Knowing oneself, knowing others (Psalm 139)

Psalm 119, section He, highlights knowledge of God and knowledge of self. In Psalm 139, this question of knowledge of self is paramount: Who knows the truth about me, the truth inside me? Do I know it myself? Do you know the truth inside me? Inside yourself? Does anyone? Am I in a position to know anyone else? How about—to judge?

What can our old friend David, the shepherd and king, tell us about that?

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

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.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. The first part of that, mind you, is not so remarkable. I have searched myself, Lord! And other people perhaps have searched me as well. So the fact that you search me is not in itself stunning. We—these other people and I—have wondered what is going on inside my head and my heart. I give myself credit for this. Not all people search themselves. Some people are unquestioning of themselves. They just be and do without reflecting, without attempting self-knowledge. I at least try!

But, you, Lord, when you search me, the result is that you know me. There you have me beat. I know myself pretty well, I think. And some other people know me somewhat; OK, sometimes frighteningly well, as when one of my children reads my mind by noting the slightest subliminal signal—a faint, fleeting facial expression, perhaps, and I’m nailed. Known. But not always. And back to knowing myself—I’ll go ahead and say I know I’m not as good at it as you are. I take back the “pretty well.” Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.

So I admit it: there is a gap between my willingness to search myself—which, actually, is already limited, I’ll admit that too—and my ability to succeed in knowing myself. There is a gap between what I know of myself and what you know of me. Yes! But the more frightening possibility is this: if I do not know everything about myself, what guarantee do I have that I really know rightly everything that I think I know about myself? If my self-knowledge is incomplete, I do not necessarily know where all the holes are. The unknowns are surely not all known unknowns. There may be unknown unknowns. May be? Certainly there are. It could not be otherwise.

I am therefore capable of deceiving myself without knowing that I am deceiving myself—otherwise it wouldn’t really be a deception, would it? I really can hide from myself as effectively as I used to hide from Saul in those caves.

So how do I know when I am deceiving myself? Who is in a position to clue me in, tip me off? Only someone who knows me better than I know myself. My children? My wives? My close advisors and mighty men of valor? Sure, why not? Any one of them could at any point see something that I am not seeing. But here’s the catch: I will think they are wrong. Because I do not know that I am deceiving myself—precisely because I amsuccessfully deceiving myself.

So there is no way out. Or rather there is, but it’s hard: I have to believe that in principle it is not only possible but highly likely that I am deceiving myself, and then on the basis of that belief persuade myself to entertain the possibility that I am wrong when I am most confident that I am right. And why would I do that? Only because I have somehow become persuaded that I can be and am in fact known better and more fully by someone else than I know myself. Only because I admit that the fact that you have searched me and known me implies infallibly that I have not known myself.

In that fact—the fact that you know me perfectly—lies my only metaphysical as well as epistemic stability—any permanence that I have not only in knowing but even in being. When I forget myself (either in some brief mental or moral or spiritual lapse, or in sleep, or in dementia, or in death) or before I ever know myself (in utero, or in infancy or the various stages of childhood and even adulthood), am I fading in and out of being, like the flickering picture on an old television screen? As far as I can see, yes, and perhaps in extreme cases as far as others can see as well. But no, not in your sight. You see me now, and you remember what I was from the moment I was first formed, and you see also my future self, and in your perfect knowledge of me, and only there, I am stable. I awake, and I am still with you.

So only to the extent that I get to know you can I hope to know myself better. If you are the unlapsing and unerring seer of me, then only in meeting and holding your gaze can I hold on to myself. I walk toward you across the water as long as my eyes are fixed on yours, but when I look down or look away I start to slip beneath the waves. Or maybe that’s an over-dramatization? Yes, it is. Because I know for a fact that I do not always keep my gaze fixed on you, and yet somehow I return from those moments, because your gaze is fixed on me without lapse.

Now, if I am convinced (and I am!) that I do not and cannot know myself perfectly, but perfect knowledge of me does exist (in you), then, when I encounter a conflict between what my friend or neighbor or close loved one believes about me and what I believe about myself, what basis for confidence do I have that I am right and they are wrong? None. I may know some things truly, and other things in error, that is, in some cases my self-knowledge coincides with your knowledge of me, and in other cases not. There is fake self-knowledge.

And the same is of course true for other people know about themselves—and about me. In some cases their knowledge not only of themselves but also of me will coincide with your knowledge of me, and in other cases their knowledge of me will conflict with my own supposed knowledge of myself; which means that in those cases they will be right about me, and I will be wrong about me, and the only way I will be able to access true knowledge of myself—presuming you aren’t going to infuse it into me directly all the time—will be to listen to my neighbor and say: it is certainly possible in this case that you are right and I am wrong.

