Behold Your God: The All-Knowing God| Psalm 139
Phil Krause | November 1, 2020
We are continuing in our series on some of the main attributes of God. Today we’ll be focusing on his omniscience and his omnipresence.
I heard of a pastor who was once preaching through the attributes of God, and someone asked him, “Are you going to preach on all the attributes of God? Aren’t there 12 or 17 or something?”
This pastor said, “Actually, no, I’m not going to preach on all of them; I don’t think I ever could, because I’m assuming because God is infinite he has an infinite number of attributes, so there’s no way. It would be impossible to preach on all of the attributes of God, or even to know them.”
So, I would invite you to turn to Psalm 139. If you’re using one of the church Bibles, it is on page 521.
While you’re turning there, let me tell you about a time that this psalm really began to minister to my family and to me. The year was 2006. My wife, Christy, our two daughters Rachel and Rebekah, and I were very excited because we were heading to Ethiopia to pick up the two newest members of our family, Abraham and Grace, for the first time. So there was a lot of excitement. Two of the kids, Kurt and Carolyn, had to stay home (we lived in Little Rock, Arkansas at the time), so that was sad.
Anyway, the normal and most direct flight to get to Ethiopia from Little Rock would have been through Washington, D.C. and straight to Addis Ababa. But that flight was full at the time, so we had the fun joy and privilege of getting to fly from Little Rock, Arkansas to Chicago, to London, and then from London direct to Addis Ababa. It took about a day and a half, once you count the layover time in Heathrow airport and everything. It was grueling.
We had apprehensions. We had fears about getting into this metal tube with wings on it and hurtling through the air at over 500 miles per hour for hours and hours on end. So, in London, what we did is we started memorizing this psalm, and God used it. He comforted our hearts with these words. I think you’ll see why as I read, starting with the first six verses of Psalm 139.
“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.”
1. God Knows You Fully
Now, we’re going to keep going in this psalm in a few minutes, but first let me give you the first point today. Number one, God knows you fully. God knows you—fully!
Theologians often talk about God’s omniscience. That’s from the Greek word omni, which means “all,” and science means “knowledge.” It’s a way of saying that God is all-knowing. He’s omniscient.
If you look up “omniscient” in the dictionary, it says, “Having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight,” or, “Possessed of universal or complete knowledge.”
Theologian Wayne Grudem defines the omniscience of God in this way: “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.” Let that sink in for a minute. Whoa! Ask yourself, “Can anyone fully know God?” Nobody other than God, because God is infinite. He has no limits, so the only one who can fully know God is God himself.
But then secondly, he also knows everything that actually exists or possibly could exist; not just things from our perspective that are past, present, or future, but also all the possible eventualities—the would-haves, the could-haves, the mights, and the depends-if. God knows it all in one simple and eternal act. In other words, he never learns anything. God just knows.
Now, in this psalm, David is speaking directly to God, and it’s kind of like we’re eavesdropping on his private prayer. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David reflects on some of the amazing details related to God’s knowledge of us.
He says, “O Lord, you have searched me, you’ve known me.” This is one of the most basic human desires: to know and to be known. When a couple falls in love, what do they do? They want to know everything about each other, they want to share everything about each other. Every detail of their lives—nothing is too insignificant for a couple who is in love with each other, right? That’s kind of a little bit of what David is praying here. He’s saying, “Search me, know me.” This is personal; this is really intimate.
Next, do you see that God cares about every minute detail of your life? Even things that we would think are insignificant or mundane. Look at the first part of verse 2. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up.”
How many times do you sit down or stand up in a day? I don’t know. I’ve never stopped to count it. Well, God knows. He knows; he cares; he notices. Jesus said that God knows how many hairs are on your head; he has them all numbered. That’s incredible! He said God notices the sparrows hopping around on the ground, and in that case, it was an argument from the lesser to the greater. Luke 12, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not,” says Jesus, “you are of more value than many sparrows.” God knows our mundane activities, the minute details of our lives.
