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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

Particular observations on Psalm 139

The following discussion is more narrowly defined than that of an exposition of this psalm, even if I were capable of such a thing, which I am not, and is in a way governed by the fact that Pope John Paul II used line sixteen of it to title the section of his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, from article 58 to 63.  My objective, then, is to obtain some understanding of the phrase: 'my unformed substance*.'  In other words: what is my unformed substance?

In the perspective of this question, if it is a characteristic of the 'Semitic idiom' to express completeness through the juxtaposition of opposites497, 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 both gives us 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 existence498.  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 its biological, psychological and spiritual stages of development.  For while a reference to the book of God is not uncommon in Scripture, and has a number of different uses499, 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 time500, is 'inspired' (Wis 15: 11), and thus in a sense manifests the mystery of an incarnate spirit501, and at the same time is a thoroughly sacred502 and original artifact of both God and man503.

A second observation is that this perception of an actual moment of our beginning, is a perception 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 Creator of man.  This is further emphasized by the fact that the opening lines of the third stanza of this psalm have progressively moved in their consideration of the mystery of the psalmist's creation from 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 kidney504 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 golmi505 (Ps 139: 16), with an etymological root which means unfinished vessel506: 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.

The aforementioned interpretation of these lines also allows David507 to differentiate further between the two types of work which "brought" him to be in such a way as he is brought to be the possession* of God he is: the divine action of God and the natural processes which are not to be separated from the action of God but are yet not the same thing.  For God 'didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb' (Ps 139: 13), could easily be understood as the making of the most inmost part, the human soul, and the knitting it together with the body: acts which of their nature could not be acts of nature.  For this would be the act by which God both creates the soul and at the same time creates it to be the form of the body.  This is then followed by the second type of the making of man which, while not hidden from God does not involve the same direct action of God: '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).  Thus it seems as if God is perceived to be the author of David's life not only because He is as it were the originator and designer of it, but because God is the originator of man, God is also the end of man in such a way as man's relationship to God constitutes the very vocation of man himself.  In other words, both the development and the vocation (cf. Wis 9: 1-4; 10: 16) of man are works of God which as it were both flow from and through God's original act of man's creation.

It does not seem too improbable, either, that just as the effort of translating golmi very often gives rise to a twin-termed concept such as 'unformed substance' (RSV ca), 'imperfect substance'509, and 'imperfect being'510, and in a way resembles the juxtaposition of concepts in the etymologicial root of golmi, which is that of unfinished and vessel, that this process in some way recapitulates the psychological process of the original author as he came to create an original word511 to describe the very beginning of his life.  And why create an original word if your not striving to say something which is in its own way radically new?  In addition, this very juxtaposition of the descriptive facts 'unfinished' and 'vessel', the first an action of making and the second an object which is being made, does in its own way echo the first account of the beginning of the earth (Gn 1: 2), and the second account of the beginning of man in the book of Genesis (Gn 2: 7).

The Scriptural echo of the first account of the beginning of the earth is what I will call a conceptual echo: an echo of the task that confronted the author of the Priestly account of creation in the task that confronted the author of Psalm 139.  For each is in its own way an attempt to understand an unprecedented beginning: the first is the absolute beginning of everything; and the second is the absolute beginning of a particular person.  David could be said to be juxtaposing two pairs of related ideas with a third: the existence of a thing and that thing being undeveloped; the twofold nature of that thing as both an object of the senses and yet a container of something else: an unfinished vessel512; and, finally, the fact that the object of his thought is the beginning of a living human being: an embryo (NJB, Ps 139: 16), which incidentally has a Greek etymological sense of a thing which can be said 'to swell or teem'513.

The pair of these concepts which seems to have a particular echo with the beginning of the earth (Gn 1: 2) is that of unformed and substance.  The resemblance is twofold: firstly in the manner of constructing a concept out of the juxtaposition of discreet elements; and secondly that the concept so created gives rise to the idea that something both exists and at the same time exists as yet undeveloped through time.  In other words, it is through the juxtaposition of these initial and perceptible things that one sees the origin of what one could call theological thought: thought which transcends the empirical facts and at the same time expresses an insight into the signification of those same facts514.

