Psa 139:4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, my daughter knows it all. It’s uncanny. Almost like we have lived together so long she really knows me, who I am, and how I think. She will even say sometimes, “I know what you are thinking.” And she is right.
Gene’s idea is that people might know each other so well they can be said to know what is on the other person’s mind before it is said. In other words, the verse is a generality and based on personal knowledge.
Both views are advocated by rational people. Rational people can disagree. But how is a third party to determine who has the more probable understanding?
The purpose of this article is to use Psalms 139:4 to explore how proper critical thinking deals with any Biblical text (using this specific text as an example). The specific question which will be explored is “in what way and with what mechanism does the author believe God knows words before they are on the tongue”.
Step 1 – Brainstorming
The first action should be brainstorming.
Psa 139:4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
Possible meanings include:
Future Omniscience – God knows all events, past and future, and thus has all the author’s words in mind. [This seems to be the most popular view.]
General Relationship – Because God knows all people, God generally knows how people think and can determine what they will say though personal relationship. [This seems to be the most common Open Theist view.]
Fatalism - God knows people like we know computers and can look at our input-output to determine what will happen given certain inputs. God knows the future because God knows all input-output code. [This is a view that could be claimed by certain Calvinists and certain theistic fatalists.]
Personal Relationship – God is so familiar and personal with the author (not necessarily everyone else on Earth) and thus knows what David will say. [This is an Open Theist view, not to be confused with General Relationship. In this scenario, God does not necessarily hold the same relationship with all people, but only the speaker.]
Mechanical Knowledge – God can read minds. The mind thinks the thoughts before they are said and thus God can intercept thoughts to know them before they are spoken. [This is a view sometimes claimed by Open Theists.]
Metaphor/Generality – This sentence is fully or partly figurative and idiomatic, meaning a concept similar to knowing words of people before they are spoken. [Any text in the Bible can be a generality or idiom.]
Enigma – This sentence is figurative and idiomatic representing something not familiar to modern readers and unable to be determined. [This is usually the least preferred route, as it is entirely speculative and unable to be proved. This can be adopted when the text is highly inconsistent within the same context.]
To be sure, this list is not exhaustive. With this list, we can determine the variables in the sentence that might have several possible meanings. This can be easily morphed into a formula, where the variables can be mixed and matched. The question can be modeled as such:
God has (absolute / general) knowledge of the words (King David / everyone) is going to say through (future omniscience / personal relationship / mechanical knowledge / fatalism). [Alternatively, the entire sentence is a metaphor and is not actually about God knowing words.]
The trick is to pick the right variables and not every set of variables plays nice together. For example, future omniscience is incompatible with general knowledge, because general knowledge requires imprecise knowledge about the future.
Step 2 – Examine Probabilities
The next step is examining the evidence and assigning how much each evidence supports or does not support the statement in question. The only evidence for Psalms 139:4 is the immediate context and the context of King David’s other writings (maybe culture context as well). The immediate context should be of primary importance as essays and narratives tend to have a unifying theme. While authors can contradict themselves over several writings (stressing different points in different contexts), it is less likely to encounter this in a single narrative.
Every evidence from the context should be examined in light of each possible meaning. If the author means Mechanical Knowledge then would the evidence under examination be consistent with the Psalms 139:4 using the same meaning? If Personal Relationship is true, would the author write this evidence in a different way to complement the idea of Psalms 139:4?
The context is most likely written in a way fortifying and complementary to that correct interpretation. For example, if David’s point is that God can predict based on inputs like a computer, then other verses make mention or be consistent with God examining data input. If David’s point is about God knowing the future, then David should speak as if God not only knows the future, and should not write in a fashion that would be unnatural for that view. If David’s point is about God knowing him personally, and not necessarily anyone else, the text should be focused on David with little hint to general applicability.
So, what is the context?
Psa 139:1 For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
King David believes God searches him in some fashion and then knows David. This does not appear written as if God knows the future by virtue of being omniscient. Instead, this points to God gathering knowledge through action. If God did not search, then God would not know. This gives weight to Personal Relationship (notice the “me” references) and possibly Mechanical Knowledge (the searching might be intercepting thoughts). This is evidence against Future Omniscience (God is not assumed to already know), General Relationship (there is no reference to general applicability), Fatalism (God is searching, suggesting no eternal knowledge).
