critical thinking applied to psalms 139

6a0133ecf0a174970b01b8d0c588ac970cIn Psalms 139, the text possibly claims that God knows all words before they exit the mouth (I am purposely using an ambiguous sentence):

Psa 139:4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.

Competent individuals have claimed that this passage negates Open Theism. Other competent individuals do not believe as much. From a Facebook comment by Gene on GodisOpen:

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.

///Very Probable///

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.

///Probable///

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.

///Improbable///

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.]

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, critical thinking, Figures of Speech, God, Omniscience, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to critical thinking applied to psalms 139

  1. wstaylor says:

    Chris,

    I can see that you have done a lot of work here in an ordered fashion. Too much cannot be said for organized thinking. But I do have a couple of remarks. One exegetical and the other based on what one might consider “personal inferences.”

    //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.//

    I don’t see an exegetical ground for the “(not necessarily everyone on earth)” parentheses, in fact the are a good many other passages that affirm that “all things are open and exposed to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Heb 4:13. That is only one but should be suggestive of others that state the same.

    Secondly, I do not see at all that in David’s highlighting personal aspects of his relationship to God that it must be inferred that God does not have exacting knowledge of every other moral being, Indeed, when I kept a spiritual journal of those experiences that were of deep spiritual significance to me I never intended to project that idea that my relationship was unique such that only God and I engaged on close terms, more so than others, or even most. Neither did my view of God’s infinite wisdom and intelligence based in part on His ubiquity of presence cause me to feel, one whit less, the depth of joy and pleasure in knowing that I was transacting personally with the God Who is There. That is to say, my present experience was to the limit of my capacity and could not be depreciated or expanded by any thought that God might be having with others ( or not ).

    What ever God may have been experiencing in the enormity of His presence (which I believe is infinite) was as much a mystery to me then as it is now. But knowing in the balance of my experience that He desires to fellowship with all men and cannot force them to chose the highest good for themselves does affect me, deeply.

    You may not agree with either the exegetical or inferential grounds of my comments. I felt that on those two points your thesis might benefit from well intentioned critique. You may have deeply felt opinions in response that have merit and I would be happy to consider them in the same spirit that my comments were given.

    Otherwise you have given a thoughtful and substantive demonstration of a heathy practice in Biblical Interpretation.

    Best Regards,
    W. Scott Taylor

    • Definitely. While it could be the case that King David is using Psalms 139:4 to speak for everyone, I do not see much evidence in the immediate context. None of this psalm includes any statements about general applicability. King David adds in several unique experiences not shared with other people.

      We see the contrast between a general psalms and a personal psalm in the contrast between Psalms 12 and Psalms 13. In Psalms 12, King David talks about a general judgement of the wicked and salvation of the righteous. In Psalms 13, King David feels abandoned and accuses God of hiding His face from King David. There is a different writing style when David talks about generalities and when he speaks about specifics.

      As to the Hebrews verse, I do not think it is valid to take a verse, separated by a millennium into the future, and then claim that must be what King David had in mind. Plus Hebrews 4:13 is not even about knowing words before they are spoken. It is about watching things, not predicting them. So in order to use Hebrews 4:13 to trump the text of Psalms, we have to assume a conflict in what the verse is teaching.

      If we want to go that route, we should point out that King David was a man after God’s own heart. Saul definitely was not. I do not think you or I can make that claim that we are men after God’s own heart. King David had a passion and a fire for God that made him the star of the Old Testament. We see this in his writings. Our default assumption should be that there was a special relationship between God and David.

      Act 13:22 And when He had removed him, He raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I HAVE FOUND DAVID THE SON OF JESSE, A MAN AFTER MY OWN HEART, WHO WILL DO ALL MY WILL.’

      1Sa 13:14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”

      And the icing on the cake, look at this very special relationship that is described by Ethan:

      Psa 89:20 I have found My servant David; With My holy oil I have anointed him,
      Psa 89:21 With whom My hand shall be established; Also My arm shall strengthen him.
      Psa 89:22 The enemy shall not outwit him, Nor the son of wickedness afflict him.
      Psa 89:23 I will beat down his foes before his face, And plague those who hate him.
      Psa 89:24 “But My faithfulness and My mercy shall be with him, And in My name his horn shall be exalted.
      Psa 89:25 Also I will set his hand over the sea, And his right hand over the rivers.
      Psa 89:26 He shall cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.’
      Psa 89:27 Also I will make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth.
      Psa 89:28 My mercy I will keep for him forever, And My covenant shall stand firm with him.
      Psa 89:29 His seed also I will make to endure forever, And his throne as the days of heaven.