Then we see that he knows our thoughts. It says, “You discern my thoughts from afar.” That is, “Before thoughts even become mine, when they’re still unformed in my mind, you already know them.” Wow!
Not only that, but in verse 3, “You search out my path.” Now, in the Bible, “path” is often a metaphor for your way of life, the choices you make, a step-by-step living of life that you’re making. One commentator, Robert South, actually says that this phrase “search out” carries with it the picture of soldiers who are surrounding the path for an ambush or placing scouts and spies in every corner to discover the enemy in his march. That is how thorough God is, and God’s knowledge of our paths, our ways, is.
It’s not that he has to work hard to figure this stuff out. Nothing is hard for God, right? He doesn’t even have to learn anything. He is God. But he knows you and he knows me better than if the CIA and the FBI and the NSA were tracking every move that we make.
But it goes on. He says, “You search out my path and my lying down.” So, if paths represent the things we do throughout the day, like our public and visible choices that we make, then maybe lying down here has more to do with our activities we do in private, right? We sleep when we lie down. It’s dark, it’s not visible to the whole world, but it is to God.
If this makes you a little uncomfortable, keep in mind that the overall tone of this psalm—David is praising God for being this way, right? He loves that God knows him so well. If you really had spies tracking your every move, or if Google really knows as much about you and your online life as they say they do, that can be a little creepy, right? But God’s knowledge is also packaged, it comes together with his love, and we’re going to talk more about that in just a minute.
Then we see that God’s full knowledge of you includes your words, even before you’ve thought to say them. Verse 4, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.”
Sometimes we try to communicate something and we’re grasping for words, just the right way to say it, or a word— “I can’t quite remember what that word is, but it’s—” what? We say, “It’s on the tip of my tongue!” Well, David here is saying even before something gets to the tip of my tongue and is not quite out, “you already know, Lord, what it’s going to be.” That’s just really an amazing thought.
Verse 5: far from being creepy or dangerous, God’s knowledge protects you. It says, “You hem me in behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” Ah, this was comfort indeed for David, right? He had enemies who were chasing him for much of his life. King Saul and others wanted to kill him, but he could rest at night knowing that he was hemmed in, he was protected. God’s hand was on him.
Now, does God literally have a hand? No. This is poetry, this is a literary device called an anthropomorphism, where we ascribe human characteristics to God just so that we can better understand the picture here. In the Hebrew, the word here for “hand” actually includes the palm of God’s hand. So, this is like God is covering or holding; this is protection.
Listen, if God can actually hold all the oceans of the world in the palm of his hand, which is what it says in Isaiah 40, then don’t you think that, if he has his hand covering you, you’re safe? Yes!
David in verse 6 reflects on this incredible, detailed knowledge of God, and his response is one of worship and amazement. He says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.”
Now skip down to verse 13. We’re about to be astounded some more. Verse 13, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substances. In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”
This is a really beautiful passage. Okay, you know in Psalm 8, which is the one that starts, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth…” It’s the same author, David, but in that psalm he is looking at the sky and creation all around him and seeing the amazing majesty of God. He says, “When I look at your heavens, the moon and stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you visit him?” This is a response of worship.
Here, in Psalm 139, David isn’t looking outward, but he’s looking at the intricacies of God’s creation more on the cellular level, in a sense, although he wouldn’t have used that term, but he’s saying, “Wow! You’re amazing, God!” Now he’s looking with his mind’s eye at that level, and this praise is bubbling up from within him. He’s saying, “I’m fearfully made! I’m wonderfully made!”
Now, David’s saying, “I don’t know everything that goes on to make a baby, and all the things that God does in that secret place for new life to begin, but it’s amazing.”
