Psalm 139

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The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads pro victoria (“for victory”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of natsách.

This composition is specifically called a “psalm” and is attributed to David.


The psalmist recognized that YHWH knew him completely, as he had made a search, examining everything about him. Regardless of the position in which he might be or the activity in which he may have been engaged, whether sitting or rising, David believed that YHWH could discern his every thought from afar.

Regarding his “path” or “way” and his “lying down” to rest, the psalmist used the word zaráh when saying what God did. This Hebrew term basically denotes to “scatter,” “spread,” or “winnow.” David appears to have thought that the Most High scrutinized his life, including his periods of rest, as if submitting him to a winnowing process. The Septuagint rendering is exichniázo, meaning “search out,” “explore,” “track,” or “trace.” Nothing that David did lay outside God’s knowledge, for YHWH knew all of his ways. The Septuagint rendering may be understood to mean that God knew all of David’s ways even before he began an activity.

Before he spoke, before his tongue was involved in making the expression, YHWH knew it fully. Nothing could be concealed from the Most High, for he knew not just the “word” but its significance and what motivated the utterance. As the psalmist said of God, “You know it all.” According to the Septuagint, the Almighty knows “everything, the last and the first things.” (See the Notes section for additional comments on verses 4 and 5.)

Seemingly, David regarded himself as being fenced in or enclosed behind and in front. This could mean that he felt that YHWH had imposed limits on what he could and could not do. He was subject to God’s control, being under his “hand.”

As far as David was concerned, YHWH had such intimate knowledge of him that it surpassed his comprehension. It filled him with wonder or amazement. This kind of knowledge was just too astonishing for him and proved to be “high up,” far beyond him, or completely out of his reach.

Nowhere could he go to escape from God’s spirit or the power and energizing or activating influence emanating from him or to flee from his “face” or presence. The psalmist’s question as to where he might go did not mean that he desired to flee. His question served to emphasize that YHWH’s knowledge about him could not be obscured in any way.

If he were to ascend to heaven, climbing the highest mountain peaks that are often hidden by clouds, or make his bed in Sheol (the realm of the dead or the lowest place possible), he would still be in God’s presence. As the psalmist expressed it, “You [are] there.”

At dawn, the sky begins to brighten quickly. It appears as if the morning light has wings. If the psalmist could have taken hold of the “wings of the morning” and transported himself to the remote parts on the other side of the sea or the most distant western regions in order to dwell there, he would not be beyond God’s reach. YHWH’s “hand” would still be there, guiding him. God’s “right hand” or power would be there for him, upholding or supporting him.


Whereas darkness conceals from human view, David recognized that this limitation did not apply to YHWH. If darkness were to “bruise” (shuph) him, completing covering him as if pressing down upon him, he would still be seen. In case the “night” were the “light about [him],” this would make no difference to the Most High. (See the comments on verse 11 in the Notes section.)

To YHWH, the darkness would not be dark. The night would be as bright as day, and darkness would be like the light.

David next focused on God’s knowledge of him while he was still in the womb. He attributed the creation or formation of his “kidneys” (his inmost parts) to YHWH, speaking of him as “weaving,” “knitting,” or “shaping” (sakák) him in his mother’s womb. (For additional comments on verse 13, see the Notes section.)

As he pondered his own existence, he was moved to acknowledge YHWH as having made him in a fearful or awe-inspiring and wonderful way. His “soul” or he himself knew full well that all of God’s works are wonderful, truly amazing.

At the time of his development in the womb, David’s “frame” or bones were not hidden from YHWH. In secret or completely concealed from human view, he was “woven” or formed “in the depths of the earth” (in the womb, which resembled a hidden place inside earth’s depths).

God’s eyes saw him in an unformed state (his embryo). Seemingly, the psalmist thought of his formation in the womb as having occurred as by a plan that the Most High had previously recorded in a book or scroll. This is the basic sense made explicit in the rendering of the Tanakh, “Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book; in due time they were formed, to the very last one of them.”

As the words relate to the “book,” the Masoretic Text, however, is obscure. In their renderings, many translators link the “days” or “due time” (Tanakh) to what is written in the book and represent the psalmist as saying that God knew what his “days” would be or what he would do even before his life began outside the womb. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV) “Your eyes foresaw my deeds, and they were all recorded in your book; my life was fashioned before it had come into being.” (REB) “The days allotted to me had all been recorded in your book, before any of them ever began.” (GNT, Second Edition)

A Dead Sea Psalms scroll, although also obscure, does not support these interpretive renderings. The passage in this scroll has been translated, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; in your books each of them was written, the number of days for its formation even for it with its corresponding member from them all.” (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible)

The Septuagint rendering appears to pertain to the development of the parts of the body. It is, “Your eyes saw my unformed state, and in your book everything will be written. By day they will be formed, and none [was] among them.”

