Psalm 139
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This psalm falls into four strophes unequal in length, but clearly marked. Had it ended at the third it could have been easily described as a poem on the omniscience and omnipresence of God, and though many of the expressions that have been used about this psalm would seem extravagant if repeated, yet it would be acknowledged by all as one of the sublimest in the whole collection. In its tone it is personal and reflective rather than speculative, and yet some of the profoundest metaphysical questions are touched, or at least suggested, and as we read we feel at every moment that we stand on the verge of the discovery of weighty truths concerning God’s nature and his relation to man. But suddenly, as only a Hebrew poet could do, the writer breaks away from the subject, to denounce ungodly men with a storm of indignation nowhere surpassed. For the explanation of this see Note to Psalm 139:19.

The superscription ascribing the psalm to David must be abandoned in the face not only of the strong Aramaic colouring of the psalm, but also of the development of its eschatology, which marks a late epoch. It is certainly as late as the latest in the collection. Though not sustained, throughout, the parallelism is exceptionably fine.

Title.—See Title, Psalms 4.

The Codex Alex. of the LXX. adds, “of Zechariah,” and a later hand, “on the dispersion.”

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.
(1) Searched . . .—Comp. Psalm 44:21, “shall not God search this out.” The word is used of mining operations, Job 28:3; of exploring a country, Judges 18:2.

Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
(2) Down-sitting and uprising—as in Deuteronomy 6:7, to denote the whole daily life—business and rest.

Thought.—An Aramaic form found nowhere else, but, from one possible derivation (“companion”), meaning the thoughts which are inseparable companions, most intimate thoughts.

Comp. Macbeth 3:2:

“How now, my lord? Why do you keep alone,

Of sorriest fancies your companions making?”

Afar off.—Exactly as in Psalm 138:6. Jehovah notes and recognises the proud from afar off, so here though He has His home in heaven He knows what are the thoughts and feelings amid which a man habitually lives. (Comp. Job 22:12-13.) The Hebrew expression literally means, thou hast intelligence as to my thought from afar, an Aramaic expression.

Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
(3) Compassest.—There is some obscurity about this word. The Hebrew verb means first to scatter, and is used of throwing corn about to winnow it (Isaiah 30:24; Jeremiah 4:11; Ruth 3:2). Hence by an easy metaphor it may mean to sift or search out. The LXX. and Theodotion, followed by the Vulg., have traced, investigated. Jerome has winnowed. The Authorised Version rendering appears to come from a mistaken etymology.

A most plausible suggestion connects the verb with zûr, to lodge, which makes a perfect parallelism with the verb to dwell, in the next clause. Literally,

About my path and bed thou art a guest,

In all my ways thou dwellest;

i.e., art as familiar with all my life as one inhabiting the same house could be.

My path.—Literally, my going.

For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
(4) For there is not . . .—This has been understood in two ways:—

My tongue cannot utter a word which thou dost not altogether know.


Before my tongue can utter a word thou knowest it altogether.

Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
(5) Beset—as a beleagured city from which there is no escape.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
(6) Such . . .—God’s omniscience is for man at once transcendent, unattainable, impossible. Possibly the article has dropped away, and we should read this knowledge. LXX. and Vulg. have “thy knowledge.”

For the thought comp. Psalm 139:17-18, and Romans 11:33.

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
(7) Spirit.—If this clause stood alone we should naturally understand by God’s Spirit His creative and providential power, from which nothing can escape (comp. Psalm 104:30). But taken in parallelism with presence in the next clause the expression leads on to a thought towards which the theology of the Old Testament was dimly feeling, which it nearly reached in the Book of Wisdom. “The Spirit of the Lord filleth the world,” but which found its perfect expression in our Saviour’s announcement to the woman of Samaria.

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
(8) If I make my bed in hell.—Literally, If I make Sheôl my bed. (For the thought see Amos 9:2, and comp. Proverbs 15:11; Job 26:6.)

This conviction that the underworld was not exempt from the vigilance and even from the visitation of Jehovah makes an advance in thought from Psalm 6:5 (where see Note), &c, where death is viewed as cutting off the Hebrew altogether from his relation to the Theocracy.

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
(9) If . . .—Literally,

I lift wings of dawn

I dwell in the end of the sea.

The wings of the morning.—This exquisite image suggesting not only the pinions of cloud that seem often to lift the dawn into the sky, but also the swift sailing of the light across the world, may be compared to the “wings of the sun” in Malachi 4:2, and the “wings of the wind” in Psalm 18:10.

