Omniscient! (Psalm 139:1-6)
I had a choice today about what to each for lunch. As I drove west on 135th Street, I was faced with the decision of whether to turn left into the Sonic drive-in or continue straight ahead to Subway for a roast beef sandwich on wheat bread. Nutrition would be better served by the latter, but the allure of a chicken strip dinner with fries and a Diet Coke ultimately prevailed.
Did God know which choice I would make prior to the moment that I made it? If I had chosen at the last possible second to forego both the sub and Sonic and opted for a Hardee's hamburger, would God have slapped himself up side the head and shouted: "Wow! I never saw that one coming"?
It sounds like a silly question, but I find little comfort in the suggestion that God was oblivious to my choice before I made it. Some would argue that, given his exhaustive knowledge of my previous decisions concerning lunch and the orientation of my taste buds, he could at least have projected with a high degree of probability the likelihood that I would end up at Sonic rather than Subway. But even then, I could have surprised him, or so I'm told.
David would have disagreed. The author of Psalm 139 takes great comfort in knowing that God knows him exhaustively, past, present, and future. David was strengthened and reassured by the fact that no thought, desire, plan, or purpose escaped the eye of his heavenly Father.
Psalm 139 is a glorious celebration of the multi-faceted splendor of God and the imminently practical implications that it bears for you and me. The treasures in this psalm concerning the nature and activity of God are timeless and priceless and deserve our careful and considerable attention. Therefore, I'm going to devote three meditations to this psalm. First, we will look at God's omniscience in vv. 1-6. We'll then turn to David's portrayal of God's omnipresence in vv. 7-12, and finally to his comments concerning divine omnipotence in vv. 13-18. I'm not ignoring vv. 19-24, having already addressed them in conjunction with our study of imprecations in the psalms in several earlier meditations.
That the first six verses are concerned with God's knowledge is evident from the repetition of the verb "to know" in vv. 1, 2, and 6, as well as the noun "knowledge" in v. 6. But not everyone likes the idea of being utterly, exhaustively, and intimately known. They prefer to keep the secrets of their soul hidden from view. That God might know them in such pervasive detail is unnerving, to say the least. David, on the other hand, revels in this truth. As we'll note momentarily, such knowledge, he declares, "is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it" (v. 6).
Let's look more closely at the extent of God's knowledge of David (and of us) and the joy it ought to evoke within us.
In the opening statement, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me" (v. 1), "searching" is obviously an anthropomorphic image, for "God knows all things naturally and as a matter of course, and not by any effort on his part. Searching ordinarily implies a measure of ignorance which is removed by observation; of course this is not the case with the Lord; but the meaning of the Psalmist is, that the Lord knows us thoroughly as if he had examined us minutely, and had pried into the most secret corners of our being" (Spurgeon, 3:258).
If it were the case that God was truly ignorant of David prior to his searching of his soul, this would mean that God is not omniscient at all, that he lacks not only knowledge of the future but of the present state of the human heart as well (something not even the most ardent Open Theist is willing to admit).
In order to demonstrate that God also has exhaustive knowledge of every position and movement, David employs a figure of speech called merism, in which polar opposites are used to indicate the totality of all generically related acts, events, localities, and so on. Thus: "You know when I sit down and when I rise up" (v. 2a). His choice of words is designed to encompass the totality of his life's activities. God's knowledge extends to every conceivable physical state, gesture, exercise, posture and pursuit. "When I am active and when I am passive and everything in between . . . Thou knowest it all!" David leaves nothing to guesswork: "My most common and casual acts, my most necessary and trivial movements, are all seen by thee. Nothing escapes thine eye!"
Indeed, God knows every mental impulse that governs and regulates such outward behavior. We read in v. 2b that God "discerns" our "thoughts from afar." Every emotion, feeling, idea, thought, conception, resolve, aim, doubt, motive, perplexity, and anxious moment is exposed before God like an open book.
And all this "from afar" (v. 2b). Some take this as a reference to God's transcendence, the point being that the distance between heaven and earth by which men vainly imagine God's knowledge to be circumscribed (limited, bounded) offers no obstacle. Though God be infinitely high and we be so very, very low, he knows us thoroughly.
Others, such as my friend Ray Ortlund, read this verse in the light of vv. 7-12 which focus on God's omnipresence. Thus he sees in it a temporal meaning:
"In verses 7-12, David makes the point that God is always present with him. The distance in view in verse 2, then, must be not spatial but temporal, as this word is also used in Isaiah 22:11, 25:1 and 37:26. Long before any impulse wells up from within David's psyche, long before David himself knows what his next mood or feeling will be, long before he knows where his train of thought will eventually lead, God perceives it all" ("The Sovereignty of God: Case Studies in the Old Testament," in Still Sovereign, 29).
What follows serves only to confirm this truth: "you search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways" (v. 3), that is to say, every step, every movement, every journey is beneath your gaze.
Should there be any lingering doubts, verse 4 utterly dispels them: "Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether." Two things are important to note. First, God has knowledge of our words "before" they are spoken. Second, God has exhaustive and comprehensive knowledge of our words. He knows them "altogether" or "completely." Spurgeon was surely right when he said:
"Though my thought be invisible to the sight, though as yet I be not myself cognizant of the shape it is assuming, yet thou hast it under thy consideration, and thou perceivest its nature, its source, its drift, its result. Never dost thou misjudge or wrongly interpret me; my inmost thought is perfectly understood by thine impartial mind. Though thou shouldest give but a glance at my heart, and see me as one sees a passing meteor moving afar, yet thou wouldst by that glimpse sum up all the meanings of my soul, so transparent is everything to thy piercing glance" (Spurgeon, 3:259).
How often have you blurted out, perhaps at an especially ill-advised moment, some word that you had no idea was forthcoming? Of this I can assure you: God wasn't in the least surprised or caught off guard. You and I may not always know what we will say, but God does.
Quite simply, God surrounds us. His knowledge has us hemmed in (v. 5). We are enveloped by his loving care. "We cannot turn back and so escape him, for he is behind; we cannot go forward and outmarch him, for he is before. He not only beholds us, but he besets us" (Spurgeon, 3:259).
How does all this affect you? Does it elicit fear in your soul? Anxiety? Anger? For David, God's exhaustive and all-encompassing knowledge of him is simply "too wonderful" (v. 6a). He lacks the necessary faculties of mind, spirit and affection to fully grasp what is at stake. It is too deep, too high, too wide, too expansive and broad for his finite mind to entertain. Such knowledge not only surpasses his comprehension but his imagination as well. "It is high; I cannot attain it" (v. 6b). Again, I yield to Spurgeon:
"Mount as I may, this truth is too lofty for my mind. It seems to be always above me, even when I soar into the loftiest regions of spiritual thought. Is it not so with every attribute of God? Can we attain to any idea of his power, his wisdom, his holiness? Our mind has no line with which to measure the Infinite. Do we therefore question? Say, rather, that we therefore believe and adore. We are not surprised that the Most Glorious God should in his knowledge be high above all the knowledge to which we can attain: it must of necessity be so, since we are such poor limited beings; and when we stand a-tip-toe we cannot reach to the lowest step of the throne of the Eternal" (3:260).
So, yes, God knew from all eternity that I would end up at Sonic today, enjoying chicken strips and fries, and let's not forget the Diet Coke. And I rejoice and rest in the assurance that he knows tomorrow's menu as well.