Psalm 139 is beloved by many Christians and stands as one of the more famous psalms in the Bible. Bible scholar R.E.O. White even says Psalm 139 is the peak of the psalter, standing alone as the most mature personalized faith of the Old Testament. Within this psalm, we find the works of God in the formation of man: “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14).
God is pictured as having formed and woven the author of this psalm together in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). The womb is also referenced later in the psalm: “My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). The mother’s womb is comparable with the depths of the earth — as though the womb is a hidden fountain springing with the miraculous results of God, fearful and wonderful works.
Who Wrote Psalm 139?
The author David, king of Israel, writes as a familiar voice to the reader (or singer) of the psalter, with personalized meditations on the creative power of God. And, not only in creation history, but also in the history of David’s Israel, God’s wonderful and fearful works are beheld and remembered.
Context: God’s Works in Israel’s History
In Exodus 34:10, for example, salvation history is referenced by the Lord after Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. God promises land to Israel. Conquering it will be miraculous and fearful, or awe-inducing:
Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you. . .” (Exodus 34:10).
God delivered many portions of the land into Israel’s hand under the leadership of Joshua, as He had foretold (see Joshua 24:1-13). In Judges 2:7, Scripture references God’s wondrous deeds in the Promised Land for the new nation from which Jesus, the Savior would come:
"The people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, who had seen all the great work of the LORD which He had done for Israel" (Judges 2:7).
Context: God’s Works Praised in Psalms
God’s wondrous and awesome works are praised with regularity throughout Israel’s history, evidenced throughout the Psalms:
"I will give thanks to the LORD with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wonders" (Psalm 9:1).
"O God, You have taught me from my youth, and I still declare Your wondrous deeds" (Psalm 71:17).
"We will not conceal them from their children, but tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done" (Psalm 78:4).
Psalm 106:22 discusses God’s “wonders in the land of Ham (Egypt) and awesome things by the Red Sea (the exodus).” Both of the same Hebraic words “fearfully” (“awesome”) and “wonderfully” (“wonders”) are employed in Psalm 139:14 about man’s formation. Both kinds of works, salvific and creative, are praiseworthy designs of God.
When David writes that man is fearfully and wonderfully made, he seats his proclamation in his overall contexts of Israel’s history and the psalter — naming all of God’s works as a categorical whole: “Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14b).
How Are We Fearfully and Wonderfully Made?
God’s Ownership and Care
Being fearfully and wonderfully formed, the God of all glory knowns us, every cell. We live before Him, never apart from His near watchfulness. Our Creator, though unseen, is not removed, but has been the unparalleled presence in our lives. He is there even from the point of conception through gestation in the hidden place of His handiwork.
The works of God in Psalm 139:13 are strung from His attributes. David writes of all God knows, “Oh Lord, You have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139:1); of everywhere He is, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:7); and of all He is able to do, “. . . I was . . . skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15b). And so, being “fearfully and wonderfully made” is another entry in this psalm and in the psalter of evidence for God’s matchlessness. His formation of us is an assertion of His ownership and care.
In Anxieties and Hurtful Ways
Assured of God’s presence in the formation of man, David seeks the Creator’s presence for his anxieties and hurtful ways: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there by any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24).
In anxieties, comfort can be found in the poetic wording of this psalm to our souls. We are not beyond God’s hand — we whom He has skillfully wrought, woven together in secret places of the womb, and miraculously united as body and soul in His life-giving way.
And in our hurtful paths too, we cannot escape His presence. Only short accounts can be desirable when all of our ways stand open to the God of all knowing. For He is able to scrutinize our life direction. He perceives even the first message from our brain that directs our muscles and initiates movement for any given step in our days. As human existence is an expression of God’s glory, David desires to use his God-molded body in God-sanctioned ways.
Why Is David Praising God in This Psalm?
“Fearfully” is a word that scholars understand to mean inspiring of awe, reverence, and astonishment. “Wonderful” carries the connotations of being beyond human comprehension or being miraculous. When reviewing translations of Psalm 139:14, little variation in these word selections can be found.
