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Psalm 139:13-16

13. For thou hast possessed 209209     “The usual signification of קנה is, to possess, to acquire; but here it is thought to contain the notion of forming, or creating. The reason of this difference in the sense may be accounted for from the circumstance, that in Arabic there are two verbs to which קנה may correspond, viz., one to possess, and another to form. So in Genesis 14:19, God is said to be ‘the possessor (קנה) of heaven and earth.’ The Septuagint for קנה, reads ὅς ἔκτισε, who created, and the Vulgate, qui creavit Again in Proverbs 8:22, for קנני the Chaldee has בראני, hath begotten, or created me. From these and other passages it is evident that קנה was supposed by the ancient interpreters to have the sense of to form, or create; and this meaning seems to be required in the verse before us, which comports with the next verb.” — Phillips. my reins; thou hast covered me 210210     The “covering” here spoken of, is illustrated by Job 10:2, where God is said to have “clothed us with skin and flesh, and fenced us with bones and sinews.” “A work so astonishing,” observes Bishop Horne, “that before the Psalmist proceeds in his description of it, he cannot help breaking forth in rapture at the thought: ‘I will praise thee, for! I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’” in my mother’s womb, 14. I will praise thee; for I have been made wonderful terribly; marvellous are thy works, and my soul shall know them well. 15. My strength is not hid from thee, 211211     “Ou, mon os n’est point cache de toy.” — Fr. marg. “Or, my bone is not hid from thee.” which thou hast made in secret: I was woven together in the lowest parts of the earth. 16. Thine eyes did see my shapelessness; all are written in thy book, they were formed by days, and not one of them.


13. For thou hast possessed my reins Apparently he prosecutes the same subject, though he carries it out somewhat farther, declaring that we need not be surprised at God’s knowledge of the most secret thoughts of men, since he formed their hearts and their reins. He thus represents God as sitting king in the very reins of man, as the center of his jurisdiction, and shows it ought to be no ground of wonder that all the windings and recesses of our hearts are known to him who, when we were inclosed in our mother’s womb, saw us as clearly and perfectly as if we had stood before him in the light of mid-day. This may let us know the design with which David proceeds to speak of man’s original formation, its scope is the same in the verse which follows, where, with some ambiguity in the terms employed, it is sufficiently clear and obvious that David means that he had been fashioned in a manner wonderful, and calculated to excite both fear and admiration, 212212     “Fearfully and wonderfully made Never was so terse and expressive a description of the physical conformation of man given by any human being. So fearfully are we made, that there is not an action or gesture of our bodies, which does not, apparently, endanger some muscle, vein, or sinew, the rupture of which would destroy either life or health. We are so wonderfully made, that our organization infinitely surpasses, in skill, contrivance, design, and adaptation of means to ends, the most curious and complicated piece of mechanism, not only ever executed ‘by art and man’s device, but ever conceived by the human imagination.” — Warner. so that he breaks forth into the praises of God. One great reason of the carnal security into which we fall, is our not considering how singularly we were fashioned at first by our Divine Maker. From this particular instance David is led to refer in general to all the works of God, which are just so many wonders fitted to draw our attention to him. The true and proper view to take of the works of God, as I have observed elsewhere, is that which ends in wonder. His declaration to the effect that his soul should well know these wonders, which far transcend human comprehension, means no more than that with humble and sober application he would give his attention and talents to obtaining such an apprehension of the wonderful works of God as might end in adoring the immensity of his glory. The knowledge he means, therefore, is not that which professes to comprehend what, under the name of wonders, he confesses to be incomprehensible, nor of that kind which philosophers presumptuously pretend to, as if they could solve every mystery of God, but simply that religious attention to the works of God which excites to the duty of thanksgiving.

15. My strength was not hid from thee That nothing is hid from God David now begins to prove from the way in which man is at first formed, and points out God’s superiority to other artificers in this, that while they must have their work set before their eyes before they can form it, he fashioned us in our mother’s womb. It is of little importance whether we read my strength or my bone, though I prefer the latter reading. He next likens the womb of the mother to the lowest caverns or recesses of the earth. Should an artizan intend commencing a work in some dark cave where there was no light to assist him, how would he set his hand to it? in what way would he proceed? and what kind of workmanship would it prove? 213213     “The figure,” says Walford, “is derived from the darkness and obscurity of caverns and other recesses of the earth.” But God makes the most perfect work of all in the dark, for he fashions man in mother’s womb. The verb רקם, rakam, which means weave together, 214214     “רקם is ‘to embroider.’” — Phillips. Mant translates the verse thus: —
   “By all, but not by thee unknown,
My substance grew, and, o’er it thrown,
The fine-wrought web from nature’s loom,
All wove in secret and in gloom.”

