Sunday, September 5, 2010: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
For those people who have no inclination to know God or learn about
God, the interest of others in learning about God may seem strange. For
those of us who want to know God, the yearning seems inevitable, like a
default setting that we were born with. Twenty centuries ago, Rabbi
Yochanan ben Zakkai reminded his students that they were not to take
pride in their knowledge of Torah. Knowing God was what we were created
for, he told them. It is woven into who we are.
grounded our need to know God in our createdness: "What is the chief
end of human life?" he asked, and answered, "To know God by whom we
were created." This yearning is not the same as our need to "know"
other human beings. We may spend an afternoon catching up with friends
on Facebook, but this desire to know God compels us in a way that makes
even the most articulate of us stammer to explain it. It can be more
than a little embarrassing. There are certain skills and expertise we
need to make a living, but this is something else. This enjoyment is
more desperate. If we pause to contemplate this odd need, this unbidden
longing, the whole experience may feel more than a little eerie.
more eerie, however, is the 139th Psalm's dizzying accounting of God's
knowing us. Just when we might imagine we were responsible for a holy
quest for God we discover ourselves searched for—and found! Being found
reverses the terms and the risk of our investigation. "O Lord, you have
searched me and known me," reads a standard translation, but searched
has a remoteness and detachment foreign to the psalmist's breathtaking
poetry. There is much to be said for the Jewish Publication Society's
translation of "You have examined me and know me." To be examined
conjures up the anxious experience of an annual checkup. The experience
is physical. We stand naked and vulnerable or we clutch the
flimsy illusion of a paper gown. The clothes that cover us are hung up;
the scars that the world has carved into us are now visible, as well as
the tattoo from a night's overindulgence, the sags and the pitiful
wornness of skin.
The examination is relentless: "I don't like
the look of this," "Well, at your age . . ." or "That needs to come
off." But the merciless truth is merciful as well, because with the
truth comes life. We sense the swirling vertigo described by the
psalmist: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high."
poet of Psalm 139 knew the panicked impulse to flee examination (vv.
7-12). Though we may evade knowing God by carelessness or indifference,
we cannot escape God knowing us. It is in our DNA spun into that
swirling double helix that determines us and apparently predestines us
in ways we shudder to imagine. God's knowing is woven into the textile
of our living because God is a weaver and a knitter too. In ancient
Israel, as in most cultures, weaving and knitting were done by women;
the psalmist pictures the Lord doing her knitting in a mother's womb.
If that isn't enough to fracture our customary metaphors for God, the
psalmist goes on to imagine the Lord weaving "in the depths of the
earth," fashioning creatures made of earth (Gen. 2:7). In secret and
mysterious places her hands knit together bone and muscle and tendon;
they weave weft and warp of veins and arteries, nerves and fascia to
fashion a physical human body.
The psalmist's fingers play over
the strings of the lyre as arms embrace the instrument and the belly
rumbles in hunger. This is what it is to be human and alive: "I praise
you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!" The psalmist delights
not simply in physical existence but also in being physically known and
created. This human body, frail and vulnerable though it may be, is
nothing less than proof of the existence of God. "The mystery of God is
the mystery of our own bodies," writes Brazilian theologian Rubem
Alves. Strength of arms, movement of body and the even more astounding
wonder of our consciousness of it all: it can all end in a single
instant—"to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19)—but for this instant
there is light and breath and music and rejoicing, and all of it must
be sung. Even at the end, as at our beginning, "I am still with you,"
Knowing God as the one who knows us far beyond any
desire we have to be known, we surrender finally to the wisdom that God
can be known only in wonder and astonishment. Our knowing is not
defeated so much as it is overflowing the too small cups we have
brought to the table. To read Psalm 139 correctly is to lose any sure
footing in God's heights, to have our breath taken away—and then to
have it restored.