McMahon on Psalms 139:16


Timothy P. McMahon

David’s words in Psalm 139:16 are often cited to support the notion that God has predestined the lives and actions of human beings. The New King James Version’s rendering is typical:

And in Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.

From this translation one might reasonably understand that God, like the Fates of Greek mythology, has determined the individual’s lifespan and the course of events within it. Yet, interestingly enough, the old King James Version, whose translators’ predestinarian bent is evident throughout their work, viewed this text from a much less fatalistic perspective:

And in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

In their view, apparently, God was able to foreknow, and perhaps to foreordain, David’s physical characteristics from his embryonic state. One might take this as an anachronistic (not only for the psalmist, but for the translators) description of genetics.

While the KJV translation here offers a reasonable concept, in order to understand the text more fully, we must examine the original Hebrew. One caveat at the outset: The text of Psalm 139:13-16 is extremely difficult. (Note that the two renderings above achieve quite disparate results, both containing several italicized words supplied by the translators in their attempt to make sense of the original.) We will attempt a fresh analysis of the text in order to propose a new interpretation of the passage.

Let us first view the passage under consideration within the context of Psalm 139 as a whole. Dahood (1969:3:284) points out that the psalm is a declaration of innocence on the part of the author. HaShem knows that he is pure, that he is not guilty of unfaithfulness or idolatry. His accusers (v.19) have nothing to stand on. God Himself can vouch for him. God knows everything about him, all his deepest secrets, even what he cannot know about himself[1].  Even if he wanted to escape the providence of HaShem, that would be impossible. Heaven is not high enough, the sea is not far enough, the winds are not remote enough, Sheol is not deep enough. The breadth and depth of God’s knowledge are “too wonderful for me, too high for me to attain” (v.6). He concludes the section leading up to our passage by exclaiming:

Even in the darkness He observes me[2]

and night is daylight all around me.

Even the darkness is not too dark for You

and at night it shines like daytime for You.

As darkness, so is light.

The imagery in v.12 of darkness, night and concealment remind David of that place which in Hebrew thought most typifies the unknown: Sheol, the realm of the dead[3]. The Old Testament offers only imprecise descriptions of the netherworld, where humans exist consciously in a shadowy state. In the Hebrew mind, the tentative, undefined existence in Sheol was comparable to another realm of human existence of which men had only the shadow of knowledge: the life of the fetus in his mother’s womb. The association between Sheol and the womb is intensified by the figure of the earth as mother[4]. Just as the fetus lives within his mother’s body, so Sheol is a chamber within the earth[5]. Job declares:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return there[6].

Scripture elsewhere affirms God’s intimate knowledge of the netherworld (Job 26:6; Proverbs 15:11). Here, David declares that He possesses equally comprehensive knowledge of pre-natal life. As we approach vv.13-16, then, we must understand that the focus of David’s awestruck praise is not God’s ability to make things happen in the future, but His ability to examine the impenetrable, to see as well in darkness as in light, to know thoroughly and intimately those realms which to humans are mere shadows. Scripture often celebrates HaShem’s ability to bring about His will (e.g., Isaiah 49:10; Psalm 115:3), but here the subject is His wisdom, His understanding, His ability to perceive and know all things.

verse 13

ki atah qanita kilyotay // tesukkeni bebeten imi

for You possessed my kidneys // You covered me in my mother’s womb

While the syntax of this verse is refreshingly straightforward, there is room for discussion on the meanings of several key words.

(a) qnh. Generally in its 182 occurrences = “possess, acquire, purchase.’’ In Ugaritic it seems to mean “create, bring forth,’ which sense scholars have attempted to assign in Hebrew as well[7]. We see no compelling reason to accept this idea here, though.

(b) kilayot literally are the kidneys of a human or animal. The term is also used figuratively in a manner similar to the biblical use of ‘heart’ to signify a person’s innermost being or true self. This then might be a statement to the effect that God knew David intimately from his very beginning. Alternatively, TWOT suggests that kilayot is put here by synechdoche for the body as a whole, in which case it would be an indicator of HaShem’s protective care over the bearer of the messianic lineage.

(c) skk normally means ‘to cover,’ as in Exodus 33:32, “I will cover you with My hand,” indicating protection (Nahum 2:5), oversight (Exodus 25:20) or concealment (Lamentations 3:44)[8]. Dahood proposes translating the preposition b- ‘from,’, a usage common in Psalms[9]. This changes the focus to an affirmation of God’s protection throughout his life: “You have covered me from my mother’s womb.”

verse 14

odka ‘al ki nora atah nipla’ot

I will praise You, High One, for You are marvelously wonderful

nipla’im ma‘aseka // wenapsi yada‘ta me’od

marvels, Your acts // yes, You know my soul intimately.

