Psalm 139:16 screams out against Calvinism

‘Psalm 139:16

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

JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH
16:Your eyes saw my unformed limbs;
they were all recorded in your book;
in due time they were formed to the very last one of them.

This is the same verse as depicted in two very different translations. The NIV translates the verse as the “days” were formed and written before one of the “days” came to be. The JPS says the “unformed limbs” were formed and written before the “unformed limbs” became fully formed. The NIV uses the term “days” as the subject of the sentence clauses, the JPS uses the term “days” as an adverb; all these things happen in the days the limbs were being formed.

Although the Hebrew is not straightforward, the NIV leaves room for only one interpretation. In this version, the word “days” is the subject of all three clauses: the days “were ordained”, “were written” before “one them came to be”. As is often the case, this translation is used as a proof text for predestination and foreordination. It is claimed that God has predestined the days of every individual’s life. This has been the theme of too many Calvinist commentators who subordinate biblical exegesis to theology:

Foreordination in general cannot rest on foreknowledge; for only that which is certain can be foreknown…His foreknowledge of what is yet to be, whether it be in regard to the world as a whole or in regard to the, detailed life of every individual, rests upon His pre-arranged plan (Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:14-16; Job 23:13, 14; 28:26, 27; Amos 3:7).

Boettner, Lorraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1966(p. 74)

The translation committee of the NIV was heavily weighted with Calvinist sympathizers. The lead translator was Edwin H. Palmer, who had died in 1980 served as executive secretary of CBT, as coordinator of all translation work on the NIV, and as the first general editor of The NIV Study Bible. Dr. Palmer was a pastor of Christian Reformed Churches and an Instructor in Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (1960–1964). He wrote two books, one of which was The Five Points of Calvinism.

But as the JPS translations indicates, this is a poor prooftext for the Calvinist’s point. There is a better competing translation to the translation offered by the NIV. Although many if not most Calvinists accept Psalm 139:16 as a proof text for predestination, Calvin himself would agree with the JPS translation that the Hebrew uses “days” in an adverbial sense:


16. …Interpreters are not agreed as to the second clause. Some read ימים, yamim, in the nominative case, when days were made; the sense being, according to them — All my bones were written in thy book, O God! from the beginning of the world, when days were first formed by thee, and when as yet none of them actually existed. The other is the more natural meaning, That the different parts of the human body are formed in a succession of time; for in the first germ there is no arrangement of parts, or proportion of members, but it is developed, and takes its peculiar form progressively.

Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at Psalm 139

Calvin does not go into detail why he thinks “days” should be translated adverbial but I propose three reasons: the common adverbial use of the word “days” transliterated yā·mîm in the Old Testament, the context of Psalm 139, and the description of the use of yā·mîm as an adverb by a grammarian. It cannot be emphasized enough; this idea is supported by one very important grammarian: John Calvin.

The Hebrew word for days in Psalm 139:16 is transliterated yā·mîm (Hebrew יָמִ֑ים) is used 269 times in the Old Testament. It is used nominatively or accusatively, as the subject or the direct object of the verb, fewer than 45 times. (Amos 9:13 Behold the days are coming) Most of the other uses are adverbial uses of noun, what often is referred to as the genitive case.  (Genesis 8:12 So he waited yet another seven days and sent out the dove) It is admitted that “days” is a noun, the question is how is the word “days” used in the sentence; as the subject of the verb or the object of the verb or as an indicator of the duration of the action.

Most of the 269 times are adverbial uses of yā·mîm. In many cases as in Genesis 8:12 “seven days” just appears as a noun without a preposition or other indicator of adverbial use. In the English it is common to put a preposition before a noun to indicate the adverbial use of the noun. For example “we sleep at night.” The preposition “at” helps us to understand the noun “night” is being used adverbially in the sentence describing when we sleep.

In comparison to Psalm 139:16, in Genesis 24:55 there is a close equivalent use of yā·mîm. There is no preposition or adjective qualifying “days” the word just appears in the sentence. The reason the word few is in parenthesis is the translators have to supply an adjective to make the English understood. It is not common in English to use the accusative or nominative “days” alone in the sentence. But this is common in Hebrew.

Genesis 24:55 (NKJV) But her brother and her mother said, “Let the young woman stay with us a few days, at least ten; after that she may go.”

The word “days” is being used adverbially.  The subject of the sentence is not “days” but “the young woman.”  This common adverbial use of “days” is in Psalm 139:16.

Many translators have chosen to use the word “days” in Psalm 139:16 as the subject of the word form. (NKJ, NIV ESV, NASB, ASV, Douey-Rheims).  Other translators have used the word “days” as an adverb in the sentence.  (KJV, JPS, AKJV, ERV, Jubilee, Webster) Syntactical adverbial use of the word “days” describes the length of the activity of the main verb.   This form of the word “days” transliterated yā·mîm is used 269 in the Old Testament, and the overwhelming syntactical use is adverbial. (over 240 times)  In fact, placing yā·mîm at the end of the clause “all of them (unformed limbs) were being written,” and at the beginning of the clause “they (unformed limbs) were being formed” is a clever use of the adverb “in the days” complementing the imperfect forms “were being written” and “were being formed,” and at the same time providing a common link between the two clauses.  The formation of the unformed limbs was occurring in the same days God was seeing and writing down the event.

