Holy Hiccups

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)

Turning the Tables, Part 3: Dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s House (Luke 7:36-50)

At some point in our lives, we’ll probably be scandalized by the behavior of someone else—maybe even a fellow believer. What then? Tim Chester has said, “When you discover that someone in your church has sinned, your own heart will be exposed.” We tend to think at such times that all eyes are on the person who sinned, but no. God’s eyes are also on the people responding to that sin. Are they more eager to condemn or restore?

That’s one of the issues on the table when Jesus has dinner with Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in the 1st century. A sinful woman comes into the room where they’re meeting and does the unthinkable. “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:38).

If there’s a more tense and awkward scene in the Gospels, it’s hard to know what it is. The episode has everyone holding his breath, looking around, turning red, and wondering, “How can I slither out of here right now?” Indeed, Simon is thinking to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

Men like Simon avoided contact with “impure” people lest they become spiritually “infected” by them. Moreover, letting one’s hair down was reserved for the bedroom; for women to do it in public was grounds for divorce. Women in that culture were obligated to cover their hair in public. So, on the surface, everything here looks highly inappropriate—the hair, the tears, the touching. It’s almost as if the woman is treating Jesus as one of her clients. But unlike others in the room, Jesus interprets what she does as a loving act rather than an erotic act.

Everyone in the room expects Jesus to be scandalized, but he sees what’s happening in her heart. There’s nothing erotic going on at all. What Simon doesn’t realize is that Jesus—who can hear his thoughts, too—is testing him. How far does God’s compassion go? How about love? How about forgiveness? Jesus is testing us, too. How far does ours go?

The encounter also provides a sharp contrast between those (like Simon) who merely analyze Jesus, coming to him in a cold, clinical, and detached way, and those (like this woman) who adore Jesus, coming to him in a warm, relational, and personal way. In fact, she turns out to be a better host than Simon, and it’s not even her house! In the end, she sacrifices her prize possession—a costly alabaster flask of perfume—to honor Jesus and his grace. The heart of the contrast, says Jesus, is that some people see themselves as spiritually self-sufficient, while others see themselves as spiritually needy. Jesus comes for the latter.

In dramatic fashion, then, we learn that sinners welcome Jesus because Jesus welcomes sinners. The grace of acceptance comes first, and the grace of transformation follows. Religious folks tend to get that exactly backward. That’s why “the other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (Luke 7:49). Now, that’s the right question to ask! Have you answered it yet? Jesus is God with us. God in human flesh. God revealing God. And he gladly welcomes you into his presence when you come to realize that you need his grace, too.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Mums, the Word, Etc.

1. The zinnias did great this year, but the petunias were a bust. I’m still not sure what happened to them. The front yard rose bush is doing well, but the one in the back was devoured by rabbits. All in all, it was a good year for flowers, with some room for improvement next year. And now it’s time for the mums to shine, as “Lovely Fall” is in full swing.

2. I got to see a fine stage production of Pride and Prejudice Sunday afternoon at DeSales University. Jane Austen was a master of her craft and way ahead of her time. Moreover, Darcy and I are INTJs, so I understand him well. Alas, poor Lizzie has to wait for her happy ending until he figures things out. But once he does—wow, the romance sizzles. Lizzie, of course, contributes to the delay because of her stubbornness, but all’s well that ends well. (Wait, that’s another author!)

3. After the show I had dinner at the Braveheart Highland Pub in Hellertown. The food (classic Scottish fare and other selections) was outstanding, and the atmosphere is delightful. It was my third time there, and I’ve never been disappointed.

4. Yesterday my daughter began work as my own personal assistant and one of the caregivers for my mother-in-law. We had fun together and got some things accomplished. She’s extremely capable in so many areas, and she’s excellent with her grandmother. This arrangement will allow her to be a stay-at-home mom when the time comes and still earn an income. I am blessed.

5. Our World Communion Sunday service was well attended and deeply meaningful. There’s something powerful about the entire congregation declaring in unison after the fraction of the host, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Yes, indeed, these are “the gifts of God for the people of God.” So, eat up!

6. Another weekend highlight was reconnecting (by Zoom) with college friends who had gathered in Morgantown, WV for a CRU reunion and a college football game. These were the folks who had first shared the gospel with me and discipled me into the Christian faith many years ago. (It’s hard for us to get away while caring for my mother-in-law, so we were grateful that a brief Zoom option was made available.) I was surprised at how emotional I got just seeing the whole group together. As Michael W. Smith used to sing, “Friends are friends forever if the Lord’s the Lord of them.” 

Enjoy this lovely fall week!

More Fall Poetry

Leaves turning,
Wood burning;
Temps dropping,
Mums popping;
Cider boiling,
Farmers toiling;
Colors bursting,
Soul thirsting,

Breathe.
And welcome to lovely fall.

– TRV


First Fall
By Maggie Smith

I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
paint-by-number bark. Look, the leaves
rusting and crisping at the edges.
I walk through Schiller Park with you
on my chest. Stars smolder well
into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
season to offer you: frost soft
on the window and a porthole
sighed there, ice sleeving the bare
gray branches. The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
come back. I’m desperate for you
to love the world because I brought you here.

Sonnet 73
By William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

L to R: From Shakespeare’s “yellow leaves” to “the glowing of such fire.”

