understanding psalms 139

King David, as I have written before, was a great Open Theist poet. King David’s psalms praise God for God’s careful and meticulous involvement in King David’s own life. King David was God’s anointed, and King David was very keen on that point. King David focuses his psalms almost exclusively on his own relationship with God, speaking often of his special relationship with God. The Bible also affirms this throughout: God loved King David to such an extent that God allowed King David to retain the kingdom of Israel even after he committed the same offense for which it was taken from Saul (compare 1Sa 13 to 1Sa 30:20). King David even survived murdering Uriah the Hittite. The Bible describes King David as a man after God’s own heart (Act 13:22). This is the historical context of King David’s psalms.

Although Psalms 139 is just one of around 80 or more psalms authored by King David, it is the most utilized by those engaging in Negative Theology. There is good reason for this: King David’s other psalms strongly contradict the Classical attributes whereas this one can be construed to accept it (in an inconsistent manner). It is no wonder that very specific verses of one particular psalm are triumphed over the thousands of other verses. But Psalms 139 is not the proof text which Classical Theologians believe:

Psa 139:1 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. O LORD, you have searched me and known me!

The first verse starts with King David claiming that God has searched him. Normal reading comprehension would conclude that King David probably thought that God does not do this for everyone. After all, the entire psalm is filled with very personal claims, claims that are special only because they apply to him. If God treated everyone the same way as David, this destroys the emotion and meaning behind King David’s words.

Notice also that God searches to know. This counters the Negative attributes of omniscience, eternality (timelessness), and omnipotence. God has to act to know. God does not inherently know. God does not look into the future to know. God does not create and know His creation. God, instead, searches David in order to know David. Those adhering to Negative Theology have to ignore the natural implications of the very same verses they use to make their points. King David did not write this psalm with Negative Theology in mind.

In this verse, King David makes a very personal claim, that God searches David and knows David. This is meaningful to David. This sets David apart from others. This is David saying he has a personal connection with God.

Psa 139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

Here David praises God because God knows David and keeps a special watch on David’s activities.

Along with the normal ways this text contradicts the Negative attributes, notice that there is an element of location involved with “afar”. Although this could mean “You understand what I will think in future times” or “You understand what I think although I cannot see You”, the “afar” is systematically used for location throughout the Bible (Pro 25:25, Isa 13:5, Isa 17:13). It makes more sense as a statement saying “although you are not near me, you know me, and that is powerful and special.” Besides God, the phrase “afar” is used mainly for far away countries and variations of the phrase are used for people when the people are far but visible. King David is saying, “while you are far away you keep watch on me”. David thinks God is watching him from a distant location.

Psa 139:3 You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
Psa 139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

One Open Theist casually commented about this passage:

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.

This verse is likewise about David’s special relationship. The context is precisely that. God knows David’s path, his lying down, and all his ways. It is very personal.

Notice David’s pride concerning how well God knows and watches him. David then says that even before he speaks, God knows what he will say. This is hardly evidence for God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future. It is not written as if that was part of David’s normal theology. If King David believed God knew from time eternity what King David would say then why would King David speak in such a limited scope about God’s knowledge? Why would King David not write: “You knew from before the world began what I would say today, tomorrow, and in 20 years from now.” No, King David believes God searches him to know him (see verse 1). King David does not believe in omniscience nor does he write in such a fashion that would be expected of Negative Theology.

Straightforwardly, King David is impressed that God knows him so well that God knows what David will say. In modern America, this figure of speech is used all the time. People who know each other very well are said to finish each other’s sentences. The idea is intimate knowledge, not exhausting foreknowledge of all events. The idea is a special bond, not a generic praise. If this was a claim for exhaustive foreknowledge, it would contradict the flow of the chapter.

Psa 139:5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Psa 139:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Psa 139:7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
Psa 139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, 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.
Psa 139:11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,”
Psa 139:12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

Verse 7 and 8 are commonly used for Classical Theists to claim God is omnipresent. As expected, verse 9 through 12 are often not mentioned although they are in the same block of thought. Looking at these verses, it becomes clear that King David is not talking about God being physically located somewhere. As established throughout King David’s psalms, God is said to be in heaven (Psa 3:4, Psa 5:3, Psa 14:2, Psa 33:13, Psa 53:2, Psa 80:14, Psa 102:19, etc). Even in verse 2, God is said to be afar off.

The question becomes: “is verse 2 and every other reference by King David figurative or are these verses figurative?” Understanding the block of text as a concerted thought reveals the real answer.

Verse 5 is about being hedged in. Assumedly this means by God’s protection and guidance (verse 10). Verse 6 is an exclamation that this is an amazing revelation. Verse 7 asks where can David flee? Is David asking “where can I go to find space in which God is not located?” or is David asking “If I tried to run, could I get away from your power and protection (fitting the hedged theme)?” Verse 8 talks about heaven and hell (which seems to mean in the sky and under the dirt). Verse 9 talks about the farthest directions on earth and islands. Verse 10 restates the starting theme of Psalms 139, that God directs David. King David starts the verse by exclaiming “even there”. King David is impressed that God can extend God’s power to those remote locations.

