O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I lie down and when I awake, You discern my thoughts from far away. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, You know it completely. You surround me, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. How weighty are your thoughts, O God, how vast the sum of them. I try to count them—they are more than the sand, I come to the end—I am still with you.
Psalm 139; it is so beautiful that to simply read it aloud is to praise God. But as much as this psalm praises God, it also provides a window into the human heart. I think that is common in the Psalms. When the Psalms say something like “God, you have never abandoned your people, you are always faithful” they are also saying “God, do not abandon us, be faithful to us now”. This psalm reveals a fundamental human desire, a desire felt as sharply today as when this psalm was written—it is the desire to be known, deeply and completely known by another. It is the desire that leads us to marry, and to write novels, and tweet our every move, and paint self-portraits, and share whispered confidences, and it is also the desire that leads us to pray. We desire so much to be known, deeply and completely known by another. And so when we pray, we express to God, we cannot help ourselves from expressing to God those things that make us who we are deep down: what we yearn for, what we are afraid of, what we regret, what we are thankful for, what we are heartbroken over. We want so dearly for God to hear our prayers, and to know us for who we are.
And yet, and yet, I find it hard sometimes to believe that God could really be very attentive to individual prayers. The world is vast and flooded with the prayers of human kind. There are seven billion human beings dreaming and loving and praying and living and dying, much the same as I do. And it has struck me at times that whenever I pray, God only knows how many other people are praying at that very same moment. Thousands? Almost certainly. Tens of thousands? Quite likely. Hundreds of thousands? Very possibly.
Children kneeling at their bedsides, and Muslims bowing toward Mecca, and patients being wheeled into surgery, and the penitent frightened by what they have done, and the desperate begging for a miracle; when I pray there are thousands and thousands and thousands of other human spirits calling out to be known by God, no less urgently, no less deservingly than I.
In the rear of our sanctuary is a plain wooden box. With just the slightest invitation, people pour themselves out in paper and pen, sharing the depths of themselves hoping to be known by God. And they offer the most tender prayers. God help me keep sober. For my brother Michael, I miss you, and I pray that Justice is done. God thank you for saving my life by a miracle. I pray I don’t kill myself. Many just say “help me”. We take them out and pray over them, praying with these people . But as fast as we take them out, they pour in hour after hour and day after day. So many prayers.
I sometimes find it hard to believe that God could really be attentive to all our prayers, to really know the hearts of those praying them. I want so much for God to be like a trusted and attentive confidante, but perhaps with a thousand simultaneous prayers God is more like a pollster, sifting through mountains of prayer-data searching for trends. Or perhaps God is like a radio, tuned in to one frequency at a time while countless others drift out into the vastness of space invisible and unheard. When I think this way, my faith quakes.
Yet this terror, that God cannot possibly know us each individually because we are too numerous, this terror has a balm and a comfort in an ancient and foundational truth of the Christian faith. It is the idea that God not only created the world, but is continually sustaining it as well. God is the foundation upon which existence itself rests and without God actively exerting Herself, everything that is would cease to exist. God not only created us, but sustains us as well.
It is an ancient idea, but as our understanding of the universe grows, as our knowledge of science advances, in each new discovery God’s voice speaks about previously unknown depths of God’s power as the sustainer of all things. If God is the sustainer of all things, then it is God’s mind that executes the elegant mathematical laws of physics such that they hold immutably and eternally true. God is the sustainer of all things, so it is God’s mighty arm that is pulling from beneath black holes, spinning entire galaxies like a bullroar. It is God’s hand that traces the paths of void blind comets as they traverse gravity’s riverbeds. It is God’s eye that sees the electron rippling like water while being also the stone that is setting the wave in motion. Everything, everywhere in the universe, from the largest exploding star to the tiniest green and growing thing, God is continually sustaining them, all at once.
How weighty are your thoughts, O God, how vast the sum of them. I try to count them—they are more than the sand, more than the stars, I come to the end—I am still with you.
The psalm is saying something true about humanity—we want so dearly for God to be able hear our prayers, to be able to know us each individually. But the Psalm is also saying something true about God. God is certainly capable of hearing your prayers with undivided attention, God is certainly capable of knowing you down to the minutest detail—how many of us are there? A few billion? That is child’s play. That is child’s play for The Most High God, Adonai, I AM WHO I AM—The One who upholds every particle of the universe is not so limited that the She could fail to hear the cries of Her children. Whatever you do, wherever you go, whatever befalls you, you are not alone …
Because God has searched you and known you, God knows when you lie down and when you awake, before a word is on your tongue, God knows it completely. Where can you go from God’s spirit? Or where can you flee from God’s presence? If you ascend to heaven, God is there; if you make your bed in the grave, God is there. If you take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there God’s hand shall uphold you, and God’s right hand shall hold you close. You are not alone, God knows you, and is always with you. Thanks be to God.