Today is our fourth and final installment in our series on Psalm 139. There’s more that we could look at, but we end today with the topic of how we are formed by God from vs. 13-16.
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”
Let me begin with some –
Notes on these verses
– that help us to understand them. 1. Notice the shape of this passage. This has to do with the parallels that form the structure of these verses.
a. formed– For you formed my inward parts;
b. needle work/womb – you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
c. wonderful – I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
c.1 wonderful – Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
b.1 needle work/womb – My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
a.1 formed– Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.
Notice, it begins and ends with a word for “formed.” And in b and b1 we have both a form of needle work and a reference to the womb (as we will see). And also in the middle we have two statements about “wonder”
2. Two things are formed in these verses, although they are connected (a and a1). The main focus, and our focus, is the formation of the unborn child in the womb. The second is the formation of the days for this child before they existed in v. 16. I will just say a word about this in a minute.
3. There are several words used for an unborn child in these verse, or for different aspects of an unborn child.
- “inward parts” – v. 13 literally means “kidneys,” or as it is usually translated in English – “heart.” But here this is taken as a part, standing for the whole, that is, the heart standing for all the inward parts.
- “frame” – v. 15 means bones or bodily frame.
- “unformed substance” – v. 16. This word is only used here in all the Old Testament. It can also be translated as fetus or embryo. The NIV says, “unformed body.”
So all of these are ways David is speaking of the developing child and it shows what the emphasis of the passage is about.
4. Notice a strange phrase in v. 15. What does it mean when David says, he was made “in the depths of the earth”? Well this is poetic. It stands in parallel with “womb.” And in one ancient version of the Bible it is rendered as “womb” (Aramaic Targums).
“The depths of the earth” is a phrase that often means “Sheol” – the realm of the dead. So perhaps there is a poetic linkage here between the womb and Sheol, both of which are places of darkness? Or, perhaps Sheol is seen as similar to a womb in that this is where people are while they await for the resurrection. And the emergence from Sheol on the day of resurrection is like emerging from the womb at birth. Not sure . . . (note)
5. Let’s remember the point of these verses in context. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. And in vs. 1-18 he’s saying, God knows everything about me. Nothing is hidden from God. In our verses he’s saying, God has seen me from the time that he formed me, to the end of my days, which he formed for me.
- “my frame was not hidden from you” – v. 15
- “your eyes saw my unformed substance” – v. 16
The point is that God knows all about David’s commitment to him. At no point has he been able to hide from God. God knows that David has been loyal.
But this passage also presents a point of view about God and about unborn children that we must not miss. First of all, this passage shows us that –
It is God who forms the unborn child
v. 13 makes this clear – “you formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”
Now this isn’t just true for David. We find similar language in Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you . . ..” So God formed Jeremiah in the womb. And Job says the same thing about himself in 10:11. God forms all of us in the womb.
The imagery that is used here is that of needle-work.
- v. 13 – “you knitted me together”
- v. 16 – I was “intricately woven” or embroidered
This metaphor is also found in Job 10:11, where Job says to God, “You . . . knit me together with bones and sinews,” perhaps in reference to how the muscles and tendons look woven over the skeleton.
Now, this is poetic language for sure. God doesn’t literally do needle work in the womb. And, of course, we know that there is a biological process that takes place, with DNA and cell growth and so forth. But our Scripture teaches us that God is involved in this. Not just setting up the laws of nature and letting nature take its course. God is actually, somehow, mysteriously involved in the making of each unborn child. We ought not get caught in the trap of having to choose between a biological explanation or a divine explanation. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.
God forms us. And what an amazing thing that is! This is something that my half of the population can’t experience, to have God working in you to form a child. What a blessing and special privilege to experience this!
Well, not only does God form us –
Already as an unborn child, we are a wonderful work of God
The last part of v. 14 makes this point, “wonderful are your works.” The first part of v. 14 says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In both of these David is speaking as an adult, but he’s referring to when he was made in the womb.
