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Psalm 139

STROPHE DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
God's Omnipresence and Omniscience
MT Intro
For the choir director.
A Psalm of David.
God's Perfect Knowledge of Man Prayer for Deliverance from Personal Enemies
(A Lament)
God's Complete Knowledge and Care In Praise of God's Omniscience
139:1-6 139:1-6 139:1-6 139:1-6 139:1-3
        139:4-6
139:7-12 139:7-12 139:7-12 139:7-12 139:7-8
        139:9-10
        139:11-12
139:13-16 139:13-16 139:13-18 139:13-18 139:13-14b
        139:14c-15
        139:16
139:17-18 139:17-18     139:17-18
139:19-22 139:19-22 139:19-24 139:19-22 139:19-20
        139:21-22
139:23-24 139:23-24   139:23-24 139:23-24

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Etc.

 

CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS

A. This Psalm uses Hebrew poetry (see Special Topic: Hebrew Poetry) to describe the theological Greek terms: omnipresence, omniscience, and omnificence. YHWH is the perfect Judge.

B. This Psalm describes a faithful follower's personal knowledge of God. It is not linked to God's historical acts of the past but to current faith relationship.

C. John Calvin has said, "Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self." This seems to be applicable to this Psalm.

D. The Masoretic Hebrew (MT) text identifies the author of this Psalm as David. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) attributes it to Adam, the first. However, the Septuagint (LXX) identifies authorship as Zechariah. The MT introductions are absent in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I do not consider them to be inspired.

E. Brief Outline

1. God's knowledge of me, Ps. 139:1-6

2. God's presence with me, Ps. 139:7-12

3. God's creative providence to me, Ps. 139:13-16

4. God's justice for me, Ps. 139:19-22

5. the faithful follower's appropriate response, Ps. 139:23-24

 

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 139:1-6
 1O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
 2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
 You understand my thought from afar.
 3You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
 And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
 4Even before there is a word on my tongue,
 Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
 5You have enclosed me behind and before,
 And laid Your hand upon me.
 6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
 It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

139:1 "Lord" This is the covenant name for God, YHWH, from the Hebrew verb "to be," which implies the ever-living, only-living God (cf. Exod. 3:14). See SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY.

▣ "You have searched me and known me" The first verb (BDB 350, KB 347, Qal perfect) begins and ends the Psalm. Psalm 139:21 is an imperative form, which implies Ps. 139:1 could also be understood in an imperatival sense. The basic etymology is "to dig into so as to find." YHWH examines the hearts of humans ( cf. Job 13:9; 1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Kgs. 8:39; 1 Chr. 28:9; 2 Chr. 6:30; Ps. 7:9; 44:21; Pro. 15:11; 20:27; 21:2; Jer. 11:20; 17:9-10; 20:12; Luke 16:15; Acts 1:24; 15:8; Rom. 8:27). See SPECIAL TOPIC: GOD TESTS HIS PEOPLE.

▣ "known me" The OT word "to know" is used here in the sense of "intimate, personal knowledge" (cf. Gen. 4:1; Jer. 1:5; this imperfect is used in a jussive sense, see Special Topic: Know).

139:2 "when I sit down and when I rise up" God's complete knowledge of each individual life (i.e., Deut. 6:7) is described in Ps. 139:2-4.

1. sit down - rise up, Ps. 139:2

2. journeying - lying down, Ps. 139:3

3. before a word - You know it, Ps. 139:4

4. Ps. 139:2b,3b, and 4b serve as summary statements

 

The word translated "thought" (BDB 946 III) is found only here and in Ps. 139:17. BDB has its meaning as "purpose" or "aim." The LXX translates it as a similar root, "friends" (DB 946) in Ps. 139:17 but has "thoughts" in 139:2.

139:3 You scrutinize my path" The verb "scrutinize" (BDB 279, KB 280, Piel perfect) normally means

"to scatter" but here, and here alone, it seems to denote a winnowing or sifting. KB sees the root as also possibly meaning "to measure" (KB 280 II) in the sense of "know."

The term "path" (BDB 73) is a metaphor of one's life (cf. Job 14:16; 31:4). The concept is parallel to "the everlasting way" of Ps. 139:24.

▣ "my lying down" The Septuagint has the term "bed." This seems to refer either to nightly stopping places where one sleeps while traveling or to one's sexual activity (i.e., God knows all humans' activities).