The challenge of this verse is the inverse of the previous: Here, the vocabulary is relatively simple, but the syntax is difficult. Our translation above departs from the Massoretic Text in favor of the reading preserved in the Qumran manuscript 1QPsa as transcribed by Sanders (1967:72). In contrast, the best rendering we can come up with reading MT is as follows:

I will praise You because I am awesomely marvelous. Your acts are marvels, which my soul knows very well.

(a) This rendering divides the “marvels” between HaShem and David, his creation, rather than focusing on the Creator alone[10]. The final clause then addresses the psalmist’s knowledge rather than the knowledge of God, which we believe to be the overall theme of the composition.

(b) ‘al is normally a preposition, ‘on, upon,’ which here would be logical in sense, ‘because.’ Dahood (1969:3:293) sees here, as often in Psalms, a divine title, ‘el, similar to the universally recognized ‘elyon, ‘ Most High.’ The preposition ‘al here would be superfluous, as the following ki already means ‘because.’

(c) The MT form nora’ot is a feminine plural adjective, ‘awesome,’ with no apparent noun to modify. 1QPsa reads nwr’ ’th (which we have vocalized nora’ ’atah), the masculine singular form along with the 2ms pronoun. This yields an exclamation from David to HaShem, “You are awesome!” serving as an explanation for the preceding verb of praise[11].

(d) The form nipla’ot (from 1QPsa; MT reads niple’ti) is a nif‘al feminine plural participle from pl’, ‘to be marvelous.’ We have interpreted it as a substantive participle used adverbially: “You are marvelously awesome.”

(e) With Dahood we have repointed MT yoda‘at (fs qal participle) to yada‘ta (2 ms qal perfect), “You have known.” A more wooden rendering of the last word in the verse would yield, “You know my soul so well.” The important factor is to see it as a description of God’s knowledge rather than the psalmist’s.

David is simply in awe of the extent of HaShem’s knowledge both of the creation in general and of himself in particular. (This dual focus, along with the highly emotional state of the psalmist, explains the somewhat abrupt transitions in the syntax.) Even if the entire world is against him, HaShem knows his innocence; HaShem will vindicate him, for He has known him intimately since his very conception.

verse 15

lo’ nikhad ‘ozmi mimeka // aser ‘usseti baseter

my bones were not hidden from You // when I was made in the secret place

ruqqamti betahtiyot ’ares

[when] I was woven in the lowest parts of the earth

(a) The pointing of ‘ozmi ordinarily would indicate its derivation from ‘osem, ‘might,’ but, as this does not fit the sense, a derivation from ‘esem, ‘bone,’ is much more plausible and supported by the versions. While one would normally anticipate the plural ‘asamay, the singular is apparently used as a collective (cf. NKJV, ‘my frame’)[12].

(b) The verb form ‘usseti is understood as a form of ‘sh, ‘to make,’ although among over 2,000 occurrences, this is the only attestation of the pu‘al conjugation in Scripture. The sense fits well, and we have seen no convincing alternative proposal. Perhaps the pu‘al is used in an intensive sense to depict the duration of the process.

(c) We have rendered seter as ‘secret place’ because of its parallel to “the lower parts of the earth,” an unmistakable designation of Sheol.

(d) The verb rqm and its noun riqmah occur collectively twenty times in the OT, always with the meaning ‘embroider, weave.’ The verb implies great skill on the part of the weaver and usually a variegation of colors in the woven object. This unique usage seems to be an allusion to the marvelous intricacy of the human body, recognized even in pre-scientific times.

Verse 15 makes explicit the equation of the womb with Sheol. Since Sheol is “the secret place,” a miscarried fetus is “hidden” there (Job 3:16). Perhaps the view of Sheol as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16) is prefigured in this usage, for “the secret place” is also used to designate the intimate dwelling of HaShem (Psalm 18:11; 32:7; 91:1).

While David employs passive forms here (“I was made… I was woven”), there can be no doubt that he views HaShem as the One who brought him forth: “Your hands have made me and stood me upright” (Psalm 119:73). The comparison of Sheol, which is in the earth, recalls God’s original formation of Adam “from the dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7). That God brought David forth from the lower parts of the earth also foreshadows the redemption of Christ, who descended into “the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:11) to bring forth the souls of the righteous, such as David, to eternal life by His resurrection (cf. the application of Psalm 16 to Christ in Acts 2).

