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Psalm 139

The Inescapable God

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.


O Lord, you have searched me and known me.


You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.


You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.


Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.


You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.


Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.



Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?


If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.


If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,


even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.


If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”


even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.



For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.


I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.


My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.


Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.


How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is 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.


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1. O Jehovah! thou hast searched me David declares, in the outset of this Psalm, that he does not come before God with any idea of its being possible to succeed by dissimulation, as hypocrites will take advantage of secret refuges to prosecute sinful indulgences, but that he voluntarily lays bare his innermost heart for inspection, as one convinced of the impossibility of deceiving God. It is thine, he says, O God! to discover every secret thought, nor is there anything which can escape thy notice, He then insists upon particulars, to show that his whole life was known to God, who watched him in all his motions — when he slept, when he arose, or when he walked abroad. The word רע, rea, which we have rendered thought, signifies also a friend or companion, on which account some read — thou knowest what is nearest me afar off, a meaning more to the point than any other, if it could be supported by example. The reference would then be very appropriately to the fact that the most distant objects are contemplated as near by God. Some for afar off read beforehand, in which signification the Hebrew word is elsewhere taken, as if he had said — O Lord, every thought which I conceive in my heart is already known to thee beforehand. But I prefer the other meaning, That God is not confined to heaven, indulging in a state of repose, and indifferent to human concerns, according to the Epicurean idea, and that however far off we may be from him, he is never far off from us.

The verb זרה, zarah, means to winnow as well as to compass, so that we may very properly read the third verse — thou winnowest my ways, 201201     Piscator, Campensis, Pagninus, Luther, and our English Version, read “thou compassest.” This no doubt gives the meaning, of the original, though not the precise idea, which is noticed on the margin of our English Bible to be “winnowest.” The verb זרה, zarah, employed, signifies to disperse, to fan, to ventilate, to winnow; and here it denotes that as men separate the corn from the chaff, so God separates between, or investigates, the good and the bad in the daily conduct of men. Hence the Septuagint reads ἐξιχνίασας, “thou hast investigated.” Bishop Hare, who renders “thou dost compass,” supposes it to be a metaphor taken from hunting. “Winnowing,” says Archbishop Secker,” would sound uncouth But Mudge hath hit on the word siftest, which, though an idea somewhat different, suits very well.” a figurative expression to denote the bringing of anything which is unknown to light. The reader is left to his own option, for the other rendering which I have adopted is also.appropriate. There has been also a difference of opinion amongst interpreters as to the last clause of the verse. The verb סכן, sachan, in the Hiphil conjugation, as here, signifies to render successful, which has led some to think that David here thanks God for crowning his actions with success; but this is a sense which does not at all suit the scope of the Psalmist in the context, for he is not speaking of thanksgiving. Equally forced is the meaning given to the words by others — Thou hast made me to get acquainted or accustomed with my ways; 202202     “Fecisti assuescere vias meas.” — Lat. as if he praised God for being endued with wisdom and counsel. Though the verb be in the Hiphil, I have therefore felt no hesitation in assigning it a neuter signification — Lord, thou art accustomed to my ways, so that they are familiar to thee.

4. For there is not a word, etc. The words admit a double meaning. Accordingly some understand them to imply that God knows what, we are about to say before the words are formed on our tongue; others, that though we speak not a word, and try by silence to conceal our secret intentions, we cannot elude his notice. Either rendering amounts to the same thing, and it is of no consequence which we adopt. The idea meant to be conveyed is, that while the tongue is the index of thought to man, being the great medium of communication, God, who knows the heart, is independent of words. And use is made of the demonstrative particle lo! to indicate emphatically that the innermost recesses of our spirit stand present to his view.

