Psalm 139 Translation and Comment

To the chief musician. For David. A Psalm

Yahweh, you have explored me and known me:

You know my resting and my rising;

You discern my thoughts from a distance;

You watch when I walk or lie down,

And are familiar with all that I am.

There is not a word on the tip of my tongue

But you, Yahweh, you know it completely.

You have besieged me from every side

And placed your hand upon me.

It is too wonderful for me, this knowledge;

It rises high; I cannot reach it.

Where can I go from your spirit?

Where can I flee from your face?

If I go high into heaven, you are there;

If I make the land of death my bed, look, you are there;

If I take the wings of the dawn

And settle on the remotest parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me

And your right hand will hold me.

If I say “But the darkness will blanket me

And the light around me will become night;”

Even darkness is not dark to you

And the night shines like the day.

It was you that put my organs in order

Weaving me together in my mother’s womb.

I thank you that I am distinct

Among the awe-inspiring things you designed.

Your works are wonderful; you know me well.

My bones were not concealed from you

While I was being made in secret

Skilfully sewn in earth’s lowest places.

Your eyes looked on the unshaped lump of me;

And all the days ordained for me

Were scripted in your scroll

Before one of them came to be.

How baffling to me your thoughts are, God

How big the sum of them!

Totalling them is like trying to count sand;

When I finish, there’s a lot of you left.

If only you would waste the wicked, God,

And men of blood be banished from me!

Men who defy you deviously

And lift themselves up with lies against you.

Don’t I hate those who hate you,Yahweh,

And despise those who oppose you?

Yes, I hate them with perfect hatred

Enrolling them as my enemies too.

Examine me, God, and know my heart;

Test me and know my thinking.

Check if there is any treachery within me

And lead me in the everlasting way.

This is a very beautiful psalm, the Hebrew text of which is corrupt and uncertain at a number of places where it fails to make good sense:

From “I thank you that I am distinct” to “Your works are wonderful” a lot of guesswork is needed to construct something that makes sense in Hebrew.

The couplet beginning “Men who defy…” is incomprensible in places and needs alteration of the Hebrew text.

The couplet beginning “Totalling them..” needs imaginative translation.

It is not much noted that the first section of this psalm depicts Yahweh as an importunate suitor or even stalker of a woman who is not at all sure she wants this attention, and wonders how to get away. This is quite a startling metaphor for the all – embracing love of a God. The cosmic dimensions of Yahweh’s love are vividly sketched. But the most unconventional image of the divine partner is that of the one who sees into the darkness of the womb, skilfully assisting growth, and planning the future of the foetus.

The psalmist admits that this attempt to display the thoughts of God is incomplete “when I finish, there’s a lot of you left.” Human beings cannot understand God but it’s good to try.

The prayer that Yahweh should waste the wicked is sometimes considered to be a blot on a lovely meditation, but of course the honest author sees the wicked as a blot on God’s goodness, and encourages action.

The concluding lines offer willing submission to the searching, exploring God, who is no longer feared as he was at the start of the Psalm. The wisdom that exposes treachery is the same that leads in the everlasting way

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