Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 LORD, you have examined me. You know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
3 You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
4 There isn’t a word on my tongue, LORD, that you don’t already know completely.
5 You surround me– front and back. You put your hand on me.
6 That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
13 You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
14 I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful– I know that very well.
15 My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my embryo, and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me, before any one of them had yet happened.
17 God, your plans are incomprehensible to me! Their total number is countless!
18 If I tried to count them– they outnumber grains of sand! If I came to the very end– I’d still be with you. (CEB)
Searched and Known
The very first thing I learned in my Introduction to Christian Theology class in seminary is we are all theologians. Theology is the act of contemplating, imagining, conversing, and writing about God. If, therefore, you think about God or talk about God, or write about God, then you are a theologian because you are doing theology. You might not be a professional theologian, but you’re still doing theology.
When we do theology, we’re usually considering something about either God’s transcendence, which is God’s characteristic otherness from the created world, or God’s immanence, which is God’s profoundly intimate connection to creation. Most of our thoughts about God are of the transcendent variety. In fact, the majority of our theological traditions highlight the God who reigns over creation, the God who established order from the chaos of un-creation. We talk about God a high above us, hanging the stars in their places, setting the planets on their courses.
If I say the word God, what thoughts or images or feelings come to your mind? Do you see yourself as small and looking up into the skies with the hope that God might happen to glance your way? Do you imagine God far away in heaven, seated on a throne surrounded by light so bright no eye can penetrate it? Or do you imagine yourself as a child huddled in your mother’s lap, wrapped up in her loving embrace as she kisses you? The first two are ideas of transcendence. That last one is the idea of immanence.
Much of the book of Job is an argument for God’s transcendence. As Job speaks to his friends, one of his responses is this: “Who shakes the earth from its place, and its pillars shudder? Who commands the sun, and it does not rise, even seals up the stars; stretched out the heavens alone and trod on the waves of the Sea; made the Bear and Orion, Pleiades and the southern constellations; does great and unsearchable things, wonders beyond number? If God goes by me, I can’t see him; he glides past, and I can’t perceive him.” (Job 9:6-11, CEB).
When God finally responds to Job at the end of the book, God’s questions to Job are equally about transcendence: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it?” (Job 38:4-5, CEB). “Can you bind Pleiades’ chains or loosen the reins of Orion? Can you guide the stars at their proper times, lead the Bear with her cubs? Do you know heaven’s laws, or can you impose its rule on earth?” (Job 38:31-33, CEB).
Job’s response to all of this was an acknowledgment of God’s transcendent might: “Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you? I’ll put my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once, I won’t answer; twice, I won’t do it again.” (Job 40:3-5, CEB). In fact, most of what we learn from Job is to accept that God is in control and it is not our place to question.
This is, by and large, the majority of our theological tradition. Theology so often paints God so high above us that we’re left to wonder if God is actually present with us or connected to the world at all. If we have no concept of God’s immanence, then we can doubt that God cares about us and our struggles. Another consequence is, if God is only high above us, then we can be tempted to sit on our haunches and wait for God to fix the world because we’re helpless to do it ourselves.
The way we do theology—the way we think and speak about God—shapes our faith. Yet, there is a paradox of doing theology. The words we use to describe God simply don’t work. We can use words like transcendent, immanent, omnipotent, and omniscient, but even those words fail to adequately describe God. We can say that God is omniscient, and it’s right for us to say that God knows everything. But, as Thomas Aquinas reminds us: “His essence is above all that we understand about God and signify in word.” In other words, we can say God knows everything, but we don’t really know that that means because we cannot know what it would be like to know everything. Our words fail because we have no concept of their very definitions.
We can call God omnipresent, but we cannot really know what that means. How big is God? It’s like trying to define the size of the universe. Astrophysicists tell us they can’t know how large the universe actually is. We can only know the size of what we can observe from Earth. The edge of the observable universe is about 46.5 billion light-years away. But, again, that’s only a far as we can see. If we were able to transport ourselves to the observable edge, we might find a similar vastness there. We would be able to see stars and galaxies, perhaps another 46.5 billion light-years distant, that are unobservable from Earth because the light from those objects hasn’t gotten to us, and probably never will due to the expansion of the universe. If God created all of this, even what we cannot—and may never—see, how can we possibly understand omnipresence? It is simply too big to grasp.