The Puritan Thomas Manton was meditating just on the fact that we’re made wonderfully and fearfully, and here’s what he said. “What shall I speak of the eye, wherein there is such curious workmanship that many upon the first sight of it have been driven to acknowledge God? Of the hand, made to open and shut and to serve the labors and ministries of nature without wasting and decay for many years. If they should be of marble and iron, with such constant use they would soon wear out, and yet, now they are of flesh, they last so long as life lasteth. Or of the head, fitly placed to be the seat of the sense, to command and direct the rest of the members; of the lungs, a frail piece of flesh, yet though in continual action, of a long use. It were easy to enlarge upon this occasion, but I am to preach a sermon, not to read an anatomy lecture. In short, every part is so placed and framed as if God had employed his whole wisdom about it.”
I love that! God’s wonderful knowledge knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. This is one of the main reasons that abortion is wrong. God is most definitely pro-life, and I’m not trying to make a political statement here, I’m trying to make a moral statement. God is pro-life.
The last way we see here that God knows you fully is in verse 16. He ordains your days. Before you were born, he knew when you would die. Again, this is a beautiful, comforting truth. We’re not talking fatalism here or some morbid thought. God knows you fully.
2. God Surrounds You Completely
He surrounds you completely. David actually hinted at this already when he talked about being hemmed in behind and before, but let’s read verses 7-12, and then we’ll talk for a little bit about God’s omnipresence.
Verse 7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit, or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day. For darkness is as light with you.”
We see here that there’s nowhere in the whole universe where God is not. He’s present everywhere. This is what theologians refer to as his omnipresence, and it’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around this, just like it’s hard to wrap our minds around omniscience. Why is this? Because we’re finite. We’re limited. We have bodies, we have physical limitations in our worlds, and our bodies occupy physical space. So we are nothing like—in this sense, at least, we’re nothing like our infinite God.
David here is saying, “Even if I wanted to run away from you, God, I wouldn’t be able to do it, because you’re everywhere.”
I remember a time when my son Kurt was three or four years old, and we were driving somewhere in the car, the whole family, and he asked, “Is God everywhere?” I think it was Christy, my wife, who said, “Yes, God is everywhere.”
Kurt said, “So, we’re running over God!”
Of course, we all laughed, but here’s the thing: God is spirit. He doesn’t have a body. So he’s not limited by spatial dimensions at all. Don’t think of God as just being really big and extending infinitely in all directions. No; he has no shape, he has no size.
Now, King Solomon actually understood this. At the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon prayed this: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built.”
Back in Psalm 139:8, we see something very interesting. God, it says, is present in Sheol. For the ancient Hebrew, this is the place of the dead; this is the grave. And it says he’s present in heaven.
One way you could look at this is that God is present to punish and God is present to bless. Death and Sheol would be punishment, heaven and life with him would be beauty and blessing. David’s saying, basically, “If I go up, you’re there; if I go down, you’re there.”
Let me ask you, how is it that God can be present in the grave? Is God actually present in hell? Yes! God is present in hell.
You say, “But I thought spiritual death was separation from God.” Well, when you’re spiritually dead you are separated from the kindness, the grace, and mercy of God—you will be when you’re in hell—but he’s still very present in the fury of his wrath and judgment against sin.
One thing we can learn from this is that just because God is omnipresent doesn’t mean that he always acts the same way everywhere.
David goes on, “If I take the wings of the morning—” Where does the morning come from? Morning comes from the east, right? He’s saying, “If I go east, you’re there,” “...or dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…” Well, in Israel, where was the sea? That was west. So David’s saying, “If I go east, you’re there; if I go west, you’re there.”
Jonah actually tried to do this. He thought he could run away from God by taking a boat to Tarshish. That was west. That was way west, the opposite direction from which God had told him to go. But what did Jonah find out? You can’t run away from God! In fact, God was there even at the bottom of the ocean. He helped Jonah out by calling an “Uber” whale to deliver him back to where he needed to be, right?
If you read Jonah’s prayer song that he wrote, in Jonah 2, you’ll see a lot of that same language. He actually says, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” I wondered if that meant that he had actually named the whale, or this creature, Sheol. I think it’s more just a poetic way to say, “I was as good as dead, and I cried out, and God, you saved me.”
So, God surrounds you completely. He hems you in behind and before, he’s up in heaven, he’s down in Sheol, he’s east toward the wings of the morning, he’s west in the uttermost parts of the sea.
