Each of the psalms tells the story of the soul from a different perspective.
Psalm 1 is about the righteous man in paradise with the abundantly fruitful tree by ‘streams of water.’ Psalm 22 expresses anguish at abandonment by God and confidence in His return. Psalm 23 is about how the Lord shepherds the faithful through the ‘valley of the shadow of death.’ Psalm 42 is the soul’s song of desire for God. Psalm 51 is the story of repentance.
Psalm 139 is distinctive in that it describes the relationship between God and man with the emphasis on God’s perspective.
It begins with God’s action:
LORD, you have probed me, you know me(all translations NAB, Rev. Ed unless otherwise noted).
Other translations read ‘searched’ instead of probed. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for search, chaqar, sometimes carries this sense of exploring a land. For example, in Judges 18:2,
So the sons of Dan sent from their family five men out of their whole number, valiant men from Zorah and Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to search it; and they said to them, “Go, search the land.” And they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, and lodged there (NASB).
That God comes looking for us turns a common understanding of the human story entirely on its head. It is easy to think of that story as man’s quest for God. Certainly, that’s how all the great epics tell it. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the hero embarks on an epic quest to find the elixir for eternity. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero is an on ‘odyssey’ to find his one true love. In the Aeneid, Aeneas journeys to lay the foundations for what would become the ‘Eternal City,’ Rome. In searching for eternal life, love, and an eternal home what these men were really looking for was God.
In Acts, St. Paul also speaks of man’s searching:
He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:26-27).
We do indeed search out God as St. Paul says. But the point of Psalm 139 is that God searches for us first. In fact, the psalm indicates that God calls us before we even have the conscious ability to seek Him:
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb (verse 13).
There is a certain kind of knowledge of a thing that is only possible when you have made that thing. But God’s knowledge is even more profound than this: He knows us even before we were made:
Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be (verse 16).
In Job 28, the Hebrew word for searching is used to describe God’s knowledge of his creation:
He sets a boundary for the darkness;
the farthest confines he explores (verse 3).
God knows the full extent of the human experience with the same vastness that He knows all of creation. As Psalm 139 says,
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast (verses 7-10).
The same notion is expressed in terms of light and darkness, echoing the imagery of Job:
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”
Darkness is not dark for you,
And night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one (verses 11-12).
Once again, the storyline in the above verses diverges from the standard one. Here, the soul is running away from God, not searching for Him and yet that soul still finds God. God searches us out in the beginning then waits for us to run. Even if it’s running away from Him, we still end up running into Him. That is the story of Jonah who found God in the belly of a whale at the bottom of the sea. It also what happened to Elijah, who sought death in the wilderness but was instead given the bread of angels.
Later in Job 28, the same verb, to search, is applied to God’s knowledge of Himself, specifically divine Wisdom, which is an Old Testament name for Christ:
Then he saw wisdom and appraised her,
established her, and searched her out (verse 27).
The begetting of divine Wisdom is recounted at length in Proverbs 8:
“The LORD begot me, the beginning of his works,
the forerunner of his deeds of long ago;
From of old I was formed,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no deeps I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water (verses 22-24).
This passage has the same kind of tone, that same sense of ancient foreknowledge, that courses through Psalm 139. In fact, the Hebrew word for begot above is the same one that appears in Psalm 139, where God ‘formed’ the person in the womb. So God the Father ‘searches’ us and ‘begets’ us in a way analogous to how He formed and searched out His Son. What an incredible thought—that God’s intimate knowledge of us is similar to His self-knowledge!
In searching and knowing us, God is inviting us into the intra-Trinitarian communion of divine knowledge and love.
How are we to respond to this divine knowledge? How should we answer the invitation? Psalm 139 tells us how:
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.
How precious to me are your designs, O God;
how vast the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands;
when I complete them, still you are with me (verses 6, 17-18).
In other words, we must fall to our knees in radical humility, knowing that not only we cannot attain knowledge of God but that even knowledge of ourselves is beyond us. If we cannot comprehend our own faculties how can we possibly use them to get to God on our own? We can’t, of course, which is why we are completely dependent on Him.
In a way, the journey of the soul to God as told in Psalm 139 is one of progressive self-emptying. The soul has reached for the heavens and sunk to Sheol. He has stretched out beyond the horizon. He has descended to darkness.
In self-emptying, the soul makes room for God. There is a kind of vastness which is inviting. It could be the expanse of space, distant mountain peaks, or an ocean hiding new worlds.
There is thus an invitation here, to welcome this God who seeks us into our souls. True, He searches us out before we even have the ability to search for Him but He also wants to be let in. And this is exactly how the psalm ends—with our own invitation to God:
Probe me, God, know my heart;
try me, know my thoughts (verse 23).