NASB"intimately acquainted"
NKJV, NRSV"acquainted"
TEV"know"
NJB"every detail"
JPSOA, REB"familiar"

This Hebrew root (BDB 698) has several meanings.

1. 698 I - Qal, "be of service" or "benefit"

 - Hiphil used here and in Num. 22:30; Job 22:21, "know intimately"

2. 698 II - "incur danger," Eccl. 10:9 (Niphal)

3. 698 III - "be poor," Isa. 40:20 (Pual)

They all have the same root consonants and Masoretic vowel points. Only context can give a clue to its meaning.

139:4 "Even before there is a word on my tongue" The Peshitta has "deception," while the Septuagint has the phrase "unrighteous word." It is obvious that the ancient versions believed that Ps. 139:4 was related to mankind's evil side. Humans' spoken words reveal who we truly are (cf. Matt. 12:36,37; Mark 7:15).

139:5 "You have enclosed me" The Septuagint and the Peshitta have the verb "formed" instead of "enclosed" (BDB 848, KB 1015, Qal perfect). However, because of the following phrase, "enclosed" seems to be more appropriate. This Hebrew root (BDB 848 II) has a military connotation (cf. Isa. 29:3) or a sense of confinement (cf. Song of Songs 8:9). Here it denotes YHWH's sovereign control and guidance of a person's life.

The Hebrew words "behind" and "before" reflect the Hebrew words "east" and "west" (cf. Job 18:20).

▣ "laid Your hand upon me" This is anthropological language (see SPECIAL TOPIC: GOD DESCRIBED AS HUMAN (ANTHROPOMORPHISM)). The "hand" is a Hebrew idiom of power and control (see SPECIAL TOPIC: HAND).

Psalm 139:5b is a statement of YHWH's sovereignty and control of His human creature (cf. Ps. 139:10). This knowledge is comforting to faithful followers and terrifying to the disobedient.

139:6 "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me" The Septuagint puts Ps. 139:6 with the next paragraph. This phrase reflects a knowledge of God which is too much for mankind to comprehend (cf. Ps. 139:14, 17,18; Ps. 40:5; Isa. 55:8,9; Rom. 11:33). Ultimately we must trust God without fully understanding (i.e., Job 1-2,42).

The Hebrew term "wonderful" can mean "difficult" (cf. Deut. 30:11 and Pro. 30:18; see Special Topic: Wonderful Things).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 139:7-12
 7Where can I go from Your Spirit?
 Or where can I flee from Your presence?
 8If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
 If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
 9If I take the wings of the dawn,
 If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
 10Even there Your hand will lead me,
 And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
 11If I say, "Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
 And the light around me will be night,"
 12Even the darkness is not dark to You,
 And the night is as bright as the day.
 Darkness and light are alike to You.

139:7 "Where can I go from Your Spirit" It is uncertain in exactly what sense this question is to be understood. Some see it as mankind's attempt to flee from God because he is evil. Others see it as a rhetorical device to show God's omnipresence. It is obvious that "Your Spirit" in this verse is parallel to "Your presence" in the next line. This is not the full NT Trinitarian (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TRINITY) use of the term "Spirit," but it is a way of speaking of God's active presence (cf. Gen. 1:2). If I could paraphrase this concept it would be, "There is no hiding place from God" (cf. Je. 23:23,24). See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE PERSONHOOD OF THE SPIRIT.

139:8 "If I ascend to heave, You are there" This is literally "scale" (BDB 701, KB 758, Qal imperfect). This is very similar to Ps. 103:11 in describing God's omnipresence, as far as heaven above and Sheol below.

Notice how in the next few verses "contrasts" are used to show the full extent of truths about God's omniscience and omnipresence.

1. ascend to heaven - make my bed in Sheol, Ps. 139:8

2. wings of the dawn (i.e., east) - remotest part of the sea (i.e., Mediterranean Sea to the west), Ps. 139:9

3. the darkness - the light, Ps. 139:12

God is present everywhere. No one can flee from Him!

▣ "I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there" There are many passages in the OT that speak of God being present in the realm of the dead (cf. Job 26:6; Ps. 15:11; Amos 9:2). The term "Sheol" is synonymous with the NT term "Hades" and should be translated "the realm of the dead" or "the nether world." See SPECIAL TOPIC: Where Are the Dead?

139:9 "If. . ." The hypothetical particle (BDB 49) appears only in Ps. 139:8a but is assumed in 8b,9a, 9b,11a.