Psa 139:2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off.
Psa 139:3 You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways.
King David believes God understands his thoughts and knows when King David sits down and rises up (figuratively meaning God knows David’s general movements). King David believes God is acquainted with all his ways (all David’s mannerism or, perhaps, walking paths). This is strong evidence towards Personal Relationship as all the phrases revolve around David. As such, this is evidence against General Relationship. Would King David write like this if the ideas were generally applicable? Would King David better be able to communicate his meaning by writing “God, you are acquainted with my ways and the ways of all mankind.” If this Psalm is purposed as a general praise of God, wouldn’t an alternative sentence be more fitting?
This is also evidence against Future Omniscience. Would King David write like this if he believed God knew the entire future in detail? Would King David have better communicated his understanding by writing something such as “You have, from before the creation of the world, known all my ways, everything I would do, and every move I would make.” The text is more focused on God observing and then knowing, not an eternal knowledge.
This could be evidence towards Mechanical Knowledge, but not Fatalism. Fatalism would probably be contrary to the spirit of the text. David is not claiming to be predefined, but instead a rational actor who is observed by God.
Psa 139:5 You have hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.
Psa 139:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot [attain] it.
King David believes God hedged him, probably meaning God protects him. The hand is symbolic imagery signifying the same protection as the hedge. In verse 6, David says that such knowledge is too wonderful for him. What is he saying here? It appears that the fact that God knows him individually is an amazing thing for King David. If so, this would be further evidence for Personal Relationship and evidence against Future Omniscience or General Relationship. If King David was under the impression that God does this for all people then it would cease to be special. It can be assumed that King David does not believe God “hedges and protects” all people, giving further evidence that this is about a Personal Relationship rather than a general trend.
This also serves as evidence against Mechanical Knowledge and Fatalism. David is not stressing God’s knowledge, but God’s actions to David.
Psa 139:7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
Psa 139:8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
Psa 139:9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Psa 139:10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.
These verses can be taken in several senses. The most common one is in the sense that David is claiming God is omnipresent. While this could be a possibility, it is more likely that King David is sticking with the theme of God’s personal protection and personal knowledge. The last verse makes this evident. King David is saying “wherever I do, there you are to be with me”. Notice that God’s protection is not generally applicable, thus King David making a point about God being omnipresent would not make sense.
If this verse was about omnipresence, then what point is King David making? That “King David cannot get away from God because God is omnipresent”? It seems more likely that King David is claiming that God follows and precedes him, by virtue of a personal relationship. If this is the case, this is strong evidence towards a Personal Relationship.
If this passage was about omnipresence, perhaps this gives weight to Mechanical Knowledge or General Relationship. It would not affect Future Omniscience, as it neither is for or against that position.
Psa 139:11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me;
Psa 139:12 Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
In this passage, King David is saying God follows him into the night. The night is could be figurative for “despair” or “deadly situation”, just as “the grave” could be figurative for the same in verse 8. Because King David is using figurative language, this is evidence that a certain level of Metaphor/Generality is being utilized. It can be assumed that King David is not talking about God shining a flashlight on him.
If this verse is about God protecting David in trying times, this is strong evidence towards the Personal Relationship. This could also be about Mechanical Knowledge or General Relationship; King David might have the idea that God calculates everything instantaneously. This is probably evidence against Future Omniscience, as the idea is about an active observation rather than some sort of innate future knowledge.
Psa 139:13 For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.
Psa 139:14 I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.
Psa 139:15 My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Psa 139:16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
This passage is generally used to claim that God knows the future of all people. If that is a valid interpretation, then this is strong evidence for Future Omniscience or Fatalism. It would be evidence against General Relationship or Mechanical Knowledge.
But, as with David’s use of “light” and “dark” and “grave”, these verses might be continuing a chain of figurative statements. “Lowest parts of the Earth” seems figurative for “womb”. If so, this is further evidence that this text has a measure of Metaphor/Generality. If the text overall is a generality, the meaning could be close to “God, when I was still in my mother’s womb, you had a plan for my life.”
Greg Boyd claims that “days” is improperly translated. His claim is that this passage is overall about fetology. God knew King David’s development in the womb. If this is the case, this would be evidence for Personal Knowledge, although Boyd believes in General Relationship in regards to this specific passage. This idea could also be evidence towards Fatalism (if not for the personal nature of the passage).
