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Pope John Paul II - Psalm 139:16

Part II - Psalm 139 as the context of verse 16

The comparison of human life and development to a book is further emphasized by the fact that the opening lines of the third stanza of this psalm are an account that traces what is developed back to that from which it developed.  Thus the movement begins with the psalmist's consideration of the more developed 'inward parts' (Ps 139: 13) which, while applying to a man's psychological interior yet retains a relation to the figure of the kidney12 and thus to something which signifies a considerable degree of development, through the earlier stage 'when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth' (Ps 139: 15), until the thought of the psalmist terminates at his absolute beginning, signified by the Hebrew word golmi13 (Ps 139: 16).  For the primitive meaning of golmi is that of an unfinished vessel14: a particularly apt expression through which to express both the beginning of his life and a development in the human understanding of the exact nature of a person's conception.  Thus the concept of an 'unfinished vessel' is an attempt to formulate what is actually beyond the experience of the psalmist and is only known to God, namely the very beginning of his beginning to be.  Furthermore the psalmist does not simply speak of his beginning as that of an 'unformed substance', as if it is some kind of non-personal substance15, but he speaks of it in such a way as to indicate the beginning of his totality, of his being a person, one in body and soul16: "Your eyes beheld my* unformed substance" (Ps 139: 16).

Thus it could be argued that 'You beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16) is the culmination of a theme within the theme which leads from one kind of beginning to that of another kind of beginning, through the principle that to God the 'darkness is as light with thee' (Ps 139: 12).  For in the first stanza David draws attention to God's perception of the existence of the as yet unexpressed thought, even the thought which in some mysterious way could be said to exist and yet exist as unformed17 (Ps 139: 4).  Moreover he says this in the context of recognizing that all he does is done in the knowing presence of God.  In the second stanza this idea of what God knows is expressed in the terms of its incomparability: 'for darkness is as light with thee' (Ps 139: 12).  And in this same stanza he also states the impossibility of the existence of a place beyond this knowing presence of God.  The third stanza observes the active presence of God in the very history (Ps 139: 13) and beginning of his being: 'Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16).  Finally, the initial theme of the perceptions which are unique to God transpires to be the governing idea of the psalmist.  For in the last stanza, and in a way because of and as a conclusion to the whole movement of the psalm, David expresses the realization that only God can know and deliver him from his hidden faults (cf. Ps 19: 12; 139: 23-24)18: hidden faults which, if not discerned and repudiated by the power of God (Ps 139: 24) will lead him to become what he hates: an enemy of God (cf. Ps 139: 19-22).

Line 16, precisely because this is integral to the psalmist's purpose, is therefore an expression of the mystery of our absolute beginning to be.  And if this psalm is an unparalleled dialogue of man and God, a dialogue in which man comes to know himself through God's knowledge of him (Ps 139: 1), then it is completely fitting that it should contain and express the mystery of human conception that it does.

12 L. S. McCaw & J. A. Motyer, The Psalms, page 539 of the New Biblical Commentary, D. Guthrie et al, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, third edition, 1988); and cf. also J. L. McKenzie, SJ, Dictionary of the Bible, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1965), page 473: Kidneys.    Back
13 F. Zorell SJ, Psalterium Ex Hebraeo Latinum, editio altera revisa, (Romae: Sumptibus Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1939), page 345.    Back
14 F. Brown, et al, A Hebrew And English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Oxford: University Press, 1939), page 166.    Back
15 Cf. Pt III, Qu 5, Articles 3-4.    Back
16 Cf. GS art 14.    Back
* This signifies an emphasis added to the quoted text.    Back
17 Rev. W. E. Addis, The Psalms, page 395 of A Commentary On The Bible, A. S. Peake et al, (London: Thomas Nelson And Sons, Ltd).    Back
18 Cf. VS art 63.    Back

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