By Lilia Olsick, The University of Notre Dame
The majestic writing of Psalm 139 forces the reader to be confronted with God’s power and come face to face with the beauty of His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. The prayer reflects on not only the power of God, but it also clearly communicates that life is placed in His hands. King David sings his thankfulness for life throughout the Psalm, which unravels the intimate relationship that exists between an unborn child and God. To demonstrate the psalmist’s intentions for this hymn, my interpretation relies on the form in which it was created: wisdom. To direct these interpretations, issues dealing with living before God and problems of religion and ethics will be discussed; followed by the sources used in the canonical product. Establishing these means of interpretation allow Psalm 139 to clearly express the divine relationship between God and the fetus created inside of the mother’s womb. Therefore, every unborn life is sacred and it would be immoral for man to seek its destruction.
Wisdom psalms serve not only to provide the importance of wisdom through the Word of God, but also to instruct readers in dealing with questions, issues, and doubts that arise in life (Mazzalongo, 1970). When trying to interpret the message of such a psalm, one must rely on certain principles to help aid the application of meaning. To interpret Psalm 139 in particular, one must seek out examples to follow, truths to know, and promises to claim (ESV, 2001). To begin, the Psalm enlarges the reader’s perspective on life by emphasizing its divine creation. The psalmist is successful in doing so by revealing the value God places on a fetus’s life before it experiences the physical world. The psalmist recognizes the beauty of creation by saying, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well (Psalm 139:14). The psalmist is highlighting the sanctity of life as he ties its creation to being a product of God’s work. The example that the psalmist is presenting encourages the reader to praise God because of His creation of man. Further, this verse emphasizes the formation of man inside of the womb, rather than the physical life he lives in the world. By conveying that the formation of an embryo marks the beginning of a man’s life, one must conclude that life immediately follows its existence. The psalmist also establishes a truth to this claim as indicated in the text, “that I know very well” (Psalm 139:14). This follows the nature of a wisdom psalm which should motivate one to apply this moral truth to his own life. Therefore, the psalmist puts forth a message that aligns the of beginning life with conception, and it is at this point should the reader find it necessary and moral to protect God’s sacred creation.
One of the most eloquent verses within Psalm 139 addresses the potential of a man’s life before he is even suited to enter the world. The psalmist specifies that God is the beholder of one’s fate, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:16). The message that the psalmist is conveying can be interpreted after identifying the truths and promises one should claim. The distinctive truth that resonates is that every life narrative has already been determined and recorded by God. By accepting this truth that the psalmist provides, one is driven to seek out a meaningful life. People endlessly search for this because that is what an omnipotent God motivates us to do. His creations were constructed to have purpose. Claiming God’s promise now becomes simple; God promises to give every life a determined future on earth. After acknowledging this promise, one must claim it and fulfill God’s plan by pursuing a righteous and meaningful life. Agreeing with this reasoning leads one to question the fairness of ending a life before it has the chance to experience the physical world. By affirming that every life has a purpose, it seems unlikely that an unborn child has already fulfilled God’s plan. Therefore, after addressing the message of wisdom in this verse, one must conclude that God has already mapped the days of life beginning at conception. Claiming this truth means that the destruction of a child before it is born will rob its ability to fulfill God’s intended plan. Any situation in which man disrupts the future of a child should then be considered immoral due to the obstruction of God’s intentions as presented by the psalmist.
To address the questions regarding moral and spiritual issues, it is important to consider the sacred components of one’s creation. It has already been noted how the psalmist demonstrates that life is precious; however, one verse in particular pulls in another character who adds more meaning to the concept of when life begins. Verse 13 states, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). The metaphysical language that the psalmist uses encourages the audience to explore the deeper meanings of this message. The psalmist builds a trio; naming God as the creator of a child who He then safely places inside of a mother. The deliberate care that God is taking in protecting His creation, even before they make a decision to follow Him, should resonate with the audience. Although the creation of the embryo is invisible to the mother, it is open to the eyes of God who mends the strings of embroidery together. From this, one must understand the moral stance the mother should take when issues threatening the life of her child arise. According to the psalmist, the intentions God has for the unborn is to allow the process of development to occur safely. The place of security lies within the mother which makes the womb a divine location. Therefore, a mother should feel morally obligated to protect the life of her child when it’s safety is at risk, just as God did when bringing life into existence.
To give the Psalm credibility, a quick analysis of its original source allows one to develop a healthy skepticism regarding its truth. This means of examination discourages one to simply accept what the psalmist says to be true, but rather to understand the fundamental reasons for why it was made. The first half of the Psalm is classified as the Yahwist source due to the representation of an anthropomorphic God and the usage of “the LORD.” The opening line states, “You have searched me, Lord and you know me” (Psalm 139:). However, verse 17 presents a slight variation of the preceding text, which suggests an introduction to the priestly source. It states, “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:17). Notice how the psalmist first uses “the LORD,” but then abruptly shifts to using the term “God.” This indicates that the text is composed of two separate narratives that are trying to present the same information within Psalm 139. As previously mentioned, verse 14 states, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139: 14). After encountering this line, it becomes clear that verse 17 serves to reiterate the psalmists love for God due to His creation of life. The most probable reason to explain why the redactor chose to include both sources must be to convey the importance of living a meaningful life on earth. Joy for existence would not otherwise be noted on multiple occasions had it not been for the purpose to imply that life is sacred. Therefore, the theme that man should be thankful for the gift of life arises very clearly from these two sources. One can then come to the conclusion that because life is special in the eyes of God, man should do everything in his power to protect it.
