Psalm 139 is a well-loved Psalm with a rich history of liturgical and personal use. But Scripture rich in history often enjoys a long-standing, traditional interpretation which we are tempted to take for granted without investigating it for ourselves. For many years I have puzzled over the traditional interpretation of the final verses of this psalm.
Psalm 139:23–24 reads,
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous [KJV: “wicked”] way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
These verses are traditionally taught and preached as a request to God to reveal any sinfulness or wayward tendency so that the worshiper may be able to repent of his error and continue in “the way everlasting.”
Accordingly, H. C. Leupold (1961) explains the meaning of the psalm this way: “[I]f there is anything that is in the least unwholesome, may God help him to see it, remove it, and walk in the way of life, which is the “way everlasting ….” Likewise, D. Kidner (1973) writes, “David turns from facing the sin around him to facing the sin within him.” More recently, A. Ross (2016) has taken the psalmist’s word to mean, “Just as one would refine a metal to remove impurities, so God should test his life for impurities.”
Thus, the words of this psalm have been treated as a hymn of confession, meditation, and deep spiritual reflection. As the familiar hymn reads,
Search me, O God,
And know my heart today;
Try me, O Savior,
Know my thoughts, I pray.
See if there be
Some wicked way in me;
Cleanse me from every sin
And set me free (words by J. Edwin Orr, 1936).
This interpretation, however, raises questions for me. First, if one follows Leupold’s explanation, in what manner is God being asked in these verses to reveal to the petitioner his or her sins? Through quiet meditation before God, listening for personal revelation? If so, then how does this approach differ from the so-called “contemplative prayer” of Christian Mysticism?
Second, where in these verses does the psalmist ask God to reveal anything to him? It is God alone who is entreated to “search” and “try,” to “know” and “see.” These verses do not speak of the worshiper’s self-knowledge, but of God’s knowledge of the worshiper.
Third, why would the psalmist suddenly contemplate the alleged sin in his own life immediately after he has given testimony of his zealous purity before God? For he writes in verses 19–22,
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
On the other hand, if Psalm 139:23–24 does not call us, as Orr’s hymn suggests, to contemplate our sinfulness before God, to confess and to find forgiveness, then why does David ask God to look for “any grievous way”?
The answer, I believe, lies in the realization that David’s prayer to God in this psalm is not a humble entreaty as much as it is a confident assertion. In other words, the author is not a sinful penitent asking God to find his faults, expecting sins to be revealed to him. Rather, he is a faithful worshiper challenging God to find some part of the law he has not followed, confident that God will find none. Because of his personal integrity with respect to the law, David is equally confident that God will lead him in the “way everlasting” (cf. Ps 11:16).
This explanation may sound unorthodox at first, because the doctrine of total depravity teaches us that all people appear before God as sinful and helpless, unable to approach God on their own merits. So how could David, especially given some of his personal history, have the audacity to present his effort of righteousness before a holy God?
Nevertheless, we must approach the psalm from the perspective of an Israelite who sought to honor God by keeping the covenant made with the nation at Mt. Sinai. Going back to the blessings and curses on the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, for instance, God promised his people that if they were careful to obey the commandments of the Lord their God, then he would shower them with blessings (Deut 28:1–14), such as the promise that their enemies would be utterly defeated before them (28:7).
But if they did not obey God’s commandments, God would bring upon them the curses reserved for their enemies (Deut 28:15–68), who would ultimately carry them back into slavery if they did not repent (28:68).
God’s chosen people in the OT processed their relationship with God based upon the reality of his blessing in response to their obedience. And they had no qualms about reminding God that he promised to bless them if they followed him faithfully.
Psalm 139:23–24 is written from this worldview. Most of the psalm is taken up with David’s confession that God has “searched” him and “known him” completely, that nothing about him is hidden from God no matter where he goes (139:1–18). After recounting the deeds of his (and God’s) enemies (139:19–22), David brings the psalm to a climax with the assertion that God’s searching and knowing him will reveal his faithfulness, setting him apart from the wicked. This is the same worldview, in fact, that we find in Psalm 26, where David calls upon God to “vindicate” him on the basis of his integrity, or on the basis of how well he has kept the law and has trusted God.
Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and my mind (Ps 26:1–2).
Notice the strong parallels between Psalm 26:2 and Psalm 139:23. Why does David ask God to prove him, try him, test him? Not because he is introspective concerning his sin, but because he has walked with God faithfully. That is why he continues to defend his integrity for the remainder of the psalm and even uses his integrity in 26:11 as a basis for God’s redemption and mercy toward him:
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in your faithfulness.
