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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 139

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


To the chief Musician. A Psalm of David.

The title of this psalm assigns its authorship to David, although certain Chaldaic word-forms have led many to give it a later date. The whole, however, so well accords with the depth, originality, and pathos of David, that it seems safer to follow the internal and circumstantial evidence, and account for the dialectic peculiarities on the hypothesis that Northern Palestine might already have felt the effect, on language, of contact with their Aramean neighbours, or say, with Hengstenberg, that, “penetrated by the loftiness of his subject, the psalmist shuns also in the form what is of common and daily use.” The superscription also assigns it to the precentor, which argues against its postexilic date.

It is a review of an eventful life by a mind deeply versed in the knowledge of God and the experience of his grace. The beauty and majesty of the poetry are not in excess of the profound sensibility of gratitude and dependence, and the conceptions of God and his tender care have nothing to surpass them in holy writ. The production stands in a group of Davidic psalms placed at the end of the last collection of the Psalter for reasons that do not appear, except that their doctrine and spirit are well adapted to the wants of the exiles in their struggles to reconstruct the nation. The inscription of the Codex Alexandrinus, “of or by Zachariah,” and by a later hand “in the dispersion,” may indicate that that prophet, according to tradition, added this to the compilation of the fifth book of the psalms (as in the preceding psalm, which see) for the special use and comfort of the returned exiles.

Psalms 139:1-12 are a confession of the omniscience of God realized in the experience of the author; Psalms 139:13-18 of his creative wisdom and most minute care of the author’s developing life; Psalms 139:19-22 a solemn renunciation of the society and ways of wicked men in heart and action; Psalms 139:23-24 a prayer to be searched by this all-seeing God, and to be led by him in the ancient way.

Verse 1

1. Searched me The psalmist begins with self-application of the doctrine of omniscience. It is more to know the human heart than to know distant worlds and laws of matter.

Known me Hebrew, simply, Thou hast known, comprehending not me only, but all things relating to me, as in next verse.

Verse 2

2. Downsitting and… uprising That is, my hours of rest and of activity, my most retired and most familiar life.

Afar off Literally, From afar. From thy remotest heaven thou knowest me as if I were before thee. See Psalms 138:6

Verse 3

3. Compassest That is, to watch and guard. The word sometimes means to scatter by winnowing, as Jeremiah 51:2. Thou winnowest my path, would denote a sifting out of evil, like chaff, that the way might be pure and safe; or, thou triest my path.

Verse 4

4. For there is not a word in my tongue, etc. Rather, When there is not a word in my tongue, behold, O Jehovah, thou knowest all. Before the word is spoken God sees back in the heart the thought and desire, and knows all that is within, whence words proceed.

Verse 5

5. Beset Surrounded, like a besieging army, for my protection if good, to render my escape impossible if wicked.

Laid thine hand upon me I am already in thy grasp, wholly in thy power.

Verse 6

6. Too wonderful for me Above the reach of the human faculties. Same as “ it is high, I cannot attain to it,” in the next line. Thus far the psalmist describes omniscience. He next proceeds to connect omnipresence, omnipotence, and wisdom.

Verse 7

7. Whither shall I go That is, I can go no whither from thy spirit neither from thy power nor presence.

Verse 8

8. Heaven Hebrew, heavens. The celestial heights, however far.

Hell Hebrew, sheol, the lowest depths, the under world. The ideas of power and of omnipresence are continued. Amos 9:2

Verse 9

9. Wings of the morning Wings of the dawn are swift wings, like the early light, which spreads swiftly.

Uttermost parts of the sea The ancients supposed the sea everywhere surrounded the land, and hence the description is of the utmost limit of the globe. It also stands for extreme west, as opposed to “morning,” or earliest dawn, in the preceding line. In this view the supposition is equal to the extreme points of the universe.

Verse 10

10. Even there The power and presence of God are as real and effective there as here, or at any place.

Verse 11

11. Darkness He has found distance to make no difference with the power, knowledge, and presence of God. He now shows that darkness and light are both alike with him.

Verses 13-14

13, 14. From God in universal space and material nature, the psalmist returns to contemplate God, in his own mysterious origin and personal being. The creative power and wisdom of God, operating according to his absolute knowledge of the formative atoms and occult laws of embryonic life, are a further mystery, and a ground of praise and thanksgiving.

Possessed The Hebrew will bear the meaning “formed;” it may also indicate possession and control.

Reins In Hebrew psychology, the soul or mind, as it relates to the power of acutest sensibility.

