A lady recently commissioned my wife to paint a helmet for her foster daughter. As usual, Della poured her heart into her painting and it turned out beautifully, including this amazing and famous verse 14a from Psalm 139.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (ESV)
אוֹדְךָ עַל כִּי נוֹרָאוֹת נִפְלֵיתִי (HMT)
While the helmet work was in progress, Della showed the painted verse to a friend who asked us what we thought the verse meant. In particular, she wondered, “What does it mean that we are fearfully made?”
Or, to put it another way, how should this little girl think about herself when she wears her helmet? How should other people think about her when they see her and her verse?
Part of the difficulty of understanding this verse comes from the translation I copied above and others like it. This translation tends to focus our attention on the verb made, which does not have an equivalent Hebrew word in the original but added for clarity. The result is that it seems to suggest that God was filled with fear and wonder when he made us, but that’s not what this verse means.
It might help to know that the phrase fearfully and wonderfully made is translated from only two words.
- נוֹרָאוֹת is a participle working like an adjective that means fearfully.
- נִפְלֵיתִי is a verb with a passive sense that means made to be distinct.
Because of the nature of the second word, the verb, fearfully, is less about God’s making and more about what he has made. So I’d suggest this as a better translation:
“I praise you because I am a made fearfully distinct.”
For this translation, I was helped by O. T. scholars Bruce Waltke and Erike Moore, who suggest “fearfully extraordinary” as another possible translation.
But now that we know how fearfully works grammatically, what does it mean?
This might help: Think about what you would mean if you entered a room and said that it was “fearfully dark”. You would not be describing the actions of the room or the actions of darkness, but how something about the darkness of the room made you feel fear. Something similar to that is going on here. Verse 14 isn’t saying that God was afraid when he made David, but that David felt a sense of fear when he considered his amazing body that God had made.
But why be afraid? It’s because what David felt was more than just shaking in his boots. In other parts of the Bible, for example, instead of “fearful” translators will use the word “awesome”. Here’s one example:
When you did awesome things that we did not look for, when you came down the mountains quaked at your presence. (Isaiah 64:3)
This particular fear that David felt has a longer name, in the Bible. It’s called the fear of the LORD, or the fear of Yahweh. And the fear of Yahweh is a bigger idea and feeling than just being afraid.
The fear of Yahweh is a combination of reverence, awe, fear, and love for God whenever his awesome power settles into our consciousness. It’s the feeling you get when you stand on the edge of his Grand Canyon or under his galaxies and stars on a dark night. It’s the feeling you get when you consider that God became man to die for sinners like you and me. And it is the feeling you get when you stop, as David did, and think deeply about what God did when he gave you your amazing body.
Reflecting on our bodies in this Godward way is good for so many reasons.
- It combats our tendency to serve and love creation (idolatry) more than the Creator.
- It teaches us to deeply value ourselves and each other as the amazing creations we are; just like these foster parents are doing for this little girl in this difficult moment in her young life.
- And reflecting on our bodies in this way, also multiplies our love for God. We see an example of that at the end of this verse. David’s reflection on God’s work in making his body leads David to conclude that all God’s “works are wonderful and that his soul knows it very well.”
It makes me smile to think that this little girl gets to walk around with this particular verse on her head.
You may not get to wear a crown like hers, but you do have an amazing body made by the almighty God. And when you understand the story of God, the world, and you, you’ll learn to praise and fear him for it, just like David did.
Here’s some more of Psalm 139:
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. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
Read the whole Psalm at esv.org.