David’s poetic usage of the expression ‘embroidered’ or ‘variegated’ leads us to pause briefly to reflect upon the ancient biblical writers’ appreciation of the process of conception and fetal development. Qohelet (11:5) reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge:

Just as you do not know the way of the wind, or how the bones develop in the pregnant woman’s womb, so you do not know the action of God who does it all.

Again, God’s understanding of fetal development is an indication of the superiority of His knowledge. The most explicit biblical description of the process is found in Job 10:8-11, which we cite with minimal comment:

Your hands fashioned and made me altogether

— yet now You destroy me!

Remember that You made me out of clay

and to the dust You will return me[13].

Did You not pour me out like milk,

and curdle me like cheese?

You clothed me with skin and flesh

and knitted me with bones and muscles.

verse 16

golmi ra’u ‘eneka // we‘al sipreka kullam yikkatebu

Your eyes saw my fetus // and in Your book they all were written

yamim yussaru welo’ ehad bahem

they were formed [over a period of] days, and one of them is His

or, and not one is among them[14].

The difficult text of verse 16 has challenged interpreters throughout the centuries. The LXX renders almost word for word, yielding a translation not much better than the standard English versions:

akatergaston mou eidon oi ofqalmoi sou, kai epi tou bibliou sou panteı grafhsontai; hmeraı plasqhsontai kai ouqeiı en autoiı

Your eyes beheld my unformed [body] and in Your book all will be written; they will be formed [over a period of] days, and none [is] among them.

The main problem is determining the antecedent of the plural suffix of kullam, which in turn is the apparent subject of the verbs yikkatebu and yussaru. The only available candidate, golmi, ‘my fetus,’ is singular[15]. The usual approach is to find the requisite plural noun in yamim, ‘days.’ From this is derived the notion that the psalmist’s days are written in God’s book; that is to say, his life, or at least its duration, is predetermined. However, we see no solid basis for the idea that the plural suffix is “anticipatory” to a following noun here. Further, the verb ysr means ‘to form, shape,’ generally a physical object; rarely used figuratively in the sense of ‘formulate’ a plan of action. The concept of ‘forming days’ has no OT precedent. Finally, in this interpretation, the word ehad, ‘one,’ must refer to one of the days, which yields no perceptible sense from either textual variant of the final clause[16]. Modern interpreters generally resort to some sort of emendation (e.g., glmygmly, ‘my actions,’ with support from the Syriac) or reanalysis (Dahood reads gilay-m, ‘my life cycles’), but none of these attempts is to our satisfaction.

Unconvinced by ancient or modern interpretations, we here present our own proposal. We caution the reader that our solution is hypothetical, not resting on empirical evidence, yet we consider it eminently reasonable[17]. We propose that glmy be revocalized as golmay, a plural form representing the diversity of elements in the embryonic human body. The form is then understood in English as a sort of collective noun. We would then translate golmay as ‘my fetus,’ but the plural form would enable us to take this noun properly as the antecedent of the plural suffix -m, and so also as the subject of the two plural verbs, “were written” and “were formed.”

We cite by way of analogy the Hebrew noun panim, ‘face,’ which “always occurs in the plural, perhaps indicative of the fact that the face is a combination of features” (TWOT:727), and accordingly can take plural verbs (Isaiah 29:22) and adjectives (Proverbs 25:23), even when it refers to the face of only one person. In this light, we translate as follows:

Your eyes watched my fetus [in all its features]

(In Your book it was fully described in writing)

As it was being formed over a period of time.

And one of those [features] is His.

The second clause is understood as somewhat parenthetical; the third clause is subordinate to the first. The final clause is a bit abrupt, but such transitions (including the shift from second to third person) occur earlier in the composition and are well documented in Psalms generally.

David marvels at the depths of God’s knowledge and His providence. Throughout David’s gestation, HaShem watched the unfolding of the marvelous process He had set in motion when He created Adam and Eve with the power of procreation. Yet surely He was not merely observing, but carefully watching over David, forerunner of the promised Messiah.