The adverb "even" (BDB 168) is used in a similar way in Ps. 139:10a,12a.

Psalm 139:8-12 answers the two questions of 139:7. It is hypothetical language used to make a point.

▣ "in the remotest part of the sea" Literally this phrase is "from the sunrise to the sunset," which is similar to Ps. 130:12.

139:10 "Even there Your hand will lead me,
 And Your right hand will lay hold of me"
Traditional translation has assumed this verse to express God's personal guidance and protection. However, the Hebrew of Ps. 139:10 and 11 suggests the personification of darkness or a personal enemy pursuing the man of God.

139:11 "Surely the darkness will overwhelm me" The words "darkness," Ps. 139:11; "night," Ps. 139:11; "darkness, Ps. 139:12; "night," Ps. 139:12 seem to refer to Sheol (cf. Ps. 139:15). The ancient Jewish translations by Rashi and Eben Ezra, along with the NIV, suppose Ps. 139:11 to be an attempted escape by (1) sinful man in the darkness or (2) the faithful from sinful persecutors.

NASB"overwhelm"
NKJV"fall on"
NRSV, NJB,
Vulgate"cover"
TEV"hide"
JPSOA"conceal"
REB"steal over"

The MT has שׁוף (BDB 1003), which means "bruise" (cf. Gen. 3:15; Job 9:17) but this does not seem to fit the context. Therefore, some scholars suggest an emendation to שׁור (BDB 962 I) "hedge" or "fence about" (i.e., protect or cover).

Whatever is meant by "the darkness," God controls it, and His faithful followers need not fear it! It may even be an opportunity for revelation (cf. Gen. 15:12) or deliverance (plague of Egypt, cf. Exod. 10:21-19; Ps. 105:28).

139:12 "the darkness is not dark to You" Darkness can be (1) the opposite of light; (2) the enemy of light; (3) one's personal enemy; or (4) simply night time.

Nightfall was terrifying to the ancients. They often personified its sounds and lights in the sky as gods or omens. YHWH controls the night!

▣ "Darkness and light are alike to You" There is no where to run or hide from the Creator (cf. Ps. 139:7)!

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 139:13-16
 13For You formed my inward parts;
 You wove me in my mother's womb.
 14I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
 Wonderful are Your works,
 And my soul knows it very well.
 15My frame was not hidden from You,
 When I was made in secret,
 And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
 16Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
 And in Your book were all written
 The days that were ordained for me,
 When as yet there was not one of them.

139:13

NASB, NKJV,
NRSV"formed"
TEV, NJB,
JPSOA"created"
REB"fashioned"
LXX"possessed"

The verb (BDB 888, KB 1111, Qal perfect) normally means "to buy" but it is used of God's creative activities several times (cf. Gen. 14:19,22; Deut. 32:6; Pro. 8:22). Here it denotes God's special, personal care in the formation of the human person. As He created Adam (Gen. 2:8) and Eve (Gen. 2:18,21-22) with special care and purpose, so too, each human made in His image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). Humans are special!

▣ "inward parts" This Hebrew term (BDB 480) denotes the lower viscera of mankind (esp. "kidneys"), which is a Hebraic idiom for a person's emotions and will. This creation by God implies prenatal formation (cf. Jer. 1:5) of the person and his personality.

▣ "You did weave me in my mother's womb" The term "weave" (BDB 697 II, KB 754 II) is literally the rare Hebrew word "knit." It is found in only a few places.

1. Qal - Ps. 139:13

2. Niphal - Pro. 8:23 (possibly related term)

3. Poel - Job 10:11

The same root (KB 754 III) is translated "cover" (cf. Lam. 3:43,44). The word is rare and ambiguous but from the context the meaning is clear. Hebrew parallelism is very helpful in interpreting these rare terms.

139:14-16 The UBS Handbook (p. 1130) says "The translation of verses 14-16 is full of difficulties, and very few commentators or translators are dogmatic about the exact meaning of the Masoretic text." This being so, no doctrine that is not clearly taught in other Scriptures should be based on these verses. ANE poetry is slippery stuff. It is for emotional impact and does not lend itself to grammatical and lexical analysis. Remember, context, context, context is crucial. Hebrew parallelism is also a better guide than cognate Semitic roots! See Special Topic: Hebrew Poetry.

139:14 "I give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made" The Septuagint and the RSV make God, not man, the object of this statement. Today's English Version, following the Dead Sea Scrolls, seems to agree with this understanding. The MT has "I."