As he considered YHWH’s activity and matchless knowledge, David found himself in a state of extraordinary wonderment. God’s thought were so far beyond him that he could speak of them as being precious or priceless. (Regarding the Septuagint rendering, see the Notes section on verse 17.)

David could not comprehend the vast sum or number of divine thoughts. If he were to count them, they, in his estimation, would be more numerous than the grains of sand. The words, “when I awake I am still with you,” suggest that he would not be finished counting before retiring at night. As his focus would continue to be on counting God’s thoughts upon waking up, the Most High would still be with him. Some translations have added words to convey an explicit meaning. “Were I to try counting them, they would be more than the grains of sand; to finish the count, my years must equal yours.” (REB) “Were I to count, they would outnumber the sands; to finish, I would need eternity.” (NAB)

It may be that YHWH’s greatness and incomprehensibly vast knowledge made the psalmist keenly aware of the seriousness of disregarding his ways. Those doing so deserved to be judged adversely. Accordingly, David petitioned God to slay the wicked and desired that “men of blood” or those guilty of or intent on shedding much blood would “depart” from him. The psalmist did not want them in his presence.

He described these wicked ones as speaking maliciously against God, lifting themselves up or arrogantly defying him to do evil. (See the Notes section for additional comments on verse 20.)

David hated those who hated YHWH, persons who defiantly disregarded his commands. The psalmist abhorred those who rose up against the Most High, rebelliously refusing to submit to his will. According to a Dead Sea scroll reading, the psalmist did not speak of loathing or abhorring them but referred to cutting himself off from any association with persons who rise up against God.

David’s hatred for such godless ones was “complete,” an emotion he felt to the ultimate degree. This is because he regarded YHWH’s avowed enemies as also being his personal foes.

The psalmist’s abhorrence for those who defied YHWH appears to have prompted him to look also at himself. He wanted to be sure that no trace of their disposition existed in him personally. Therefore, he wanted the Most High to examine him for the purpose of knowing his heart or his inmost self. He wanted YHWH to know more than his deeds and words, and asked him to make a complete test of him so as to know his very “thoughts” (“paths,” LXX).

David desired that YHWH would find no evil or injurious (“lawless,” LXX) way in him, nothing that would lead him into wayward conduct. He wanted the Most High to guide him in the “eternal way” or in the way that would always be right or approved.


In verse 4, a number of ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint read “unrighteous word,” indicating that God knew that David did not voice unjust or evil thoughts. Another Septuagint reading indicates that the psalmist’s tongue was without “deceit” (dólos).

The Masoretic Text (in verses 4 and 5) does not convey the same thought as the Septuagint, which links “the last and the first things” to everything God knew about the psalmist. The Hebrew expression is “behind and before.” It may be noted that what is “behind” comes last, and what is “before” precedes it, indicating that the Septuagint does not radically depart from the basic meaning of the Hebrew. In the Masoretic Text, however, the words “behind and before” are linked to the verb that follows (tsur), meaning “besiege” or “enclose.” The Septuagint, though, starts a new thought, “You have formed me and placed your hand on me.”

In verse 11, the Septuagint rendering for the Hebrew word shuph, meaning “bruise” or “crush,” is katapatéo (“trample”). The Septuagint reading “in my delight” appears to have arisen from supplying different vowels for the Hebrew expression meaning “about me.”

The Hebrew term sakák (in verse 13) can also mean “cover,” “conceal,” or “shield.” A number of translation do thus render the verse. “You covered me in my mother’s womb.” (NKJV) “Thou dost cover me in my mother’s belly.” (Young) “Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb.” (Darby) According to the Septuagint, God “took hold of,” “supported,” or “helped” (antilambánomai) the psalmist from his mother’s womb. With the exception of the additional consonant (mem [M]), the Hebrew expression for “you supported me” has the same consonants as “you covered me.”

In verse 17, the extant Septuagint text differs considerably from the Masoretic Text. It reads, “But to me, O God, your friends were exceedingly precious. Exceedingly strengthened were their beginnings.

The last Hebrew word in verse 20 may either be a plural form of ‘ir (“city,” “town,” or “village”) or ‘ar (“adversary”). According to the Septuagint, the meaning is “cities,” and it reads, “They will take your cities in vanity.” A number of translations take the Hebrew for “lift up” (nasá’) to mean taking up God’s name in vain as when swearing to a lie or speaking evil things against his name. “They say wicked things about you; they speak evil things against your name.” (GNT, Second Edition) “Deceitfully they invoke your name; your foes swear faithless oaths.” (NAB) “They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.” (NIV)