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Pope John Paul II - Psalm 139:16

Part I - Psalm 139:16

If it is a characteristic of the 'Semitic idiom' to express completeness through the juxtaposition of opposites4, then not only is the whole psalm written through with this principle of composition, but verse 16 is characteristically expressive of this type of understanding.  On the one hand the eyes of God 'beheld my unformed substance', at a time 'when as yet there was none of them', and on the other hand God beheld in His book every one of those days.  In other words this combination of expressions gives us both the perception that God not only beheld the totality of the psalmist's life, but that God beheld this totality from the first moment of the psalmist's existence5.  This is particularly clear if one juxtaposes the beginning and the end of the verse: 'Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;'( ... ) 'when as yet there was none of' my days.  If, therefore, the moment at which the psalmist is an 'unformed substance' is not the moment when he first comes into existence, then where is the force of the contrast between that moment and the fact that even at that moment, there is written down every one of his days: a contrast which is as it were required by the idiomatic tendency to structure things in terms of opposites.

The sense of these days being written down already not only adds to the actuality of the first moment of existence, by showing their continuity through time with that first moment, but in its own way alludes to the chronological development of the person that we would now differentiate into the biological, psychological and spiritual dimensions of development.  For while a reference to the book of God is not uncommon in Scripture, and has a number of different uses6, it does in this context acquire a particular sense of what is actual, not just the actuality a thing might possess from being the object of the foreknowledge of God, as before anything existed He knew it (cf. Sir: 23: 20), but the actuality that expresses the potentiality of what already exists and is as it were inscribed within the beginning of the person.  This is for two reasons.  In the first place the psalmist speaks of these days that are written in the book of life as already formed: 'the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them' (Ps 139: 16).  And anything which is already 'formed' is already, it seems, the result of the activity of God (cf. Wis 9: 2; 15: 11; Job 33: 6; Gn 2: 7).  In the second place, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that a book is a concrete image of what has an orderly development through time7, is 'inspired' (Wis 15: 11), and thus in a sense manifests the mystery of an incarnate spirit8, and at the same time is a thoroughly sacred9 and original artifact of both God and man10.

Therefore these initial observations seem to support the view that the psalmist is recording his perception of the first state of our beginning which came to exist at the first moment of our beginning.  For this is a moment which is, within the context of the psalm as a whole, yet another aspect of the psalmist's life which is not hidden to God.  But it is a moment of his life which especially illustrates the incomparably knowing presence of God, precisely because it is a moment of human existence that is uniquely known to God.  For God is the principal Creator of a person (Gn 4: 1), although husband and wife are in their different ways the instrumental cause11.

4 R. E. Murphy, O. Carm., Psalms, page 600 of The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. by R. Brown SS, et al, ( London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd., 1968 ).    Back
5 Cf. F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on The Psalms, translated by Rev. D. Eaton, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, MDCCCLXXXIX [ 1889 ]), page 351.  This is part of The Foreign Biblical Library, Rev. W. R. Nicoll. Abbrev. Delitzsch, BCP.    Back
6 J. Guillet, Book, translated by M. J. Moore, pages 57-58 of the Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited under the direction of Xavier Leon-Dufour, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, reprinted with revisions 1988). Abbrev. DOBT etc.    Back
7 Cf. too, Delitzsch, BCP, page 352, where he makes use of a latin quotation from Bellarmin: 'On in libro tuo Bellarmin makes the correct observation: quia habes apud te exemplaria sive ideas omnium, quomodo pictor vel sculptor scit ex informi materia quid futurum sit, quia videt exemplar.'  The following translation and commentary is by the Rev. Dr. Richard Conrad OP, email 22/02/2010: Quia apud te... means: For you have within yourself the exemplars or ideas of all things, as a painter or a sculptor knows what will be [made] of [as yet] unformed matter, for he sees the exemplar.  "ideas" refers to the Platonic notion of the ideas, though of course for a Christian Platonist they don't subsist as independent entities, but are in the mind of God (See Aquinas, Prima Pars 15).  I have translated apud te as "within yourself" because the exemplar is within God's or the artist's mind, though basically apud means "at yours" and may be meant to conjure up the image of a "conversation" between the artist and the images in his mind.  Apud is used in John 1:1 for the Word being with God, and there may perhaps be an allusion to that, since there is a widespread tradition of seeing God the Father as expressing both himself and creatures in the Word.    Back
8 FC art 11.    Back
9 Evangelium Vitae art 61.    Back
10 J. Guillet, Book, translated by M. J. Moore, page 57 of DOBT.    Back
11 Cf. Pt I, Qu 118, Art 2.    Back

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