It will help to consider Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV):
(13) For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
(14) I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
(15) My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
(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.
This is first of all David’s description of his own “creation” by God. It is also descriptive of all our “creations” and — we believe — most especially and uniquely descriptive of Jesus’s “creation”.
God Himself created the fetus, and guided its development in the mother’s womb.
“Created” (NIV) is an intriguing word. The KJV translates “qanah” as “hast possessed”, but this rendering is incorrect. The NIV rendering of “created” (cp “didst form”: RSV and ASV) is confirmed by modern scholarship and study of the related Ugaritic (Syrian) texts discovered in the 20th century (see the various later translations of Gen 4:1; 14:19, 22; and Prov 8:22, where the same word occurs). These confirm a connection with another Hebrew word, “qanith”, which is now understood to signify “give birth to” or “create”.
“My inmost being” (“reins” in the KJV) is the Hebrew “kilyah”, literally the kidneys or inmost parts — meaning, figuratively, the seat of emotions. “The term was used for the innermost being, the soul, the central location of the passions” (NET Notes); our English equivalents might be “in my very bones”, or “in my heart of hearts”. The kidneys were viewed as the seat of human joy and grief (Psa 73:21), as well as the seat of moral character. As the Creator of this moral and ethical capacity in each of us (Psa 139:13), God examines it to determine each individual’s attitudes and motives, and to determine the appropriate reward or punishment (Psa 7:9; 26:2; Jer11:20;17:10;20:12). Appropriately, the kidneys figured prominently in the offering of sacrifices upon the LORD’s altar (Exod 29:13, 22; Lev 3:4, 15; 4:9; 7:4;8:16, 25;9:10, 19; etc).
In the second phrase of this verse, “knit” is the Hebrew “sakhakh”, meaning to plait or interweave, in this case with bones, sinews, and veins — like the similar alternate form “skhekh” in Job 10:11: “[Did you not] knit me together with bones and sinews?” (see all of vv 8-12).
“Knit me together”, along with the previous phrase (“You created my inmost being”), suggests the fantastic complexity of the human genetic code. David, even without the resources of modern investigation in the field of genetics, was awestruck as he contemplated the “weaving together” of the human fetus in the womb. What would he have said if he had known what is commonly known today: how the genes of two parents are “knit together” by God’s unseen Hand to produce, every time, an absolutely unique human specimen?
Many biologists, geneticists and physicians agree that biological life begins at conception. The Scriptures clearly teach that God places value on unborn life as sacred (Exod 4:11; Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5; Eccl 11:5; Matt 1:18; Luke 1:39–44; Eph 1:4). When one even begins to consider the complexity and diversity encoded into the DNA of the smallest fetus, from the very moment of conception, this conclusion is irresistible.
This verse, properly considered, induces wonder as well as humility. The wonder is obvious when one considers the details of the work itself. The humility occurs when one realizes that he or she is but one among billions upon billions of living creatures, over all of which the Creator has control.
The sentence structure of the NIV indicates that the first phrase of v 16 actually belongs with v 15; thus we have an ABBA structure — one in which the first and fourth lines are parallel, as are the second and third lines. This is illustrated by the layout below:
The Hebrew “raqam” (“woven together” in NIV; “curiously wrought” in KJV) refers to “embroidery”, the intricate interweaving or stitching of various colored fabrics to produce a representation or picture upon the fabric. The same word occurs seven times in Exodus (27:16; 28:39; 35:35; 36:37; 38:18, 23; 39:29), where it describes the embroidered garments of the high priest and the embroidered curtains of the Tabernacle. (The KJV often uses the word “needlework”.) A related word “riqma” occurs 12 times. It specifically refers to embroidered fabric, in Judges 5:30; Psalm 45:14 (the “embroidered garments”; KJV “raiment of needlework”, of the king’s bride!); and Ezekiel 16:10, 13, 18; 26:16; 27:7, 16, 24. In two places it has to do with different colored semiprecious stones (1Chron 29:2) — for the Temple.
What about “in the depths of the earth”? Perhaps, as the margin puts it, this means “in the lowest parts, even the earth”. This could be an idiomatic way of emphasizing the contrast between God’s heaven and the human sphere of earth. (See how Ephesians 4:9 describes “the lower, earthly regions” as “the depths of the earth”.)
Then again, considering the parallel nature of the two phrases (notice the layout above), the “secret place” (the “womb” of v 13) is parallel to the “depths of the earth”. Read this way, the “secret depths” would be the darkness and seclusion of the mother’s womb, until quite recent times completely isolated from any inquiring or observation by humans.
