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The Poem Stuck in My Head

“Psalm 139”

January 7, 2013 | by

If you grew up going to church, you already know Psalm 139. Even if you didn’t, parts of it are floating around your brain. It is a favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. (It is also—I’d bet money on this—the source of our hundred-year-old American expression “search me.”)

Psalm 139 gets my vote for being the most beautiful of the psalms in the King James version. The other day I happened to read it in French and it left me cold—it conjured up surveillance—whereas the high-low diction of the King James translators sings and is intimate, because you would only sing this way to a God you loved: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me.” It’s like an advertisement for the English language.

An old boss of mine used to claim that the most seductive words are not “I love you,” but “I understand you.” Surely a deep need is expressed by the line, “Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.” That fantasy, of someone who knows your every move—who sees the entire picture—and looks out for you all the same, may be pernicious or childish. But how do we outgrow it? To hear the poem, anyhow, is to feel the problem.

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me
2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising,
thou understandest my thought afar off. 
3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down, 
and art acquainted with all my ways. 
4 For there is not a word in my tongue, 
but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. 
5 Thou hast beset me behind and before, 
and laid thine hand upon me. 
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain unto it. 
7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? 
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there
9 If I take the wings of the morning, 
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; 
10 Even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me. 
11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me. 
12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
but the night shineth as the day: 
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee
13 For thou hast possessed my reins: 
thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. 
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: 
marvellous are thy works; 
and that my soul knoweth right well. 
15 My substance was not hid from thee,
when I was made in secret, 
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; 
and in thy book all my members were written,
which in continuance were fashioned,
when as yet there was none of them. 
17 How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! 
How great is the sum of them! 
18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: 
when I awake, I am still with thee. 
19 Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: 
depart from me therefore, ye bloody men. 
20 For they speak against thee wickedly, 
and thine enemies take thy name in vain. 
21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee?
And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? 
22 I hate them with perfect hatred: 
I count them mine enemies. 
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart: 
try me, and know my thoughts: 
24 And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.


Lorin Stein is editor of The Paris Review.



  1. misgoyoyo | January 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    i love that or better yet……i understand that.

  2. Michael Robinson | January 7, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    You might find it interesting to compare the AV 1611 translation with that used in the 1662 ‘Common Prayer’ — it’s the Miles Coverdale ‘translation’ of 1535-50.

    This latter would have been the text most commonly read or heard month after month in the English speaking world ’till the early-mid twentieth century.

  3. Chris Shores | January 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
    15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
    16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

    I can see Walt Whitman reading this, utterly ecstatic.

  4. Joe Carlson | January 8, 2013 at 7:09 am

    H.L. Mencken non the KJV:

    “It is the most beautiful of all the translations of the Bible; indeed, it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world… Its English is extraordinarily simple, pure, eloquent, and lovely. It is a mine of lordly and incomparable poetry, at once the most stirring and the most touching ever heard of.

    Whoever it was translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease on life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new.”

  5. Kathleen Ricker | January 7, 2016 at 7:47 am

    As I read this, it didn’t just get stuck in my head, but stuck in my head in Anglican chant.

6 Pingbacks

  1. […] Psalm 139 ( favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. […]

  2. […] Stein’s article Psalm 139, published yesterday in the Paris […]

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  6. […] Psalm 139 ( favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. […]

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