Have you ever come upon someone that you recognize…but have not seen in quite a long time? You search their face, looking deeply, reaching back into your mind and then you remember… “I know you,” you say…”we were in school together.” Or, you hear your partner say to you in the midst of a loving moment, with your faces close together…”I know you…” What might it be like to hear these words said in this way? Or maybe someone says to you, as you are apologizing to them …”It’s okay…I know you…”
Take a moment now… bring to your mind someone who knows you, or knew you, very well…perhaps – knows you as fully as anyone does, or ever has. Picture that person for a moment. How has this experience of being deeply known affected you…impacted your life?
Being known is integral to being human and to feeling connected.
Psalm One hundred and thirty nine says to us…I know you…
To be known by another intimately is to open yourself to the other, to allow closeness and sharing. The reality of this can be simultaneously fulfilling and overwhelming – even scary. We can imagine this vulnerable middle ground – between longing to be known and resisting it – as we read psalm 139.
Psalms are prayers- communications between us and God as they are written and spoken. And this psalm is a prayer of intensity. Walter Brueggemann, well known Old Testament scholar, suggests that psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. The You we have here is God. Our psalmist addresses God directly and then refers to herself 13 times, using the words ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The intimacy between the psalmist and God is not only emphasized in this ‘I and You’ language, but also in the repetition of the Hebrew verb yadá (to know). This word occurs 7 times in this psalm. This word, yadá, is a rich one in Hebrew – it has meanings that range from everyday recognition to intimate sexual connection. It is, for instance, the same word used in Genesis – Adam knew (yadá) his wife Eve and so she bore a son. Yadá occurs 60 other times in the Psalter. Surely ‘knowledge’ understood in this way is important to relationship connections. And, we are to know God, as God knows us.
This language gives the psalm a tone of reality. This is not “may you, or will you be acquainted with all my ways.” This is “you are acquainted with all my ways.” This is the psalmist’s real experience.
When we look at the flow of this prayer we notice a few things…the Psalmist begins by addressing God – You have searched me and you know me – she follows with 17 verses that vividly describe how deep that knowledge really is… and yet – despite the wild ride of emotions that such knowing surely evokes… the psalmist concludes by inviting God to continue this searching and knowing….“you know when I move…you anticipate my thoughts…you sift through me…you encompass me front and back…”
This is deep and wide knowledge she describes. Being “hemmed in behind and before” – does this comfort or smother her?… maybe some of both… there is literally no place to remove herself from God – not by flying with wings, skipping over the sea, seeking the darkness…not even by visiting heaven or Sheol – the place of the dead. No, in all of those places God’s hand guides and holds her fast. How does this way of knowing sound to you? Is it a celebration of closeness or does it feel intimidating? If God is so withIN us like this, does this demand something of us that we cannot or do not want to give all the time – does it ask us to work harder than perhaps we want to? Some might feel that such an absolute presence of God is something they are not deserving of. Perhaps you are somewhere in the middle – comforted and yet challenged by God.
Remember here that this psalmist is writing about her OWN experience – not what some theologian or preacher has to say … but her own experience of God “God you know everything about me. You know all the good and all the bad…all the fear, all the joy. God you know the REAL me. [pause] As we read this today we do not know what her experience of life was…maybe she had felt close to God throughout her life and this was her expression of pure gratefulness. Maybe she had been alone in life and felt that God was the only one who really knew her. Maybe her life had been lived trying to hide from others, afraid that if people really knew her they would hurt her or run away. The psalmist witnesses so deeply here to God’s presence.
There is a freedom that arises from such deep knowledge…I know you, God says. I see you…Just as you are, and I will never leave you. I am with you.
When I moved to Massachusetts 5 years ago I began to attend St. Paul’s in Brookline. I had never in my adult life had the experience of being a newcomer at church before, and it was daunting to me. As an introvert, this was a challenge, as I was attending church by myself. The parishioners were wonderful and warm, but ‘passing the peace’ and ‘coffee hour’ were challenging for me and I felt quite vulnerable. One random day a parishioner who simply recognized me silently gave my shoulder a friendly pat while passing by me, returning from receiving communion. I was surprised as I felt tears welling up…I was known…even just a little. That moment changed things. I wasn’t aware of how much I really needed that.
About a year later I began the priesthood discernment process at that parish. The group of eight who met with me learned more about my life than anyone should ever have to know about another person! They held a safe space of love and support for me throughout that process. They saw me just as I was…It was a powerful experience of being fully known – and as perhaps with our psalmist… it was both comforting and challenging. The impact was profound in my life. Allowing myself to be fully known felt risky, but doing so freed me to connect in deeper ways to myself, others and God in ways that I had not experienced before.
Another dimension deepens this knowing even further. The psalm uses body imagery that depicts the whole person in its thinking, feeling and acting. This is shown in verse 13 – at the center of the psalm. This week I read many translations. Among them I found this translation of verse 13, “You created my kidneys”. This line is more often translated as “you created my inner-most parts” or something similar. In the ancient world the kidneys were often associated with decision-making…searching within to distinguish right from wrong requires deep inner consultation – deeper even than one’s heart. Looking further, in the Jewish Study Bible the verse reads, “It was You who created my conscience”. The kidneys were seen as the seat of both affection and conscience…both important aspects to relating and connecting with others.
The psalmist continues with praise of how fearfully and wonderfully she has been made by God. We can take another look at the use of the word fear. My father told me from childhood, Amanda – when you see the word fear associated with God in the Bible I want you to imagine that you are in New York City and for the first time you are walking into the front door of F.A.O. Schwartz. You are in absolute AWE – replace fear with this word. So, the psalmist says, I am awesomely and wonderfully made! God, You did good!
Love is powerful…that we know, and we also know that love cannot be if it is not allowed, not given consent. This can be the hardest part and it is what God is yearning for you to do. The psalmist concludes her prayer with this consent, even invitation. Search me, know me, lead me, God – in your ways, just as you know all of mine.
As challenging as it may be in these days to be a people of hope and love that is what we are called to be. Every week, here in this sanctuary, we are reminded of the deeply personal knowledge and love God has for us, and the freedom this brings.
I know you, God says. Entirely. I am withIN you, not withOUT. My hand is upon you. I have called you by name.
Know, deep in your soul, that God knows and loves you intimately. You are awesomely and wonderfully made. Let that in.
 “Body Imagery in Psalm 139 and its Significance for Biblical Anthropology,” Christl Maier, Lectio Difficilior: European Journal for Feminist Exegesis, 2/2001.