The uttermost parts of the sea—i.e., to a Hebrew the extreme west. The poet imagines himself darting from east to farthest west, with the rapidity of light.

Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
(10) Even there . . .—The expressions “lead me,” “hold me,” are elsewhere used of the protecting and guiding providence of God (Psalm 5:8; Psalm 23:3; Psalm 27:11; Psalm 73:24). And yet the psalmist speaks here as if he were a guilty being trying to escape from the Divine notice. The truth is a profound one. Even when God discovers and overtakes those who guiltily try to hide from Him, it is to take them under His loving care.

If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
(11) If I say . . .—Rather,

I say only let darkness crush me,

And light become night around me.

Commentators have mostly been frightened by the metaphor in the first line, though it has been preserved both by the LXX. and Vulg., and can only be avoided either by forcing the meaning of the verb from what it bears in Genesis 3:15, Job 9:17, or altering the text. Yet the Latins could speak even in prose of a region “oppressed by darkness” (Sen. Ep. 82); and when night was used as figurative of death, nocte premi was a common poetical figure. Indeed, the word rendered darkness here is actually, in Psalm 88:6, used of death, and if we understood this figure here we might render the word trample, illustrating by Horace

“Jam te premet nox fabulæque Manes.”

Such a view would suit the thought to which the poet immediately passes—to God the darkness of death and the nothingness before birth are alike. On the other hand, as the main thought is that nowhere is there escape from God’s sight in height, or depth, or distance so to exhaust the possibilities we seem to need, darkness.

The second clause does not begin the apodosis: it is in synthetic parallelism with the first.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
(12) Hideth not.—Better to keep as near as possible to the original maketh not dark. Others render cannot be too dark for thee. The highest development of the psalmist’s thought is of course to be found in St. John’s declaration, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”

Shineth.—Or, giveth light.

The darkness . . .—Literally, as darkness, so light.

God is the light which, never seen itself, makes all things visible, and clothes itself in colours.”—RICHTER.

For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.
(13) For . . .—The mystery of birth regarded as one of the greatest mysteries (see Ecclesiastes 11:5), is a proof of God’s omniscience.

Possessed.—The context seems to require formed, fashioned, as, according to Gesenius, in Deuteronomy 32:6, (Authorised Version “bought”) (Comp. Genesis 14:19, where maker should be read for possessor.)

For “reins” see Psalm 16:7.

Covered me.—Most critics render here didst weave me. (Comp. Job 10:11.) But the usual sense of the word cover or protect, suits equally well. The prime thought is that every birth is a divine creation.

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
(14) For I am . . .—Literally, because I am fearfully separated or distinguished (see Note on Psalm 26:7; Psalm 40:5), which might mean separated from the womb, i.e., born. (Comp. Galatians 1:15; Psalm 22:10.) Or if the reference is national rather than individual, it would imply, as so frequently, the choice of Israel by Jehovah in distinction to other races.

My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
(15) Substance.—Aquila “bones,” LXX. and Vulg. “bone,” Symmachus “strength.” Perhaps, generally, body. But the common Hebrew word for bone differs only in the pointing.

In secret.—Comp. Æsch. Eum. 665.

Curiously wrought.—From the use of the verb in Exodus 26:36; Exodus 27:16, it plainly refers to some kind of tapestry work, but whether of the nature of weaving or embroidery is matter of controversy. The English sufficiently suggests the figure.

In the lowest parts of the earth.—This figurative allusion to the womb is intended no doubt to heighten the feeling of mystery attaching to birth. There may also be a covert allusion to the creation from dust as Ecclesiasticus 40:1, “From the day that they go out of their mother’s womb, till the day that they return to the mother of all things.” This allusion falls in with the view which meets us in other parts of the Old Testament, that the creation of Adam is repeated at every birth (Job 33:6, and see above, Psalm 139:13).

Others, since the expression “lowest places of the earth” is used of the unseen world (Psalm 63:9; comp. Psalm 86:13), see here a confirmation of the view that the state before birth and after death are in this poem regarded as the dark void of night, with all the recesses of which, however, God is acquainted. (Comp. the expressions “Womb of Sheôl,” “Belly of hell,” Jonah 2:2; Ecclesiasticus 51:5.)