Another common indicator of meaning is context. There are three pronouns in Psalm 139:16. What are the antecedents of these pronouns?  The NIV translators thought the three pronouns should refer to “words.”
Psalm 139:16 NIV
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
 all the days (they) ordained for me (they)were written in your book
 before one of them (them) came to be.

The “JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH” translators thought the three pronouns should refer to “unformed limbs.”

Psalm 139:16 JPS
Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all record in your book; in due time they were formed to the very last one of them.

In the Hebrew, the first clause is “(they)were written in your book.”  The word days comes after the first clause. The first use of the pronoun “they” is before the word “days” is even used. This would be very unusual because pronouns are used to avoid boring and redundant use of nouns. In order to be boring and redundant, these nouns would have to be used prior to the pronoun.

In fact the “unformed limbs” seems to the whole topic of the preceding three verses. These unformed limbs are mentioned as; my inward parts, me in my mother’s womb, my frame. The whole context is David as an unformed fetus before he was born. . Certainly context in verses 13-16 shows at least five references to the unformed limbs being formed.

Psalm 139:13-15 New King James Version (NKJV)
13 For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;[a]
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

It is most likely the reference to “all of them” is David’s unformed limbs. This is supported by the King James version which says, and in thy book all my members were written. In fact the King James version used “days” adverbially and uses “unformed limbs” as the antecedent of the pronouns in the sentences.

Psalm 139:16 (KJV)
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.

The word for unformed substance is used as the subject and object of the prepositions. (“my members” were written, they were fashioned, and there were none of them.) The phrase (in continuance) is a translation of the Hebrew word “days.” This is an adverbial use of “days.”

The following is a lengthy quote from perhaps the most famous Hebrew grammarian. Gesenius affirms the use of nouns as adverbs in the sentence. There is not real distinction morphologically between nouns used in the accusative vs the nominative in the Hebrew. As a grammarian he would categorize this noun as an accusative noun, although he admits this is the adverbial syntactical use (genitive case) of Hebrew language. He actually uses a form of “day” in the Hebrew as an example of “day” used as an adverb.

 (b) Substantives in the accusative (the adverbial case of the Semites, § 118 m), cf. τὴν ἀρχήν, δωρεάν, e. g. מְאֹד (might) very, אֶ פֶ֫ס (cessation) no more, הַיּוֹם (the day) today (cf. § 126 b), 1מָחָר to-morrow, יַ חַ֫ד (union) together. Several of these continued to be used, though rarely, as substantives, e. g. סָבִיב , plur. סְבִיבִים and סְבִיבוֹת , circuit, as adverb circum, around; others have quite ceased to be so used, e. g. כְּבָר (length) long ago [Aram.: only in Ec.]; עוֹד (repetition, duration) again or further.

Gesenius, W., E.Kautzsch & A.E. Cowley (ed.), Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 270. (§ 100. Adverbs.2.(b))

The grammarians agree, it is possible to use the word “days” in the adverbial sense.  The overwhelming use of the word day (Hebrew yā·mîm) is in the adverbial sense.  Why does the NIV insist on using days as the subject and not as an adverb?

Are the commentators guided by exegesis or by theology? If the JPS translation is correct then this is not a proof text of the Calvinist eternal now. In the eternal now, God exists outside of time and sees every detail of the future outside of the limitation of time. The JPS translation leaves room for God seeing the development of the unformed fetus in real time as the event happens.

If one were to examine the literal Hebrew translation in the same word order, it would look like this:

The Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC)

16 גָּלְמִ֤י׀ רָ֘א֤וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וְעַֽל־סִפְרְךָ֮ כֻּלָּ֪ם יִכָּ֫תֵ֥בוּ יָמִ֥ים יֻצָּ֑רוּ ׳וְלֹא׳ ״וְל֖וֹ״ אֶחָ֣ד בָּהֶֽם

My unformed substance, they saw, your eyes, and in your book, all of them, will be written, days, they shall be formed, and not, and him, one in them.

I would like to propose a different translation.

Your eyes saw my unformed substances and they were being recorded in your book, in the days the unformed substances were being formed, and as yet, not one of them was fully formed.

There is no controversy about the first clause (Your eyes saw my unformed substances). It is translated, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance.”

The second clause (and in the days) the word “days” is used adverbially. The pronouns used for the subject of the verbs formed and recorded is unformed substance and not days. The English word “words” (ימים, yamim) is being used syntactically as an adverb. It is referring to the timing of the verb ordain NIV or fashioned NKJV. God is observing the formation of the unformed embryo as it is being formed into a newborn baby.  In the words of John Calvin (the different parts of the human body are formed in a succession of time.) Calvin refers to this translation as the more natural meaning because of the context of Psalm 139.