I do not sit with men of falsehood,
nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
and I will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence
and go around your altar, O Lord,
proclaiming thanksgiving aloud,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.
O Lord, I love the habitation of your house
and the place where your glory dwells.
Do not sweep my soul away with sinners,
nor my life with bloodthirsty men,
in whose hands are evil devices,
and whose right hands are full of bribes.
But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity;
redeem me, and be gracious to me.
David offers a similar prayer to God in Psalm 17:1–5. Here, he is overtly confident that God has tried and tested him but he will find “nothing” with which to accuse him. His “feet have not slipped” (17:5b). The psalm begins,
Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry!
Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit!
From your presence let my vindication come!
Let your eyes behold the right!
You have tried my heart, you have visited me by night,
you have tested me, and you will find nothing;
I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress.
With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
G. Wenham refers to this unique feature of asserting one’s faithfulness before God as a “protestation of innocence.”† As Wenham explains, the OT believer making the protest does not see himself as righteous “in an absolute sense,” but rather “in comparison to the wicked.” †† That is why the psalmist will often contrast himself with the wicked in such contexts, asking for God to judge the ungodly but to save him on the basis of his faithfulness. In Psalm 7:6–10, for example, David asks God to destroy the wicked but spare the righteous on the basis that he is certain he is a member of the latter group.
Arise, O Lord, in your anger;
lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
. . . .
[J]udge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!
My shield is with God,
who saves the upright in heart.
These psalms I have cited, where David is clearly “protesting his innocence,” in the words of Wenham, give us greater confidence that this is also David’s meaning in Psalm 139. Furthermore, in a context outside the psalms, Job also calls upon God to try him and to vindicate him on the basis of his personal integrity.
But he knows the way that I take;
When he has tried me,
I shall come out as gold (Job 26:10).
Here, Job is not saying that his trial will produce “gold” in his life. Job is protesting his innocence before his accusers. Fire does not produce gold, fire refines gold. Job is saying that he is confident he will emerge from the trial as gold because he is confident that he went into the trial as gold.
Turning our attention back to Psalm 139, then, W. A. VanGemeren (1991) interprets 139:23–24 in a way that reminds us of Job’s situation. He writes, “This prayer came out of a situation when evil men had accused him. Instead of directing himself to his adversaries, he raises up his voice in lament to God, who alone as the righteous Judge can discern his ‘heart’ and ‘thoughts’ (cf. vv. 1–4; 26:2).”
What do we make, then, of Psalm 139:23–24? I offer three observations. First, David’s using his personal integrity as a basis for his confidence in God’s vindication may shed light on first-century Jewish thinking reflected in the Gospels. For example, the rich young man in Mark 10:17–30 (par. Matt 19:16–22) was adamant that he had kept the law perfectly from his youth (from his bar mitzvah). Mark’s statement that Jesus looked upon this man and “loved him” (Mark 10:21) may be explained in part by the fact that the man’s zeal for keeping the law warmed the Savior’s heart. Not because he was using the law as means of salvation, but because he was expressing confidence in God’s promise of blessing for faithful obedience.
Second, Psalm 139:23–24 and the similar psalms observed above remind us that we canfollow God and obey him. We emphasize so frequently the fact that we are merely sinners saved by grace, and that we have no strength apart from Christ, that we sometimes do not consider the fact that God has enabled us to walk in the Spirit and make righteous choices daily. If this were not true, how does Paul expect that we can “please” God? (1 Thess 2:4; 4:1).
Finally, David’s attitude of confidence in his temporary integrity as a basis for God’s vindication should cause us to reflect upon our current standing before God. The ultimate Son of David, the Lord Jesus, possessed absolute integrity. Our salvation is based upon our union with Christ the righteous one. He was tried in the wilderness (Matt 4; Luke 4) and shown to be perfect. Because we are one with him, we need never fear abandonment by God for our lack of zeal or faithfulness. We can say, with David, “Search me, try me, test me,” yet with complete confidence in the righteous standing our Savior has purchased for us who belong to him. While David claimed the promises of God based on his faith in God and his efforts to remain faithful to the Mosaic Covenant, we rest in confidence in God’s promises based on the perfect effort of Christ.
† Gordon J. Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 155.
†† Ibid., 153.