17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them– they are more than the sand; I come to the end– I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17-18 NRSV)
Sure, the idea of counting thoughts sounds strange to us, but maybe it helps us a little to know this psalm was written in a language (Hebrew) in which the same word can mean “word” or “thing.” Words, and perhaps by extension thoughts, were considered to have substance, physical reality. There is an earthiness, a physicality, to ancient Hebrew we in the postmodern West may find primitive, although some of our current masters (and mistresses) of deceit are learning to their chagrin that, through the wonder of online video, their words can remain fixed as specific things in the reality of having been spoken in a time and a place long after the speakers would wish them vaporized and deniable. We can surely understand, in any case, that if thoughts may be regarded as having weight and number, God’s thoughts would vastly outweigh and outnumber ours!
The problem lies in comprehending God and God’s ways. Even “just” comprehending God’s creation, the natural world we call the universe, is beyond us; we would do better to try to count one by one the grains of sand on a seashore. Not only are there far too many sand grains, but the sands keep shifting. The image serves as a metaphor for the undoable. These days, we would probably just say that God’s thoughts are infinite, God’s ways mysterious, God’s plans unchartable. Our more cerebral and ethereal language, however, may fail to connect with us as well as the earthy image of counting sand grains. Remember, the psalmist is amazed, not by God’s distance from us, but by God’s inescapable closeness. The more we elevate God beyond the knowable, the approachable, the conceivable, the intimate, the more we push God out of our lives and the life of our world. The biblical witness contends that God wills and even yearns for relationship with us, that the Creator loves the creation and is committed to it, and that God insists upon being present and knowable in love’s sense of knowing another. Love is a matter of coming close while keeping a respectful distance, of understanding for the purpose of caring but without violating the autonomy and mystery of the other person.
So, the psalmist concludes, not that God is remote, but, rather, that God stays close: “I come to the end– I am still with you”! Difference does not create distance. Wonder does not estrange us from our God.
What is the meaning of, “I come to the end”? Life gives it many meanings. Does it mean (1), “Even if I could reach the end of counting all God’s thoughts, comprehending God fully, the important thing is that I would still be with God?” This interpretation may seem just a theoretical argument using an impossibility to make a point, but I think it reminds me in all my striving that I need to trust first, last, and always. Or does it mean (2), “When I finally realize the futility of counting sand grains (of trying, that is, to comprehend God to my satisfaction), I am still with you, God”? In this case, it counters the will to master, the compulsion to find right answers, with a reminder of my human limitations but a reminder that leads me toward humble trust and appreciation rather than toward cynicism or despair. Or does it mean (3), “Even if I were to come to the end of my strength to be curious, to pursue life, and to keep growing, I am still, though nearly exhausted, with you”? I can relate to that third interpretation also. Whatever slight difference in meaning and message I need to hear in my current time and place, the realization is that God is not present for me according to the measure of my rightness or absent from me when I misunderstand, falter, fail, or go wrong; God is present to me in God’s own love for me and understanding of me that expresses itself as compassion rather than contempt.
The Prophet of the Exile famously declares to the Jews in Babylonian exile, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NRSV) But precisely here God is moving toward, not away from, the defeated and discouraged people and calling for them to move closer to their God, also, in response. God’s ways which are not like our ways are redemptive, and God’s thoughts which are astoundingly higher than our thoughts are compassionate.
Our humanity does not disgust God! The animalistic needs, processes, weaknesses, and yearnings of our mortal bodies may embarrass and even disgust us, but they do not disgust God, any more than loving parents turn away from and reject their baby for spitting up or needing a diaper change. Even our sins, as the prophet asserts in context, can be overcome, and God comes to liberate us from their power.
What I find here is not the futility of counting sand grains or of understanding God. Rather I find that God’s insistence upon sticking with me no matter what or where means I do need to keep trying to understand and be changed by a growing relational knowledge of God’s compassion and desire for a truer and more alive human community. And if/when I come to the end, whatever temporary or final form that end may take, I can trust that I will find, my God, that I am still with you. And even when I doubt, you are still there for me.