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Pope John Paul II - Psalm 139:16

Part III - The perspective of God the Creator

The psalmist has grasped that the history and the beginning of a human being are 'wonderful' works of God (Ps 139: 13-14).  And so the moment of his beginning was yet as characterically known to God as it was mysterious to him as a man.  Nevertheless all the indications are that David perceived a singular moment to his coming to be.  For on the one hand there is a completeness to the concept which terminates his thought: 'Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16); while on the other hand this is a beginning that has not begun to unfold but is still full of what is to unfold: 'in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them' (ibid).

Now if the perspective of David is the biblical perspective of God the Creator, which is amply evident in this psalm, then it follows that what he has written is what, from the point of view of the Creator, is the beginning of man which is alone known to the Creator of him.  Thus when David says of God, 'Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance,' it would appear that he has written of that beginning to be of which God is both the agent and the witness.  For until God gives his help (Gn 4: 1) there is no beginning of a human being.  But from the moment of that help of God there is the beginning of a human being.  In other words what makes the beginning to be of a human being the unitary thing it is, is the active presence of God.  And so it would be appropriate to argue that David has expressed the following thought: the existence of his unformed substance is the outward sign of the active presence of the God who has brought him to be.  Furthermore, it is this outward activity which we would now call the act of fertilization and which, according as he was able, he described in the following way: 'my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth' (Ps 139: 15).  It does not follow, however, that David had to have a precise knowledge of how the human being is biologically begun in order for him to argue that the very process through which he began was the outward sign of the activity of God.  The point he was making was that his coming to be was as clear to God (Ps 139: 16) as it was hidden from him (Ps 139: 15).  Nevertheless David perceived that there was a beginning to his existence as a person: a beginning which was both distinct to the process which preceded that beginning and the development which followed upon it.  Finally, his beginning was therefore uniquely beheld by God as it is such a beginning to be of which God alone is the author (cf. 2 Mac 7: 22-23 and 28).

In conclusion, the difficulty of the psalmist's subject and the stage of human knowledge out of which he speaks, do not exclude the possibility of a true and inspired speculation19 concerning the conception of his own being.  And so even if my unformed substance does not appear to us as a scientific observation or a philosophical definition of conception, yet it has grasped various things into one: a secret action of God in the depths of the earth (Ps 139: 15).  Thus a human being is both an outward sign of something within and is orientated, as unfinished, to the end essential to our life and evident in the history of our beginning: a relationship to God the Creator (cf. Ps 139: 1; 16 and 23-24).  Could this be why the author has used a unique word to communicate his meaning, although these ideas are more generally a part of the biblical idea of human identity (cf. Gn 2: 7; Job 10: 8-13; Jer 18: 4-6; 2 Cor 4: 7).  For nothing less than the complex idea of 'my unformed substance' would express the God given reality which was the terminus of his thought20.

19 Cf. John Paul II, Address On The Interpretation Of The Bible In The Church, on page 12 of The Interpretation Of The Bible In The Church, Vatican translation, (Sherbrooke: Editions Paulines, 1994).  If as the Pope says, no human aspect of language can be neglected, then neither can we neglect any type of human thought.    Back
20 Cf. John Paul II, Crossing The Threshold Of Hope, page 38: 'it is not thought which determines existence, but existence, "esse," which determines thought!'    Back

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