Psalm 139:23-24
Great Texts of the Bible
The Searcher of Hearts

Search me, O God, and know my heart:

Try me, and know my thoughts:

And see if there be any way of wickedness in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.—Psalm 139:23-241. No intellectual man has ever dared to despise this poem, which has been called “the crown of all the psalms,” and its teaching has had to be reckoned with by all schools of thought for many centuries. It is one of those pieces of literature which Bacon said should be “chewed and digested.” There is much food for the intellect here; but to every man who is anxious about the culture of his spirit we would say: “Test your heart by this psalm. If your heart is of steel, it will be attracted by its teaching, as by a magnet; if you find nothing in it to move you to reverence, wonder, penitence, and prayer, be sure that your heart is not true, that you are in a morally perilous condition.”

2. The Psalmist sets forth in poetry what theology calls the doctrine of the Divine Omniscience. He believes in Jehovah, the God of all the earth, and therefore believes in a Providence so universal that nothing is missed. It is not an intellectual dogma to him, but a spiritual intuition. It is not stated as an abstraction of thought, but flows from the warm personal relation between God and man, which is the great revelation of the Bible. God’s providence is everywhere, but it does not dissipate itself in a mere general supervision of creation. It is all-seeing, all-surrounding, all-embracing, but it is not diffused in matter and dispersed through space. It extends—and this is the wonder of it—to the individual: O Lord, Thou hast searched me, and known me.

3. The practical ethical thought suggested to the Psalmist by such a conception is the question, How can God, the pure and holy One, with such an intimate and unerring knowledge, tolerate wicked men? He feels that God cannot but be against evil, no matter what appearances seem to suggest that God does not care. The doom of evil must be certain; and so the Psalmist solemnly dissociates himself from the wicked men who hate and blaspheme God. And the conclusion is simply and humbly to throw open the heart and soul to God, accepting the fact that He cannot be deceived, praying God to search him and purify him and lead him. “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any way of wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

In the general reform of conventual and monastic life, the Abbey of Port Royal had set a striking example. Behind its cloistered walls were gathered some of the purest and most devoted women of France, under the strict rule of Mère Angélique Arnauld. The spiritual directions of St. François de Sales, who loved the Port-Royalists, had tempered firmness with gentleness, and given a charm to the pursuit of personal holiness; the Petites Ecoles of the abbey rivalled the educational establishments of the Jesuits. But St. Cyran, who succeeded François de Sales as spiritual director, was suspected of heresy, and Port Royal was involved in the charge. Persecution fell upon the community. It was to a psalm that they appealed. “The sisters of Port Royal,” says Blaise Pascal (and his own sister was one of the first victims of the persecution), “astonished to hear it said that they were in the way of perdition, that their confessors were leading them to Geneva by teaching them that Jesus Christ was neither in the Eucharist nor at the right hand of God, and knowing that the charge was false, committed themselves to God, saying with the Psalmist, ‘See if there be any way of wickedness in me.’ ”1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, 214.]


The Searching of God

1. The Psalmist realized that he could not thoroughly search himself. We have all of us tendencies and inclinations which we cannot gauge and do not know the force or the power of. We have depths and abysses in our natures which no human measuring line can fathom. Our souls are so disordered and disturbed by the crossing of many varied feelings, high and low, clashing and fretting against each other, good thoughts mingled with so much that is base, pure high feelings with so much that is low and degraded. We have in us sometimes perhaps more good than we realize, or more evil than we ever guessed. There is in us, not only our sinful acts, but also a deep spirit of wickedness, a mystery of evil, which no human power can comprehend. Said the prophet truly, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” No one can. Not even ourselves, who think we know ourselves well. We do not know what is in us, what powers or capabilities we have for good or for evil.

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone

Decidedly can try us;

He knows each chord, its various tone,

Each spring, its various bias.

