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Psalm 139:16 (KJV) 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.

My understanding of this verse: God has written down the process of how our bodies will be formed. Thus, referring to embryology.

Psalm 139:16 (NIV) Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

My understanding of this verse: God has written down how many days I should live on this earth. Thus referring to predestination. This translation is very hard to digest for me.

How should we interpret this verse? I myself cannot accept the NIV way of translation because that would put God responsible for everything in my life, whether good or bad, and that even my destiny of going to Hell or Heaven is predestined. Some writers like Rick Warren prefer this NIV way of translation.

What is the view of Mainstream Christian Denominations on this verse?

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"How should we interpret this verse?" is not a question that fits on either site. That's a truth question. We could put this on [hermeneutics] and ask about how it should be translated, what the original understanding was likely to be, etc or we can leave it here and make it into "How does Christianity or X tradition interpret this verse?". Which way would you like to go? Asking for the "right" doctrinal position based on a verse simply isn't doable on SE. – Caleb Jun 11 '13 at 9:39
(Looks like you answered that question before I asked it. Jinx.) – Caleb Jun 11 '13 at 9:39
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The Pulpit Commentary given at one reference says (my emphasis):

Verse 16. — Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; or, "my embryo." The Hebrew text has but the single word גלמי, which probably means, "the still unformed embryonic mass" (Hengstenberg). And in thy book all my members were written; literally, all of them; but the pronoun has no antecedent. Professor Cheyne and others suspect the passage to have suffered corruption. But the general meaning can scarcely have been very different from that assigned to the passage in the Authorized Version. Which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. Modern critics mostly translate "the days," or "my days," "were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them;" i.e. "my life was planned out by God, and settled, before I began to be."

Young's Literal Translation gives

Mine unformed substance Thine eyes saw, And on Thy book all of them are written, The days they were formed — And not one among them.

Because them and they have nothing to refer back to, it's a matter of conjecture/scholarship what that pronoun should be replaced with. Some translations go for the embryology approach; others [arguably more] go for predestination.

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@Mawia It would appear that this is indeed a Hermeneutics question. It might even be a Hermeneutics answer I've given. – Andrew Leach Jun 11 '13 at 9:20
I edited it to be well suited for this site. I'm not much comfortable with Hermeneutics :-) – Mawia Jun 11 '13 at 9:39

Foreordination is not the same as predestination.

Ordination in the Bible typically refers to being set apart to the office in the Priesthood, for example, the members of the house of Aaron were ordained to take care of the tabernacle during the exodus and later the temple.

A great example of someone who did not follow through with his ordination is Kind David. Even though he was ordained to great things he committed great sin and lost his opportunity.

When the bible refers to foreordination it means that God has identified the potential of certain individuals and ordained them to do great things before they were born. That said, someone does not have to follow through with their potential because we were each given what's probably the most difficult gift for any father to give: the freedom to choose.

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Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) denominations such as my denomination (Presbyterian Church in America) indeed use this verse as support for predestination, especially as it pertains to God's eternal plan (referenced here).

Few Arminians use this verse as a proof text against predestination, although I did find one example:

In the bible it says (Psalm 139:16) that God knows all our days in advance, yet we live one at a time. God has a foreknowledge of the future and knows it to the detail.


Ask yourself. If [predestination is true], why would we need to live one day at a time?

Additionally, this is a popular verse for opponents of Abortion (as a whole from verses 13-16). Here is an excerpt from a sermon on this subject:

But probably the best known passage of Scripture on this subject is Psalm 139:13-16. A couple of Sabbaths ago I preached on God’s omnipresence, the doctrine that God is always present in every event and God always is with us in every place and circumstance. For that earlier sermon, I took as my text Psalm 139:7-12. In the verses before us today, in verses 13-16 of that same Psalm, the Psalmist continues to describe God’s presence with us, even in the womb. In v13, speaking of God, the Psalmist says, “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” In verses 15 and 16 the Psalmist praises God saying, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” The Psalmist says that when I was conceived, that was the first day of my life God was there with me. When my heart began to beat, God was there with me. When my fingers and toes and muscle and brain formed, God was there with me.

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First off Psalms are filled with hyperbolic phrases.

The translation for this passage is much debated and commented on. I would put most of the latter parts of comments in the speculation category. They are filled with speculative arguments and implications like God planning out our lives in detail. Then the jump comes from theses speculations to things like predestination.

The first part of comments in commentaries is about the meaning of the Hebrew- an embryo and unformed mass being developed and the ordained days of this being written in a book. Nothing is said about a specific plan laid out as to who he will marry or what he will eat or eve what he will do. It is more of a general wow! that what is unrecognizable is known to God. We could run with this and say well if he knew it and wrote that down and he knows everything, doesn't he know what will happen each day including our being saved what we will eat etc.? Maybe maybe not. Even if that is true does this verse say that? I don't believe so based on the literal translations? Yes plural because it is a kind of difficult passage to translate.

Then we could jump to the next implication that if He knows our formed body before it is formed even though there is no evidence that it will be a body, couldn't we imagine He knows all the other details of what we think, feel, decisions we will make? Its logical based on the whole Psalm 139 passage BUT without reading into this verse is not saying those things.

Most believe David wrote the Psalm so maybe this level of "ordained days" are only for him or specially called great men of God and does not apply to all men. Are there comparative passages that imply this is the Normal Practice and belief and should therefore be considered teachable doctrine?

It is a person expressing adoration to an omniscient God. Nothing is explicitly mention about plans or predestination and no application is given except that it should elicit praise.

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Welcome to C.SE! This has the beginnings of a good answer, but doesn't contextualize the tradition in which it is true. When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. – Affable Geek Mar 5 '14 at 14:40

Psalm 139:16 says:

"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."

For me, this is proof that DNA was created by God & not by a series of 'FORTUNATE ACCIDENTS' that took place over eons of years.

This is my own take on this.

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Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites? – David Dec 8 '13 at 19:05
@Jovay! Not that I disagree with you, but this answer doesn't really add anything to the question beyond a simple suggestion that God made your DNA - a fact with which I agree, but should be supported more if it is to be persuasive to your intended audience. – Affable Geek Dec 8 '13 at 22:47

It is written not because we're predestined, it is written because God foreknew what our choices will be before the foundation of the world. With God, what is to be has already been (Ecclesiastes 3:15). In eternity where there's no time, the past the present and the future are all seen in the now.

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Can you provide more Biblical evidence for your argument that God only foresees the future and does not determine the future? – curiousdannii May 4 '14 at 0:45

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