And yet the psalmist is identified as David – the same David whose grievous sin is documented in 2 Samuel 11. The same David who begged God in Psalm 51, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me … You are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”

How could David, whose sin was always before him, declare God’s intimate care for him? How could David finish our psalm by inviting God all the way in? “Search me, 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.”

How could he invite God’s unrestricted knowledge and count on his unrestrained embrace? How can we?

Inexhaustible mercy

The answer is that the psalmist had a glimpse of what we, as Christians, have seen.

We have seen what God does to his enemies – to the guilty. He sends his only Son to die for them and to reconcile them to himself.

The Son of God, sharing eternal intimacy with the Father, left his side to live among the enemies of God. He knew God’s closeness to him even more intimately than the psalmist did. Yet, as he hung on the cross, taking on your sin and mine, it wasn’t psalm 139 that Jesus quoted.

It was psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalm continues, “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”

Jesus died forsaken, so that we can know the Father’s intimate presence – not as a threat, but as the deepest joy and comfort.

Having descended from heaven, Jesus went down to the pit without the Father’s hand to guide him. He was cast out by Israel, and killed outside the city walls, and the Father did not deliver him. And as he was crucified, darkness came over the whole land. He endured the absence of his Father so that we can, with the psalmist, affirm God’s constant presence with us.


Psalm 139 anticipates the cross of Christ

This is how we can come before the Lord with confidence! The psalmist may not have seen the Lord Jesus, but he knew the same God who revealed himself most clearly in his son. He knew that, as the late pastor and theologian Tim Keller puts it, ‘There is no refuge from him. There is only refuge in him.’ The psalmist’s hope is the same as ours: knowing God intimately, he is confident that the Lord will be merciful and gracious towards him, even before he knows exactly how.

Do we not then have even more reason to be confident?

Jesus died forsaken so that we can know the Father’s intimate presence – not as a threat, but as the deepest joy and comfort. We need not fear rejection and judgment because God has dealt with our wickedness. We can be fully known and fully embraced.

True authenticity

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t live in an indifferent universe. The world often tells us that there is nothing higher; there is no judge. The way to be authentic is sheer, hedonistic freedom, being ‘true to oneself’.

The reality is that the very centre of everything is an inescapable God. He sees everything in you; he goes everywhere with you.

But, as Goldingay comments, “the person who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear”. And we know that in Jesus (praise God!), we have nothing to hide. We can rest in God’s intimate presence.

When you are unmasked, fully known by the God of the universe, his response is not to pull away from you, but to draw closer in mercy and love.

Knowing God’s commitment to us means we need not fear being fully exposed. This is how to be truly authentic and open before him and others, knowing the depths of our sin and so knowing the all-surpassing depths of his love and mercy to us in Jesus. And we can encourage the same in one another. Real love, Paul says, is ‘unhypocritical’. It’s unmasked. It’s real and open and vulnerable.

The great joy of Psalm 139 and the great joy of the gospel is that when you are unmasked, fully known by the God of the universe, his response is not to pull away from you, but to draw closer in mercy and love.

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