One of the precepts which Thales the great philosopher, who lived about the same time as Josiah king of Judah, inculcated was, “Know thyself,” and it is a precept full of the highest sense and wisdom. It was regarded by the ancients as a duty of paramount importance, and received by them with all the authority of a Divine command. It is not as a matter of curiosity, but of deepest necessity, that we should have a thorough acquaintance with the state in which we are before God, and should try to see ourselves and to estimate ourselves, not as others do, but as God does, for it is a subject on which we are apt to make great and dangerous mistakes, and it is one of which many are in complete ignorance.1 [Note: R. Stephen, Divine and Human Influence, i. 262.]

2. The Psalmist is sure that God has perfect knowledge of him. He is as certain of God as he is of his own existence; indeed it is not too much to say that it is only as he is conscious of being searched and known by God—only as he is overwhelmed by contact with a Spirit which knows him better than he knows himself—that he rises to any adequate sense of what his own being and personality mean. He is revealed to himself by God’s search; he knows himself through God. Speaking practically—and in religion everything is practical—God alone can overcome atheism, and this is how He overcomes it. He does not put within our reach arguments which point to theistic conclusions; He gives us the experience which makes this psalm intelligible, and forces us also to cry, “O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.”

It is a fact well known to seamen that objects under water, such as shoals and sunken rocks, become visible, or more visible, when viewed from a height; and it is customary at sea, when a sunken object is suspected of lying in a vessel’s course, but cannot be seen from the deck, to send a man aloft, when the higher he can climb the mast the farther will his vision penetrate beneath the waves. From the top of a lofty cliff the depth is seen better still; whilst the elevation of a balloon enables the spectator to see most perfectly beneath the surface, and to detect the sunken mines, torpedoes, and the like which may be concealed there. Now, just as there is an optical reason why the depth is best penetrated from the height, so there is a moral reason why the holy God best knows the plagues and perils of the human heart. He who from the pure heaven of eternal light and purity looks down into the depths of the heart is cognizant of its defects long before they report themselves in the creature-consciousness.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Fatal Barter, 101.]

Colonel Seely, shortly before he resigned office as Secretary of State for War in the spring of 1914, unfolded in the House of Commons the Supplementary Army Estimates; and, speaking of the vote for the Army Air Service, he gave a striking instance of the range of vision from a height. From an aeroplane up 5000 feet in the air one could see, he explained, quite clearly every detail of the landscape. An airman could perceive from that not only the roads and the hedges beneath, but, for instance, whether there were two horses or one attached to a cart going along a road. Persons could be seen walking in the streets of a town. “How easy then,” concluded the War Secretary, “to see any troops! Thus the commander of an army without aeroplanes—other things being equal—is doomed if faced by a force with aeroplanes, for every movement of the enemy’s troops, except at night or in a fog, can be watched and reported by the air scouts.”

3. The Psalmist was satisfied that God would search him fully, fairly and impartially. The word which is rendered “search” is a very emphatic and picturesque one. It means to dig deep. God is prayed, as it were, to make a section into the Psalmist, and lay bare his inmost nature, as men do in a railway cutting, layer after layer, going ever deeper down till the bed-rock is reached. “Search me”—dig into me, bring the deep-lying parts to light—“and know my heart”; the centre of my personality, my inmost self.

This prayer is also an expression of absolute willingness to submit to the searching process. God is represented in the text as seeking into the secrets of a man’s heart, not that God may know, but that the man may know. By His Spirit He will come into the innermost corners of our nature, if this prayer is a real expression of our desire. And there the illumination of His presence will flash light into all the dark corners of our experience and of our personality.

Men may applaud or revile, and make a man think differently of himself, but He judgeth of a man according to his secret walk. How difficult is the work of self-examination! Even to state to you, imperfectly, my own mind, I found to be no easy matter. Nay, St. Paul says, “I judge not mine own self, for he that judgeth me is the Lord.” That is, though he was not conscious of any allowed sin, yet he was not thereby justified, for God might perceive something of which he was not aware. How needful then the prayer of the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and try my heart, and see if there be any evil way in me.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of the Rev. Henry Martyn, 28.]


