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Psalm 139:1-6

1. O Jehovah! thou hast searched me, and knowest me. 2. Thou hast known my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. 3. Thou besiegest my path, and my lying clown, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4. For there is not a word in my tongue, but lo! O Lord! Thou knowest it altogether. 5. Thou hast shut me up behind and before, and hast laid thine hand upon me. 6. Thy knowledge is wonderful above me: 200200     “C’est par dessus moy et ma capacite.” — Fr. Marg. “That is, above me and my capacity.” it is high, I cannot attain to it.


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.

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