In verse fifth some read — behind and before thou hast fashioned me; 203203     Thus the Septuagint have ἔπλασάς με, Thou hast formed me. Similar is the rendering of the Syriac. Those who embrace this view take the verb, as if the root were יצר, yatsar. “But,” says Phillips, “it is certain that the root of צרתני must be צור, to afflict, press, besiege. Hence the meaning of the verse is, ‘Thou hast so pressed upon, or besieged me, both behind and before, that I find there is no escaping from thee; Thou hast placed thy hand upon me, so that I am quite in thy power.’ The whole passage is a figure, representing God’s thorough knowledge of man.” — Phillips. Thou besettest me behind and before, i.e. thou knowest all my doings as perfectly as if I were begirt by thee on every side.” — Cresswell. but צור, tsur, often signifies to shut up, and David, there can be no doubt, means that he was surrounded on every side, and so kept in sight by God, that he could not escape in any quarter. One who finds the way blocked up turns back; but David found himself hedged in behind as well as before. The other clause of the verse has the same meaning; for those put a very forced interpretation upon it who think that it refers to God’s fashioning us, and applying his hand in the sense of an artizan to his work; nor does this suit with the context. And it is much better to understand it as asserting that God by his hand, laid as it were upon men, holds them strictly under his inspection, so that they cannot move a hair’s breadth without his knowledge. 204204     “Comme mettant la main sur eux pour los arrester par le collet, ainsi qu’on dit, tellement qu’ils ne peuvent bouger le moins du monde qu’il ne le scache.” — Fr.

6. Thy knowledge is wonderful above me Two meanings may be attached to ממני: mimmenni. We may read upon me, or, in relation to me, and understand David to mean that God’s knowledge is seen to be wonderful in forming such a creature as man, who, to use an old saying’, may be called a little world in himself; nor can we think without astonishment of the consummate artifice apparent in the structure of the human body, and of the excellent endowments with which the human soul is invested. But the context demands another interpretation; and we are to suppose that David, prosecuting the same idea upon which he had already insisted, exclaims against the folly of measuring God’s knowledge by our own, when it rises prodigiously above us. Many when they hear God spoken of conceive of him as like unto themselves, and such presumption is most condemnable. Very commonly they will not allow his knowledge to be greater than what comes up to their own apprehensions of things. David, on the contrary, confesses it to be beyond his comprehension, virtually declaring that words could not express this truth of the absoluteness with which all things stand patent to the eye of God, this being a knowledge having’ neither bound nor measure, so that he could only contemplate the extent of it with conscious imbecility.

7. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? I consider that David prosecutes the same idea of its being’ impossible that men by any subterfuge should elude the eye of God. By the Spirit of God we are not here, as in several other parts of Scripture, to conceive of his power merely, but his understanding and knowledge. 205205     Some commentators suppose the third person of the Trinity to be here referred to. In man the spirit is the seat of intelligence, and so it is here in reference to God, as is plain from the second part of the sentence, where by the face of God is meant his knowledge or inspection. David means in short that he could not change from one place to another without God seeing him, and following him with his eyes as he moved. They misapply the passage who adduce it as a proof of the immensity of God’s essence; for though it be an undoubted truth that the glory of the Lord fills heaven and earth, this was not at present in the view of the Psalmist, but the truth that God’s eye penetrates heaven and hell, so that, hide in what obscure corner of the world he might, he must be discovered by him. Accordingly he tells us that though he should fly to heaven, or lurk in the lowest abysses, from above or from below all was naked and manifest before God. The wings of the morning, 206206     Or “of the dawn of the morning.” שחר, shachar, the word employed, “is the light which is seen in the clouds before the rising of the sun, and it is like as if it; had wings to fly with haste; for in a moment the dawn of the morning is spread over the horizon, from the end of the east to that of the west.” — Mendlessohn’s Beor. or of Lucifer, is a beautiful metaphor, for when the sun rises on the earth, it transmits its radiance suddenly to all regions of the world, as with the swiftness of flight. The same figure is employed in Malachi 4:2. And the idea is, that though one should fly with the speed of light, he could find no recess where he would be beyond the reach of divine power. For by hand we are to understand power, and the assertion is to the effect that should man attempt to withdraw from the observation of God, it were easy for him to arrest and draw back the fugitive. 207207     Dathe understands thy hand of God’s gracious presence to defend the Psalmist; and such may be the meaning of the words. But whether we take them in this sense, or according to Calvin, as expressing man’s being under the power of God, in whatever part of the world he may be, they illustrate the divine omniscience, which Calvin regards as the chief design of the inspired writer.