The Tests to which we are Subjected

1. We are searched and known by the slow and steady passing of the years.—There is a revealing power in the flight of time, just because time is the minister of God. In heaven there will be no more time; there will be no more need of any searching ministry. There we shall know even as we are known, in the burning and shining of the light of God. But here, where the light of God is dimmed and broken, we are urged forward through the course of years, and the light of the passing years achieves on earth what the light of the Presence will achieve in glory. He is a wise father who knows his child, but he is a wiser child who knows himself. Untested by actual contact with the world, we dream our dream in the sunshine of the morning. And then comes life with all its hard reality, with the changes and the calling of the years, and we turn round on the swift flight of time, and say, “O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.” We may not have achieved anything splendid. Our life may have moved along in quiet routine, not outwardly different from the lives of thousands. Yet, however dull and quietly uneventful, God has so ordered the flight of time for us that we know far more about ourselves to-night than we knew in the upland freshness of the morn. Brought into touch with duty and with man, we have begun to see our limitations. We know in a measure what we cannot do; thank God, we know in a measure what we can do. And underneath it all we have discerned the side on which our nature leans away to heaven, and the other side on which there is the door that opens on to the filthiness of hell. It does not take any terrible experience to reach the certainty of power and weakness. The common days, which make the common years, slowly and inevitably show it. So by the pressure of evolving time—and it is God, not we, who so evolves it—for better or for worse we come to say, “O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.”

1 Jan. 1878. Marine Parade, Brighton, 6 a.m. When one thinks of the immensity of time and of the Christian hope that there is endless existence before us, one is perplexed that this infinity of time should take its character from a few years that seem to bear no proportion to it. One observes, however, that in the time here by far the greatest portion is determined by certain hours or it may be minutes.

In itself a thought,

A slumbering thought, is capable of years—

says Byron, and certain it is that all our lives are under the influence of moments when fresh convictions dawned on us, or when we made some important resolution, or when we passed through some special trial. With most of us the greater part of our life seems merely wasted. We eat, drink, and sleep, join in meaningless chit-chat, pay calls and the like. Others get through an immense amount of work; but at times we have glimpses which show us that life consists neither in chit-chat nor in work, and that even the latter needs something in it, but not of it, before it can be good for anything “in the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps the scanty moments we give to prayer may in importance be the chief part of our existence.1 [Note: Life and Remains of the Rev. R. H. Quick, 70.]

2. God searches us by the responsibilities He lays upon us.—It is in our duties and not in our romance that the true self is searched and known. Think of those servants in the parable who received the talents. Could you have gauged their character before they got the talents? Were they not all respectable and honest and seemingly worthy of their master’s confidence? But to one of the servants the master gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, and what distinguished and revealed the men was the use they made of their responsibility. They were not searched by what they had to suffer; the men were searched by what they had to do. They were revealed by what their master gave, and by the use they made of what they got. And so is it with all of us to whom God has given a task, a post, a talent—it is not only a gift to bless our neighbour; it is a gift to reveal us to ourselves.

See, I hold a sovereign in my hand. It appears to bear the image and superscription of the King. That is merely an optical illusion. It bears my own image and superscription. I have earned it, and it is mine. But now that it is mine, the trouble begins. For that sovereign becomes part of myself and will henceforth represent a pound’s worth of me! If I am a bad man, I shall spend it in folly, and accelerate the forces that make for the world’s undoing. If I am a bad man, that is to say, it will be a bad sovereign, however truly it may seem to ring. If I am a good man, I shall spend it in clean commerce, and enlist it among the forces that tend to the uplift of my brothers. Yes, gold is very good if we are very good, and very bad if we are very bad. Here is the song of the sovereign—

Dug from the mountain-side, washed in the glen,

Servant am I or the master of men;

Steal me, I curse you;

Earn me, I bless you;

Grasp me and hoard me, a fiend shall possess you;

Lie for me, die for me;

Covet me, take me,

Angel or devil, I am what you make me!1 [Note: F. W. Boreham, Mountains in the Mist, 62.]