Covered It is more common, modernly, to translate the word woven, thou hast interweaved me, that is, with bones, sinews, nerves, muscles, vascular ducts, etc. But it is better here to take the usual rendering, “covered,” that is, sheltered, protected, which suits the idea of the extreme delicacy of the parts, as in Psalms 140:7. See on Psalms 139:15.

Fearfully… wonderfully made The Niphal participial form of the word “fearfully” usually takes the sense of terrible, dreadful. Psalms 45:4; Psalms 65:5. There is no such word as wonderful or made in the original. The Hebrew word simply means, distinguished, equal to favoured, honoured. “I will praise thee, for I am fearfully distinguished,” namely, by my rank of being, and this amazing care and contrivance of God in my origination.

Verses 15-16

15, 16. Substance Literally, My strength; referring to the bones, or osseous system, as the solid basis of muscular strength. Their growth is a mystery. Ecclesiastes 11:5.

Made in secret “Made” is the same word here as in Genesis 1:26, and the mediate making here is no less a mystery and the work of God than the immediate creative making there.

Curiously wrought Literally, embroidered. Here is the variegated network of the human frame referred to.

Lowest parts of the earth A delicate description corresponding to the “in secret,” just mentioned. The idea, not the word, is that of a sheol of darkness. Psalms 63:9. Perhaps it has also a pointing to “the dust of the ground,” Genesis 2:7.

My substance The word denotes something rolled up, as a ball, literally, my infolded, or undeveloped substance.

Thy book A figure conveying the minute accuracy of divine knowledge.

All my members Hebrew, all of them. There is no better way of explaining this obscure passage than by referring the suffix pronoun them, (in כלם , kullam,) to the parts of that “substance,” or threads of that rolled up ball, just mentioned. Our version has it “members,” which is the idea, though not a translation.

Which in continuance were fashioned Literally, During the days when they were fashioned.

When as yet there was none of them Hebrew, And not one of them, or, not one amongst them. That is, not one member of the complicated arrangement failed, or was omitted. All was accomplished as it had been written in God’s book. The descriptions of Psalms 139:13-16 belong to a region of thought on human existence the most mysterious and difficult, whether viewed in the light of physiology or theology. The student in church history will at once recall the controversy on “traducianism” and “creationism,” and will observe the leaning of the psalmist toward the latter. The statements are as delicately and beautifully given in poetry as they are true to science. While the laws of antenatal physiology, as guarding the species, are admirably recognised, the presiding forethought of the Divine Creator, stamping individuality and adjusting it to a graciously proposed destiny, is equally confessed. The subject belongs to the abstrusest domain of theological anthropology, and the passage stands as a perpetual rebuke of the shameless atheism of modern evolutionists. See Lecture vii of Bishop Alexander, Bampton Lectures, 1876

Verses 17-18

17, 18. From this wonderful rehearsal of God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, and tender care, the psalmist breaks forth into exclamations of praise.

Precious… are thy thoughts “Precious,” here, literally means weighty, then costly, rare, whence the idea comes of difficult to attain, and, in matters of thought, difficult to comprehend, answering to unsearchable. Romans 11:33.

If I should count He puts them down as countless (see Psalms 40:5) in number, weighty in value, wonderful in wisdom.

When I awake As often as I awake.

Verses 19-22

19-22. From the foregoing survey of the divine perfections the psalmist draws unbounded consolation and hope for the righteous. He now, however, sees that the same causes secure the ultimate, inevitable punishment of the wicked. Sin, in the light of God, now appears “exceeding sinful;” and before the omniscience and omnipresence of God, cannot escape its desert. The transition of the poem at this point is abrupt, but natural, upon the laws of antithesis.

Surely The Hebrew is a strong asseveration. God will punish sin. It follows from his attributes.

Depart from me The author will have no alliance with the enemies of God. Their guilt and their ruin are, before him, alike abhorrent; on the other hand, the glory of God attracts him.

Verse 20

20. For they speak against thee This is the ground and nature of his hatred of the wicked.

Verse 22

22. I hate them with perfect hatred Not the sinner apart from his sin, but as loving and cleaving to sin. His hatred is not personal, but moral and legal, as the connexion shows. When a man identifies himself with sin he is an enemy of God, and only in this sense can he become our enemy. Compare “thine enemies” and “mine enemies,” Psalms 139:20; Psalms 139:22

Verses 23-24

23, 24. Because of such sin and sinful men, the psalmist prays for a search of his own heart, that no enmity to God may be left there.

Way everlasting Literally, way of eternity; so termed because it is old as eternity, being founded in the attributes of God, and because it leads to a blissful eternity; in both respects opposite to the brief and perishable way of the ungodly. Psalms 1:6.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 139". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/psalms-139.html. 1874-1909.
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