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
(16) This difficult verse, rendered word for word, gives—

“My fœtus (literally, rolled) saw thine eyes,

And on thy book all of them were written;

Days were formed, and not (or, as the Hebrew margin, to him) one in them.”

The reading “substance yet being imperfect” of the Authorised Version follows the LXX. and Vulg., and (Symmachus, “shapeless thing”) periphrastically denotes the embryo, which the Hebrew word—literally, rolled, or wrapped, used in 2Kings 2:8, “of a mantle,” in Ezekiel 27:24, “bales” (Authorised Version, “clothes;” margin, “foldings”)—almost scientifically describes. (Comp. Job 10:8-12; 2 Maccabees 7:22.)

Others take it of the ball of the threads of destiny; but this is not a Hebrew conception. By inserting the word members, the Authorised Version suggests a possible, but not a probable, interpretation. The Hebrew language likes to use a pronoun before the word to which it refers has occurred (see Note, Psalm 68:14); and, in spite of the accents, we must refer all of them to “days” (Authorised Version, “in continuance”).

“Thine eyes beheld my embryo,

And in thy book were written

All the days, the days

Which were being formed,

When as yet there were none of them.”

But a much more satisfactory sense is obtained by adopting one slight change and following Symmachus in the last line—

“The days which are all reckoned, and not one of them is wanting.”

All the ancient versions make that which is written in God’s book either the days of life, or men born in the course of these days, each coming into being according to the Divine will.

How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
(17) Precious.—Rather, weighty, the first meaning of the word. The parallelism requires this, as also the peculiar word for “thoughts,” for which see Psalm 139:2. We have here the antithesis to that verse: while the Divine penetration discovers the most intimate thought of man, man finds God’s secrets incomprehensible.

If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
(18) If I should . . .—The original is more expressive:—

“Let me count them—more than the sand they are many:

I have awaked—and still with thee.”

With the countless mysteries of creation and providence the poet is so occupied, that they are his first waking thought; or, perhaps, as the Hebrew suggests, his dreams are continued into his early thoughts.

“Is not the vision He? tho’ He be not that which He seems?

Dreams are true while they last; and do we not live in dreams?”

TENNYSON: Higher Pantheism.

Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
(19) Slay the wicked.—This abrupt transition from a theme so profound and fascinating to fierce indignation against the enemies of God, would certainly be strange anywhere but in the Psalms. And yet, perhaps, philosophically regarded, the subject of God’s omniscience must conduct the mind to the thought of the existence of evil, and speculation on its origin and development. But the Hebrew never speculated for speculation’s sake. The practical concerns of life engaged him too intensely. Where a modern would have branched off into the ever-recurring problem of the entrance of evil into the world, the Israelite turned with indignation on those who then and there proved the existence of sin in concrete act.

Surely . . . —Or, rather—

“O that thou wouldest slay, O God, the wicked,

And that ye bloody men would depart from me.”

We get the last clause, which is better than an abrupt change to the imprecations, by a slight change of reading.

For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
(20) For they speak.—Better, Who rebel against thee. This is actually the reading of the fifth of the Greek translations preserved by Origen, and entails only a change of the vowel pointing.

And thine enemies.—The state of the text is unsatisfactory. The subject to the verb must be that of the last clause, and the rendering enemies” of a word properly meaning cities is very doubtful, in spite of 1Samuel 28:16 (but Aquila has “rivals,” and Symmachus” adversaries”), where there is also a textual correction required.

Of the various proposed emendations, the simplest produces

“And rise up against them in vain.”

Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
(21) Do not I . . .—Better—

“Must I not hate thy haters, Jehovah,

And feel loathing for thy assailants?”

I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.
(22) With perfect hatred.—Literally, with perfection of hatred. Comp. Tennyson’s

“Dowered with the hate of hate.”

Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
(23) Search.—The same word with which the psalm opens. The inevitable scrutiny of the Divine Being is invited.

Thoughts.—As in Psalm 94:19; a word meaning (Ezekiel 31:5) branches, and so expressing the ramifications of thought.

And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
(24) Wicked way.—The Hebrew may mean (after 1Chronicles 4:9; Isaiah 14:3) way of sorrow, or (after Isaiah 48:5) way of an idol, i.e., idolatry, which is preferable.

Way everlasting.—Rather, here as in Jeremiah 6:16; Jeremiah 18:15, of the old, i.e., the true, religion, in the ancient way. The word rendered “everlasting” merely expresses indefinite time, whether past or future.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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