Essay on Psalm 139
Poet’s Pick, National Poetry Month
April 26, 2011
“If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” —attributed to Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, 1925
I was certainly older than I should have been before I started thinking about who wrote the Bible, how it got translated, when it became “literature.” We had one large, gold-embossed, red leatherette copy in our house. It pretty much kept to itself on the bookshelf. “We’re Catholic. We don’t read the Bible,” my mother said, only partly in jest.
Actually, most of the written words in our house—the encyclopedia, the dictionary, the Sears catalog, Readers Digest condensed books—didn’t seem to have authors so much as salesmen. Their subscriptions and installment plans were lottery tickets for upward mobility, stand-ins for a new car or a fancy RV. And since I came of age with the folk mass—guitars, hand-holding, bell bottoms, Richard Nixon—the language of my church-going was bland, casual, polyester. The ermine and cashmere majesty of the King James Bible wasn’t even one of our known unknowns. I cried when I started reading it in college. As the psalmist says in 139: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”
The psalms were written over a span of 500 years and first collected as a five-part “book” almost 2000 years before the King James translation in 1611. There are 150 psalms, but 139 is far and away my favorite. It is the only one I still have memorized. “For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.”
It so moved me when I first read it that I went to the library and spent all day with five or six translations semi-circled around me at a big table. I read commentaries and studied line by line the word choice, rhythm, and sound. It was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had in the craft of poetry.
Just look at two versions of line 14:
“I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart.”
“And I praise you because of the wonderful way you created me.”
And here is the King James:
“I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Fearfully and wonderfully made. What more could you ask of a poem than that?
PSALM 139 (KING JAMES VERSION)
1 O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.
2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising; thou understandest my thought afar off.
3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
4 For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
5 Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
15 My substance was not hid from thee when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
19 Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
20 For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
24 and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.