< January 18, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

 

Psalm 139 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.

In this genre, singers praise God for God's goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations, such as illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc.  Here, the psalmist celebrates the creative goodness of God in verses 1-18, and provides a glimpse of the oppression that occasioned the composition of the psalm in verses 19-22. It concludes with a plea to God to search for any ill-feelings towards others, presumably those who have so hurtfully oppressed. The singer seems to desire absolute innocence from any thought or inclination that might justify the sentiment of those who speak mischief and rise up in hate (20).

To begin, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the personal name of Israel's God, Yahweh (1, 4). Second person pronouns occur ten times in the first six verses:  "you have searched," "you know," "you discern," etc. In addition, the psalmist refers to self thirteen times: "you have searched me and known me," "when I sit down and when I rise up," "my thoughts," "my path," etc.

With this abundance of first and second person pronouns in the first six verses, Psalm 139 reflects the profound relationship of the "I" and "You" (or, "I" and "Thou") in ancient Israel. Walter Brueggemann describes this relationship by saying, "The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter."1  In a book titled Tales of the Hasadim, Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, offered these words concerning the relationship between God and humankind:

Where I wander - You!
Where I ponder - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened - You!
When I am saddened - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!2

The close relationship between the psalmist and God is not only emphasized in the language of "I" and "thou" in Psalm 139, but also in the repetition of the verbal root yada' (to know), which occurs seven times (1, 2, 4, 6, 14, and twice in 23). Yada' is a rich word in biblical Hebrew, covering a whole range of meanings - from simple recognition to intimate sexual relationship. In Genesis 4, we read that Adam "knew (yada') his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain" (Genesis 4:1). Elsewhere, God tells the people they will "know that I am the LORD" (Ezekiel 6:7, 13). Job adds, in 5:27, "See, we have searched this out; it is true. Hear, and know it for yourself." Some form of this word occurs sixty times in the Psalter, emphasizing that the concept of "knowledge" is a critical element of meaningful relationship.  We are to know God, just as God knows us. As the psalmist says, "It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (13).

The second half of our lection, verses 13-18, offers a variety of interesting, even problematic, translation options. In verse 14, "fearfully" is derived from the verbal root yara'. Unfortunately, in today's culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. Yet yara' encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for "love" ('ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); "cling to" (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and "serve" ('abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. Thus, a better translation of the word in verse 4 might be "reverently."

Also in verse 14, "wonderfully" comes from the verbal root pala', which means to be different, striking, remarkable - outside of the power of human comprehension. The word is used repeatedly in the Psalter to describe the acts of God on behalf of humanity (cf. Psalms 9:2; 40:5), particularly God's actions in the history of the ancient Israelites (cf. Psalms 78:4; 105:5).

The reference in Verse 15 to being shaped in "the lowest parts of the earth" echoes the creation story in Genesis 2, where we read, "then the LORD God formed the human ('adam) from the dust of the ground ('adamah)" (Gen 2:7).

The word translated as "unformed substance" in verse 16a is the Hebrew word gomli, which is found only here within the Bible. In Babylonian Aramaic, the word is used to designate a formless mass or an incomplete vessel. The Syriac word galma means "uncultivated soil." To translate the word as "embryo," as some translations do, is over-specific and misleading. And while verse 16 cannot be used to solve questions such as "When does life begin?", the whole of Psalm 139 affirms the sacredness of life.

The second and third phrases of verse 16 (16b and 16c) are as puzzling as 16a.  A more literal, but less elegant translation could be:

and upon your scroll all of them were written,
the days that were meant to be, when not one of them was.

Other references to a scroll (or book) of God occur in Exodus 32:32-33 and Psalms 56:8; 69:28. However, we read in none of these passages about the numbering of the days of an individual life. Thus, the singer of Psalm 139 acknowledges that God holds all life in God's hands.

Verses 17 and 18 form a doxological conclusion to the first sixteen verses. In verse 17, the psalmist marvels at the thoughts (re'ah) of God, using the same word as in verse 2b, where the psalmist says to God, "you discern (re'ah) my thoughts from far off." God knows (yada') humanity inside and out, and therefore discerns (re'ah) our every act and thought. God's discernment and insight into the thoughts of humanity are at the same time disconcerting and comforting.

Each of us was formed and framed by God. God's eyes beheld our unformed substances. Each of us was reverently, wondrously, strikingly, remarkably, differently made - in ways that are beyond human explanation. In any time, in any place where the faithful face wickedness, bloodshed, and deceit, the words of Psalm 139 provide comforting assurance of God's sovereign creation of, and care for, each person.


1Walter Brueggemann, "The Psalms as Prayer," in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 19095),34, italics original.
2Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasadim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), 212.