And we also have to understand that this is not just any work of God that we are talking about – a tree or a cat, which can be wonderful in their own way. There is a biblical background here that informs these verses. This is humanity, the highest of all of God’s creation. And what is being formed in the womb is in the image of God. This is what gives the language of fearfully and wonderfully made its full force.
Here’s another point that is subtle, but I want you to notice.
There is a continuity of identity in a person between unborn child and adult
v. 13 – “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” The same “me” covers both David as unborn child and David as adult, who is now speaking. v. 14 – “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The same pronoun “I” covers both unborn child and adult.
There is a continuity of identity in David’s language here between himself as an adult and himself as an unborn child. This would not be true if the child only has identity at birth, if he only became David at birth.
And in Jeremiah 1:5 we learn that this continuity is not just from David’s perspective. It is also from God’s. God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Who we are, our identity, is known to God (here it says) even before he forms us in the womb!
And then finally from this passage we learn that –
God has a plan for the unborn child’s days
This comes out clearly in v. 16 – already in the womb God knows ‘the days formed for us’, when as yet there were none of them.
Now, sin can disrupt this, but the point is that God has a plan for the unborn child. God’s will for their days is already set out. (Also Jeremiah 1:5). Already in the womb, God has a purpose and a plan for us.
Now let me share two reflections as we end –
“Fearfully and wonderfully made” is not the same as perfection
- Yes, God forms each unborn child, but we all have weaknesses and defects
- Yes, God forms each unborn child, but some have life-altering or life-threatening disabilities
- Yes, God forms each unborn child, but some pregnancies will end tragically with miscarriage. 16% of known pregnancies end this way.
All of these are fearfully and wonderfully made and all are not perfect.
God forms each of us, but he does so in the context of the sin and brokenness of this world and this age. To see perfect humanity we have to look to the original creation. And to experience it we have to wait for the resurrection. For only in the resurrection will we be both fearfully and wonderfully made and perfect. This is when God “will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things (will) have passed away.” – Revelation 21:4.
A second reflection –
We need to welcome unborn children
22% of pregnancies end in elective abortion – anywhere from 1.2 to 1.5 million a year in the US. I say we here because this is a Christian problem. According to the statistics, of all US abortions (2008) 37% were undertaken by those who identified as Protestant, and 28% were undertaken by those who identified as Catholic. So over half are performed on those who view themselves as Christian.
This leads me to say that we need to teach more clearly why unborn children should be celebrated, not aborted. There are a number of reasons for this. For instance, children are a gift of God (Psalm 127:3); we are to be like Jesus in welcoming and blessing little children (Mark 10), and we are to love and care for the weak and helpless.
But certainly what we find in our verses are core reasons:
- It’s God who forms an unborn child and so abortion is a destroying of this work of God.
- God’s works are “wonderful” and the unborn child is fearfully and wonderfully made. An unborn child is certainly not just a piece of tissue that can be disposed of. What’s being made by God is in the very image of God.
- An unborn child already has an identity known by God and in continuity with who they will become as an adult. Abortion destroys one that is known by God.
- An unborn child has already been given a plan for their life from God. But abortion takes this away.
We need to learn this, so that when there is an unintended, or crisis pregnancy, we can move beyond the inevitable difficulties (and we ought not minimize these) and welcome the child nevertheless. And we need to learn and practice this if we are to be a witness to the rest of the world regarding the blessing of bringing unborn children to birth.
Also we need to provide support for those who have unintended or crisis pregnancies, both in our own Christian communities and for those in the world.
Almost 50% of those who choose abortion do so because they feel unready for a child or feel that can’t afford to raise a child. When we provide support this can give great encouragement in these difficult situations to welcome the unborn child. One way to do this is to help out with a crisis pregnancy center. And as well you can be open to adoption.
Know for sure that God smiles on all who do these kinds of things. You are embodying the very heart of God.