3. God searches us by bringing new influences to bear upon our lives.—Troubles and temptations are great discoverers of human character. Our passions and special inclinations may lie like some minerals, far down, and we may bore long and find no trace of their existence, but by and by we may pierce deeper, and a thick seam of evil may be found. Or our nature may, like a breakwater, stand long, and seem secure, unharmed by many a gale, but some fiercer storm, some stronger onslaught of temptation, may overthrow it, or some single stone may be dislodged, or some joint weakened, and the sea works its way in, and the whole is upset, dashed, and pounded to ruin. So you may resist long, and come unscathed through much evil, but it comes with fiercer power at some time, or it dashes upon you suddenly or unexpectedly, advancing upon you not like the long roll of the ocean, with steady force, but with a quick impact, a sudden surprise—as temptation came to Peter—and your power of resistance is destroyed.

Just as engineers are not satisfied with respect to the soundness and durability of iron girders or links of ships’ cables merely because these look well, but proceed to test them by pressure, and ascertain the amount of strain they will bear, and the weight they will sustain, so by the rough handling of the world’s vexations and by the strain of trouble and sorrow you must be tried, to show what you really are: whether your temper patiently endures this provocation, whether your pride will submit to that mortification, your vanity to that slight, your passions to that force of temptation, your faith to that severe disappointment, your love to that heavy sacrifice.

In the making of great iron castings, through some defect in the mould, portions of air may lurk in the heart of the iron, and cavities like those of an honey-comb may be formed in the interior of the beam, but the defects and flaws may be effectively concealed under the outer skin; when, however, it is subjected to a severe strain it gives way. So under the stress of some great trial, the hollowness of the nature may be revealed and secret faults and evils exposed, and the man appears in what people say is a changed character. In reality that is his true character. If metal be real iron, the blast of the furnace will temper it into steel, and if there is reality and truth in the nature, trial will develop its finer qualities; but if these do not exist, trial will only expose that nature’s inherent badness and make it worse.1 [Note: R. Stephen, Divine and Human Influence, i. 285.]

4. God tests us by holding up to us the mirror of another’s life.—We never know ourselves until we see ourselves divested of all the trappings of self-love. It was thus that God dealt with David, when he had so terribly sinned. For all the depth and the grandeur of his character, David was strangely blind to his own guilt. But then came Nathan with his touching story of the man who had been robbed of his ewe lamb, and all that was best in David was afire at the abhorrent action of that robber.

Especially when we draw near to Christ, who knows what is in all of us, and whose eye could read and single out the traitor whom no one suspected; when, too, He is looking at us and scanning our deepest hearts, reading in them the love we have to Him and the faith we have in Him, or detecting the treachery and perfidy that may lurk within us, surely it is right that we should ask Him to search us and try us and let us know and see ourselves as He knows and sees us. Surely we should ask Him to purify our hearts from every evil thought and feeling, and so to fill them with His love that when He asks us, as He asked Peter, “Lovest thou me?” we may be able to say truly, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”

Bishop Westcott preached what was to prove his last sermon in Durham Cathedral on the Saturday preceding his death. It was the annual service of the Durham miners, who came in their thousands to hear the prelate that shortly before had successfully acted as peacemaker in the great North of England coal strike. The Bishop’s address has a pathos of its own, since it was his last, and apparently felt by the speaker himself to be his last public utterance. The discourse was as beautiful as it was touching and impressive. Brief, yet complete, and instinct with love, it reveals the man and indicates the secret of his power. The closing words were—

“Since it is not likely that I shall ever address you here again, I have sought to tell you what I have found in a long and laborious life to be the most prevailing power to sustain right endeavour, however imperfectly I have yielded myself to it—even the love of Christ; to tell you what I know to be the secret of a noble life, even glad obedience to His will. I have given you a watchword which is fitted to be the inspiration, the test, and the support of untiring service to God and man: the love of Christ constraineth us.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, ii. 394.]