What does it mean that David’s features were written in God’s book? This is usually taken as a reference to the book of life, which is then understood (in the light of Revelation 21:27) to mean that God determined David’s eternal destiny at the moment of his conception[18]. However, the book of life is not the only divine book mentioned in Scripture. Revelation 20:12 refers in the plural to “the books,” echoing Daniel 7:10. In addition to the book of life, God has other books in which He records people’s deeds and also the experiences of His people (Psalm 56:8). There is even a “book of HaShem” concerning the natural activities of the animals (Isaiah 34:16)[19]. We believe that David is referring to God’s careful record keeping concerning His beloved, even numbering the hairs on our heads. As cited above, Qohelet 11:5 infers that fetal development is in some sense “God’s action,” and our verse 16 stresses that it takes place over a period of time (taking yamim adverbially, as LXX and commonly in OT).

What then is the sense of the final clause? What “feature” of the fetus pertains especially to God? We believe this refers to the inner man, the soul or spirit. HaShem is “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Numbers 16:22 & 27:16), not merely of the elect. (Certainly the spirit of every son of Israel would be His in a special way simply by virtue of the covenant.) Paul in Romans 5 establishes that by the justifying power of Christ all men are redeemed from the sin of Adam, and, in that sense, the spirit of the fetus would truly be His, at least until death ensues from the revival of sin (Romans 7:11)[20]. David himself trusted that his deceased child’s soul was in God’s loving hands (2 Samuel 12:23). “The spirit [nesamah] of man is HaShem’s lamp, searching the chambers of the belly” (Proverbs 20:27). Finally, it must be in the spirit that Christ illuminates every man who enters the world (John 1:8).

God, looking upon David as a mere shapeless mass, could view him as the person he would become. To HaShem, Creator of all, the individual’s genetic makeup is an open book. Certainly if we, mere human beings, can reasonably anticipate the results of our efforts, God, in His inestimable intelligence, can foresee David’s physical and mental characteristics and so deem him a suitable forerunner of the King. His ability in this regard is the same for every one of us as we are conceived in our mother’s womb. So we, too, can exclaim with the psalmist:

And for me, how precious are Your thoughts, O God,

How mighty their essence.



Bialik, Hayim N. and Yehoshua H. Ravnitsky, The Book of Legends (Sefer haAggadah), tr. William G. Braude. New York: Schocken, 1992 ed. (originally published in 1908-11).

Dahood, Mitchell J., Anchor Bible vol. 17A, Psalms 101-150. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1970.

Klein, Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Rosenberg, A.J., Psalms: A New English Translation, vol. 3. New York: Judaica Press, 1991.

Schwartz, Howard, Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Weiser, Chaim M., Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995.

[1] Here we might compare Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5. An apt comparison may be made also to Christ, the One falsely accused throughout His life by the self-righteous of His day and finally condemned in the place of a criminal. In fact, a majority of this psalm may be read in a quite edifying manner as Messianic.

[2] Interpreting God as the subject of yesuppeni and taking swp here as equivalent to Arabic safa, ‘to watch, look.’ Cf. Job 9:17, “who observes me from the storm cloud.” See Dahood (1969:3:291).

[3] Darkness is associated with Sheol in Psalm 88:13; Job 15:22; 1 Samuel 2:9; Psalm 143:3.

[4] The image of Mother Earth does not appear as such in Scripture, probably to differentiate Israelite religion from the fertility cult so dominant in the beliefs of the surrounding peoples, and to emphasize that HaShem, who sometimes describes Himself with maternal imagery (Job 38:29; Isaiah 49:15-16), is the source of all creation, including the earth. It is implicit in the use of “mother” to designate the land of Israel (Hebrew eres means both ‘land’ and ‘earth’) in such texts as Isaiah 50:1; Ezekiel 19:2; Hosea 4:8, and also the land of Babylon in Jeremiah 50:12. It is also recognizable in such expressions as daughter (of) Zion, etc.

[5] Sheol is actually called a “womb” in Jonah 2:3, and the sea is said to have come forth from the womb in Job 38:8.

[6] Job’s statement is echoed almost verbatim in Qohelet 5:15, and, in less mythological terms, by Paul in 1 Timothy 6:7. Qohelet further equates the pre-natal and posthumous states in 6:4-5, indicating his belief in a conscious intermediate state, as opposed to the common but erroneous contrary interpretation of 9:5-10. The imagery of Job is brought out more fully in Ben Sira 40:1, “from the day they go forth from their mother’s womb, till the day they return to the mother of all living.”

[7] Primarily in Genesis 14:19-22, where HaShem is called qoneh samayim wa-eres, which might then be rendered ‘Creator of heaven and earth,’ although ‘Possessor’ is equally valid. Also see Deuteronomy 32:6, which may be translated to the effect that HaShem created Israel, but could also be understood as a declaration that He redeemed (‘purchased’) His people from Egypt.

