Lord, you have searched me out and known me; * you know my sitting down and my rising up; 
You trace my journeys and my resting-places * and are acquainted with all my ways. 
— from Psalm 139: 1-2

Have you ever searched for a way to get closer to God? It’s likely you have. Your faith is important to you, so it’s probably something you’ve always been interested in, something you’d very much like to achieve. In the church, we talk a lot about God, but we don’t say nearly enough about how to actually have a relationship with God. Here is one sure path toward finding a closer relationship with God: align your heart with the poetic soul who composed Psalm 139.

Although it’s a highly personal poem, for all its intimate details, it tells a universal story; it speaks to us all. Here is a spiritual mentor we can trust, a fellow traveler who tells of his encounters with God in starkly honest, impassioned, lyrical terms. His journey begins in wonder and astonishment, soon plunges to the depths of consternation and distress, comes to a place of resignation and surrender, and ends where it began, in awe-filled wonder and reverence.

This is my favorite psalm. I have always felt I could trust its spiritual integrity, always felt drawn to take on the psalmist’s words as my own prayer for my personal struggles with God. I hope you, too, will be able to trust what this magnificent poem can teach us all about knowing and being known by God.

What is striking is that the psalmist doesn’t start out by wondering “How can I get close to God?” He begins from a completely different place, he starts with the conviction, “How awesome it is that God is already so close to me!” “Lord, you have searched me out and known me,” he cries, “. . . Such knowledge is too wonderful . . . .” From the outset, the psalmist recognizes that our experience of the holy is not something we accomplish: to know God is to experience the joy of already being known!

How pleasing it is when someone you look up to but haven’t seen in a long time remembers you, remembers your name! How satisfying it is when you realize that someone close to you, closer to you, perhaps, than anyone else has ever been, really knows you, deeply and tenderly knows you as you truly are. Do you remember the delight you found in getting to know that special one? Do you recall how driven you were to learn everything you could, as soon as possible, about this fascinating person with whom you had fallen hopelessly in love?

The hallmark of any relationship is knowing the other: the deeper the knowledge, the more intimate the relationship. Consider how personally and intimately each of us is known by God, as we take on the psalmist’s experience as our own:
“Lord, you know my sitting down and my rising up; you know [discern] my thoughts from afar. You know [trace] my journeys and my resting-places and you know [are acquainted with] all my ways. [Every] word [that’s] on my lips, you, O Lord, know it altogether. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. . .” To know, yada’, is a versatile word in Hebrew that describes relationships ranging all the way from a casual encounter to intimate sexual relations. It is this rich word, repeated seven times for emphasis, that the psalmist uses to describe the encounter between us and God. God knows us and there is joy in that for us: we don’t have to search for God, we are already known, personally and intimately known, by our ever-present Lover!

Consider how often personal pronouns occur throughout this love poem: it’s ‘you, God’ and ‘me, your beloved’ over and over again. Simply enumerating all the instances takes one’s breath away:
You search me, you know me, you know my sitting down, you know my rising up, you discern my thoughts, you trace my journeys, you know all my ways, you know my every word, you press upon me, you lay your hand on me, you are there with me in the heavens, you are with me in the grave, your hand will lead me, your right hand will hold me fast, you, yourself created me, you knit me together, my body was not hidden from you, your eyes beheld my limbs, I will thank you!”

In a book entitled Tales of the Hasadim, the great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, cites a song that mystical Hasidic Jews would sing that lifts up and celebrates this ‘I-Thou’ intimacy that we can have with God:
Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
(“The Song of You,” Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber, (Schocken Books, New York, 1991) p. 212)

But being known by God in this way, the psalmist reminds us, is alway an experience of intimacy with a mystery. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; * it is so high that I cannot attain to it,” he exclaims. And later: “How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *how great is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; * to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.” This is a relationship like no other: to be so closely loved by a God who is so completely ‘other,’ who is so much more than, so different from me, and yet, at the same time, so intimate with me, so deeply connected to me. This is not the God of my own creation; this is a God of paradox and mystery, a God who is at once, completely other, and completely for me.

And now, the tone of the poem changes; the psalmist shows us the shadow side: to be known by God like this can be a disconcerting, frightening, intimidating thing. To be so well known is to be so very vulnerable. The psalmist, pressed on all sides, seems almost to be asking, “Where can I go, God, to be rid of you? Is there no escape?”

There is something in us that makes us want to be off on our own. The psalmist wondered, “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea . . . .” When I pray those words, I think of all those self-centered times in my life — most of the time, in fact — when I’m completely convinced that I’m doing just fine on my own. In those times, God is simply relegated to a side-show in my do-it-yourself one-ring circus. God, for me then becomes simply the object of my benign neglect, not much more than an after-thought for me. I imagine myself to be headed on the morning’s wings to spectacular new heights and great achievements, but, really, I am lost, no good at being on my own, out of touch with the one who knows me best. Where can I go?

And then, there are those other times when, out of discouragement, or shame, or pain, I want to run away, to flee to that dark, deathly, despairing place in my heart and never look back. But, even there, in those shadowy depths, the psalmist reminds us, we are never alone, and we are known.  For, “Darkness is not dark to you; [to you,] the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light [are the same to you.]”  In the end, it is futile to flee from this resourceful lover: the one thing you can never escape from is God’s ever present love for you!

The psalmist knows there is no where to flee; trying to run from this God who knows you so thoroughly in every circumstance is like trying to escape from yourself! This realization comes, at last, as great good news: I cannot run away from the One who made me. And what a maker this God is! “. . . you yourself created my inmost parts,” the psalmist acknowledges,
“you knit me together in my mother’s womb; . . . My body was not hidden from you; your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.”  I am God’s own handiwork — how could I ever understand myself as being anything else, but God’s!

‘I am wonderfully made. . . . “, the psalmist exults. ’Wonderfully,’ from the the Hebrew verbal root pala’, meaning something truly extraordinary, unbelievably special. And so this meditation on God’s closeness takes us back to that same point from which we started: to surprise, wonder and awe at how truly close God has always been, is certainly now, and will ever be to us. And in the midst of this comes one last thing: thankfulness, a wonder-filled gratitude. “I will thank you,” the psalmist prays, and that can be our final prayer, too: thanksgiving for how graciously close this God who made us and knows us, is to us all!

© Edward R. Dufresne, 2017


  1. What a lovely reflection. Thank you Edward!

  2. Lisa McMullin on July 28, 2017 at 3:29 pm said:

    You have added wonderful layers and depths to an already beloved psalm. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Edward! I hadn’t connected this psalm with Pope Francis, but it perfectly expresses his experience, as a young man of 17, when he knew that he was called to become a priest. He said he felt like he was meeting “someone who had been waiting for me for a long time,” looking at him with deep understanding, saying, “I choose you, and the only thing I ask is that you let yourself be loved.”

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