Last Sunday, I preached on Psalm 139. In his short book The Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright describes the period in his mid-thirties when he was deeply depressed.
All kinds of anxieties and fears, which I had allowed to build up or had kept at bay with hard work and the general busyness of life, suddenly burst over my head, and I found myself sinking. ¶ One of the wise counselors who came to my rescue and helped me to work through old memories and sorrows drew me to Psalm 139. God was involved, says the psalm, from the very beginning of our mysterious conception, and he knows through and through all that has gone into making us the people we are…
With all our modern knowledge of how human personalities are formed from the first moments in the womb, we still find human character in all its rich variety a deep and unfathomable well. Likewise, the greatest saints and theologians can only gaze in wonder at the thought that when we say the word “God,” we are talking about one who knows us through and through at all those levels and more besides. All our hidden motives and fears are like an open book before him; he knows where they came from, and he understands what they are doing to us and what we are doing with them.
I like this: All our hidden motives and fears are like an open book before him. Do we experience God’s knowledge of us as a source of comfort or fear?
When I first re-read this psalm, on the other side of a crisis in my own life years ago, I found, like Wright, that the psalm’s words were a source of immense comfort. My life had gone off the rails. I felt lost. I felt stuck. I wasn’t depressed so much as deeply, inexplicably angry and wracked with guilt.
What is wrong with me? How did I arrive at this place?
What a relief to be reminded that while I was a complete mystery to myself, I wasn’t a mystery to God. In fact, from my earliest moment of life (indeed, from all eternity), God knew and understood me completely. God foresaw even the crisis that caused myself and others so much pain. It surprised me, but it didn’t surprise him. I was like one of those 120,000 Ninevites, in the Book of Jonah, who “do not know their right hand from their left.” If God took pity on them, surely he can take pity on me!
When I was tempted to wonder if God still loved me, this psalm reassured me: “You know God loved you in the past—he proved his love to you; you experienced it. When he loved you in the past, he did so with full knowledge of your future—including all the ways you’d try to sabotage it by rebelling against God’s love. Therefore, why would God stop loving you now? Nothing you’ve done has come as a surprise to him!”
I have a feeling that the late Keith Green knew how I felt when he wrote these words:
When I hear the praises start
Oh, I want to rain upon you
Blessings that will fill your heart
I see no stain upon you
Because you are my child, and you know me
To me you’re only holy—
Nothing that you’ve done remains
Only what you do for me
1. N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 179-182.