Finally, these verses may picture the re-creation of life in the entombed Christ. The baby Jesus was first conceived in and born from a virgin womb. Later the crucified Savior was “reborn” from a “virgin” tomb — where no body had ever lain (John19:41)!
Leaving the first phrase of v 16 where it belongs, that is, with v 15, we now have:
“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
In other words, God saw the end from the beginning, even in the development of the individual fetus. Then, on the level of the spiritual creation (with Jesus Christ, and through him), God oversees the development of spiritual life, from beginning to end, by His all-encompassing providence. In the spiritual realm, His creative work has never ceased. In fact, He is at work unceasingly in the lives of every believer:
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom8:28).
The Thread of Life
We now turn our attentions to a description of the marvel of DNA, as it has come to be understood, at least superficially, in our own modern times.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) reveals the remarkable wisdom of the Creator. Though David could scarcely have understood any more than the barest outline of these principles in his own day, he nevertheless described DNA quite well when he says:
‘My frame was not hidden from you when I was created… knit together… woven together… in the secret place… in the womb’ (paraphrasing Psa 139:13-16).
Sometimes called the “thread of life”, DNA is an amazing chemical molecule in the nucleus of each of our trillions of body cells. Although comparatively simple in composition, it contains the code of everything a person inherits and is a manual of all body structures and functions. It consists of a ladder-like chemical substance, in which the sides of the ladder are made up of alternating molecules of phosphoric acid and the sugar deoxyribose. The rungs between the strands are made up of four protein bases: adenine (A), thiamine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C).
Furthermore, the ladder is then coiled upon itself, forming a spiral effect, called a helix. Each individual helix is also intertwined and coiled together with other parts of the helix, very much as single strands might be joined into a much stronger thread. In turn, these threads are also “super-coiled” again and again, into what we might think of as cords, and then into much larger cables. This whole arrangement is seemingly necessary to produce the required strength of what would otherwise be an infinitesimally slender single strand, and to enable the relatively long molecule to fit into a single cell’s nucleus.
The many combinations of these four bases (A, T, G and C) make “the code of life”. Thousands of these rungs or steps make a gene. Each DNA molecule contains about 20,000 different genes.
Some six billion “steps” of DNA in a single cell record each person’s anatomical and physiologic blueprint. Each DNA molecule would be six feet long if stretched out. But it is tightly packed to fit and function in a smaller body in the center of the nucleus, called a nucleolus, measuring 1/2,500 of an inch. It doesn’t just lay there, however. It bends and twists a billion times a second while its ladder sides “breathe” in and out. This dramatic dance allows each particle to make contact with the portion of the DNA molecule that gives it up-to-date instructions for making the proteins and enzymes which direct cell functions.
Each person’s DNA is the same in every cell of his or her body. For instance, the DNA in a skin cell is the same as the DNA in a nerve cell or a muscle cell. In theory at least, each cell contains all the information needed to reproduce a complete human being. In practice, certain properties or functions of the DNA are turned “off” from one cell type to another. In other words, skin cells can’t be an eye; lung tissue can’t act as a muscle, etc.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the mystery of cell development after conception. The truly miraculous thing is how that first cell (and the small cluster of non-specialized cells that develops in the first few days after the egg is fertilized) multiplies into the trillions of specialized cells that make up a fully-formed human. At some point in early fetal development, the DNA in each cell decides that one cell will begin to make a heart, another will begin to make a finger, yet another a nerve cell, and so forth.
DNA also controls both the reproduction and the day-by-day function of all cells. Each adult body contains up to 100 trillion cells, millions of which die every second and must be replaced. For instance, cells making up the lining of the intestines live only a day and a half, white blood cells live about 13 days, and red blood cells live up to 120 days. The only exception to this death and reproduction cycle is in the nervous system, where nerve cells, if they die or are killed, are not replaced.
The “alphabet” of the DNA molecule is deceptively simple: it contains only the four “letters” mentioned above. But, like the binary code at the heart of computer systems, the DNA “alphabet” has been “programmed” to store, and exchange, in enormously complex combinations, all the instructions that go into the development of the highest forms of life.