The only way I could be justified in failing to make that self-abasing, self-denying confession would be: if I do not believe either that you, Lord, have searched me and known me.

That is to say: For me to claim perfect self-knowledge would be to cast you off of your throne and sit there myself. For me to claim always that I am right about myself, and that my friend who questions me is wrong, would likewise by extension be to reject the notion that another may know me better than I know myself.

Of course if sometimes other people know me better than I know myself, it is also possible and indeed quite likely that sometimes I in turn know them better than they know themselves! And since perfect knowledge of them resides only in you, the closer I grow to you the more accurate I will become not only in my self-knowledge but also in my knowledge of other people. Associating with you, making myself your follower and disciple, and sometimes scribe, will gradually give me an increasing share of the spiritual discernment that comes only from you. So I will be able to look around me and size people up clearly.

* * *

And in fact this is my experience.

Take for example those people over there right now! I see them clearly. They are the wicked. They are men of blood. They speak against you (or me, or other people, or all) with malicious intent. I am confident in these judgments. It is plain to see, especially because I am seeing with eyes trained by your own reproving and improving of my knowledge of myself. Just as I have learned to trust others’ adverse perceptions of myself, so also by the same token I am right to trust my own adverse perceptions of others. Of course they can’t see themselves accurately! Neither could I formerly see myself accurately, before I felt your relentless gaze upon me as I ascended to highest heaven and descended to the pit of Sheol and the depths of the earth and the sea. But now, am I wrong about them? Certainly not. Oh, that you would slay them! Want some help with that? Or shall I leave them to you, as I did Saul? Let me know.

Once I was a petty tribal chieftain, a raider and a seller of protection, a lusty man whose motto might have been “a fool and his wife (or his daughter!) are soon parted,” but you lifted me up, and called me to yourself, and set me over your people not only as a military commander but also as a judge and teacher and leader in meditation and worship, and now here I sit not just playing the harp but writing the Bible! And not just dreary laws like old Moses but the best parts, everyone’s favorite parts, these songs that recapitulate and anticipate every other part of scripture, that deepen and inspire every movement of the human heart. These words of mine—one hundred and thirty-nine psalms down, and only eleven more to go, plus that extra one I’ll throw in just for the Greeks—will become the prayers and the spiritual guides of millions for centuries and millennia to come.

Or if I am not actually the David in whose person I compose, then I am his ghost-writer. Indeed, his Holy Ghost writer! How would you, dear reader, know the difference? Of course you know, O Lord. And either way, it is by your own calling and leave! No matter. Wonderful are your works!

At any rate, I am right about those people. And so, in your name, O Lord I rightly hate those people. I hate them with perfect hatred. I count them my enemies. Not a pleasant feeling, perhaps, but righteous. You can count on me Lord—any enemy of yours is an enemy of mine.

* * *

Well, it’s time to wrap this up. Sublime monologue on your omniscient omnipresence? Check. Quick demonstration of how my knowledge of your knowledge of me enables me to know others accurately? Check. And now, to close, after A and B, a quick run at A-prime for the sake of a pleasing chiasm. As you have already searched and known me, I end by beseeching you to search me further, try me, and know me completely. And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

And wouldn’t you know—it’s just perfect—with that my ink has run out! Well, that’s the end of this psalm.

And just as well, because I was beginning to get a bad feeling that you were about to let me know about a grievous way that you had found in me! You do understand, Lord, that my last beseeching was a pious concluding flourish, right? I mean, the notion that at this late stage in my Bible-writing career some new “grievous way” could pop up in me—Eh? What’s that you’re saying? You’re not faulting my perceiving of the evil people as evil, but you’re not necessarily with me—I beg your pardon—I’m not entirely with you—in the bit about consequently hating them with perfect hatred? More into loving than loathing, are you? But—don’t write this part here, you say? You’ll have someone fix it up later? Something about a great-great-great-grandchild—great David’s greater son?—coming along, knowing your mind and heart better even than I do, who when reviled will revile not again, and will—what?—the screen is fading out on me—go as a lamb to—to the—what?

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Ghost, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy Holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.


The art: “King David Playing the Harp” by Gerard van Honthorst (Google Art Project)

The translation of Psalm 139: English Standard Version

The closing prayer: the “collect for purity” from The Book of Common Prayer

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