Next we see that because of God’s omnipresence and his omniscience, nothing can be hidden from him. Anything we try to do in the dark is exposed and light before him. Verse 11, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day. For darkness is as light with you.” You can’t hide from God. Jesus said that people do their wicked deeds in the night, right, in the dark, so they’re not seen by men. But it’s all seen by God. God is the maker of light, so he exposes all. All these truths about God are tremendously comforting to you if you’re a child of God.
Now, I mentioned that we started memorizing Psalm 139 as a family. Eventually we did learn the whole psalm; it took the better part of six or eight months and setting it to music and stuff, but we were able to memorize it. But even on that very first day, in the airport in London, God calmed our hearts with these words, reminding us of his presence with us, his protection, his intimate knowledge of us. He gave us the comfort and courage to do what we needed to do: finish that trip so we could get Abe and Gracie and come home.
Now, I’m sure you could tell similar stories, times where God’s presence has been a comfort to you. It’s so good to remember that God is with you.
3. God Tests You Thoroughly
He knows you fully, he surrounds you completely, and now, number three, God tests you thoroughly. Look at the last two verses of this psalm, 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 here is inviting some divine scrutiny of his heart. He’s just spent 22 verses meditating on God’s knowledge, his omnipresence, his amazing creativity in forming life in the womb, his providential care over all our days. He’s spent several verses—I didn’t read them—praying this imprecatory “you get them, Lord” kind of prayer against the enemies of the Lord. So now, in light of all of that, David asks the Lord, “Would you search me? Would you try me, test me? I want to make sure my motives are right. I want to make sure I’m not doing anything that will dishonor you, Lord, and I need you to lead me.”
Do you remember how this psalm started? “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” Now he’s requesting, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”
Charles Spurgeon put it succinctly. He said, “This is a matter of fact made a matter of prayer.” I like that. Something that was a matter of fact David turned into a matter of prayer.
Really quickly here, in just these two verses we see, first of all, God’s knowledge and presence causes us to examine ourselves. He says, “Search me, try me.” David understood the truth of Proverbs 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
Secondly, God’s knowledge and presence expose our sin. David knew what the Hebrews says in Hebrews 4:13, “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.”
Thirdly, God’s knowledge and presence encourage us to further consecration, to dedicate ourselves again to God. David prays, “Lead me in the way everlasting.” He’s humbly admitting here, “Lord, I need help. Would you lead me? I need to be led.”
Now, up to this point, I’ve been speaking to believers, people who have new hearts, who God is in the process of making holy in practice. You’ve been made holy already in position, right? Christ has done that for you, and God has given you his Spirit to live in you and to help you learn and grow and be transformed.
But if you’re not a child of God, if you’ve not turned away from sin and to Jesus, or even if you have but you’re backslidden and unrepentant at this moment, all of these truths about God’s knowledge and presence might be making you a little bit nervous. Or, I would even go so far as to say they should be making you a little bit nervous, because, rather than being a comfort to know that God’s watching you, it’s disconcerting, like, “What? I can’t hide anything from God? Yikes! I can’t get away from his presence!”
This is where something that Herman Bavinck (he’s a Dutch theologian) stated so beautifully. He was getting it from Augustine. Basically, he said anytime you want to sin or do something shameful, what do you do? You try to hide. But you can’t hide from God. You can go into your house, into your room—you could even just try to do your sinful thinking in your own heart—but God is even there. He understands our thoughts.
This is what Bavinck said. “Wherever, therefore, you shall have fled, there he [that is, God] is. There is no place where you may flee from God angry but to God reconciled.” He’s saying, that’s your only choice. You can flee from angry God to reconciled God. “There is no place at all whither you may flee. Will you flee from him? Flee unto him.” That’s a beautiful way of saying—really, of imploring with us, “Give it up. Give it up. Don’t try to hide from the one you can’t hide from anyway. Run to him, not away from him.” So, we flee, we run from God’s scrutinising judgment to the cross of Jesus Christ.