DNA functions in a variety of ways, some of which are described below:
(1) Growth and development: From the moment of conception, the resulting DNA molecule determines the speed and time of each cell division. At first each new cell looks identical, but at a time determined by the DNA, cells begin to differentiate and reproduce at different rates. By the third week after conception, most of the 600 types of specialized cells have begun differentiating themselves from one another. By the fourth week, the brain can be recognized, the heart and intestinal tract are being formed, the arm and leg stumps are visible, and the kidneys appear. By the fifth week, the two hemispheres of the brain are easily seen, and the heart begins pumping. By the sixth week, nerve connections are being made, the eyes and ears are well-formed, the mouth has taken shape, and the skeleton begins to form. By the seventh week, the teeth buds are visible, the stomach begins secreting digestive acid, and the fingers and toes are differentiated. By the end of the eighth week, differentiation into specialized cells is essentially complete. The remaining seven months is spent mostly in growing, not developing new tissues.
Not only is fetal development scheduled in DNA, but also the life cycle. When the child will be born and how soon it can be expected to crawl, walk and talk are all programmed. When puberty will occur, how soon men will begin to grow facial hair (or lose the hair on top), when gray hair will appear, and the expected length of life are also programmed. Environment and personal habits can influence some of these developments, sometimes significantly, but each person is programmed with an individual schedule inherited from parents.
(2) Unique characteristics: Each individual’s DNA encodes the family and racial characteristics handed down for generations. These include skin color, height, shape of nose, eye and hair color, weight tendencies, and a multitude of other characteristics. Increasingly we see that many behavior patterns are also inherited, including personality types and the way we laugh or walk. Some people inherit tendencies toward heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic diseases. There have also been isolated, and studied, about 1,800 genetically determined diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia and Down syndrome.
(3) Cellular activities: The cell is the basic element of life. All body functions are determined by a person’s cells. Which substances will be synthesized within each cell is determined by DNA. As we think of the body’s numerous activities, such as the hormonal functions of the glandular cells, the detoxifying ability of liver and kidney cells, and the movement function of muscle cells, we realize they are all dependent on the programming ability of DNA. Although each cell holds instructions for every cell in the body, it uses only the portion of DNA code needed for its own individual function. Thus DNA controls all aspects of our body’s daily functions by instructing every cell in the body.
* * * * *
Reviewing the passage in Psalm 139, we can begin to see the remarkable resemblances between David’s 3,000-year-old words, on the one hand, and the observations of modern-day biologists using high-powered microscopes, on the other:
- In David’s “inmost being”, even while “in my mother’s womb” (v 13), there were “knit” (v 13) and “woven together” (v 15) increasingly larger threads upon which were “written” “all my days” (v 16)!
- All this was contrived by God’s hand “in the most secret places”, and “in the depths” (v15) of the womb, where only God’s eyes could have seen it (v 16).
- And even before it had come to pass, “all (David’s) days”, “ordained for me”, were “written in (God’s) book” (v 16). The DNA is also God’s Book!
The phrases “knit together” (Psa 139:13) and “woven together” (v 15) suggest the careful weaving and the elaborate embroidering of fabrics, perhaps with various colors as well as pictures, by which Almighty God offered figurative messages to His people describing His purpose. In every feature of Tabernacle and Temple worship, there was embroidered, engraved, and written such expressions of God’s purpose for the earth and man.
Yet the most extraordinary man-made fabrics (even those of the Tabernacle and Temple) are absolute simplicity compared with the fantastic complexity of every human being who is born. What we may now begin to see in Psalm 139 is that, analogously, the Hand of God has embroidered or encoded, into the DNA of each child in the womb, the “message” by which it will grow and develop, and ultimately reach its full potential — physically and mentally. Furthermore, the same Divine Hand is at work in both the natural sphere, as much today as it ever was in the beginning. His natural creation, with its intricate and elaborate code, mirrors His spiritual creation — which, to this day, He is still working to bring to perfect realization in and through Christ.
To return to our original analogies, God is working every day to weave together the “threads” of our lives — some before we were even born. Have we ever wondered, perhaps, how we came to be born into a family where our parents or others had learned the Truth of the gospel? Or perhaps how we came, later, to be at a certain place at a certain time, so as to be introduced to Bible truth? Was it chance, or was it God’s providence?
From the very beginning, when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, his Father was working to create a Son who in every way would embody His glorious character. Every day since the Genesis creation, God has pursued His ultimate plan to fill the earth with His glory. In this sense, His creative work has never ceased; nor will it this side of the Kingdom.
From the moment your new life was formed in your mother’s womb, God was there, and working. Since then, every day of our lives, and every experience, is another thread that God is weaving into the tapestry of His finished fabric — a fabric that will adorn His eternalTemple.