      So when people want to take King David’s writings and apply them to themselves, I wax skeptical. While we can strive to emulate King David and apply the texts in a limited way, it borders on hubris to pretend they are directly applicable and that we have the same relationship that King David had with God.

      • wstaylor says:

        Chris,

        I’m not sure why one would, under the inspiration of the Spirit, go so far as to create a “psalm” that was to be taken either as his personal possession or containing that which only he is privy to in such a way as to prevent anyone from intruding on his “turf”. Seems to be in opposition to the whole idea of the Psalms in the first place. In Israel they were considered as a major source of teaching of Divine things, and a community spiritual resource. Take the Hallel’s, the common and the great sung on … “that of the Passover sacrifice, the Feast of Pentecost, and each of the eight days of the Feasts of Tabernacles and of the Dedication of the Temple. The only night in which it was recited was that of the Paschal Supper, when it was sung by every Paschal company in their houses,…” (The Temple, Edersheim). Levite choirs and musicians gave these records to music and they were used in public worship and teaching. The direction is from the personal to general edification. It would be one thing is we found some accompanying words that instructed other not to take “liberties” with his more “personal” psalms, but that is just not the tenor of Scripture.

        Take the Proverbs where either Solomon is writing to a son, or He is adopting the persona of a father and putting his own father’s (David) counsel to him to verse is not clear. Nonetheless, we find in Hebrews the exhortation taken from Pro. 3:11 & 12 (which starts out with a personal exhortation: “My so, do not forget my teaching, but let you heart keep my commandments.”) and affixes a very personal ‘re-address’:

        ” And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Heb 12:5-6 KJV)

        And again, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2Ti 3:16-17 KJV); ” Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (1Co 10:11 KJV) These and others passages position us to be in the receptive mode where we will receive instruction in the way’s of God. Some that are timely for present distresses, and others revealing the magnitude and care Whom Jesus said knows even the hairs on our heads.

        There are some who I consider nearer the sixth sigma in hermeneutical methods who have felt it incumbent on them to ward off people from believing that God”s knowledge of the universe and those who dwell in it is limited or selective like Walter Brueggemann who in a foot note (“Theology of the Old Testament, p83 fn 59) who adds a threatening slant to Psalm 139:

        “Thus the point of Amos 9:2-4, Ps 139:7-12 is not the pervasive immanence of Yahweh but Yahweh’s dangerous inescapability.”

        His inferences are just that – inferences, and here gives a rather grim aspect to his view of God.

        While I think your outline for critical thinking contains a lot of good advice, it does have an element of segue in it, or appears so. You are, in the process of showing “proper method”, advancing a view of the ontology of God that is critical of asserting the ubiquity of God. It presumes, without demonstration, a fundamental way of thinking about God’s ontology. A view that limits the Presence of God to be “elsewhere” but just not everywhere. That is not a feature of objective “critical thinking.”

  2. wstaylor says:

    Correction: //There are some who I consider nearer the sixth sigma in hermeneutical methods who have felt it incumbent on them to ward off people from believing that God”s knowledge of the universe and those who dwell in it is limited or selective like Walter Brueggemann who in a foot note (“Theology of the Old Testament, p83 fn 59) who adds a threatening slant to Psalm 139:”//

    What I tried to say in that sentence, though I think its purpose is evident if not stated correctly, is that one finds the ethos to declare God’s ontology as limited, either in power or presence for reasons other than the conceptual incoherence of doing “logical nothings”.

    There is a world of difference in the admission that the future is undetermined for God when speaking of a universe of incipient beings. That is, beings whose very existence and possession of the ability to chose between mutually exclusive moral directions for no other reason than their unconditioned choice. The condition is by Divine fiat, but once executed limits the possibility of knowing with certainty what will be chosen, even to God. To affirm that such actions are knowable is to confound the logical necessity of the demands of first truths. E.G., that which is free cannot be caused, and that which is caused cannot be free.

    No such condition exists for the claim that God is limited in Presence and Knowledge of all that it taking place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s