11. If I shall say, etc. David represents himself as a man using every possible method to make his escape from a situation of embarrassment. So having acknowledged that it was vain to dream of flight, he bethinks himself of another remedy, and says, If no speed of mine can bear me out of the range of God’s vision, yet, on the supposition of light being removed, the darkness might cover me, that I might have a short breath of respite. But this also he declares to be hopeless, as God sees equally well in the deepest darkness as at noon-day. It is a mistake in my opinion to consider, as some have done, that the two clauses of the verse are to be taken separately, and read, If I shall say the darkness will cover me, even the night shall be as light before me — meaning that darkness would be converted into light, and so though he saw nothing himself, he would stand manifest before the eye of God. David is rather to be considered as in both clauses expressing what he might be supposed to feel desirous of, and intimates that, could he only find any covert or subterfuge, he would avail himself of the license; 208208     “C’est plustost que David prononcant ee propos selon son propre sentiment, entend que pourveu qu’il puisse estre par quelqne moyen couvert et cache, il aura quelque peu de bon temps,” etc. — Fr. “if I shall say, at least the darkness will cover me, and the night be as light for me,” that is, in the sense in which it is so to the robbers or wild beasts of the forest, who then range at greater liberty. That this is the proper construction of the words we may infer from the particle גם, gam. If any one should ‘think it a very unnecessary observation to say that as respects God there is no difference between light and darkness, it is enough to remind him that all observation proves with what reluctance and extreme difficulty men are brought to come forward openly and ‘unreservedly into God’s presence. In words we all grant that God is omniscient; meanwhile what none would ever think of controverting we secretly make no account of whatsoever, in so far as we make no scruple of mocking God, and lack even that reverence of him which we extend to one of our fellow-creatures. We are ashamed to let men know and witness our delinquencies; but we are as indifferent to what God may think of us, as if our sins were covered and veiled from his inspection. This infatuation if not sharply reproved will soon change light, so far as we are concerned, into darkness, and therefore David insists upon the subject at length in order to refute our false apprehensions. Be it our concern to apply the reproofs given, and stir ourselves up by them, when we feel disposed to become secure.

13. For thou hast possessed my reins Apparently he prosecutes the same subject, though he carries it out somewhat farther, declaring that we need not be surprised at God’s knowledge of the most secret thoughts of men, since he formed their hearts and their reins. He thus represents God as sitting king in the very reins of man, as the center of his jurisdiction, and shows it ought to be no ground of wonder that all the windings and recesses of our hearts are known to him who, when we were inclosed in our mother’s womb, saw us as clearly and perfectly as if we had stood before him in the light of mid-day. This may let us know the design with which David proceeds to speak of man’s original formation, tits scope is the same in the verse which follows, where, with some ambiguity in the terms employed, it is sufficiently clear and obvious that David means that he had been fashioned in a manner wonderful, and calculated to excite both fear and admiration, 212212     “Fearfully and wonderfully made Never was so terse and expressive a description of the physical conformation of man given by any human being. So fearfully are we made, that there is not an action or gesture of our bodies, which does not, apparently, endanger some muscle, vein, or sinew, the rupture of which would destroy either life or health. We are so wonderfully made, that our organization infinitely surpasses, in skill, contrivance, design, and adaptation of means to ends, the most curious and complicated piece of mechanism, not only ever executed ‘by art and man’s device, but ever conceived by the human imagination.” — Warner. so that he breaks forth into the praises of God. One great reason of the carnal security into which we fall, is our not considering how singularly we were fashioned at first by our Divine Maker. From this particular instance David is led to refer in general to all the works of God, which are just so many wonders fitted to draw our attention to him. The true and proper view to take of the works of God, as I have observed elsewhere, is that which ends in wonder. His declaration to the effect that his soul should well know these wonders, which far transcend human comprehension, means no more than that with humble and sober application he would give his attention and talents to obtaining such an apprehension of the wonderful works of God as might end in adoring the immensity of his glory. The knowledge he means, therefore, is not that which professes to comprehend what, under the name of wonders, he confesses to be incomprehensible, nor of that kind which philosophers presumptuously pretend to, as if they could solve every mystery of God, but simply that religious attention to the works of God which excites to the duty of thanksgiving.