Verse 11 and 12 are very interesting. King David makes the argument that God can see him even at night. If literal, King David is making a point that no Negative Theologian would ever make. If King David thought that God sees everything and knows everything, why would he make clarification that God can see him in the darkness of night? It would be a lot easier to just write: “God has all knowledge. God had known every action of my life from before I was born”. The idea that God can see you when you turn out the lights would be a given. But this is not how King David writes. Instead, King David writes as if he has no familiarity with omniscience (or any other Negative attribute) even being a theological option.

In reality, King David seems also to be addressing a common claim by those who rejected God that “God cannot see what we do” (Psa 10:11, Psa 59:7,Psa 64:5, Psa 73:11, Psa 94:7, Eze 9:9). King David does not, nor any other Biblical writer, answer these objections with straightforward Negative Theology. King David takes a reverse and specific stance: “God can see me everywhere”. King David claims that God can see him no matter how far he runs and no matter the lighting conditions.

The most straightforward reading of this block of verses seems to be that David knows God will not abandon him. Although David could try to flee, God would always be with him (the prophet Jonah did try to flee to ill effect). Although God is “afar”, God can see through the dark and through the dirt and through the sea to aid King David.

Alternatively, David could be using a series of figurative expressions. The text is filled with figurative expressions. When King David writes “Your hand shall lead me”, no casual reader would assume anything other than God helps David throughout life. No one thinks God uses his hands to take ahold of David and walk him physically down the street. Likewise, all other statements could be similarly figurative in this text. When King David talks about heaven and hell, light and dark, King David might be referring to “good times” and “bad times”. God does not abandon King David in either the good or bad times.

Both heaven and hell are used figuratively in modern speech and in the Bible. Compare the use of “hell” to other psalms:

Psa 16:10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol [hell], or let your holy one see corruption.

Psa 86:13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol [hell].

Psa 116:3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol [hell] laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.

Hell was a figurative state of being. It is much like modern soldiers stating that “war is hell”. When people were close to death or their enemies were surrounding them, they figuratively said they were in hell and asked for salvation. Heaven could be the opposite, although there are no clear examples of this in the Bible. But heaven is often used in a figurative way. In Psalms: heaven is personified (Psa 50:6), heaven is where God resides (Psa 102:19), and heaven is where birds fly (Psa 8:8). It is not out of the question that heaven is also a metaphor for joyful living.

The last option, the one taken by Negative theologians, is that this verse means God is physically located everywhere. This seems to break the flow of the text. Notice:

God protects David. God is everywhere. God protects David. God can see in the dark.


God protects David. God will protect David everywhere. God protects David. God will protect David in the dark.

To summarize the possible meanings of this text:
1. David cannot go anywhere where God’s power does not extend.
2. God will be with David through both prosperity and adversity.
3. God is physically located everywhere and David cannot find a square inch of space that God does not inhabit.

Option 1 seems the most straightforward. Option 2 seems probable. Option 3 does not fit the theme of the chapter. If King David was a Negative theologian, this block of text would most likely be written much differently.

Keeping with the very personal theme in this chapter, King David describes his time in the womb:

Psa 139:13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
Psa 139:14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
Psa 139:15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Psa 139:16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

In context, King David is speaking about fetology (the development of unborn babies). In verse 13, David starts talking about how his parts were “formed”. In verse 14, David says he was “made”. In verse 15, David was “made” and “woven”. Then in verse 16, the ESV uses the word “formed” in reference to “days”. But “days” seems to be the wrong translation. Per the KJV:

Psa 139:16 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.

The KJV translators saw that King David’s subject did not stray. King David was still talking about fetology in verse 16. David is talking about being formed in the womb. God saw David developing in the womb, had a blueprint (book), and David’s fetal development followed that path. David’s point is not “fatalism”, but that his “fetal development was not Ad Hoc”. Before David developed as a baby, that path had been designed by God.

The KJV translation drew heavily on the Geneva translation. John Calvin writes of this verse:

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.

The phrase “the days that were formed for me” seems to be a gross mistranslation. The Hebrew “days” does not have a definite article. The forming is a future tense. The phrase is more likely rendered like the King James: “which in continuance were fashioned”. This would be in reference to the substance (the “golem”). The substance or the writing is being formed over a period of days. The days are not being formed. Most likely David’s point is that as his body develops that God simultaneously records this in His book. God is watching and recording as baby David develops. This adverbial use of “days” is highlighted in several translations:

International Standard Version
Your eyes looked upon my embryo, and everything was recorded in your book. The days scheduled for my formation were inscribed, even though not one of them had come yet.

Jubilee Bible 2000
Thine eyes did see my substance yet being imperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which were then formed, without lacking one of them.

Darby Bible Translation
Thine eyes did see my unformed substance, and in thy book all [my members] were written; [during many] days were they fashioned, when [as yet] there was none of them.