The particular usage of these words by David in Psalm 139 is a metonymy, or a poetic device in which the cause stands for the effect, explains E. W. Bullinger in The Companion Bible. David could have written, “God made man in a way that excites astonishment and wonderment.” The cause is God’s making of man, and the effect is man’s astonishment and wonderment.
Instead, David poetically writes that man is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, the cause (what is written about how we are made) stands for the effect (not written, but poetically assumed — the result of our response of reverence and amazement).
The Miracle of Formation in the Womb
Being fearfully made in a way that astonishes and moves us toward reverence for God is due to His masterful creation of the human body. In The Treasury of David, Richard Warner writes:
"We are so wonderfully made, that our organization infinitely surpasses, in skill, contrivance, design, an adaptation of means to ends, the most curious and complicated piece of mechanism, not only ever executed by art and man’s device, but ever conceived by the human imagination."
Isaac Watts, in the same commentary, adds:
"Our life contains a thousand springs,
And dies if one is gone!
Strange, that a harp of thousand strings
Should stay in tune so long"
Since salvation history is for the glory and honor of God, or “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6a), as creatures our purpose is to display God’s power. He has devised our bodies and our selves; our existence serves His praise.
David’s Praise in Contrast to the Unbeliever’s Response
David calls the awe-inspiring creation of the human person miraculous. Those without honor for the Lord might issue praise for the human body alone — for the womb’s abilities within the few short months of pregnancy to create life. Yet, for the believer, to recognize the miracle of new life is synonymous with praising the omnipotence of the Creator. Whereas those without the Lord might scoff at the “untenable” miracles recorded in Scripture for our knowledge, joy, faith, and praise, the believer knows (“very well,” like the psalmist) the might of God. We see this through observation of ourselves and God’s world, created out of nothing (or, ex nihilo).
Though the believer can rest in being God’s creatures without doubt, the unbeliever rejects the truth: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Those who do not yet know Christ have access to the obvious general revelation of God in creation. They are without excuse before God for their decision to follow themselves instead of their Creator.
Those who don’t believe in the miracles of God are themselves, according to Psalm 139, living miracles. They are speaking their words of disbelief from miraculously formed lips, or typing words of defiance from hands of His womb-made wonder. By God’s grace, David knows better and instead forms poetry to his Lord.
How Can We Live Like We Are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made?
To live like we are fearfully and wonderfully made, we can turn to David’s conclusion of this psalm: “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23a). David writes that God has already searched him (Psalm 139:1), and then asks God to search Him —meaning, to make the results of that search evident to his inner perceptions. The awesome and miracle-working God knows us intimately, and we can trust in the same proximity for His examination of our reborn hearts.
When we consider the Maker of our forms, to think of sinning against Him is a tremendous rebellion. Every sin is a direct affront to His miracle, that we would use our bodies against His intentions for us.
Considering the evil in the world (see Psalm 139:19-22), David knows his own susceptibility to sin. This psalm recalls the first psalm. As introduced in Psalm 1:6, “. . . the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” These earthly bodies, miraculous as they are, will fail due to this fallen world. But God’s life, through righteousness that comes by faith alone, is without end. Knowing our ways, He is faithful to work in us a growing righteousness, as we exert the abilities He has given us toward this end. David writes, “And lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:24).
Man is known in every manner by God. For those who believe have been spiritually recreated in Christ: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). That our works might bring God glory — this is David’s hope. And we share even more fully in this hope through inner recreation according to the new covenant in Christ.
The wonders and astonishingly awesome acts of God anticipate the future day when believers will live in a new creation fully attuned to God’s praise. Knowing the God who individually formed us inspires awe, and our honor is to serve this Creator with our lives. We can anticipate the life to come where we will perfectly embody our most fearful and wonderful spiritual salvation as the recreated workmanship of Christ.
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Lianna Davis is author of Keeping the Faith: A Study in Jude and Made for a Different Land: Eternal Hope for Baby Loss. She and her husband, Tyler, live outside of Dallas, Texas and have two dear daughters.