I have been participating in a women's Bible study that touches on the sovereignty of God. One of the verses that has been cited is Psalm 139:16. This verse has been interpreted in a way that assures us that the days of our lives were planned out by God before we were even born. Some reject this interpretation. When I went to study the Hebrew and the different translations, I found that the KJV says "members" rather than days, and commentaries say that this verse it referring to our limbs and body parts. The NKJV says days, and therefore the meaning would seem to be more along the lines of telling us that God knows all of our days before they happen. Which is true?
I am confused as to why we can read two different translations of the Bible and see two different meanings. I want to know what God intended on telling us. I am concerned, and honestly afraid, that I cannot rely on our Bibles today as the true, original, Word of God if two translations such as the KJV and the NKJV say two different things. Can you help me understand?
It should not be surprising that there are some changes between the King James Version, originally written in 1611, and more modern translations. We have more manuscripts available today than was available in 1611. We found the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have contain Old Testament manuscripts that are about a thousand years older than we had when the King James Version was translated.
"My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them" (Psalms 139:15-16 NKJV).
"My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 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" (Psalms 139:15-16 KJV).
You are incorrect that "days" in the NKJV is "members" in the KJV. The KJV the word "continuance" was used.
Notice that the topic in Psalms 139:15-16 was David's forming body while hidden in the womb. David said that God saw him from the moment when he was conceived, when he was but an embryo and totally unformed. God kept track of him, writing down all his members, his body parts, even when they did not yet exist during the days in which he was being formed.
The last phrase is what causes confusion, not because of a difference in the text, but in how you apply the pronouns. Does "none of them" apply to the members yet to be formed or to the days fashioned? The King James translators favored it referring to the members. Many modern translations favor a preplanning of days. I suspect the latter is due to the strong influence of Calvinism in the denominations.
It is a fact that living means each of us will eventually die, barring those who will see our Lord's return. "And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). In speaking of King Saul and why David did not want to raise a hand against him, David said, "As the LORD lives, the LORD shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish" (I Samuel 26:10). The question, though, is whether the day of one's death is a predetermined day, or one that is determined by God based on various factors.
David once asked, "LORD, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor" (Psalms 39:4-5). By this, David is not asking to know when he would die, but that he would be able to keep in mind that life is short. We have all heard of people who drastically changed behavior after they had a close brush with death. We all need that attitude because our choices would greatly change if we knew how little time we have left. Job realized that it is God, not man, who ultimately determines the length of our lives. "In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?" (Job 12:10). We don't get as much time as we might desire.
God has placed limits on the life span of mankind. "The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10). Notice that an individual's health will impact his life, but not greatly. The limit of 70 or 80 years is not hard fast, but a general rule of thumb. Even now, with all our medical capabilities, the average life span is still near 80. Thus Job said, "Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass" (Job 14:15). Again, Job is not discussing a set number of days for each individual, but that God has placed general limits on how long men can live on this earth.
We know the length of our lives are not fixed because the Bible tells us that a person's behavior will affect his life span. "But You, O God, shall bring them down to the pit of destruction; bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in You" (Psalm 55:23). In other words, men could have lived longer, but because of their wicked ways they are unable to live out even half of their potential. "The fear of the LORD prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened" (Proverbs 10:27). In speaking about the selfishness of the wicked, Job said, "For what does he care about his household after him, when the number of his months is cut in half?" (Job 21:21). Once again, we see that some, because of their behavior, are unable to reach the potential life span that God has granted men during their stay on earth. Thus we find Solomon's warning: "Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: why should you die before your time?" (Ecclesiastes 7:17).
Thus, to keep harmony with the rest of the Bible, if Psalms 139:16 is referring to a record of the days God has fashioned for a man, it is the potential number of days that a man might live and not an absolute predetermined amount.