Psalm 139 is one of the most well-known Psalms, but may perhaps also be one of the most misunderstood. One of the first things that any student learns in Psalm study is that there are categories of Psalms, the main ones being Praise and Lament. These are basically genres that help us to know what to expect as we read. Each type of Psalm has its characteristic features that help the reader identify where it fits in.
Psalm 139 is regularly read as a Praise Psalm, not surprising given the focus on God’s admirable attributes and forthright statements like that found in verse 14. Nevertheless, when one looks at the psalm in light of the standard genre features, everything about it proclaims it to be a lament. It begins with a vocative (“O Lord”), it ends with a petition (vv. 23-24) and, most importantly, it contains a section of cursing enemies (vv.19-22). All of these are hallmarks of a lament psalm.
When we look at the issue of translation, we find that the translator’s understanding of the genre will influence the translation. For example, verse 5 reads “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.” This could be read in a protective sense, but research would lead us to a different conclusion. Once we consider the possibility of reading this psalm as a lament, other supporting observations could be made. For instance, the “hemming in” of Psalm 139:5 is used in other passages as oppressive rather than protective (it is used for laying siege). Job uses different vocabulary but likewise speaks of hemming in negative terms (Job 3:23; 7:12). The second line of the verse uses language of capture (cf. Job 41:8; Ps 32:4 for the same concepts using slightly different language). The verb in v. 10 can be positive (“guide”) but can also be negative (“lead away captive”). Lastly, the verb in v.14 (NIV: “praise”) can also mean “thank”. If the psalm is a lament, this verse should be taken like the first twelve. The psalmist does not resent God’s attributes and deeds, but he finds them a basis for complaint. He is pointing out that as the perfect judge, God knows all and sees all. Nothing can be done in secret places and God, as creator, knows all of the thoughts and motives of the psalmist. When he exclaims “How precious to me are your thoughts” the idea is that God’s thoughts are inaccessible—not easily gained, thus the psalmist is confused: “What could you be thinking?”
The final example of the significance of identifying the psalm type is found in the last two verses of the psalm. If it is a praise psalm, these verses are read as a sinner’s plea: “Help me to discover the wrongs that I find it difficult to recognize in myself.” If it is a lament psalm, the verses are read as a righteous sufferer’s claim of innocence: “Probe as deeply as you want—you will not find offenses that justify my harsh treatment.” This latter sentiment occurs occasionally in other psalms (see Ps 17:3; 26:1-2, both using the same verb for “test”).
Whether a person agrees that Psalm 139 is a lament psalm or prefers to retain the traditional reading as a praise psalm, it undeniably serves as an illustration of how differently two readers, or two translators, could read the same psalm depending on which category they put it in. The tone and sentiment of the psalm, and especially the final petition, would take on a whole new sense if the lament indicators prevail.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament; Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context and Covenant: God's Purpose, God's Plan.