English Revised Version
Thine eyes did see mine unperfect substance, and in thy book were all my members written, which day by day were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

Webster’s Bible Translation
Thy eyes saw my substance, yet being imperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

In these translations the idea is that King David’s substance is being formed. David’s unformed body is planned for development before it is complete. The days are not being formed. The body parts are being formed. It is a very personal image: God is watching and guiding King David’s fetal formation.

To put this in perspective, in verses 13, 14, and 15, David is talking about how his body is designed during pregnancy. In the last verse, King David’s subject remains the same. The entire passage is about fetal development.

Negative theologians attempt to change verse 15 into some statement about David’s entire life being predestined. This would not fit the theme of the surrounding verses. If that was the case, verse 15 would be an abrupt subject change followed by another abrupt subject change in verse 17.

Assuming, however, that the Negative theologians are right and David was referring to his entire life being planned, this could also fit normal speech without necessitating omniscience. After all, what parent does not have plans for their own children’s lives? Some go so far as to use their power and influence to press their children into specific life paths. Would it be out of normal human understand for one of those children to say: “Before I was born, all your plans were known, the days fashioned for me.” Although David might have demurred, the Bible describes God having to seek David out (1Sa 13:14) after Saul’s failure. David was generally seen as contingency plan. In any case, it is a stretch of credulity to use this one verse to show omniscience of David’s entire life (not to mention all people’s lives ever).

Psa 139:17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
Psa 139:18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.

If this was keeping in theme with the chapter and the previous verses, the opening phrase might better be rendered “how precious also are Your thoughts about me” (as the New English Translation renders the verse) or even “how precious also are Your thoughts (about me) [implied] to me”. Several versions use a similar translation to this. This rendering would fit the last phrase in this block “When I awake, I am still with You.” God would be continually thinking about King David. Recall God’s thoughts about David in the beginning of this psalm. God knows when David sits and rises (v 2). God understands David from far away (v 2). God is acquainted with all David’s ways (v 3). God even knows what David will say before he says it (v 4). David’s amazement is directed to God’s special focus on the life of times of David.

The standard interpretation is that David is in awe of God’s intelligence. If that is the case then David is continually thinking about God, even as he wakes up. This is a possibility, although it might break the flow of what David is communicating about God’s special notice of David. “I awake, and I am still with you” would also be hard to place.

Psa 139:19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!
Psa 139:20 They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.
Psa 139:21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
Psa 139:22 I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

Note, David was widely considered a man after “God’s own heart”. One reoccurring theme throughout the psalms of David is a hatred of the wicked and coming slaughter of the wicked. David shows his solidarity with God by proclaiming that God’s enemies are also his own. David shows utter disgust towards those who “rise up against” God. Several times in David’s writings, David illustrates this with some very bloody imagery (see Psa 58:10 and Psa 68:23). For all the positive aspects of King David, one of his key failings was his violence (1Ch 22:8), possibly an artifact of his dramatic and aggressive nature that endured him to God in the first place.

In keeping with this dramatic flair, King David challenges God to test him:

Psa 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
Psa 139:24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

After disclaiming evil men, King David gives a straightforward petition for God to search him, test him, and prove that he is not wicked. David is not under the impression that God’s knowledge extends to potential future acts or branching contingent futures or even extents of current hearts under hypothetical scenarios. In other words, David believed in free will. The heart/mind could only be proved through experience.

Instead, King David invites God to prove David such that God can know David is reliable and righteous. King David’s point is that even if God were to press King David, he would remain faithful. King David beams with self-confidence. God could see David’s challenge, understanding David would not offer the challenge unless he could pass. Alternatively, the invitation could lead to an actual test. This would be welcomed by David.

King David ends this section with a petition for God to lead him in righteousness. David wants God to act and to teach. David assumes that if God does not lead then David might falter. David wants God to be intimately involved in his life.

In Psalms 139, God is depicted as immensely personal with King David, but God is not omnipresent. Although God is far away, it is as if God is with King David. There is a sort of virtual omnipresence being described (at least in relation to King David’s life). God protects King David through his life. King David marvels at God’s personal attention. King David does not believe God is omniscient, but that God learns through searching and testing. King David does not believe the future is set, but believes God can lead and guide.

King David is not familiar with Negative Theology. Importing these concepts into the text break the flow and meaning of the text. Psalms 139 shows the danger of forcing texts to conform to abstract theology. A psalm about a personal relationship is generalized and expropriated by individuals in very different circumstances. As such Psalms 139 loses its meaning.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, God, History, Immutablility, Jewish History, Morality, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to understanding psalms 139

  1. Pingback: Apologetics Thursday – Ware’s Subtle Dishonesty on Psalms 139 | God is Open

  2. gricketson01 says:

    Those adhering to Negative Theology have to ignore the plan implications of the very same verses they use to make their points.–plain implications?

    David’s amazement is directed to God’s special focus on the life of times of David.–life and times?

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  8. Brad says:

    David wrote only 73 of the Psalms. NOT 80!

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