It is an outburst of praise as if Paul could no longer contain himself, and a prayer pours out of his heart. The prayer is simple; the prayer is profound. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV)!
The context of this praise is Paul’s discussion of the special collection for Jerusalem that is the subject of chapters 8 and 9. In fact, commentators have divided on what Paul means by this phrase. A few have suggested that the indescribable gift is the special collection itself. That’s the impression left by the New Living Translation’s rendering, “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” But even they footnote that the Greek says “his gift.”
It seems more likely that the indescribable gift is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s as if Paul’s thoughts about Christians giving naturally leads to what God has given us. No matter what we give, we cannot out give God.
God’s gift is indescribable. The word that Paul uses for indescribable has its first occurrence in Greek literature in this passage. Some think that Paul may have even coined the word. It is one of those words that simply has a negative prefix attached as we do with un- (unhappy instead of happy) or a- (atheist instead of theist). The word without the negation means “to tell in detail” or “narrate in full or completely.”
Paul does not mean that the gift cannot be described. Indescribable in English has two senses. If I go to the doctor and say that I have an indescribable sensation, it means that I have a feeling that I can’t put into words at all – frustrating to both doctor and patient. But if I were to say that I have indescribable joy, I would mean that it is surpassing description. I would have words, plenty of words, and quite possibly a rushing torrent of words. I would mean that all of the words put together could never completely describe it.
That’s the way it is with God’s gift. Can I get my head around the concept “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”? What was it like for the one who knew the glory of heaven to experience a peasant’s birth, a carpenter’s life? How do I depict the meaning of the death of Christ? I can imagine myself standing before the judgment seat of God deserving “guilty as charged.” Yet Christ brings me acceptance. I can imagine myself in chains – a slave to sin. Christ’s death redeems me out of my bondage. He has paid the price to set me free. I can imagine myself in front of an altar. The wrath of God is coming upon me because of sin. What sacrifice can I offer to appease God? My hands are empty. In the midst of my predicament, God provides the sacrifice of His own son.
And so it goes. Many words can describe what God has done, but we are approaching something wondrous. Whether we approach the task with great analytical skill and precision or whether we burst out with the evocative words of a poet, words fail. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”