Psalms 139

PSALM CXXXIX

A fine account of the omniscience of God, 1-6;

of his omnipresence, 7-12;

of his power and providence, 13-16.

The excellence of his purposes, 17, 18.

His opposition to the wicked, 19, 20;

with whom the godly can have no fellowship, 21, 22.

NOTES ON PSALM CXXXIX

The title of this Psalm in the Hebrew is, To the chief Musician,

or, To the Conqueror, A Psalm of David. The Versions in general

follow the Hebrew. And yet, notwithstanding these testimonies,

there appears internal evidence that the Psalm was not written by

David, but during or after the time of the captivity, as there

are several Chaldaisms in it. See Ps 139:2, 3, 7, 9, 19, 20,

collated with Da 2:29, 30; 4:16; 7:28; some of these shall be

noticed in their proper places.

As to the author, he is unknown; for it does not appear to have

been the work of David. The composition is worthy of him, but the

language appears to be lower than his time.

Concerning the occasion, there are many conjectures which I need

not repeat, because I believe them unfounded. It is most probable

that it was written on no particular occasion, but is a moral

lesson on the wisdom, presence, providence, and justice of God,

without any reference to any circumstance in the life of David, or

in the history of the Jews.

The Psalm is very sublime; the sentiments are grand, the style

in general highly elevated, and the images various and impressive.

The first part especially, that contains so fine a description of

the wisdom and knowledge of God, is inimitable.

Bishop Horsley's account of this Psalm is as follows:-

"In the first twelve verses of this Psalm the author celebrates

God's perfect knowledge of man's thoughts and actions; and the

reason of this wonderful knowledge, viz., that God is the Maker of

man. Hence the psalmist proceeds, in the four following verses,

Ps 139:13-16, to magnify God as ordaining and superintending

the formation of his body in the womb. In the 17th and 18th

Ps 139:17, 18 he acknowledges God's providential care of him

in every moment of his life; and in the remainder of the Psalm

implores God's aid against impious and cruel enemies, professing

his own attachment to God's service, that is, to the true

religion, and appealing to the Searcher of hearts himself for the

truth of his professions.

The composition, for the purity and justness of religious

sentiment, and for the force and beauty of the images, is

certainly in the very first and best style. And yet the frequent

Chaldaisms of the diction argue no very high antiquity.

Verse 1. O Lord, thou hast searched me] chakartani;

thou hast investigated me; thou hast thoroughly acquainted thyself

with my whole soul and conduct.

Verse 2. My downsitting and mine uprising] Even these

inconsiderable and casual things are under thy continual notice. I

cannot so much as take a seat, or leave it, without being marked

by thee.

Thou understandest my thought] lerei, "my cogitation."

This word is Chaldee, see Da 2:29, 30.

Afar off.] While the figment is forming that shall produce them.

Verse 3. Thou compassest my path] zeritha thou dost

winnow, ventilate, or sift my path; and my lying down, ribi,

my lair, my bed.

And art acquainted] Thou treasurest up. This is the import of

sachan. Thou hast the whole number of my ways, and the steps

I took in them.

Verse 4. There is not a word in my tongue] Although ( ki)

there be not a word in my tongue, behold O Jehovah, thou knowest

the whole of it, that is, thou knowest all my words before they

are uttered, as thou knowest all my thoughts while as yet they are

unformed.

Verse 5. Thou hast beset me behind and before]

achor vekodam tsartani, "The hereafter and the past, thou hast

formed me." I think Bishop Horsley's emendation here is just,

uniting the two verses together. "Behold thou, O Jehovah, knowest

the whole, the hereafter and the past. Thou hast formed me, and

laid thy hand upon me."

Verse 6. Such knowledge is too wonderful] I think, with

Kennicott, that pelaiah daath should be read

peli haddaath, "THIS knowledge," mimmenni, "is

beyond or above me." This change is made by taking the he from

the end of pelaiah, which is really no word, and joining

it with daath; which, by giving it an article, makes it

demonstrative, haddaath, "THIS knowledge." This kind of

knowledge, God's knowledge, that takes in all things, and their

reasons, essences, tendencies, and issues, is far beyond me.

Verse 7. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?] Surely ruach

in this sense must be taken personally, it certainly cannot mean

either breath or wind; to render it so would make the passage

ridiculous.

From thy presence?] mippaneycha, "from thy faces." Why

do we meet with this word so frequently in the plural number, when

applied to God? And why have we his Spirit, and his appearances or

faces, both here? A Trinitarian would at once say, "The plurality

of persons in the Godhead is intended;" and who can prove that he

is mistaken?