The Purpose in View

1. The purpose of this searching is that we may be delivered from our own way of life. “See if there be any way of wickedness in me.” The Psalmist recognizes that human life is determined from within. The “way” is first “in” us. How often do we see this! A youth is set in the right path, every assistance is secured for him, every encouragement is given him to pursue it; but he soon breaks away from this, forms other habits, adopts other companions, pursues an altogether different life. He does not follow the path that was opened up to him from the outside, but elects one already traced in his heart. We popularly say of such a wilful soul, “He took his own way, followed his own course.” A modern cry calls upon us to “fulfil ourselves.” That really means to work out our own fancies, tastes, and passions; to propose our own ideals, be ruled by self-will, take counsel of the pride and passion of our own hearts, chase our own phantoms. But if everybody should “fulfil” himself, it would mean pandemonium; it would be the working out of ignorance, egotism, and lust. This is precisely what the Psalmist deprecates. He urgently pleads for deliverance from himself; from the poisonous particle, the diseased fibre, the false substance and quality which may exist latent within him, waiting for the stimulation of circumstance, opportunity, and association.

(1) Our own way is a way of emptiness. Some would translate these words, “any way of idols in me.” It signifies the vanity, the unreality, the delusiveness of the objects on which the natural man fixes his ambition and hope. We sometimes say of a thing, “There is nothing in it.” We may say this of wealth, honour, pleasure, fame; if we make idols of them, we know that an idol is nothing in the world. If we follow the desires and devices of our own hearts, we walk in a vain show and disquiet ourselves in vain.

(2) Our own way is a way of pain. “See if there is any way of grievousness in me.” The path of self-fulfilment is hard and bitter. If the roses in the broad road of sensual pleasure, sordid gain, and worldly pride are red, there is no wonder; enough blood has been shed to make them so. In the forests of South America, where gorgeous orchids dazzle the eyes and gay blossoms carpet the earth, are also creepers furnished with formidable thorns known as “the devil’s fishing-hooks”; and as these trail insidiously on the ground, their presence is revealed only by the wounded foot that treads upon them. How closely this pictures the wayward, sensual, worldly life!

(3) Our own way is a way of destruction. It does not lead to a goal of lasting felicity, but descends into darkness and despair. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” That is the path and doom of self-fulfilment. We do not know why Solomon, in another place, exactly repeats this warning, unless, perhaps, because it is so immensely significant, and yet so likely to be overlooked. So, then, we must pray that God will not abandon us to ourselves; that we may not be permitted to work out the lurking naughtiness of our heart.

Let a man persevere in prayer and watchfulness to the day of his death, yet he will never get to the bottom of his heart. Though he know more and more of himself as he becomes more conscientious and earnest, still the full manifestation of the secrets there lodged is reserved for another world. And at the last day who can tell the affright and horror of a man who lived to himself on earth, indulging his own evil will, following his own chance notions of truth and falsehood, shunning the cross and the reproach of Christ, when his eyes are at length opened before the throne of God, and all his innumerable sins, his habitual neglect of God, his abuse of his talents, his misapplication and waste of time, and the original unexplored sinfulness of his nature, are brought clearly and fully to his view? Nay, even to the true servants of Christ the prospect is awful. “The righteous,” we are told, “will scarcely be saved.” Then will the good man undergo the full sight of his sins, which on earth he was labouring to obtain, and partly succeeded in obtaining, though life was not long enough to learn and subdue them all. Doubtless we must all endure that fierce and terrifying vision of our real selves, that last fiery trial of the soul before its acceptance, a spiritual agony and second death to all who are not then supported by the strength of Him who died to bring them safe through it, and in whom on earth they have believed.1 [Note: J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, i. 48.]