The two terms

1. fearfully - BDB 431, KB 432, Niphal participle

2. wonderfully - BDB 811, KB 930, Nipahl perfect

If these two terms refer to God, then they are parallel with the next line of poetry, "wonderful are Your works" (Ps. 139:14b).

The JPSOA translates this strophe (Ps. 139:13-16) as if it refers to God's creation of a human and not a description of God in Ps. 139:14.

139:15

NASB, NKJV,
NRSV, JPSOA"frame"
TEV"bones"
REB"body"

The Hebrew noun (BDB 787, KB 870) usually means "might" (cf. Deut. 8:17). Only here does BDB have "bones" (see NIDOTTE, vol. 3, pp. 499-500), although the root is used of the bones of a sacrifice (cf. Num. 9:12) or human bones (cf. Num. 19:16,18). The sense here is human skeleton.

▣ "When I was made in secret" There are several understandings of this verse:

1. relates the term "secret" (BDB 712) and the parallel phrase, "in the depths of the earth," another name for Sheol (cf. Ps. 63:9; Job 14:13; 40:13; Isa. 45:19)

2. relates this to the creation of Adam from the dust (cf. Gen. 2:7) and our creation from the dust being personified as the depths of the earth (cf. Ecclesiasticus 40:1)

3. another possibility is to use the "hiddenness" of the womb and the "hiddenness" of the nether world as poetic imagery, not theological assertions

 

NASB, NKJV"skillfully wrought"
NRSV"intricately woven"
TEV"put together"
NJB"being formed"
JPSOA"shaped"
REB"formed"

The Hebrew root, רקם (BDB 955), means "variegated." The Pual is found only here. The NRSV is literal. But the root could refer to "kneading" clay or dough (AB, p. 294; TEV, NJB, JPSOA, REB).

139:16 "Your eyes" The OT often uses anthropomorphic language to describe God. Humans have no other language to use but it is always only analogous. See SPECIAL TOPIC: GOD DESCRIBED AS HUMAN (ANTHROPOMORPHISM).

▣ "unformed substance" This hapax legomenon has also been understood in two different ways:

1. of fetal development which is known by God (cf. Ps. 139:13-16a; AV, RV, NEV, JPSOA

2. of all of life being known by God, even before birth (cf. LXX, REV, JB, NASV, TEV), based on the contextual link with Ps. 139:16b

The "unformed" (BDB 166) is from the root "to roll up" (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:8) but here in the Aramaic sense of "unfinished vessel." AB (p. 295) translates it as "life stages," from Ugaritic root.

NASB"ordained"
NKJV, REB"fashioned"
NRSV, JPSOA"formed"
TEV"allotted"
NJB"inscribed"

The verb (BDB 427, KB 428; Owens, Analytical Key to the OT, calls it a Pual perfect, while OT Parsing Guide calls it a Qal passive) denotes the creations of a potter (cf. Jer. 1:5). This verb, like so many in this Psalm, denotes God's sovereign acts and will.

▣ "in Your book were all written" This refers to the two books mentioned in Dan. 7:10 and Rev. 20:12: (1) the Book of Life (cf. Exod. 32:32; Ps. 69:25; Luke 10:20) or (2) the Book of Remembrances (cf. Ps. 56:8; Mal. 3:16). See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TWO BOOKS OF GOD.

YHWH knows our lives, thoughts, and deeds before they are done in time (Rev. 13:8).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 139:17-18
 17How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! 
 How vast is the sum of them!
 18If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
 When I awake, I am still with You.

139:17 "How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God" The translation "precious" is from the Hebrew root "heavy" or "weighty" (BDB 429, cf. Ps. 116:15). The Septuagint translates this phrase, "Thy friends, Oh God, have been greatly honored by me." For a parallel to Ps. 139:17 see Ps. 40:5.

▣ "How vast is the sum of them" There are several interpretive issues in this phrase.

1. The term "vast" (BDB 782 II) is translated "bones" in Ps. 139:16 but there seems to be no contextual link between them.

2. The term "sum" (BDB 910 I) is literally "head." It could be "sum of a column of numbers." The ancients added up, not down. This would make a good parallel to Ps. 139:18a.

However, AB (p. 296) asserts a better translation is "essence," following Ps. 119:160.

The LXX interpreted this word as "rulers" or "principalities." There is obviously ambiguity here. Remember this is Hebrew poetry, using many hapax legomena and rare words.