Psalm 139 has proven to be a topic of controversy amongst those applying it to their political stances. For some, the psalm holds no significant value when addressing the possible connections between the unborn and God. For others, like John MacArthur, Psalm 139 explodes into a meaningful and spiritual experience that goes beyond the particular relationship between God and the psalmist. As proven earlier, the Psalm delivers a message that life is sacred starting at conception, and any disturbance of this life should be considered immoral. When observing how this destruction of life can occur in today’s world, one must consider the practice of abortion. Abortion is the act of deliberatly terminating the life of a human during pregancy. MacArthur is an American pastor who delivered the speech titled, Abortion and the Campaign for Immorality in 2012. He relies heavily on the interpretations of Psalm 139 to encourage others to join his fight against abortion. Two strategies used in his speech include, defining literary terms which the audience may be unfamiliar with, and immediately following this definition with a rich interpretation.
The implications drawn from his speech align with the ones previously discussed. One verse that was highlighted by MacArthur reads, “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance” (Psalm 139:16). He pauses after this verse to give the audience a better understanding of the term “unformed substance.” He states, “My unformed substance? What is that? That’s a Hebrew word that means something rolled together, something balled up before it unfolded.” Diving into the cultural roots to provide an exact definition allows him to have an advantage when laying out his following interpretation. He continues, “This is God personally, intimately involved in the very first stages of life, life He had unfolded.” As a result of this foundation, identifying his implications becomes simple. The speaker suggests that there is a unique connection between God and the child in the womb; one that he implies is undoubtedly powerful. This particular call to the connection between the child and God allows him to indirectly propose that life, as early as in the womb, is divine. Because the speaker implies that every life is holy, one can see that the speaker is concerned about situations that threaten the life of the unborn child. According to this implication supported by the biblical text, his campaign is allowed to claim that abortion is a situation which destroys one of God’s creations. It is also suggested at this point that the speaker believes life begins at conception due to his recognition of when God creates the unborn. Therefore, MacArthur is accomplished when analyzing Psalm 139 to clearly demonstrate how abortion should not be practiced today because it goes against God’s intentions for the unborn.
An anonymous writer published her own interpretation on Psalm 139, claiming that it does not provide enough justification for a practicing Christian to accept that abortion is wrong. She finds it amusing that the psalm is wrongly quoted and interpreted by the Church in order to support the view that abortion is murder. For instance, the object of whom God claims to love in the Psalm is not intended to reach out to all persons. It instead reflects the intimate relationship that King David has with God. In other words, God presents a particular love for David rather than a universal one for all people. This interpretation suggests that God places an immeasurable value on the formation of David in his embryonic state; a particular worth that is incomparable to all other lives created. The writer states, “David is saying God knew him even before he existed, knew him so well that David did not even have to be in order for God to know him” (Ubuntucat, 2007). This viewpoint that puts David in the spotlight allows the author to continue building her arguments. She suggests that because the Psalm cannot be expanded in the real world, there should be no truth when relating these topics to one’s current life. With this approach, the writer implies that the church should not jump to the conclusion that God loves all people the same way that He loved David.
However, the authors who wrote the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible published an article that pointed out the errors people often make when reading the Bible. One of these errors occurs when the textual application is overly simplified. It is important to recognize that because God reveals Himself to us through specific people, the application made in the text is closely associated with the culture at the time. Therefore, to successfully apply these narratives to the world outside of the Bible, the text must be interpreted past its literal meanings. The anonymous writer falls victim to this error since her interpretation fails to mention the connections made outside of the character in the narrative. Although it is true the psalmist does not mention the creation of other people, one should not assume that the Word of God only speaks to David in this situation. One should instead recognize the divine relationship that is paved out and follow its path to connect with the self. In doing so, it becomes clear that God loves all of His creations starting from the very beginning. And this appreciation of man’s sacred relationship between himself and God should motivate one to protect humanity during all stages of life.
Admin, and Admin. “Psalms of Instruction in Wisdom and the Blessing of the Wise Life.” BibleTruths, 15 Apr. 2019, http://www.bibletruths.org/psalms-instruction-wisdom-blessing-wise-life/.
Mazzalongo, Mike. “Wisdom Psalms.” BibleTalk.tv, 1 Jan. 1970, bibletalk.tv/wisdom-psalms.
“Psalm 139 Commentary: God’s Pervasive Presence, Intimate Knowledge,…” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com/blog/psalm-139-commentary-gods-presence-knowledge-comfort.
Ubuntucat. “Why I’m a Pro-Choice Christian.” Ubuntucat, 4 June 2004, http://www.psychocats.net/ubuntucat/why-im-a-pro-choice-christian/.
“What Is Source Criticism? by Steven L. McKenzie.” Bible Odyssey, http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/what-is-source-criticism-mckenzie.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs