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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 139

Clarke's CommentaryClarke Commentary

Verse 1


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.


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 Psalms 139:2-3; Psalms 139:7; Psalms 139:9; Psalms 139:19-20, collated with Daniel 2:29-30; Daniel 4:16; Daniel 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, Psalms 139:13-16, to magnify God as ordaining and superintending the formation of his body in the womb. In the 17th and 18th Psalms 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 Psalms 139:1. O Lord, thou hast searched me — חקרתני chakartani; thou hast investigated me; thou hast thoroughly acquainted thyself with my whole soul and conduct.

Verse 2

Verse Psalms 139:2. 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 — לרעי lerei, "my cogitation." This word is Chaldee, see Daniel 2:29-30.

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

Verse 3

Verse Psalms 139:3. Thou compassest my path — זרית zeritha thou dost winnow, ventilate, or sift my path; and my lying down, רבעי ribi, my lair, my bed.

And art acquaintedThou 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

Verse Psalms 139:4. There is not a word in my tongue — Although (כי 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

Verse Psalms 139:5. Thou hast beset me behind and before — אחור וקדם צרתני 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

Verse Psalms 139:6. Such knowledge is too wonderful — I think, with Kennicott, that פלאיה דעת pelaiah daath should be read פלאי הדעת peli haddaath, "THIS knowledge," ממני mimmenni, "is beyond or above me." This change is made by taking the ה he from the end of פלאיה pelaiah, which is really no word, and joining it with דעת daath; which, by giving it an article, makes it demonstrative, הדעת 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

Verse Psalms 139:7. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? — Surely רוח 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? — מפניך 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

Verse Psalms 139:8. 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

Verse Psalms 139:11. 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

Verse Psalms 139:12. 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

Verse Psalms 139:13. 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

Verse Psalms 139:14. 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

Verse Psalms 139:15. My substance was not hid from thee — עצמי atsmi, my bones or skeleton.

Curiously wrought — רקמתי 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, Exodus 28:39; Exodus 26:36; Exodus 27:16; and compare Ezekiel 16:10; Ezekiel 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 (Exodus 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

Verse Psalms 139:16. Thine eyes did see my substance — גלמי 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

Verse Psalms 139:17. How precious also are thy thoughts — רעיך reeycha, thy cogitations; a Chaldaism, as before.

How great is the sum of them! — מה עצמו ראשיהם 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

Verse Psalms 139:18. 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 Psalms 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. Psalms 139:15-16 I have already remarked the elegant allusion to embroidery, in the word רקמתי rukkamti, in the astonishing texture of the human body; all of which is said to be done in secret, בסתר 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, גלם golem, has a more forcible meaning than our word substance amounts to. גלם 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

Verse Psalms 139:19. 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. — אנשי דמים anshey damim, men of blood, men guilty of death.

Verse 20

Verse Psalms 139:20. 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

Verse Psalms 139:21. Do not I hate them — I hold their conduct in abomination.

Verse 22

Verse Psalms 139:22. 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

Verse Psalms 139:23. Search me, O GodInvestigate my conduct, examine my heart, put me to the test, and examine my thoughts.

Verse 24

Verse Psalms 139:24. If there be any wicked way — דרך עצב 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. — בדרך עולם 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 ארח עולם orach olam, the old path, Job 22:15. "The two words דרך derech and ארח 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.


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, Psalms 139:1-7.

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

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

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

Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Psalms 139". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/acc/psalms-139.html. 1832.
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