The second Scriptural echo is to the second account of creation, particularly the creation of man (Gn 2: 7): 'In the formation of each man there is repeated, according to the view of Scripture, the manner in which the first man was made (Job xxxiii 6, cf. v. 4)'515.  Delitzsch goes on to say in a footnote to his comments: 'Epiphanius ... says that the Hebrew γολμη signifies the peeled grains of spelt or wheat before they are mixed up and baked, the still raw (only bruised, rough-ground) flour-grains-a signification that can now no longer be supported by examples'516.

A third observation on Psalm 139 is that the structure of the third stanza perfectly corresponds to the general principle of construction517 which can be said to underly the whole psalm, because it not only gives as it were the dimensions of man between which one apprehends the whole of man, but in so doing it complements the other dimensions of his life to which it could be said each stanza of this psalm is devoted.

Finally it could well be said that 'You beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16) is the culmination of what one might call a theme within the theme which leads one 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 unformed518 (Ps 139: 4).  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).  The third stanza in a way illustrates this concretely by saying that God beholds the deepest mystery of man: the absolute beginning of his being: 'Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16).  Finally, this theme within the theme 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)519: 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).

In conclusion, and while I fully admit the incidental purpose of this exegesis to the fundamental purpose of this psalm, I nevertheless accept, precisely because this is integral to the psalmist's purpose, that line 16 of this psalm is an expression of the mystery of our absolute beginning to be: a beginning to be which is both integrally one act of beginning of all that each one of us is, and at the same time that this act of our beginning is a dynamic act (cf. Wis 15: 11) which will unfold through time and unto eternity (cf. Wis 2: 23).  For 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, then it is completely fitting that it should contain and express the mystery of human conception that it does.

The possibility that there is as it were a Greek philosophical sense and or influence to the statement that God beheld David's 'unformed substance' is not discounted or denied; however, as this is the next major subject to which I now turn, there seemed little point in turning to threads which will emerge in their own time and with the accompanying study which I hope will be more appropriate to them.

497 JBC, Psalms, page 600.    Back
498 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.    Back
499 J. Guillet, Book, translated by M. J. Moore, pages 57-58 of DOBT.    Back
500 Cf. too, Delitzsch's 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.'    Back
501 FC, art 11, page 19.    Back
502 EV, art 61, page 109.    Back
503 J. Guillet, Book, translated by M. J. Moore, page 57 of DOBT.    Back
504 NBC, The Psalms, page 539; and cf. also DOB, page 473: Kidneys.    Back
505 F. Zorell SJ, Psalterium Ex Hebraeo Latinum, editio altera revisa, (Romae: Sumptibus Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1939), page 345.  Abbrev. Zorell.    Back
506 F. Brown, et al, A Hebrew And English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Oxford: University Press, 1939), page 166.  Abbrev. Brown.    Back
507 Cf. NJB, page 954.  The question of authorship is strictly beyond the scope of this particular discussion; however, I accept the canonical convention of David's authorship if for no other reason than that of relieving the repetition of 'author', 'psalmist' and other such terms.    Back
508 Barnes, page 637.    Back
509 Ibid.    Back
510 hC, page 522.    Back
511 Barnes, page 638.    Back
512 Cf. DOB, pages 685-686: Pottery.    Back
513 BCED, page 108: Em'bryo; cf. also Delitzsch, pages 350-351.    Back
514 Cf. OUMW, Meaning of Original Human Experiences, Gen. aud. December 12, 1979, art 1, pages 85-86 and the Nuptial Meaning of the Body, Gen. aud. January 9, 1980, pages 106-112.    Back
515 Delitzsch, page 351.    Back
516 Delitzsch, pages 351-352.    Back
517 Cf. JBC, Psalms, page 600.    Back
518 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).  Abbrev. Addis.    Back
519 Cf. VS, art 63, page 96.    Back

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