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Top Ten #6 // What happened in the secret place?

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Top Ten Pro-life Passages #6 // Psalm 139


For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be. [Psalm 139:13–16 NIV]



The Psalms have stood the test of time as the worship compendium of God’s church, the vividness of their spiritual and emotional register as relevant today as ever. The Psalms chart the full breadth of human experience, exploring God’s interaction with people in every circumstance of life. In several places the Psalms attest that God’s personal knowledge and relationship with individuals extends beyond birth into the womb. The Psalms speak of a dependence on God that begins in utero (Psalms 22:9–10; 71:6). The intimation of personhood is also manifest in humanity’s flawed nature from the womb (Psalm 58:3). David knows himself to be thoroughly sinful and that this tendency characterised his life even at conception – a powerful statement of personhood at this stage of life. In keeping with these insights, Psalm 139:13–16 is the Psalms’ most systematic treatment of these themes.


Thematically God’s knowledge frames the psalm (Ps 139:1–3, 23–24), which is intensely personal, featuring a profusion of first and second person pronouns. As with other psalms, this personal dimension does not preclude wider application and appropriation for others. Allen Ross describes Psalm 139 as “applied theology, and so always relevant.”[1] If the overall message of Psalm 139 is that the psalmist is known by God, the particular contribution of verses 13–16 is that God knows the psalmist because God made him (cf. Ps 94:9). As Calvin writes, it is no surprise that “God, who formed man so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of him after he is ushered into the world.”[2] We will work through the four verses in turn, pulling out their implications for the unborn child.


Firstly, verse 13


13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

God fashions the psalmist’s “inward parts,” in Hebrew literally the “kidneys” (elsewhere translated as “heart” or “mind”). The kidneys are a shorthand for the spiritual, ethical, volitional and emotional dimension of human beings. They can indicate the conscience (e.g., Psalm 16:7; Jeremiah 12:2) and are tested by God in the moral examination of all people (e.g., Psalms 7:9; 26:2; Jeremiah 11:20; 17:10; 20:12). The kidneys can communicate distress (Psalms 73:21), as well as joy (Proverbs 23:16). So whereas Job 10:8–12 emphasised the physical constitution of the unborn child, the psalmist in verse 13 is making a statement about the creation of his moral anatomy. His deepest spiritual and ethical intuitions were created in the womb. This extraordinary creative work is likened to being knitted or woven together. The verb connects this verse with Job 10:11 and helps to determine the sense here.


Secondly, verse 14


14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

The Hebrew of verse 14 is difficult and the ESV alternative reading for the first part of the verse should probably be followed: “for I am fearfully set apart.” The verb is used is used of the Lord distinguishing the Israelites from the Egyptians during the plagues (Exodus 8:22; 9:4; 11:7). Later in Exodus 33:16, the idea is of the people being marked out by God’s abiding presence (the same word is used in Psalms 4:3; 17:7). In this context the emphasis would be on God’s formation of him as a distinct human being. It would suggest that every pregnancy involves God’s creation of a totally unique child. The language here places God’s action in the womb on the same level as his wonderful work at creation (Job 9:10); the exodus (e.g., Exodus 3:20; Judges 6:13; Psalm 106:7, 22; Micah 7:15) and the giving of the law at Sinai (Exodus 34:10). William Brown writes: “the formation of the human self, physically and morally, is rendered comparable to . . . [God’s] ‘wonderful deeds’ that elicit praise and covenantal obedience.”[3]


Thirdly, verse 15


15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Although the unborn child is hidden to human sight, God sees him or her perfectly as he fashions the child “in secret”. The previous idea of being knit together is here expanded to suggest intricate weaving. The verb suggests fine variously coloured embroidery threads. Elsewhere in the Old Testament this word is used exclusively for the furnishings of the Tabernacle (Exod 26:36; 27:16; 36:37; 38:18) or priestly attire (Exod 28:39; 39:29). The womb is holy ground and the unborn child is “clothed” with great reverence.


The final poetic twist is that this all happens “in the depths of the earth.” Again there is the sense of darkness and inaccessibility. This idea also conveys the fecundity – the womb, like the earth, is the fertile ground from which the child emerges. Finally, there is the motif of humankind’s creation from the earth in Gen 2:7. Just as God forms Adam from the earth’s “womb,” so he forms the psalmist in the depths of the maternal womb. God the Creator coming close to mould the human person occurs in every pregnancy. In the most sustained reflection on the unborn child (Job 10:8–12; Ps 139:13–16), Genesis 2:7, the verse that describes in greatest detail God’s creation of the first human being, echoes in the background.


Finally, verse 16


16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Verse 16 begins by reiterating the initial idea of verse 15. The word translated “unformed substance” occurs only here in the Bible. Related words (“wrap up, roll,” 2 Kings 2:8; “garment,” Ezekiel 27:24) perhaps indicate the “folded up” nature of the unborn child. Thus the sense of someone hidden or latent, who will emerge with time, seems to be intended. One scholar suggests the child should be viewed: “not as unformed but as being-formed.”[4] The unborn child’s development is as yet incomplete, but God perceives the “finished article” from this embryonic stage of human existence. The hiddenness and appearance of the unborn child at this stage are no reason to reduce his or her humanity. For these reasons something like “my embryonic form” is preferable to the ESV’s “my unformed substance.”


The rest of the verse forms a single idea: from conception (indeed prior to this) God foresees the totality of the psalmist’s life – all his days – which are already recorded in God’s “book”. The psalmist’s life is definitively “shaped” by God, with the verb again recalling Genesis 2:7. Although here the emphasis is not on the fashioning of clay, as the formulation of purpose (e.g., Isaiah 22:11; 37:26; Jeremiah 18:11). The psalmist recognises an underlying continuity to his experiences, that allows him to identify the unborn child with the person he is now.[5] Psalm 139:13–16 culminates in a strong affirmation that the unborn child is not a potential person, but a person with potential,[6] and a potential that is anchored in divine foresight.

[1] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (3 vols, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012-16), 3:816. [2] Calvin’s Commentaries on the Psalms, transl. James Anderson (5 vols, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 5:217. [3] William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms. A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 211. [4] Jones, Soul of the Embryo, 10. [5] O’Donovan, Unborn Child,15: “[i]f the psalmist was not there in his mother’s womb, he would be less interested in God’s concern for whatever was there. God’s concern, for a foetus his mother was bearing, strikes him immediately and unquestionably as concern for him.” [6] Cf. Stott, Abortion, 16: “[the foetus is not] a potential human being, but already a human life who, though not yet mature, has the potentiality of growing into the fulness of the individual humanity he already possesses.”

 

NEXT WEEK IN THIS SERIES:
Do you know your calling? God determined it before you were born


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