[8] A homophone meaning ‘knit together’ has been proposed for this text and Job 10:11 (cited below).


[9] Supported by LXX ek gastroı and Syriac min karseh

[10] It also assumes that the verb niple’ti is derived from pl’, ‘marvel,’ rather than from plh, ‘separate,’ with which the form is more compatible.

[11] LXX oti foberoı qaumastwqhı, ‘for You are awesomely wonderful,’ is supportive here.

[12] LXX to ostoun mou is again sympathetic. 1QPsa reads ‘sby, ‘my pain(s),’ unless this represents a phonetic confusion of the labials b and m.

[13] Echoing the words of God to Adam in Genesis 3:19.

[14] Verse 16 exhibits a textual variant. The ketib, which is the text as written, reads l’, ‘not.’ The qere, the Massoretic marginal correction, reads lw, ‘to him.’ KJV and NKJV follow the ketib. We have chosen in our main exposition to follow the qere, but also offer an explanation following the ketib version.

The same variation between the negative and the possessive occurs in Isaiah 9:3 (v.2 in MT). KJV, following the ketib, renders “Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy; they joy before thee…” The negation here is nonsensical. Reading the qere, we understand the verse: “You have multiplied the nation, You have increased their joy; they rejoice before You…”

[15] The word glmy is a hapax legomenon in the Bible. The only other occurrence of the root is the verbal form yglm in 2 Kings 2:8, where Elijah ‘rolled up’  (perhaps ‘wadded up’?) his garment. Klein (1987:101) defines golem as a “shapeless matter.” In medieval and modern Hebrew the verb develops such meanings as ‘personify’ and ‘embody.’ Rosenberg (1991:517-18) quotes Rashi and Redaq (David Qimhi) to the effect that glm refers to “the solidified drop of sperm, before the limbs and organs are formed in it. It is called golem just as wood is called golem before it is formed into a utensil.” Klein also compares Aramaic gulma, ‘shapeless mass.’ Finally, in Yeshivish, the slang of the rabbinical academies, goilem (note the Yiddish pronunciation) has come to mean ‘a hopelessly foolish or ineffectual person’ (Weiser 1995:31).

The rabbis of the midrash (Genesis Rabbah, cited in Bialik 1992:15) viewed this text from two angles. It was said in the name of R. Eleazar, “As the Lord was creating Adam, He had come to the stage when Adam had the form of a golem, an unarticulated lump, which lay prone from one end of the world to the other. With regard to this, Scripture says, ‘Thine eye did see my golem.’ In contrast, R. Judah bar Simon said that while Adam lay prone as a golem, ‘God caused to pass before him each generation with its sages, each generation with its scribes, each generation with its leaders, as it is said, ‘O [Adam], when thou wast a golem, thine eyes did see all [the worthies whose names were] inscribed in thy book’.” Medieval kabbalists developed a rather extensive legend concerning the golem. Such luminaries as the Maharal (R. Judah Loew of Prague) were said to have brought a clay figurine to life through magical invocation of the Tetragrammaton, and golem was used to describe this humanoid. See, among others, Schwartz (1988:243-5).

[16] The rabbis, following the qere reading lw, have traditionally understood this as a reference to the sabbath: At the original creation, God formed the seven days, and one of them was His. We find this interpretation lovely, but cannot imagine how it would be of any relevance in the context of Psalm 139.

[17] It is entirely possible that our proposal has been offered before, and we are simply unaware of its existence in the literature. If this is the case, we are not attempting to appropriate another’s scholarship. We can only vouch that we have not seen it elsewhere, and that it is, in this sense, the outcome of our own prayer and seeking of divine wisdom.

[18] We find it curious that those who oppose the open view of God would seek to buttress their argument by citing this text to support the notion that God made these determinations when David was in utero, as elsewhere it is held that all such determinations were made “before the foundation of the world.”

[19] Perhaps, in light of the command to “read,” this refers to the Torah, but we prefer to find in this text an allusion to the “laws of nature.” God’s involvement with the animal kingdom is portrayed in the whirlwind discourse in Job and in Psalm 104, esp. vv. 14, 21, 27-30.

[20] Taking the ketib reading l’, ‘not,’ we would render, “and not one of them [yet] existed [in its mature state].” In other words, God could perceive all of David’s features when they did not yet possess discrete forms.

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