Theology in 3D

Confident Vindication

Greg Stiekes | January 4, 2018
New Testament

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 2:44:1).

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.

7 responses to “Confident Vindication”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    I appreciate your willingness to challenge a traditional interpretation, and I believe you have made a plausible case. The commentaries by A. A. Anderson and Leslie Allen go in this direction as well. The parallels with protestations of innocence in other psalms are especially compelling. I also appreciate your applications, including the emphasis on a believer today being able to have a sense of confidence about his behavior. I think of Paul’s repeated assertions that his conscience was clear–evidently he didn’t think that was legalistic!
    On the other hand, I’m not persuaded by your opening negative arguments against the traditional view.
    1. Re: the “contemplative prayer” parallel: Meditation on Scripture nurtures personal communion with God. God’s ministry back to us isn’t revelation, but it’s real nonetheless. Part of how God works is through conscience, and that would supply a sufficient answer to Ps. 139:23-24 according to the traditional interpretation. There is also the ministry of the Holy Spirit, but I won’t open that can of worms as far as OT saints are concerned. At any rate, I don’t think that the mystery of the divine-human relationship necessarily leads to an inappropriate mysticism.
    2. For the psalmist to pray that God would “know” him can easily be understood to imply, “Evaluate me and show me the results.” Supportive of this, the closing prayer is clearly asking for God’s ministry to the psalmist: “Lead me in the way everlasting.”
    3. Waltke/Houston/Moore provide a feasible explanation for the sudden shift from vv. 19-22 to vv. 23-24: “Conflicted as mortals are, they have both a clean conscience and the disquieting realization that they are not able to fathom their own motives (Jer. 17:9; Prov. 18:4)” (The Psalms as Christian Worship, 567). More generally, the idea could easily be: “Lord, I am committed to you and am striving to obey you, but if there’s any contrary tendency in my life or any failure that I’m not recognizing, please show me!”
    BTW, the specific words translated “thoughts” and “grievous way” need some definition and tying in with whatever interpretation.

  2. Greg Stiekes says:

    Ken, thanks for taking the time to offer great feedback. I probably should have been clearer about “contemplative prayer” (and maybe you are already taking this definition into account, I can’t tell), but the term refers to a specific kind of prayer that is characteristic of Christian Mysticism. It’s a kind of prayer that is sometimes accompanied by a mantra in which the worshiper has a real experience with God’s actual presence and, in some cases, can actually “hear” the voice of God. It’s much more than quiet contemplation before God. But I’m simply wondering how Leupold in particular can explain the Psalm as if David is learning about his sin if not through divine revelation. You say that it is through the conscience, but isn’t the conscience a universal experience, not something reserved for the worshiper in meditation? I should also hasten to add that I am not opposed to quiet prayer and meditation, especially involving contemplation on God’s word which, coupled with the Spirit’s work, reveals to us the sin that is in our hearts. We need far more of it. But I am questioning whether David is talking about that kind of experience in THIS text.
    As a general observation to your comments, which were very helpful, commentators definitely go in different directions, and I also read a dozen or so more than I cited, alongside some other works. But I think what tips the scales for me in the direction that I went was the fact that David himself is the author of several more psalms in which he is unambiguously “challenging” God to find fault with him. The language in those other psalms is very similar to the language in Psalm 139, and the situation with his enemies is also similar. So why would we not expect David to be saying the same thing in Psalm 139 that he is saying everywhere else? On the other hand, as I read these two verses, I cannot find David saying, “Please show me” anything. He says to God, “Please lead me,” but all of the revelation is Godward. As you said, the “show me the results” part has to be read into the text by implication. So I’m left with a choice of interpreting the meaning of the psalm based on what is actually stated in the text and explained by similar passages, or settling on what has traditionally been considered implied. Is David implying that he wants knowledge from God, or are we merely inferring it?
    However, the scales would tip back in the other direction for me if you could demonstrate a Psalm tradition in which David or even other psalmists are asking God to reveal sins to them using this language. When I think of other psalms in which David mentions his sins, though, he seems all too familiar with them at the start, and when it comes to “hidden faults” (Psa 19)–the very kind you might say David is contemplating in Psa 139!–David simply asks God to keep him away from them. What are some Psalms in which David prays, in effect, “Show me my faults!”? (And don’t say, “Psalm 139”!)