15. My strength was not hid from thee That nothing is hid from God David now begins to prove from the way in which man is at first formed, and points out God’s superiority to other artificers in this, that while they must have their work set before their eyes before they can form it, he fashioned us in our mother’s womb. It is of little importance whether we read my strength or my bone, though I prefer the latter reading. He next likens the womb of the mother to the lowest caverns or recesses of the earth. Should an artizan intend commencing a work in some dark cave where there was no light to assist him, how would he set his hand to it? in what way would he proceed? and what kind of workmanship would it prove? 213213     “The figure,” says Walford, “is derived from the darkness and obscurity of caverns and other recesses of the earth.” But God makes the most perfect work of all in the dark, for he fashions man in mother’s womb. The verb רקם, rakam, which means weave together, 214214     “רקם is ‘to embroider.’” — Phillips. Mant translates the verse thus: —
   “By all, but not by thee unknown,
My substance grew, and, o’er it thrown,
The fine-wrought web from nature’s loom,
All wove in secret and in gloom.”

   And after observing that the foetus is gradually formed and matured for the birth, like plants and flowers under ground, he adds — “The process is compared to that in a piece of work wrought with a needle, or fashioned in the loom: which, with all its beautiful variety of color, and proportion of figure, ariseth by degrees to perfection, under the hand of the artist, framed according to a pattern lying before him, from a rude mass of silk, or other materials. Thus, by the power and wisdom of God, and after a plan delineated in his book, is a shapeless mass wrought up into the most curious texture of nerves, veins, arteries, bones, muscles, membranes, and skin, most skilfully interwoven and connected with each other, until it becometh a body harmoniously diversified with all the limbs and lineaments of a man, not one of which at first appeared, any more than the figures were to be seen in the ball of silk. But then, which is the chief thing here insisted on by the Psalmist, whereas the human artificer must have the clearest light whereby to accomplish his task, the divine work-master seeth in secret, and effecteth all his wonders within the dark and narrow confines of the womb.” Bishop Lowth supposes that the full force and beauty of the metaphor in this passage will not be understood, unless it is perceived that the Psalmist alludes to the art of embroidery as consecrated by the Jews to sacred purposes, in decorating the garments of the priests and the curtains at the entrance of the tabernacle. “In that most perfect ode, Psalm 139,” says he, “which celebrates the immensity of the omnipresent Deity, and the wisdom of the divine artificer in forming the human body, the author uses a metaphor derived from the most subtle art of Phrygian workmen:

   ‘When I was formed in the secret place,
When I was wrought with a needle in the depths of the earth.

   Whoever observes this, (in truth he will not be able to observe it in the common translations,)and at the same time reflects upon the wonderful mechanism of the human body, the various amplifications of the veins, arteries, fibres, and membranes; the ‘indescribable texture’ of the whole fabric; may indeed feel the beauty and gracefulness of this well-adapted metaphor, but will miss much of its force and sublimity, unless he be apprised that the art of designing in needle-work was wholly dedicated to the use of the sanctuary, and by a direct precept of the divine law, chiefly employed in furnishing’ a part of the sacerdotal habits, and the veils for the entrance of the tabernacle. (Exodus 28:39; Exodus 26:36; Exodus 27:16; compare Ezekiel 16:10, 13, 18.) Thus the poet compares the wisdom of the divine artificer with the most estimable of human arts — that art which was dignified by being consecrated altogether to the use of religion; and the workmanship of which was so exquisite, that even the sacred writings seem to attribute it to a supernatural guidance. See Exodus 35:30-35 ” — Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, volume 1.
is employed to amplify and enhance what the Psalmist had just said. David no doubt means figuratively to express the inconceivable skill which appears in the formation of the human body. When we examine it, even to the nails on our fingers, there is nothing which could be altered, without felt inconveniency, as at something disjointed or put out of place; and what, then, if we should make the individual parts the subject of enumeration? 215215     “Que sera-ce donc quand on viendra a contempler par le menu chacune partie?” — Fr. Where is the embroiderer who — with all his industry and ingenuity — could execute the hundredth part of this complicate and diversified structure? We need not then wonder if God, who formed man so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of him after he is ushered into the world.

