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. Psalm 139:13-14
A beautiful psalm quoted by many. Memorized by clergy and laypeople alike. A delightful passage to show that we are special people because God created us. We are wonderful!
But I couldn’t understand what it meant to be fearfully made. What does that mean? As it turns out, not exactly what I thought.
This Psalm praises the Lord for His vast knowledge and power. It begins by admitting that God knows us completely and was the sole agent of our existence. God’s creative power is elaborated on by showing that He created us in the womb and that our frames (skeletons) were not hidden from Him.
God’s powerful miracle of creation is detailed in Genesis 1. Every day he elaborates on his workmanship, beginning with light, then land, seas, stars, plants, etc. He reviews his works every day and proclaims that it is good. We know that every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17) and he showed that with an intricate masterpiece called the heavens and the earth.
But God wasn’t finished. The best was yet to come. Day six, God determined to make mankind, a creation after his own image. He made them male and female and blessed them. It wasn’t until after Adam and Eve were created did he say that his creation was VERY good.
This is what Psalm 139:14 is referencing.
If you were to look up the Hebrew word for made, you’d see that there is no reference. It was added by the English translators as is the word and that separated fearfully and wonderfully.
So taking those words out, we are left with, I am fearfully wonderfully.
The word fearfully can easily be translated to “ones being fearful.” Literally, ones that bring fear or awe.
So now we have ones being fearful, wonderfully.
The Hebrew word for wonderfully in this verse is “palah” literally meaning ‘to be distinguished, or set apart.’ These verses use the same Hebrew word.
But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell…” Exodus 8:22a (italics mine)
But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Israel an Egypt. Exodus 11:7 (italics mine)
The second use of the word wonderful in Psalm 139:14 is the Hebrew word “pala.” This is only slightly different in spelling but means, ‘extraordinary.” This is clearly different than the meaning of ‘wonderfully’ that was previously used.
Here is the exact transliteration of the Hebrew text:
I shall acclaim you on that ones being fearful I am distinguished ones being marvelous deeds of you and soul of me one-knowing exceedingly. (www.scripture4all.org)
Here’s how it could read:
I praise You, for out of all the things that bring awe, I am distinguished. Extraordinary are Your works; I can’t deny them.
The psalmist praises the Lord for all his wonderful works that he can’t deny. But among all of these things that bring fear or awe to us, we as humans are distinguished or set apart. The vastness of the heavens and the complexity of the smallest of cells leaves us breathless, but we as God’s image-bearers are set apart from them. He created us for a greater purpose. Every person was born with a spirit so to relate personally to their Creator who is spirit (John 4:24).
We are special. But we should never use this verse to glorify mankind.
God chose Israel, not based on anything they were or did, but simply because he chose them. (Deuteronomy 7:6-11) Similarly, God created us differently than everything else. He gave us his breath of life, chose us, redeemed us, and called us his own, not because of anything good we have done, but because he chose to. This Psalm isn’t glorifying people, it’s glorifying an all-powerful God who loves us and created us for a specific purpose.
Because he knitted us together, and set us apart from all other created things, in humility we should pray as the Psalmist concluded:
Search me O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way of everlasting.