Coffee and Ecclesiastes: Riddles, Treasures, and a Clue to the Meaning of Life

Like coffee on the tongue of a child, the book of Ecclesiastes is an acquired taste. New believers don’t usually like it, and even seasoned saints aren’t always sure it belongs in the canon. Indeed, Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. The author deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life—and all the questions associated with that vast and vital topic. What is the reason for humanity’s presence on earth? What can we do with our lives that will make them worthwhile? How can we truly find joy and satisfaction during our brief time on earth? What is the “big picture” of this world and God’s “end game” for it?

We’ve all wrestled with these questions, haven’t we? The everyday weariness, frustration, injustice, and sense of emptiness we sometimes experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with those fleeting moments of happiness, contentment, and delight that are also part of our stories. Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over us all—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life we have now. Such contradictory realities cry out for resolution—if, indeed, there can be a resolution. If there’s no Big Story at all, what then is the point of all our little stories?

Christian faith teaches that people can believe there is a resolution to the conundrum—chiefly expressed in the hope-filled story of Jesus and his love. In his victory over death (and all the hate and hostility directed at him by angry and fear-filled people), he disarmed the ravages of soul that lead to hopelessness and despair. By conquering the darkness with his own faith intact (Luke 23:46), Christ enables his people to endure (and even embrace!) the riddles, mysteries, and unanswered questions of this life until the restoration of all things. Moreover, they are empowered to participate now in that restoration in Jesus’ name, knowing that all will be well in the end.

As coffee can help students pull an occasional “all nighter” on their way to the end of a semester, so the bold realism of Ecclesiastes can help us make it to the end of our lives knowing the journey was well worth it. Despite the evil and ugliness of this world, which seem to support the idea that there can be no meaning in the universe, humanity keeps pursuing the question of meaning. We see it in our songs, poems, and artwork all the time. “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Alfie may neither know nor care, but a large segment of humanity refuses to live with the conclusion that life is totally senseless and has no meaning at all.

But why should that be the case? Are we somehow “hard-wired” for meaning, or are we simply being naïve? Or could it be both? Ecclesiastes 3:11 says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The text suggests that human beings are hard-wired for meaning (“God has set eternity in the heart”), but we will never comprehend the big picture in this lifetime (“cannot fathom what God has done”). The Christian faith we love and embrace allows both these things to be true at the same time.

It is important to note, however, that Ecclesiastes does not envision a superficial faith that fails to take into account the fallenness of this world. Rather, it is a wakeup call to believers and unbelievers alike. For unbelievers, Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic nudge, calling secular people to face the dire implications of their skepticism and consider a better way. Utter despair is neither warranted nor necessary. For believers, Ecclesiastes is a call to realism, summoning the faithful to take seriously the enigmas of life and the sense of futility it often contains. Triumphalism is neither warranted nor sustainable. True wisdom, then, recognizes that human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and perfectibility on our own is a myth. It also recognizes our need for divine grace at every moment—giving us an irrepressible hope as we face the future together. The overall message of Ecclesiastes, then, holds two realties in dynamic tension:

1.  Human beings do not hold the key to the meaning of life. We cannot know the big picture in its totality—what life is all about with its many riddles, mysteries, heartbreaks, and inconsistencies. We proceed through life as a horse with blinders; we see in part, and the big picture is veiled to us. But this need not lead to despair for the people of God. We have been “hard-wired” to know that there is a big picture—that there is a grand purpose in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit together—even if the knowledge of how they do so presently eludes us. As eternal yet finite creatures, we are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary. We want to fill in all the blanks, and we get frustrated when we cannot.

2.  Still, we can know the one who does know the big picture—the infinite God, who alone holds the key to the meaning of life. We can put our trust in him and live in obedience to his ways, even when life is baffling, disappointing, or patently unfair. We can trust him even when we feel tethered by our own limited understanding and finite comprehension of all that God is doing in the world. Wisdom involves knowing that nothing we pursue in this life can lift the veil, but one day our spirit will return to the God who gave it, and he will rightly judge all things. Consequently, during our brief time on this broken planet, we can still have a measure of joy at the end of the tether.

In short, the book of Ecclesiastes is a strategic blend of good news and bad news. It’s a thick, dark roast coffee dispensed with a hint of mint and mocha syrup to make it tolerable. Generally speaking, it gives us two things to do simultaneously:

1.  Lament the BAD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.

  • Human life is extremely short. (1:2; 7:2)
  • Human life is inherently frustrating. (1:3-4, 11; 2:11)
  • Human life is exceedingly difficult. (4:1; 8:14)
  • Human life is spiritually broken. (3:11; 8:17; 7:20)

2.  Celebrate the GOOD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.

  • God knows the big picture of human life. (3:11b, 14; 7:14a)
  • God encourages his people to live wisely. (2:13-14a; 7:12, 19; 9:17)
  • God invites his people to enjoy now the gifts he gives. (9:7-9; 11:8; 9:10; 11:9)
  • God has a life for his people beyond this life. (12:5, 7, 13-14, 11)

This last observation reminds us we can live now, and we can live forever. That is, we can be spiritually “well caffeinated” for life under the sun. And we can know for sure that something good awaits us above the sun. What could be more worthwhile?

Note: It was my Old Testament Professor Dr. David A. Dorsey who first got me turned on to the book of Ecclesiastes. He has a wonderful summary of the author’s message and layout in his book The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 1999.

Some Things Just Go Well Together

Ray Bradbury once said something to the effect that writing isn’t a serious business. Rather, it’s a joy and a celebration, so we should be having fun with it. Well, I think writing can also be a challenge, but if we go with Bradbury’s sentiment, what could be more joyful than writing—and doing it on a keyboard like this? 

I wonder if it’s Bradbury chocolate. 🙂