4. God Loves You Eternally
Last point, number four: God loves you eternally. We see this in Psalm 139:17-18a. In the ESV, it reads like this: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God, how vast is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they are more than the sand.”
Perhaps a better translation (yours might actually say this) is, “How precious also are your thoughts for me, God.” See, it’s a little bit of a different spin on it. It’s not just that God’s thoughts are precious to me, it’s that it’s precious that God’s thoughts are for me and toward me.
That word “precious” carries with it the concept of weight, value, honor. David here is saying, “Your thoughts toward me are a treasure! I don’t want to lose this. This is so great.”
I have heard, and maybe you have as well, Pastor Brian has told a story of an experience he had going to Warren Dunes State Park. Have you ever been out to Warren Dunes? There’s a picture of it there. Lots of sand there, right? It occurred to Brian that—he was struck by the millions and millions of grains of sand there, and the thought that God’s thoughts toward us and for us are way more than all the sand of the earth. That’s just one state park!
Think about this. Could you count the grains of sand in a teaspoon of sand? I think if you were careful and meticulous enough and patient, you probably could count all the grains of sand in a teaspoon of sand. But how about a whole dune’s worth of sand? I’m not saying estimating, because yes, I know, you can get the average teaspoon of sand has this many grains in it, and there are this many teaspoons in a dune—I don’t know. But no, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about grain by grain, one by one by one. There is no way you could ever count all the grains of sand in—and that’s just one dune! God knows all the sand of the earth, and his thoughts are more numerous than that, his thoughts toward us. Loving thoughts.
Does this remind you at all of God’s covenant with Abraham? It should, and I think it probably had to have been in David’s mind when he wrote this. God told Abraham in Genesis 13 that he would make his offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth. Then, in Genesis 15, he said they would be as many as the stars. In other words, they’re uncountable.
It’s the same idea here. God’s thoughts toward and for his covenant people are innumerable, or “unnumberable,” if that’s a word. Dare I say infinite?
That is incredible. It’s the best news ever. And it’s all based in God’s character: his enduring, steadfast love, his boundless knowledge, his unlimited grace, mercy, forgiveness, goodness; his absolute holiness, justice, wrath against sin! You see, in the gospel, all of God’s attributes, including his infinite knowledge and infinite presence, work together for the good of his people. It all comes together in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, far from being threatening, for those in Christ God’s knowledge and presence are an unspeakable source of comfort and strength.
God loves you eternally. Does that make you want to sing? It should! It did for David, and aren’t we glad, because it not only made him want to sing, he wrote it down, and from his pen came this beautiful Psalm 139.
In conclusion, let me read just two more quotes. Here’s how Stephen Charnock put it. “Let us behold his justice, to humble ourselves under it; his pardoning grace, to have recourse to it under pressures of guilt. Let us sweeten our affections by the sight of his compassions and have confidence to call upon him as a Father in our necessities. There is no discovery of God in Christ that is not an encouragement to a forlorn creature, lost in his own sins. His perfections smile upon man. Nothing of God looks terrible in Christ to a believer. The sun is risen, shadows are vanished! God walks upon the battlements of love. Justice hath left its sting in a Savior’s side, the law is disarmed, weapons out of his hand, his bosom open. His bowels yearn, his heart pants. Sweetness and love is in all his carriage, and this is life eternal: to know God believingly in the glories of his mercy and justice in Jesus Christ.”
Now, if that doesn’t light your fire, your wood is wet! Or, as the apostle Paul put it in Romans 11, after spending 11 chapters extolling and explaining the beautiful and wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ, Romans 11:33, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen!”
Father, bring these truths home to our hearts, we pray. We recognize your infinite knowledge, your infinite presence, and the way that affects our lives. Thank you. Thank you. Help us to live in the light of that. Search us, we pray; try us. See if there is any grievous way in us, and we do need you to lead us in the way everlasting.
We love you, Lord. Thank you for Jesus, without whom we would be completely without hope.So it is in his name that we pray, Amen.