Another problem of this verse is the tense forms of formed and written. (were being formed, they were being recorded in your book) The Hebrew has two tenses, the imperfect and the perfect. In English we call the imperfect the future and the perfect as the past for convenience. The Hebrew however stresses that the perfect is a completed action and the imperfect is an incompleted action. Every translation I could find translates the verbs in the past tense but the verbal form is imperfect not past.

The Psalmist is putting us into the perspective of God, in the past, when the events were not yet done. Keil and Delitzsch refers to this as the synchronous past.  As God’s eyes saw the embryo being formed into a human being he was recording the events as the embryo is being formed. Naturally to the Calvinist this would be against his theology. A Calvinist believes God decrees or writes in his book the formation of the embryo before the world began. These tense forms of “written” and “formed” should be respected.

There is some confusion about the translation of the last clause but it is probably an elliptical construction. An elliptical construction is the omission of one or more words in a sentence that are understood in the context. God was observing the process of the embryo being formed and as yet not one part was fully formed.

If the meaning were “the days were ordained,”  then God would be injecting some sort of timeless, philosophical, statement in the middle of a discourse about the formation of embryos. The word translated as “fashioned” is transliterated as yatsar, Hebrew יָצַר. It is used 63 times in the Old Testament. It is translated “ordained” by the New King James translators 0 times, King James version 0 times, and the NASB 1 time and the NIV 3 times. “Ordained” implies that God preplanned the event in ages past. The most natural meaning of the word yatsar is to fashion or form.

There is a real problem with the tense of the verbs. The verb for “saw” is in the past tense but the words fashion/ordain and “were written” are in the future tense. The tenses in Hebrew do not necessarily correspond to the English tenses. The past tense refers to completed action and the future tense refers to uncompleted action.  When God was looking at the unformed limbs he recorded them and fashioning them.

Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they are being recorded in your book; in the days they were being formed to the very last one of them. Why do most translations used the past tense for the these verbs? (all the days ordained for me were written in your book) Keil and Delitzsch perhaps the most respected Hebrew commentary refers to the tenses as follows.

The signification of the future יכּתבוּ is regulated by ראוּ, and becomes, as relating to the synchronous past, scribebantur. The days יצּרוּ, which were already formed, are the subject. It is usually rendered: “the days which had first to be formed.” If יצּרוּ could be equivalent to ייצּרוּ, it would be to be preferred; but this rejection of the praeform. fut. is only allowed in the fut. Piel of the verbs Pe Jod, and that after a Waw convertens, e.g., ויּבּשׁ equals וייבּשׁ,

Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary on Psalms 139:16

The synchronous past is referring to a point of view. The passage starts out with the past “Your eyes saw” and the words which follow are translated with a view as if one was speaking in this past time. Although the verb “is being written” is in the future/uncompleted tense it is referring to the past event “saw.” The timing of the event (is being written) is at the same time as the past tense “saw” making the action of the verb write being in the past. Therefore to match the past tense of “saw” the verb “write” is put into the past tense.

The verb “fashioned” is in the imperfect tense. How is one allowed to translate this verb into the past tense? Keil and Delitzch propose an error in the original manuscript or some alternative, corrupted form of the past tense. This corrupted form is somehow coincidentally the exact form of the future. The argument is unconvincing and too convenient for their goal of supporting their theology which makes their analysis suspect.

Even if one were to accept their methodology does it fit the translation? The action of writing and fashioning, even if they are in the past tense should be no more later that the action of the verb saw. The action of seeing is in the past when the embryo is still being formed. The Calvinist must believe the ordaining/fashioning and the writing are in the remote past at the beginning of time. This will not support the beginning of time contentions of the Calvinist.

Very rarely, do I agree with John Calvin but I have to admire him in this way.  He did not allow his theology to trump the translation of the verse.  In the Hebrew the most common way to indicate duration of time is with a simple noun uncluttered by propositions.
Exodus 20:11 Version (NKJV) For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth

The reason “in” is in italics is because the word “in” is not in the Hebrew.  It is implied by the context.  This is the same construction used in Psalm 139:16.  The noun “words” is not the subject of the sentence.  It is describing the duration of the events “saw” “were writing” and “were forming.”  The most natural meaning of the texts is “in days when.”  This translation allows for a more natural use of tenses of the verbs.  Excuses do not have to be made for translating the tenses away from their natural meaning.  The context is respected.  The context is about the unformed baby.  This is not some theological aberration about the “eternal now” of Plotinus.

What does Psalm 139:16 say?
Your eyes saw my unformed substances and they were being recorded in your book, in the days the unformed substances were being formed, and as yet, not one of them was fully formed.

source: Craig Fisher (craigcfisher).