    • George Stiekes says:

      David, like most of us HAS A PAST. When writing this psalm, his ways are indeed faithful to God.
      David knows what it is to have his soul soiled. There was once a time he committed adultery that was compounded by murder. One thing that all of us experience is Satan’s attempts to bring up our past.
      The wicked he refers to would not have a past because their condition is present. In speaking with the wicked, we might say – “That is terrible, you should not have said/done that!” They would think nothing of it. “What are you talking about. I did not do anything wrong,” and for them their soul has never been quickened and therefore they cannot comprehend the wrong in their life. For them, it is merely the lifestyle (worldview) they grew up with.
      His writing of Psalm 139 may have been written at a time when Satan has reminded him of his past. Yo are right – It is not a request to know his sin for he fully recognizes his past, but currently, his soul is in a right relationship with God and the practice of his life currently reflects what is going on in his soul.
      Indeed, he would want to be set apart from the wicked, but he also sets himself apart from them and his past and it is almost like he is looking for some confirmation from God towards the assurance of such.
      Psalm 139 must be considered in the context of Psalm 51 and Psalm 32:1-5. Why else would he cry out – Vindicate me, O Lord (26:1). Indeed, he is faithful walking with God at the time of writing of the psalm. In psalm 51 he totally understood that his sin is ever before me (51:3). Praise God that when confessed and repented of – He forgives and puts our sin as far as the east isi from the west – but Satan will see to it that we never forget. Therefore, David washes his hands in innocence and hates the evil doers, but he also hates that which was once a part of his life. From Psalm 17, indeed, there may be nothing for God to accuse him, but when Satan reminds us of our past, we have this tendency to accuse ourselves – Wenham – (a protection of innocence).
      There is in many of the psalms statements that David is aware of his past – OR, he recognizes the need DAILY to confess the sin of the day before, to start out right each day. But how often when we confess the sins of yesterday are we reminded of the sins of many days and even years. This is party do to Satan’s work in pricking our consciences, but it is also a fresh recognition of the awesomeness of God – THE FEAR OF THE LORD.
      The rich young ruler had indeed kept the law from his youth but his soul does not possess spiritual life. He cannot recognize his sin. His question to the Lord fully indicates that the Spirit of God might be convicting him – that which so often takes place before one trusts Christ to forgive his sin (John 16).
      We are indeed sinners saved by grace, but until we see Christ face to face, we are going to have bouts where our past comes before us. And what a joy it is to have that confidence before God on a daily basis.

  3. Ken Casillas says:

    Let me read the whole psalter and get back with you. I should be done with that by tomorrow morning. :}

  4. Joshua Jensen says:

    Thank you for highlighting this text and challenging the way I’ve always understood it. I find the parallels with others of the Psalms, not to mention the internal logic of the Psalm itself, to make a strong case for the See My Integrity interpretation.
    I have the same question as Dr. Casillas, however, with respect to your first objection, and I think your case may be stronger without it. My reading of the Leupold quotation doesn’t suggest either ongoing Revelation (with a Big R) or mystical practices: “may God help him to see it, remove it, and walk in the way of life.” Putting it like this seems compatible with, for example, the father in Pr. 3 who says that God will make straight paths for the feet of the wise: God is active both in ordinary circumstances and in the specific process of acquiring and applying wisdom to those circumstances, such that we can say God is leading his people through wisdom. Granted, wisdom is a gift of common grace. But wisdom is quickened, as it were, by the fear of God, and when we are guided by true wisdom, we’re guided by God.
    So too with conscience: everyone has it; but in a relationship of humble submission to God, the conscience becomes sharper, truer, more alive, and so one of the means by which God reveals (small-r) sin to his people. Just as I can ask God to lead me in the way of life, expecting him to do so by ordinary means, I can also ask him to help me see my sin, also by the ordinary means of grace.
    It seems to me that Leupold’s summary is theologically unexceptionable, even if perhaps exegetically unwarranted in the present Psalm (though Dr. Casillas’s reluctance to yield the traditional interpretation — shall we call it the Show Me My Sin interpretation? — gives me pause).

  5. Greg Stiekes says:

    Thanks for your response. I’m willing to concede my first objection about Christian Mysticism if it does not advance the understanding of the text. Maybe Leupold is not the strongest representative of an approach to the text in which David sits listening for God. I may actually be simply channeling another discussion there which is confusing the discussion. But I have noticed through the years that some believers treat prayer as a two-way channel, in which God and the believer talk to one another. But prayer is our speaking to God, while our hearing the Word of God, especially through the ministry of the Spirit, is God’s speaking to us. (This is from a cessationist viewpoint, of course.) In our quiet time with God, these two communications blend together, of course. Yet I think it’s important to keep them distinct. So back to my original question, if David is asking God to show him his sins, how does he expect that to happen? He’s not getting up in the morning having his devotions with his Bible. Although, he is meditating on the Word. He most likely had access to a copy of the Torah. And he had several psalms! But our choices are either that God gives him direct revelation (which is not, I believe, one of our options), or we have to assumed that David means that God shows him his sin as he continues to meditate on the Torah. All of that actually happened in David’s life, though it took Nathan the prophet to confront David about his most obvious sin.

  6. Greg, you are exactly right on Job 23:10–another passage with a long history of devout misinterpretation and misapplication. The only thing I would clarify is that by Job’s reference to his “trial” (“when he has tried me”) he doesn’t mean his hardships in this life; he means that when he finally appears before God and has his “day in court” so to speak, he will be vindicated and shown to have been innocent of anything that warranted all his suffering (a point God concedes on the front end, Job 1:1, 8, 2:3). Read the book holistically and you discover that Job has no inkling that his trials are merely a temporary test; he’s a man waiting (begging, in fact) to die.

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