139:18 "If I count them, they would outnumber the sand" Psalm 139:17 and 18 are amazing in the sense that the all-knowing, all-powerful, always-present God cares about each of His human creatures!

▣ "When I awake, I am still with You" The phrase "awake" is perfect tense in Hebrew. There have been several theories about its meaning.

1. that it refers to the Hebrew concept of God's presence (cf. Ps. 73:23)

2. that some Hebrew manuscripts have the term "finished" to give the sense of "finished counting your blessings"

3. some take this as eternal life with God (cf. Ps. 17:15; 23:6)

4. the psalmist falling asleep while counting God's blessings and waking again to still find Him present (because he could not finish the counting, cf. Ps. 3:5; Pro. 3:24).

 

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 139:19-22
 19O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
 Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.
 20For they speak against You wickedly,
 And Your enemies take Your name in vain.
 21Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord?
 And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
 22I hate them with the utmost hatred;

They have become my enemies.

139:19 "O that You would slay the wicked, O God" At first this last strophe seems to be a radical break in the context, but it is really continuing the thoughts of a righteous God and His Personal Presence in a sinful world. The wicked are characterized in five phrases.

1. they are murderers, Ps. 139:19b

2. they speak wickedly, Ps. 139:20a

3. they take God's name in vain, Ps. 139:20b

4. they hate God, Ps. 139:21a

5. they rise up against God, Ps. 139:21b

The psalmist wishes that they would experience the curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-30. The "two ways" has clear consequences in time and eternity (cf. Deut. 30:15,19; Psalm 1).

▣ "Depart from me" Note Ps. 6:8; 119:115; Matt. 7:23. This is exactly opposite from Ps. 139:18b, which speaks of God's presence with His faithful followers.

This last strophe is characterized by imperatives (seven). There are no other imperatives in this Psalm.

1. depart from me, Ps. 139:19 - BDB 693, KB 747, Qal imperative addressed to "the wicked"

2. search me, Ps. 139:23 - BDB 350, KB 347, Qal imperative; the same root appears in Ps. 139:1, addressed to God, cf. Ps. 26:2; numbers 2-7 are addressed to God by the psalmist

3. know my heart, Ps. 139:23 (twice) - BDB 393, KB 390, Qal imperative, see Ps. 139:1,2,14, addressed to God

4. try me, Ps. 139:23 - BDB 103, KB 119, Qal imperative, cf. Ps. 7:9; 11:5

5. know, Ps. 139:23 - same as #3

6. see, Ps. 139:24 - BDB 906, KB 1157, Qal imperative

7. lead me, Ps. 139:24 - BDB 634, KB 685, Qal imperative, cf. Ps. 5:8; 31:3

 

139:20 "And Your enemies take Your name in vain" Notice "Your name" is in italics, which means that it is not in the Hebrew text. The literal Hebrew text, followed by the Septuagint, has "Thy cities in vain," but this seems to be a difficult translation to understand. The UBS Text Project gives this reading a "C" rating (i.e., considerable doubt). It is possible to revocalize "take in vain" in the sense of "to array against." It is uncertain if the men referred to are simply ignorant of God or if they are aggressive false teachers.

139:20-22 This is the psalmist's righteous indignation!

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 139:23-24
 23Search me, O God, and know my heart;
 Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
 24And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
 And lead me in the everlasting way.

139:24 "hurtful way in me" Some translate this as "idolatrous way" (BDB 780 I). This may be possible because the term "way" can be revocalized "to hold sway." It is obvious that the author wants none of the attitudes or actions of the wicked, which are discussed in Ps. 139:19-22, in his life even if he does not immediately recognize them.

The other option (AB, p. 285) is to see this Psalm as being from a godly person accused of idolatry.

▣ "the everlasting way" This is contrasted to the way of the wicked (cf. Ps. 1:1,4-5). Their way will pass away but following God's will results in eternal life (cf. Ps. 16:11; Jer. 6:16; 18:15; Job 22:15). This ancient way developed into the OT concept of biblical faith as a lifestyle and became fully developed in the NT title for the early church called "The Way."

The noun "everlasting" (BDB 761) is the Hebrew 'olam, see Special Topic: Forever ('olam).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk n the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why has this Psalm so grabbed the heart and mind of modern man?

2. What is this Psalm saying about God in our daily lives?

3. How do the negative statements of Ps. 139:19-22 fit into the overall purpose of the biblical author?