Verse 8. If I ascend] Thou art in heaven, in thy glory; in hell,

in thy vindictive justice; and in all parts of earth, water,

space, place, or vacuity, by thy omnipresence. Wherever I am,

there art thou; and where I cannot be, thou art there. Thou

fillest the heavens and the earth.

Verse 11. Surely the darkness shall cover me] Should I suppose

that this would serve to screen me, immediately this darkness is

turned into light.

Verse 12. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee] Darkness and

light, ignorance and knowledge, are things that stand in relation

to us; God sees equally in darkness as in light; and knows as

perfectly, however man is enveloped in ignorance, as if all were

intellectual brightness. What is to us hidden by darkness, or

unknown through ignorance, is perfectly seen and known by

God; because he is all sight, all hearing, all feeling, all soul,

all spirit-all in ALL, and infinite in himself. He lends to every

thing; receives nothing from any thing. Though his essence be

unimpartible, yet his influence is diffusible through time and

through eternity. Thus God makes himself known, seen, heard, felt;

yet, in the infinity of his essence, neither angel, nor spirit,

nor man can see him; nor can any creature comprehend him, or form

any idea of the mode of his existence. And yet vain man would be

wise, and ascertain his foreknowledge, eternal purposes, infinite

decrees, with all operations of infinite love and infinite hatred,

and their objects specifically and nominally, from all eternity,

as if himself had possessed a being and powers co-extensive with

the Deity! O ye wise fools! Jehovah, the fountain of eternal

perfection and love, is as unlike your creeds, as he is unlike

yourselves, forgers of doctrines to prove that the source of

infinite benevolence is a streamlet of capricious love to

thousands, while he is an overflowing, eternal, and irresistible

tide of hatred to millions of millions both of angels and men!

The antiproof of such doctrines is this: he bears with such

blasphemies, and does not consume their abettors. "But nobody

holds these doctrines." Then I have written against nobody; and

have only to add the prayer, May no such doctrines ever disgrace

the page of history; or farther dishonour, as they have done, the

annals of the Church!

Verse 13. Thou hast possessed my reins] As the Hebrews believed

that the reins were the first part of the human fetus that is

formed, it may here mean, thou hast laid the foundation of my

being.

Verse 14. I am fearfully and wonderfully made] The texture of

the human body is the most complicated and curious that can be

conceived. It is, indeed, wonderfully made; and it is withal so

exquisitely nice and delicate, that the slightest accident may

impair or destroy in a moment some of those parts essentially

necessary to the continuance of life; therefore, we are fearfully

made. And God has done so to show us our frailty, that we should

walk with death, keeping life in view; and feel the necessity of

depending on the all-wise and continual superintending care and

providence of God.

Verse 15. My substance was not hid from thee] atsmi, my

bones or skeleton.

Curiously wrought] rukkamti, embroidered, made of

needlework. These two words, says Bishop Horsley, describe the two

principal parts of which the human body is composed; the bony

skeleton, the foundation of the whole; and the external covering

of muscular flesh, tendons, veins, arteries, nerves, and skin; a

curious web of fibres. On this passage Bishop Lowth has some

excellent observations: "In that most perfect hymn, where the

immensity of the omnipresent Deity, and the admirable wisdom of

the Divine Artificer in framing the human body, are celebrated,

the poet uses a remarkable metaphor, drawn from the nicest

tapestry work:-

When I was formed in secret;

When I was wrought, as with a needle,

in the lowest parts of the earth.

"He who remarks this, (but the man who consults Versions only

will hardly remark it,) and at the same time reflects upon the

wonderful composition of the human body, the various implication

of veins, arteries, fibres, membranes, and the 'inexplicable

texture' of the whole frame; will immediately understand the

beauty and elegance of this most apt translation. But he will not

attain the whole force and dignity, unless he also considers that

the most artful embroidery with the needle was dedicated by the

Hebrews to the service of the sanctuary; and that the proper and

singular use of their work was, by the immediate prescript of the

Divine law, applied in a certain part of the high priest's dress,

and in the curtains of the tabernacle, Ex 28:39; 26:36; 27:16;

and compare Eze 16:10; 13:18. So that the psalmist may well be

supposed to have compared the wisdom of the Divine Artificer

particularly with that specimen of human art, whose dignity was

through religion the highest, and whose elegance (Ex 35:30-35)

was so exquisite, that the sacred writer seems to attribute it to

a Divine inspiration."

In the lowest parts of the earth.] The womb of the mother, thus

expressed by way of delicacy.