The beauty and power of Psalm 139 are the ways it connects the transcendent with the immanent, making God’s nurturing care incredibly personal and intimately close. The psalmist says, God searches and knows me. God knows every action of my body. God reads my thoughts from far away. God knows all my ways. Even before I speak, God knows my words. God so surrounds me that I am hemmed in, like a child wrapped in a blanket, and God’s hand is upon me. That the God of the universe would show such intimate care for a creature, the psalmist says, is too wonderful. Why God would do such a thing cannot be fathomed.
The lectionary skips verses 7 through 12, which speak more of God’s immanence in the world. God is so vastly present that, even if the psalmist wished to escape God’s presence, it would be impossible to do so. The questions are asked, “Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence?” (v.7, CEB). The answer the psalmist gives are profound: “If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there, too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight!” (v.8-10, CEB). God’s presence is inescapable. God surrounds each of us, even now.
We’re used to speaking of God in paternal terms: God is Father, but here, the psalmist gives us imagery that is clearly maternal. God creates us, but it is not that God blinks us into being and lets us grow. God is intimately involved in the process of gestation. God formed our inward parts. God knit us together in our mother’s womb. God made our very being in secret places where human knowledge cannot have access. God’s creation, itself, is described as having a womb-like quality. As God created order from the chaos of un-creation, so God beheld our unformed substance and wove us together in the depths of the earth.
What does it mean when the psalmist claims that we are “marvelously set apart” or, as another translation render the words, “fearfully and wonderfully made”? (v.14, NRSV). Both translations suggest we are not of our own making. We recognize our finite limitations compared to God’s complete infinity. One of the Cappadocian Fathers said that God is so vast that we could spend eternity with God and never know all there is to know. That kind of vastness in comparison to ourselves is a cause for fear and wonder. That this humongous God who made and orders all things known and unknown should be so intimately involved in our lives is a cause for fear and wonder.
As an author of fantasy novels, I can imagine and write about worlds and places where the power of sin is broken, where people live in love and peace, where wounds are healed, but in this world, I often feel powerless before the brokenness, hatred, evil, and injustice the news plasters on my computer screen every day. (I get my news online, not from the television). The feeling of debilitation we have at the distance between what we can imagine and what we can achieve is a cause for fear. Yet, the intimate relationship that God offers to us, the connection to God we are given through prayer, the fellowship we can have with one another in our Christian community, the redemption made for us by God’s own son, God’s healing love—of which we are gratuitous recipients—are all cause for wonder. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
God is transcendent, high above us, omniscient in knowledge and wisdom, omnipotent in power, unfathomable by human knowledge, infinite in all respects, God holds even the universe we cannot see in the palm of God’s hand. Yet, Psalm 139 reminds us that God is also intimately close.
Nicole Nordeman sings a song called Small Enough, which speaks to our desire for God’s immanence. Here are her lyrics:
“Oh, great God, be small enough to hear me. Now there were times when I was crying from the dark of Daniel’s den, and I have asked you once or twice if you would part the sea again. But tonight I do not need a fiery pillar in the sky. I just want to know you’re going to hold me if I start to cry. Oh, great God, be small enough to hear me now.
Oh, great God, be close enough to feel you now. There have been moments when I could not face goliath on my own, and how could I forget we’ve marched around our share of Jerichos? But I will not be setting out a fleece for you tonight. I just want to know that everything will be alright. Oh great God, be close enough to feel you now.
All praise and all honor be to the God of ancient mysteries, whose every sign and wonder turn the pages of our history. But tonight my heart is heavy, and I cannot keep from whispering this prayer: ‘Are you there?’
And I know you could leave writing on the wall that’s just for me. Or send wisdom while I’m sleeping, like in Solomon’s sweet dreams. But I don’t need the strength of Samson or a chariot in the end. I just want to know that you still know how many hairs are on my head. Oh great God, be small enough to hear me now.”
The wonder of it all is that God is small enough because God is transcendent. God is big enough to be this intimately close to every piece of God’s creation. God is vast enough to be immanent and love each of us to the deepest part of our being. God is beyond us. Yet, God is always closer than we think.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!