   And after observing that the foetus is gradually formed and matured for the birth, like plants and flowers under ground, he adds — “The process is compared to that in a piece of work wrought with a needle, or fashioned in the loom: which, with all its beautiful variety of color, and proportion of figure, ariseth by degrees to perfection, under the hand of the artist, framed according to a pattern lying before him, from a rude mass of silk, or other materials. Thus, by the power and wisdom of God, and after a plan delineated in his book, is a shapeless mass wrought up into the most curious texture of nerves, veins, arteries, bones, muscles, membranes, and skin, most skilfully interwoven and connected with each other, until it becometh a body harmoniously diversified with all the limbs and lineaments of a man, not one of which at first appeared, any more than the figures were to be seen in the ball of silk. But then, which is the chief thing here insisted on by the Psalmist, whereas the human artificer must have the clearest light whereby to accomplish his task, the divine work-master seeth in secret, and effecteth all his wonders within the dark and narrow confines of the womb.” Bishop Lowth supposes that the full force and beauty of the metaphor in this passage will not be understood, unless it is perceived that the Psalmist alludes to the art of embroidery as consecrated by the Jews to sacred purposes, in decorating the garments of the priests and the curtains at the entrance of the tabernacle. “In that most perfect ode, Psalm 139,” says he, “which celebrates the immensity of the omnipresent Deity, and the wisdom of the divine artificer in forming the human body, the author uses a metaphor derived from the most subtle art of Phrygian workmen:

   ‘When I was formed in the secret place,
When I was wrought with a needle in the depths of the earth.

   Whoever observes this, (in truth he will not be able to observe it in the common translations,)and at the same time reflects upon the wonderful mechanism of the human body, the various amplifications of the veins, arteries, fibres, and membranes; the ‘indescribable texture’ of the whole fabric; may indeed feel the beauty and gracefulness of this well-adapted metaphor, but will miss much of its force and sublimity, unless he be apprised that the art of designing in needle-work was wholly dedicated to the use of the sanctuary, and by a direct precept of the divine law, chiefly employed in furnishing’ a part of the sacerdotal habits, and the veils for the entrance of the tabernacle. (Exodus 28:39; Exodus 26:36; Exodus 27:16; compare Ezekiel 16:10, 13, 18.) Thus the poet compares the wisdom of the divine artificer with the most estimable of human arts — that art which was dignified by being consecrated altogether to the use of religion; and the workmanship of which was so exquisite, that even the sacred writings seem to attribute it to a supernatural guidance. See Exodus 35:30-35 ” — Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, volume 1.
is employed to amplify and enhance what the Psalmist had just said. David no doubt means figuratively to express the inconceivable skill which appears in the formation of the human body. When we examine it, even to the nails on our fingers, there is nothing which could be altered, without felt inconveniency, as at something disjointed or put out of place; and what, then, if we should make the individual parts the subject of enumeration? 215215     “Que sera-ce donc quand on viendra a contempler par le menu chacune partie?” — Fr. Where is the embroiderer who — with all his industry and ingenuity — could execute the hundredth part of this complicate and diversified structure? We need not then wonder if God, who formed man so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of him after he is ushered into the world.

16. Thine eyes beheld my shapelessness, etc. The embryo, when first conceived in the womb, has no form; and David speaks of God’s having known him when he was yet a shapeless mass, τὸ κύημα, as the Greeks term it; for τὸ εμβρυον is the name given to the foetus from the time of conception to birth inclusive. The argument is from the greater’ to the less. If he was known to God before he had grown to certain definite shape, much less could he now elude his observation. He adds, that all things were written in his book; that is, the whole method of his formation was well known to God. The term book is a figure taken from the practice common amongst men of helping their memory by means of books and commentaries. Whatever is an object of God’s knowledge he is said to have registered in writing, for he needs no helps to memory. Interpreters are not agreed as to the second clause. Some read ימים, yamim, in the nominative case, when days were made; the sense being, according to them — All my bones were written in thy book, O God! from the beginning of the world, when days were first formed by thee, and when as yet none of them actually existed. The other is the more natural meaning, That the different parts of the human body are formed in a succession of time; for in the first germ there is no arrangement of parts, or proportion of members, but it is developed, and takes its peculiar form progressively. 216216     “They (my members) have been daily formed, or forming. They were not formed at once, but gradually; each day increasing in strength and size. This expression is probably parenthetical, so that the last words of the verse will refer to the writing of those things previously mentioned in God’s register.” — Phillips. There is another point on which interpreters differ. As in the particle לא, lo, the א, aleph, is often interchangeable with ו vau; some read לו, to him, and others לא not. According to the first reading, the sense is, that though the body is formed progressively, it was always one and the same in God’s book, who is not dependent upon time for the execution of his work. A sufficiently good meaning, however, can be got by adhering’ without change to the negative particle, namely, that though the members were formed in the course of days, or gradually, none of them had existed; no order or distinctness of parts having been there at first, but a formless substance. And thus our admiration is directed to the providence of God in gradually giving’ shape and beauty to a confused mass. 217217     “The meaning is,” says Warner, “there was a time when none of those curious parts, of which my form consists, existed. The germ of them all was planted by thee in the first instance; and gradually matured, by thy power, wisdom, and goodness, into that wonderful piece of mechanism which the human form exhibits.” Phillips gives a different turn to the clause: “And not one of them, or among them, was omitted. Not one of the particulars concerning my formation has been left out of thy record.”

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