Psa 139:17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!
Psa 139:18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
King David seems to be saying that God’s thoughts about David are unable to be counted. A better translation might be “How precious also are Your thoughts about me”. King David clarifies with the phrase “When I awake, I am still with You.” King David seems to be again highlighting his personal relationship with God, which would be diminished if it was generally applicable. This gives evidence towards Personal Relationship and against General Relationship.
Another idea that is commonly believed is that this is a passage in which King David is praising God’s omniscience. The idea is that God has an uncountable number of thoughts. But it is hard to see how this leads to any omniscience conclusion. Omniscience has to be presupposed to come to that conclusion. This is not to mention that Metaphor/Generality has been commonly used in the text and might be a better way to take this text than notions of this verse being about Omniscience.
Psa 139:19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men.
Psa 139:20 For they speak against You wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain.
Psa 139:21 Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
Psa 139:22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
This text is again very personal. King David talks about his private enemies. King David references people who speak against him. King David seems to have specific people in mind, and he calls upon God to act and to kill them. This is strong evidence for Personal Relationship.
This speaks very strongly against Fatalism (as King David is petitioning God to act which would thus destroy the fatalistic continuity). This also speaks against Future Omniscience, as King David does not seem to think the future is set and makes no reference to God knowing the outcome of the evil men. If King David did believe the future was set, he might word it differently: “God, I know that your plans for these men will be carried out.” or something similar.
Psa 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties;
Psa 139:24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
The last few verses in Psalms 139 are a challenge by King David for God to test him in order to know his heart. King David is not under the conviction that God knows what King David will do in all circumstances. This is strong evidence against Fatalism and Omniscience. This is strong evidence for Personal Relationship, as King David is asking for God to test him personally. This is not a general call for God to test all people. The figurative use of the word “everlasting” is evidence towards Metaphor/Generality.
Step 4 – Rank Probabilities
The next step is to rank variables by probability.
Personal Relationship – God is so familiar and personal with the author (not necessarily everyone else on Earth) and thus knows what David will say.
This seems to be the overall point of the entire psalm. King David is highlighting a personal relationship that is not generally applicable to everyone. As such, when David is talking about God knowing words before King David speaks them, it most likely is because God knows David intimately.
Metaphor/Generality – This sentence is fully or partly figurative and idiomatic, meaning a concept similar to knowing words of people before they are spoken.
King David speaks in a lot of generalities and metaphors. As such, it is highly likely that when King David says “For there is not a word on my tongue” that King David means “God can more often than not know what King David is thinking and feeling”. The sentence is a partial generality.
Mechanical Knowledge – God can read minds. The mind thinks the thoughts before they are said and thus God can intercept thoughts to know them before they are spoken.
This could be what David had in mind as a mechanism for God knowing King David’s thoughts. This would have to be combined with Personal Relationship if that is the case.
Future Omniscience – God knows all events past and future and thus has all the author’s words in mind.
King David’s overall message is not about cool features about God or about the extent of God’s knowledge. There are several passages that serve as strong evidence that David does not have any similar concept to Future Omniscience in his mind as he writes. The strongest evidence for Future Omniscience has to assume away Metaphor/Generality, which is unwarranted considering the strong metaphors and generalities used throughout the text.
General Relationship – Because God knows all people, God generally knows how people think and can determine what they will say though personal relationship.
This meaning would counter the very personal nature of this Psalm. If God does this for everyone, then why is King David praising it? Instead, King David talks about God’s personal protection of him and their mutual enemies. There is just not a sense of general applicability in this text.
Fatalism - God knows people like we know computers and can look at our input-output to determine what will happen given certain inputs. God knows the future because God knows all input-output code.
This does not fit the highly personal nature of King David’s psalm. If this is what King David had in mind, it would not fit the overall point that King David is trying to make.
Enigma – This sentence is figurative and idiomatic representing something not familiar to modern readers.
The text does not contradict itself or does not contain concepts that do not fit neatly into a general framework.
Step 5 – Formulate a Conclusion
The most probable understanding is:
God has (
absolute / general) knowledge of the words (King David / everyone) is going to say through ( future omniscience / personal relationship / mechanical knowledge / fatalism). [ Alternatively, the entire sentence is a metaphor and is not actually about God knowing words.]