Verse 16. Thine eyes did see my substance] golmi, my

embryo state-my yet indistinct mass, when all was wrapped up

together, before it was gradually unfolded into the lineaments of

man. "Some think," says Dr. Dodd, "that the allusion to embroidery

is still carried on. As the embroiderer has still his work,

pattern, or carton, before him, to which he always recurs; so, by

a method as exact, revere all my members in continuance fashioned,

i.e., from the rude embryo or mass they daily received some degree

of figuration; as from the rude skeins of variously coloured silk

or worsted, under the artificer's hands, there at length arises an

unexpected beauty, and an accurate harmony of colours and

proportions."

And in thy book all my members were written] "All those members

lay open before God's eyes; they were discerned by him as clearly

as if the plan of them had been drawn in a book, even to the least

figuration of the body of the child in the womb."

Verse 17. How precious also are thy thoughts] reeycha,

thy cogitations; a Chaldaism, as before.

How great is the sum of them!] mah atsemu

rasheyhem; How strongly rational are the heads or principal

subjects of them! But the word may apply to the bones,

atsamoth, the structure and uses of which are most curious and

important.

Verse 18. If I should count them] I should be glad to enumerate

so many interesting particulars: but they are beyond calculation.

When I awake] Thou art my Governor and Protector night and day.

I am still with thee.] All my steps in life are ordered by thee:

I cannot go out of thy presence; I am ever under the influence of

thy Spirit.

The subject, from the 14th verse to the 16th Ps 139:14-16

inclusive, might have been much more particularly illustrated, but

we are taught, by the peculiar delicacy of expression in the

Sacred Writings, to avoid, as in this case, the entering too

minutely into anatomical details. I would, however, make an

additional observation on the subject in the 15th and 16th verses.

Ps 139:15-16 I have already remarked the elegant allusion to

embroidery, in the word rukkamti, in the astonishing

texture of the human body; all of which is said to be done in

secret, bassether, in the secret place, viz., the womb

of the mother, which, in the conclusion of the verse, is by a

delicate choice of expression termed the lower parts of the earth.

The embryo state, golem, has a more forcible meaning than

our word substance amounts to. galam signifies to roll

or wrap up together; and expresses the state of the fetus before

the constituent members were developed. The best system of modern

philosophy allows that ino semine masculino all the members of the

future animal are contained; and that these become slowly

developed or unfolded, in the case of fowls, by incubation; and

in the case of the more perfect animals, by gestation in the

maternal matrix. It is no wonder that, in considering these, the

psalmist should cry out, How precious, or extraordinary, are thy

thoughts! how great is the sum-heads or outlines, of them! The

particulars are, indeed, beyond comprehension; even the heads-the

general contents, of thy works; while I endeavour to form any

tolerable notion of them, prevail over me-they confound my

understanding, and are vastly too multitudinous for my

comprehension.

Verse 19. Surely thou wilt slay the wicked] The remaining part

of this Psalm has no visible connexion with the preceding. I

rather think it a fragment, or a part of some other Psalm.

Ye bloody men.] anshey damim, men of blood, men

guilty of death.

Verse 20. Thine enemies take thy name in vain.] Bishop Horsley

translates the whole verse thus:-

"They have deserted me who are disobedient to thee;

"They who are sworn to a rash purpose-thy

refractory adversaries."

The original is obscure: but I cannot see these things in it.

Some translate the Hebrew thus: "Those who oppose thee

iniquitously seize unjustly upon thy cities;" and so almost all

the Versions. The words, thus translated, may apply to Sanballat,

Tobiah, and the other enemies of the returned Jews, who

endeavoured to drive them from the land, that they might possess

the cities of Judea.

Verse 21. Do not I hate them] I hold their conduct in

abomination.

Verse 22. With perfect hatred] Their conduct, their motives,

their opposition to thee, their perfidy and idolatrous

purposes, I perfectly abhor. With them I have neither part,

interest, nor affection.

Verse 23. Search me, O God] Investigate my conduct, examine my

heart, put me to the test, and examine my thoughts.

Verse 24. If there be any wicked way] derech otseb:

a way of idolatry, or of error. Any thing false in religious

principle; any thing contrary to piety to thyself, and love and

benevolence to man. And he needed to offer such prayer as this,

while filled with indignation against the ways of the workers of

iniquities; for he who hates, utterly hates, the practices of any

man, is not far from hating the man himself. It is very difficult

"To hate the sin with all the heart,

And yet the sinner love."

Lead me in the way everlasting.] bederech olam, in the

old way-the way in which our fathers walked, who worshipped thee,

the infinitely pure Spirit, in spirit and in truth. Lead me, guide

me, as thou didst them. We have orach olam, the old path,

Job 22:15. "The two words

derech and orach, differ," says Bishop Horsley, "in

their figurative senses: derech is the right way, in which a man

ought to go; orach is the way, right or wrong, in which a

man actually goes by habit." The way that is right in a man's own

eyes is seldom the way to God.