16. Thine eyes beheld my shapelessness, etc. The embryo, when first conceived in the womb, has no form; and David speaks of God’s having known him when he was yet a shapeless mass, τὸ κύημα, as the Greeks term it; for τὸ εμβρυον is the name given to the foetus from the time of conception to birth inclusive. The argument is from the greater’ to the less. If he was known to God before he had grown to certain definite shape, much less could he now elude his observation. He adds, that all things were written in his book; that is, the whole method of his formation was well known to God. The term book is a figure taken from the practice common amongst men of helping their memory by means of books and commentaries. Whatever is an object of God’s knowledge he is said to have registered in writing, for he needs no helps to memory. Interpreters are not agreed as to the second clause. Some read ימים, yamim, in the nominative case, when days were made; the sense being, according to them — All my bones were written in thy book, O God! from the beginning of the world, when days were first formed by thee, and when as yet none of them actually existed. The other is the more natural meaning, That the different parts of the human body are formed in a succession of time; for in the first germ there is no arrangement of parts, or proportion of members, but it is developed, and takes its peculiar form progressively. 216216     “They (my members) have been daily formed, or forming. They were not formed at once, but gradually; each day increasing in strength and size. This expression is probably parenthetical, so that the last words of the verse will refer to the writing of those things previously mentioned in God’s register.” — Phillips. There is another point on which interpreters differ. As in the particle לא, lo, the א, aleph, is often interchangeable with ו vau; some read לו, to him, and others לא not. According to the first reading, the sense is, that though the body is formed progressively, it was always one and the same in God’s book, who is not dependent upon time for the execution of his work. A sufficiently good meaning, however, can be got by adhering’ without change to the negative particle, namely, that though the members were formed in the course of days, or gradually, none of them had existed; no order or distinctness of parts having been there at first, but a formless substance. And thus our admiration is directed to the providence of God in gradually giving’ shape and beauty to a confused mass. 217217     “The meaning is,” says Warner, “there was a time when none of those curious parts, of which my form consists, existed. The germ of them all was planted by thee in the first instance; and gradually matured, by thy power, wisdom, and goodness, into that wonderful piece of mechanism which the human form exhibits.” Phillips gives a different turn to the clause: “And not one of them, or among them, was omitted. Not one of the particulars concerning my formation has been left out of thy record.”

17. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me It is the same Hebrew word, רעה, reah, which is used here as in the second verse, and means thought, not companion or friend, as many have rendered it, after the Chaldee translator, under the idea that the Psalmist is already condescending upon the distinction between the righteous and the wicked. The context requires that he should still be considered as speaking of the matchless excellence of divine providence. He therefore repeats — and not without reason — what he had said before; for we apparently neglect or underestimate the singular proofs of the deep wisdom of God, exhibited in man’s creation, and the whole superintendence and government of his life. Some read — How rare are thy thoughts; but this only darkens the meaning. I grant we find that word made use of in the Sacred History, (1 Samuel 3:1,) where the oracles of the Lord are said to have been rare, in the time of Eli. But it also means precious, and it is enough that we retain the sense which is free from all ambiguity. He applies the term to God’s thoughts, as not lying within the compass of man’s judgment. To the same effect is what he adds that the sums or aggregates of them were great and mighty; that is, sufficient to overwhelm the minds of men. The exclamation made by the Psalmist suggests to us that were men not so dull of apprehension, or rather so senseless, they would be struck by the mysterious ways of God, and would humbly and tremblingly sist themselves before his tribunal, instead of presumptuously thinking that they could evade it. The same truth is set forth in the next verse, that if any should attempt to number the hidden judgments or counsels of God, their immensity is more than the sands of the sea. Our capacities conseqently could not comprehend the most infinitesimal part of them. As to what follows — I have a waked, and am still with, thee, interpreters have rendered the words differently; but I have no doubt of the meaning simply being that David found new occasion, every time he awoke from sleep, for meditating upon the extraordinary wisdom of God. When he speaks of rising, we are not to suppose he refers to one day, but agreeably to what he had said already of his thoughts being absorbed in the incomprehensible greatness of divine wisdom, he adds that every time he awoke he discovered fresh matter for admiration. We are thus put in possession of the true meaning of David, to the effect that God’s providential government of the world is such that nothing can escape him, not even the profoundest thoughts. And although many precipitate themselves in an infatuated manner into all excess of crime, under the idea that God will never discover them, it is in vain that they resort to hiding-places, from which, however reluctantly, they must be dragged to light. The truth is one which we would do well to consider more than we do, for while we may cast a glance at our hands and our feet, and occasionally survey the elegance of our shape with complacency, there is scarcely one in a hundred who thinks of his Maker. Or if any recognize their life as coming from God, there is none at least who rises to the great truth that he who formed the ear, and the eye, and the understanding heart, himself hears, and sees, and knows everything.