By Dr. Joseph R. Cathey
Somewhere in J. I. Packer’s writings, there is a reference to Puritan theology as a theology of an “older, better, wiser, and more practical sort.” That surely applies to the Puritans, but it applies even more to Psalm 139.
Here is theology even older, even better, even wiser, and even more practical. This psalm is strongly theological, dealing with such important doctrines as Yahweh’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, but—as with most Davidic psalms—it is warmly and wonderfully personal. It speaks of these attributes of Yahweh known by David!
I find Psalm 139:23-24 especially rich:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.”
We know that David was the author of this psalm, but little else as to when or why he wrote it. I do believe we can see his heart in this psalm much like in Psalm 51 (the psalm he wrote confessing his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, her husband).
Two imperatives from David to Yahweh are noteworthy in the first stanza: search and try. Both words are in the imperative mood. They aren’t a simple request but a strong request—some might say an instruction—to David’s God. The Shepherd is imploring Yahweh to search and try him.
The word “to search” is used very rarely in Scripture (only 27 times) and most often it is used in poetry. It referred to a plea to test humanity’s mind, soul, or body or a request to assay gold and silver. It was the first step in a process toward making pure that which could have impurities.
The same can be said of “to try.” It also was used (but only 16 times) in describing the process of metallurgy. We see it used with reference to smelting, refining, and burning off dross to remove the impurities of a precious metal.
I am reminded of Malachi’s description of the trying of Yahweh’s saints in Malachi 3:2-3:
“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand, when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”
In this passage of Psalm 139, why is David wanting Yahweh to search and try him? He provides the answer. He wants Yahweh to “know my anxious thoughts,” and “ascertain any hurtful ways within me.”
His “anxious thoughts”—two words in English—is only one word in Hebrew and it comes from the same root as the word for the Seraphim which surround Yahweh’s holy presence. It would not be wrong to translate this “my burning or tormenting thoughts.” Paul will note in Romans and Galatians that a subtle slip can move us from thoughts of peace and tranquility to a tumultuous mind.
Interestingly, the word for “hurtful way” is almost exclusively used to denote the turning from orthodoxy to apostasy within the context of Yahwehism. It is a favorite word for both Jeremiah and Ezekiel to describe the mindset of those who have set their minds on the things of this world, rather than on the things of God. The noun form of this word is the exclusive domain for idols that have always led—and continue to lead—humanity astray.
When we examine these two short verses in light of the entire Psalm it is clear David wants to stay clear of evil people. However, as these verses note, David has evil in himself. So here David appeals to Yahweh to search him out in order to be led in a righteous way, a way everlasting.
There are five things David prays for in this passage: 1) for Yahweh to know him, to have that intimate personal relationship with him; 2) to try and expose his own thoughts; 3) for Yahweh to try or perfect his thoughts; 4) for Yahweh to purge away whatever evil remains in him, and 5) for Yahweh to lead him in the way everlasting.
David’s words should lead us here toward an appreciation of the omniscience of Yahweh. They should humble us as they did Job when he was tested by Satan.
They should comfort us. God knows the worst about us and loves us anyway. Paul can say God loved us while we were yet sinners and sent Christ to die for us.
David’s words should encourage us to live for Christ. In Psalm 139 David has been reflective of the omniscience of God and it has led him to ask God to help him lead an upright life. He knows God will do it (help him lead an upright life) precisely because of their relationship.
Finally, his words should move us to pray. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encouraged his followers to pray to God confidently expecting answers. God’s knowledge of what we need is so perfect that he often answers even before we pray to him. In Isaiah 65:24, the old prophet wrote, “Before they call I (Yahweh) will answer, while they are still speaking will hear.”
If we do these things, we can come to the same understanding possessed by David. And who can be terrified by a God who knows and answers our needs like this, who is acting as a refiner removing the dross from our lives?