ANALYSIS OF THE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-NINTH PSALM

David, having had aspersions laid upon him, calls upon God in

this Psalm to witness his innocency. Now, that this his appeal be

not thought unreasonable, he presents God in his two especial

attributes, omniscience and omnipresence; then he shows he loved

goodness, and hated wickedness.

This Psalm is divided into four parts:-

I. A description of God's omniscience, Ps 139:1-7.

II. A description of his omnipresence, Ps 139:7-18.

III. David's hatred to evil and evil men, Ps 139:19-23.

IV. A protestation of his own innocency, which he offers to the

trial of God, Ps 139:23, 24.

I. He begins with God's omniscience: "O Lord, thou hast searched

me," &c. Examined me with scrutiny.

He searches and knows our actions.

1. "Thou knowest," &c. When and for what reasons I ever act.

2. "Thou understandest my thoughts," &c. Thou knowest my

counsels and thoughts.

3. "Thou compassest my path," &c. The end I aim at.

4. "There is not a word," &c. Every word and thought thou

knowest.

And for this he gives this reason: God is our Maker: "Thou hast

beset me," &c. These two arguments prove that God knows all

things.

1. God knows all the past and future: "Beset behind and before."

2. He governs man: "Thou God madest man," &c. The prophet

concludes this Divine attribute, omniscience, with an acclamation:

"Such knowledge," &c. It is beyond my reach and capacity.

II. From God's omnipresence the prophet argues that man cannot

hide any thing from God, for he is every where present.

1. "Where shall I go," &c. That I may be hid from thy knowledge.

2. "Or whither shall I flee," &c. From thy face and eye.

There is no place that is not before thee.

1. "If I ascend up to heaven," &c.

2. "If I make my bed in hell," &c.

3. "If I take the wings of the morning," &c.

And among many instances that might be brought forward to prove

God's omniscience and omnipresence, we may simply instance the

formation of a child in the womb.

1. "Thou hast possessed my reins," &c. Thou hast undertaken

wholly to frame, and cherish me when formed.

2. "Thou hast covered me," &c. Clothed me with flesh, skin,

bones, &c.

Then the prophet breaks out in admiration of God's works.

1. "I will praise thee," &c.

2. "I am fearfully," &c. His works are enough to strike all men

with reverential fear.

3. "Marvellous are thy works."

Then he proceeds with the formation of the infant embryo.

1. "My substance," &c. My strength, my essence. "Is not hid,"

&c.

2. "When I was made in secret," &c. In the secret cell of my

mother's womb.

3. "And curiously wrought," &c. The word in the Hebrew signifies

to interweave coloured threads. Man is a curious piece, and the

variety of his faculties shows him such. [See the notes.]

4. "In the lowest parts of the earth," &c. In the womb, where it

is as secret if God wrought it in the lowest part of the earth.

5. "Thine eyes did see my substance," &c. When in embryo, and

without any distinct parts.

6. "And in thy book," &c. The idea of them was with thee, as the

picture in the eye of the painter.

7. Which in continuance, &c.

The prophet closes this part with an exclamation.

1. "How precious also are thy thoughts," &c. In this and other

respects.

2. "O how great is the sum of them." They are infinite.

3. And for this cause: "When I awake," &c., thy wisdom and

providence are ever before my mind, and my admiration is full of

them.

The prophet, having ended his discourse on the omniscience and

omnipresence of God, justifies himself at God's tribunal.

1. "Surely thou wilt slay the wicked," &c. I dare not then

associate with them.

2. "Depart, therefore, from me," &c. Keep at a distance.

3. "For they speak against thee wickedly," &c. Blaspheme my God.

So far from giving them the right hand of fellowship, he asks,-

1. "Do not I hate them, O Lord," &c. I hate them as sinners, but

feel for and pity them as men.

2. Then he returns this answer to himself, "Yea, I hate them,"

&c. I count them my enemies, for they are thine.

IV. Lastly, it would appear that his heart was sincere and pure,

or he would not abide such a trial.

1. "Search me, O God:" In the beginning of the Psalm he showed

what God did; now he entreats him to do it.

2. "Try me," &c. Examine my heart and my ways.

3. "And see if there be any wicked way," &c. Presumptuous sins.

4. "And lead me in the way everlasting." This was the end

proposed by his trial; that, if God saw any wickedness in him that

might seduce him, he would withdraw him from it; and lead him to

think, and devise, and do those things which would bring him to

life eternal.

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