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The Gaze

December 4, 2011

The Text

1O LORD, you have searched me and known me! 2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2 ESV)

A Closer Look at the Text

It is difficult to imagine the idea of God without acknowledging that, if God exists and is truly our Creator, He must necessarily be so grand, so vast, as to understand even how and what we think. Anything less than this idea of God could not be all that God must necessarily be.

Here in Psalm 139, David finds comfort at the idea of an omnipresent and omniscient God. In his cyclical spiritual journey as recorded in this Psalm, David starts out in the first two strophes with an enthusiastic recognition of God’s all-knowing (verses 1-6) and all-present (verses 7-12) limitlessness. In view of this fresh appreciation for (if not discovery or re-discovery of) God’s character and qualities, David expresses joy in surrendering himself to his Creator (verses 13-18). He then tries to leverage his relationship with God into victory over his enemies, asking God to administer His justice against David’s enemies (verses 19-22). Just as he does so, David seems to realize that his righteous anger toward his (and, be believes, God’s) enemies is most likely tainted by self-righteousness. So he finishes his thoughts about his enemies by asking God in the final two verses to reveal to him anything wicked in his heart (including wayward thoughts). This prayer places David back into the project of gaining a better and clearer understanding of God’s character … which sends him back to the first verse of the Psalm.

The pattern Psalm 139 is typical of followers of Christ: seeking Him, acknowledging Him, depending on Him, serving Him, confessing to Him, and then seeking Him anew. As Gene Rice observes in his article, “Psalm 139: A Diary of the Inward Odyssey” (Journal of Religious Thought, 1980/81, p. 67), “Here the Psalmist recognizes that his surrender and commitment to God do not set him apart and give him the right to feel superior to others. He has not yet completed his spiritual odyssey. The spiritual life requires God’s continual searching, knowing, trying, seeing, and leading.”

Some Observations about the Text

Acknowledging that God is Both Out There and Also Right Here. David observes that God transcends night and day, observing from the heavens (verses 11-12). But God is also nearby (verse 5). God is both far away, and also at hand, and cannot be escaped. These observations are echoed in Jeremiah 23: “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

Acknowledging that God is Both Incomprehensible but Knowable. God would not be God if He were comprehensible. And yet God delights in revealing Himself to us: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.'” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

Being Known, and Being Free. There is a certain freedom in acknowledging that God is there, and that He sees us. It’s a reality check. If we are not following and serving our King, Jesus Christ, then our fealty is to something or someone else. As Paul writes, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Galatians 4:8-9)

Who’s Deluded? It’s not uncommon for those who oppose Biblical Christianity to claim that Christians are naive, like little children. In a sense, we are: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:4-6) We aren’t deluded, though. Quite the opposite: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)

Who’s Seeking Whom? There is a terror, or at least an angst, that we sometimes experience when we are truly alone. If you were to be stranded on a country road, miles from any other human … at night … what would you experience? How would you feel? How would you react? For the believer, prayer would be a natural reflex. For a nonbeliever, being completely isolated without anyone, including God, tends to result in anxiety. The sound of a rustling leaf would be enough to frighten them (Leviticus 26:36).


Gospel Apologetics

Denying that God is Out There and Also Right Here. Atheists find the idea of an all-knowing God to be troubling. There is a psychological impact if God is there and is watching us. It’s the same psychological impact that is evoked by the seasonal warning to children that “Santa is watching you.” For atheists, this is a threatening prospect. As Christopher Hitchens writes in his introduction to the Portable Atheist (De Capo Press, p. xxii) “who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evi­dence to support such a horrible hypothesis; and how grateful we should be to those of our predecessors who repudiated this utter negation of human free­dom.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, similarly, resented the idea that God could be watching. In Being and Nothingness (Citadel, 2001), Sartre imagines kneeling down in a stairwell and peering through a keyhole in a door. He then thinks that he hears footsteps behind him, and suddenly feels shame. He realizes that his shame comes from the idea of being watched by someone else when he does not want to be watched. Sartre extends this thought experiment to the notion of God watching at all times, thereby “objectifying” him by making him the object of God’s gaze. Sartre does not want to be an object; he wants to be the subject, that is, the person doing the gazing rather than the person being gazed upon. He resents being watched. So much so, that at the conclusion of his play, No Exit (Samuel French, Inc., 1958), Sartre concludes that “hell is other people” because for him it is hellish to be watched by others (or, an Other).

To be an atheist, is to deny God, including His omniscience and omnipresence. Only by denying God in this way, can an atheist deny accountability to God. If, on the other hand, God exists, the atheist’s resistance to accountability is both understandable and misplaced. Because “no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

David, on the other hand, finds comfort rather than dread in the idea of God’s omnipresence. David never experienced the loneliness of atheism.

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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