Psalm 139:15

 

EXPOSITION

Verse 15. My substance was not hid from thee. The substantial part of my being was before thine all seeing eye; the bones which make my frame were put together by thine hand. The essential materials of my being before they were arranged were all within the range of thine eye. I was hidden from all human knowledge, but not from thee: thou hast ever been intimately acquainted with me.

When I was made in secret. Most chastely and beautifully is here described the formation of our being before the time of our birth. A great artist will often labour alone in his studio, and not suffer his work to be seen until it is finished; even so did the Lord fashion us where no eye beheld as, and the veil was not lifted till every member was complete. Much of the formation of our inner man still proceeds in secret: hence the more of solitude the better for us. The true church also is being fashioned in secret, so that none may cry, "Lo, here!" or "Lo, there!" as if that which is visible could ever be identical with the invisibly growing body of Christ.

And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. "Embroidered with great skill", is an accurate poetical description of the creation of veins, sinews, muscles, nerves, etc. What tapestry can equal the human fabric? This work is wrought as much in private as if it had been accomplished in the grave, or in the darkness of the abyss. The expressions are poetical, beautifully veiling, though not absolutely concealing, the real meaning. God's intimate knowledge of us from our beginning, and even before it, is here most charmingly set forth. Cannot he who made us thus wondrously when we were not, still carry on his work of power till he has perfected us, though we feel unable to aid in the process, and are lying in great sorrow and self loathing, as though cast into the lowest parts of the earth?

 

EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS

Verse 15. My substance was not hid from thee, etc. What deeper solitude, what state of concealment more complete, than that of the babe as yet unborn Yet the Psalmist represents the Almighty as present even there. "My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth." The whole image and train of thought is one of striking beauty. We see the wonderful work of the human body, with all its complex tissue of bones, and joints, and nerves, and veins, and arteries growing up, and fashioned, as it had been a piece of rich and curious embroidery under the hand of the manufacturer. But it is not the work itself that we are now called on to admire. The contexture is indeed fearful and wonderful; but how much more when we reflect that the divine Artificer wrought within the dark and narrow confines of the womb. Surely the darkness is no darkness with him who could thus work. Surely the blackest night, the closest and most artificial recess, the most subtle disguises and hypocrisies are all seen through, are all naked and bare before him whose "eyes did see our substance yet being imperfect." The night is as clear as the day; and secret sins are set in the light of his countenance, no less than those which are open and scandalous, committed before the sun or on the house top. And if "in his book all our members are written, which day by day were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them", surely the actions of these members, now that they are grown, or growing, to maturity, and called upon to fulfil the functions for which they were created, shall be all noted down; and none be contrived so secretly, but that when the books are opened at the last day, it shall be found written therein to justify or to condemn us. Such is the main lesson which David himself would teach us in this Psalm, -- the omnipresence and omniscience of Almighty God. My brethren, let us reflect for a little upon this deep mystery; that he, "the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity" is about our path and about our bed, and spies out all our ways; that go whither we will he is there; that say what we will, there is not a word on our tongue but he knoweth it altogether. The reflection is, indeed, mysterious, but it is also most profitable. --Charles Wordsworth, in "Christian Boyhood", 1846.

Verse 15. My substance was not hid from thee. Should an artisan intend commencing a work in some dark cave where there was no light to assist him, how would he set his hand to it? in what way would he proceed? and what kind of workmanship would it prove? But God makes the most perfect work of all in the dark, for he fashions man in the mother's womb. --John Calvin.

Verse 15. When I was made in secret, etc. The author uses a metaphor derived from the most subtle art of the Phrygian workman:

"When I was formed in the secret place,
When I was wrought with a needle in the depths of the
earth."

Whoever observes this (in truth he will not be able to observe it in the common translations), and at the same time reflects upon the wonderful mechanism of the human body; the various implications of the veins, arteries, fibres, and membranes; the "undescribable texture" of the whole fabric -- may, indeed, feel the beauty and gracefulness of this well adapted metaphor, but will miss much of its force and sublimity, unless he be apprised that the art of designing in needlework was wholly dedicated to the use of the sanctuary, and, by a direct precept of the divine law, chiefly employed in furnishing a part of the sacerdotal habit, and the vails for the entrance of the Tabernacle. Exodus 28:39 26:36 27:16. Thus the poet compares the wisdom of the divine Artificer with the most estimable of human arts -- that art which was dignified by being consecrated altogether to the use of religion; and the workmanship of which was so exquisite, that even the sacred writings seem to attribute it to a supernatural guidance. See Exodus 35:30-35 . --Robert Lowth (1710-1787), in "Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews."

Verse 15. Curiously wrought in the lowest part, of the earth, that is, in the womb: as curious workmen, when they have some choice piece in hand, they perfect it in private, and then bring it forth to light for men to gaze at. What a wonderful piece of work is man's head (God's masterpiece in this little world), the chief seat of the soul, that cura Divini ingenii, as Favorinus calls it. Many locks and keys argue the value of the jewel that they keep, and many papers wrapping the token within them, the price of the token. The tables of the testament, first laid up in the ark, secondly, the ark bound about with pure gold; thirdly, overshadowed with cherubim's wings; fourthly, enclosed within the vail of the Tabernacle; fifthly, with the compass of the Tabernacle; sixthly, with a court about all; seventhly, with a treble covering of goats', rams', and badgers' skins above all; they must needs be precious tables. So when the Almighty made man's head (the seat of the reasonable soul), and overlaid it with hair, skin, and flesh, like the threefold covering of the Tabernacle, and encompassed it with a skull and bones like boards of cedar, and afterwards with divers skins like silken curtains; and lastly, enclosed it with the yellow skin that covers the brain (like the purple veil), he would doubtless have us to know it was made for some great treasure to be put therein. How and when the reasonable soul is put into this curious cabinet philosophers dispute many things, but can affirm nothing of certainty. --Abraham Wright.

Verse 15. In the lowest parts of the earth. From this remarkable expression, which, in the original, and as elsewhere used, denotes the region of the dead -- Sheol, or Hades -- it would appear that it is not only his formation in the womb the Psalmist here contemplates, but also -- regarding the region of the dead as the womb of resurrection life -- the refashioning of the body hereafter, and its new birth to the life immortal, which will be no less "marvellous" a work, but rather more so, than the first fashioning of man's "substance." Confirmed by the words of Psalms 139:18 -- "When I awake, I am still with thee" -- the same language before employed to express the resurrection hope, Psalms 17:15 ; when there shall be purposes and "precious counsels" with respect to his redeemed, in anticipation of which they may repeat this Psalm with renewed feelings of wonder and admiration. --William De Burgh.

Verse 15-16. The word substance represents different words in these verses. In Psalms 139:15 it is "my strength", or "my bones"; in Psalms 139:16 the word is usually rendered "embryo": but "clew" (life a ball yet to be unwound) finds favour with great scholars.

In the lowest parts of the earth denotes no subterranean limbo or workshop; but is a poetical parallel to "in secret."

Which in continuance were fashioned is wrong. The margin, though also wrong, indicates the right way: "my days were determined before one of them was." -- David M`Laren, in "The Book of Psalms in Metre", 1883.

Read Psalm 139:15