Psalm 139’s Problem Verses


I have been examining Psalm 139 as a hymn, not merely to the limitlessness of God’s information, but more importantly to the amazing range of God’s understanding and compassion.  In biblical language, knowledge is a relational term, not the cold, passionless, and supposedly objective matter knowledge can be in our modern or postmodern Western world.  Biblically, knowing involves commitment more than analysis; it requires a giving of the self to relationship with the one to be known.  Indifferent knowledge of another person or group of people is a contradiction in terms.

The psalmist (by which I mean the person speaking in the psalm, not its author) has pushed the limits of the time’s beliefs.  Of course God would be there for me if I could ascend into the heavens, but God is there for me also if I lie down in Sheol, the place of the dead.  Since Sheol was almost by definition the place or condition from which Yahweh God was absent and could not be praised, this psalm is radicalizing faith.  The psalmist repudiates the prevailing notions about places where God is absent: far away from the land apportioned to Israel, in the darkness, in the grave.  The question that has been raised is, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” (verse 7, NRSV) Step by step, the psalmist rejects the traditional answers in favor of the conclusion: nowhere!  Wherever I may go by choice or accident, wherever life may drag me, you will be there with me and for me.  Even Yahweh God’s anger comes from caring knowledge of the person or of the people.  Far worse than God’s anger and judgment is the thought of God’s absence and indifference.

Now we come to what I am calling the problem verses:

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 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. (Psalm 139:13-16 NRSV)

Why are these verses problematic?  First, they are difficult to translate, and some of the results are uncertain.  More importantly, they have been coopted to serve the polemic of the “right to life” movement that opposes, in various ways and to varying degrees, turning over control of choices about reproduction to women.

First, let’s look at what these verses actually affirm in their context.  In my next post, we can return to the issues of human reproduction.

Yahweh God will still know me when I have gone where I can no longer know my God or if and when I am ever caught or lost in a place in life where I cannot find my God and cannot believe God would be with me.  We hear the Christian echo of this idea in the eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39 NRSV)

Now, the psalmist looks back, beyond the limits of a human’s ability to know himself or herself, back to when the person’s life was not yet.  Before I could know myself or even my parents could know me, you knew me, my God.  Before I even existed as a person, you cared.  I didn’t have to prove myself to you.  I didn’t have to find you because you were already there waiting for me to live.  You created me for relationship with you.

The ancient wisdom idea of a book of life in which our days are recorded before they even occur is a difficult one for faith in God that would avoid the trap of fatalism.  Does it mean that everything which happens to us happens in accordance with the will and even the plan of God?  Jesus contradicts such a notion, but he was not the first.  The very idea of prophecy was not to predict an unavoidable future but, quite the opposite, to summon the people to change course.  The greatest biblical themes – salvation, repentance, redemption, forgiveness, healing beyond hope of healing, and even life out of death – all reject and overrule fatalism.  “What will be will be,” people say (que sera sera), but the biblical message is that, no, by the grace of God, “what will be” will not now come into being because God has intervened to change our destiny.

I will go so far as to understand the idea of God’s book in which the days of my life are written as being anti-deterministic.  I know I’m going out on a limb, but I invite you to consider coming along with me.  There are many ways in which I seem to have “made my bed” so that I must now lie in it, many ways in which life has dealt some people “a bad hand,” many ways in which some children “never have a chance.”  I hear the psalm telling me that my life is not in the hands of some blind or cruel fate, that randomness is not the supreme truth of the universe, that the sum of my biology (genetics), experiences, and choices does not equal the limit of my hope for life.  God can foresee more for me than my possibilities.

Is the other, more fatalistic interpretation, not possible?  Of course it is possible and quite popular, although as with all fatalism, it moves us away from compassion and relationship toward apathy and resignation.  If everything were predetermined, we would make no real choices at all and would be truly responsible for nothing.  Neither would there be any justice or injustice, right or wrong, sin or redemption.  We human beings would be mere pieces in a sort of grand board game, moved about the board by the will of another.  What would it matter who lived and who died, who loved and who hated, who offered help and who did harm?

I understand Psalm 139 the other way, as affirming relationship and putting trust in God’s caring for us.  Although isolated passages and verses can be recruited to support fatalism, I find that the Bible as a whole rejects it.  Otherwise, there would be no reason for commandments, prophets, or a Messiah – at least not any reason that made a real difference in human life.  The psalmist affirms God’s persistent caring presence, and I read the entire psalm as just that affirmation.  At the end, the psalmist does not pray, “God, help me accept my fate as it is written.”  This psalmists prays instead:

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24 NRSV, using the alternative translation “hurtful” instead of “wicked”)

What, then, do these “problem verses” say about the issues of human procreation and the choices of women in decisions about reproduction?  I find nothing in them upon which to base law and nothing that declares when independent life begins for an individual as an individual to be protected by law, but I’ll look at this question further in my next post.