I was on my way home from teaching a theology class last night when I got a text from my daughter telling me that her in utero child (7 months) had hiccups. It was a new sensation for her because, as far as we know, that was the first time Samuel James (or “SamJam,” as we like to call him) has gotten them. We had a good laugh about the other sounds little boys like to make on this side of the birth canal, too.
Part of the delight was that I had just taught on the beauties and complexities of Psalm 139:14 in the original Hebrew. Languages being what they are, there is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between original language sentences and their translation into a receptor language. The task is harder than it looks, and absolutism doesn’t help here. Moreover, a “literal” translation doesn’t always mean an “accurate” translation, or even one that is coherent and comprehensible in our language.
Verse 14 most commonly comes into English as “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (ESV, NIV, ASV, KJV, NKJV, KJ21, NASB95, NRSV, LEB, OJB, EHV, WEB, JUB, BRG, AMP, etc.). That may capture David’s intention, but in the orginial, he simply writes, “I praise you because,” followed by two Hebrew words.
The word “made” is not present (though it may be implied since it is used explicitly in v. 15). There’s not even an “and” between the two words. In fact, the possible translations are numerous on several counts: (1) the semantic range of both words is broad; (2) there is ambiguity on what exactly David is referring to (himself as a creation or God as the Creator); and (3) words need to be supplied to make it coherent in English. The fact is, all translations involve a certain amount of interpretation and syntactical decision making.
The first Hebrew word falls in the semantic domain of being awesome, fearful, frightened, distressed, revered (as in recognizing a lofty status), remarkable, and other such concepts. The second word falls in the semantic domain of being distinguished, distinct, set apart, unusual—and therefore wonderful, miraculous, or fantastic. The same word describes God’s knowledge in v. 6. It suggests being beyond understanding, i.e., a marvel, or a positive mystery.
Translators grapple with how to render these words into a comprehensible sentence. (See some of the options below.) Assuming David is referring to himself as created by God (which is an interpretive decision based on other parts of the psalm, though not demanded by the words themselves), I would render Psalm 139:14 in one of the following ways. David is saying to God:
“I praise you because…
- I am a marvel
- I am a wonder
- I am wonderful
- I am a being of wonder
- I am an awesome one
- I am your workmanship
- I am your masterpiece
…and deep inside, I know this profoundly.”
The human self, says David, is truly a wonder, and it must be held in awe. It’s a marvel. It’s a replica of the divine (cf. Gen 1:26), and the psalmist is not reluctant to say such things about himself. The same man who wrote, “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5) also wrote the words in Psalm 139:14 about being a marvel and a wonder.
These two realities need to be kept in proper tension, with the priority of self-definition being placed on essence or essential being—i.e., the self as an image bearer of God—not as a sinner. That came later, and it was a distortion of God’s original beauty. Thankfully, God is in the art restoration business. And the artwork he is restoring is us. You and me. Humanity. That’s good news for the world.
So, SamJam, you are a marvel. You are a masterpiece. You are a reflection of the incredible God who’s knitting you together right now. You are indeed awesome. Hiccups and all.
Psalm 139:14 (where the creation is assumed)
- I am fearfully and wondrously made (GNV)
- I have been remarkably and wondrously made (CSB)
- I have been remarkably and wonderfully made (HCSB)
- I have been so amazingly and miraculously made (GW, NOG)
- you made me in an amazing and wonderful way (NCV, ICB)
- I was marvelously set apart (CEB)
- I am awesomely made (CJB)
- I am wonderfully made (NAB, NCB)
- I am awesomely and wonderfully made (NASB, TLV)
- the wonderful way you created me (CEV)
- you made me in such a wonderful way (ERV)
- you made me in an amazing [awesome] and wonderful way (EXP)
- You made me with fear and wonder (MEV)
- making me so wonderfully complex! (NLT, TLB)
- Body and soul, I am marvelously made! (MSG)
- How you made me is amazing and wonderful (NIRV)
- the greatness of the way I was made brings fear (NLV)
- I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe (VOICE)
Psalm 139:14 (where the Creator is assumed)
- You [God] are fearful and wondrous (ISV)
- You [God] are fearful and wonderful (AMP Classic)
- You [God] are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful (GNT)
- [God], your deeds are awesome and amazing (NET)
- Thou [God] art magnified dreadfully; thy works be wonderful (WYC)