2. The searching shows us also how we may walk in God’s way. “Lead me in the way everlasting.” The greatest test of a man’s life is with regard to leadership. Who shall lead? Shall it be the world, or self, or God? There is no advance until that is settled; yet not to have settled it is to have decided in favour of self and sin: “He that is not with me is against me.” It is a vital question, and presses for an instant response. This petition obviously includes surrender and submission, and it is to be a constant, continuous thing. It therefore rightly completes the circle of the permanent, universal elements in religion. “The way everlasting,” which is so beautifully interpreted in Isaiah 35 as “the way of holiness,” “an highway,” upon which no unclean thing shall walk, but “the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein: … and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads,” has been made clear in Jesus Christ, and He will lead us in triumph along this way towards the everlasting Zion. Let us welcome the leadership of Him who has come to “present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.”

There is a story told of a good old preacher in Wales, in those early days when preachers used to go about Wales from one end of the country to the other. The custom among Christians who realized their privileges and responsibilities was, when a man had preached the Gospel on one side of a mountain, and had to preach it the following night on the other side, that some kind friend accompanied him a large part of the way, if not the whole way, and thus showed him the path to take. But there were some who begrudged this kindly service. The preacher of whom I speak came on one occasion into contact with one of these. He was a wealthy farmer in the district. The preacher stayed the night at this man’s house. On the following morning, when the preacher was about to start, the farmer took out a bit of a slate and traced on it the way over the mountain to the other side, and said, “Now follow this. Here the road divides, and there a path turns to the right,” etc. etc. The good old man tried to follow it, and, after making very many mistakes on the wild mountain, succeeded at length in reaching his destination. Some time after that he visited the same people a second time, and preaching from one of those tender references of Paul to those who were so ready to minister to him, significantly said, “Ah, these were a people who, when Paul preached to them, and he had to cross a mountain in order to preach the next night, would not give him a map on a slate, but would accompany him on the way and further him on his journey.” That is exactly it. There are some people who will give you a map on the slate to tell you how to walk through life, and how to enter heaven at last. They give men a few outlines of Christian teaching, or a few precepts of morality. Some are especially fond of referring you to the Sermon on the Mount, adding that you do not need anything else, as you have only to trace what Christ has taught there. What sinful men need is not a map only, although that be traced by a Divine hand. The Psalmist felt that what he wanted was a guide, who would take him by the hand, and hold him up when he was ready to fall, along the rugged journey, or on the brink of a dangerous precipice. “Lead me in the way everlasting.”1 [Note: D. Davies, Talks with, Men, Women and Children, iii. 495.]

O might it please God that we should little regard the course of the way we tread, and have our eyes fixed on Him who conducts us, and on the blessed country to which it leads! What should it matter to us whether it is by the desert or by the meadows we go, if God is with us and we go into Paradise?2 [Note: St. Francis de Sales, Spiritual Letters.]


Black (H.), Christ’s Service of Love, 158.

Bradley (C.), Sermons, ii. 337.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, iii. 490.

Garbett (E.), Experiences of the Inner Life, 106.

Hamilton (J.), Faith in God, 78.

Joynt (R. C.), Liturgy and Life, 125.

Keble, (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Lent to Passion-tide, 253.

Kemble (C.), Memorials of a Closed Ministry, ii. 43.

Mackennal (A.), Christ’s Healing Touch, 45.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Psalms 51–145, 360.

Maclaren (A.), The Wearied Christ, 170.

Moore (E. W.), Life Transfigured, 87.

Mountain (J.), Steps in Consecration, 13.

Slater (W. F.), Limitations Human and Divine, 97.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xv. (1869), No. 903.

Stephen (R.), Divine and Human Influence, i. 262.

Thackeray (F. St. J.), Sermons Preached in Eton College Chapel, 120.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), ix. (1872), No. 775.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, iv. (1881), No. 40.

Walker (A. H.), Thinking about It, 1.

Watkinson (W. L.), The Fatal Barter, 95.

Wilkinson (J. B)., Mission Sermons, ii. 152.

Church of England Pulpit, xxxvii. 105.

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