You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Psalm 139:5 NASB
Behind and before– What does it feel like to have God’s hand heavy upon you? Does it feel comfortable? Gracious? Or do you feel as if you can’t move? Pressed? Coerced? Curbed? In this verse, the emphasis comes first, and in this case the emphasis is on “behind and before.” “Behind” (ʾāḥôr) comes from the root ʾāḥar (“to tarry, delay, defer”). The Hebrew sentence reads, “Behind and before You hem me in.” Let’s start with ʾāḥôr.
The verb is hardly used in the Tanakh, but the derivative, ʾāḥôr, shows up in one particularly important verse, Exodus 33:23, where it is mistakenly translated “back parts” in older English Bibles. Obviously, God doesn’t have “back parts,” and since the root is used to indicate temporal relations, I have suggested the proper translation is about God providing a vision of the future to Moses. Debate over the proper translation of Exodus 33:23 will probably continue, but in this psalm, the application of temporal relations is also critical. The psalmist isn’t simply saying that God restrains us with physical barriers. He is also saying that our lives are temporally constricted. At one end we are delayed. We are waiting, but not in hope. This verb also produces the word ʾaḥărît, commonly temporally translated “future,” but with the very odd notion that the future is behind us. You will recall “H. W. Wolff has likened the Hebrew conception of time to the view a man has when he is rowing a boat. He sees where he has been and backs into the future.” This is the first boundary. But it’s at the end of life, not the beginning.
Now notice the order of these temporal boundaries: “Behind and before.” We might have thought differently. We might have thought “Before birth and behind (after) death.” But this isn’t the way the psalmist expresses it. We’ll need to understand something about the word qedem (“before”) if we’re going to solve this conundrum. qedem comes from the root qādam, meaning “meet, confront, go before.” “The root qdm incorporates two basic concepts: first, (and most often) ‘to confront (meet) someone with either a good or bad intent,’ second, ‘to precede someone or something either temporally or geographically.’” But notice the comment on the noun, qedem.
The noun qedem has either a geographical meaning, “east,” or a temporal notion “ancient time, aforetime.” This noun occurs sixty-one times. It denotes an idyllic state whereas ʿôlām, ʿad denote perpetuity, zāqēn, agedness, and riʾšôn primacy (q.v.)
It seems appropriate to note that “East” is the direction of “new,” for example, the rising of the sun, the beginning of the day, the cosmic manifestation of “birth.”
Now we have this quite unusual wording about human temporal relations. Strictly speaking, the psalmist writes that his life seems hemmed in between the end and the beginning, exactly the opposite of the way we would have expressed it.
But the psalmist’s perspective is correct. We don’t start from the beginning, at least we don’t consciously start when we are born. Our understanding of ourselves begins when we realize our finitude, our end. That’s the beginning of human being. Prior to that time, we exist as if we were innocent bystanders in the Garden. Human consciousness begins when we are kicked out, when we confront our demise. We might wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. In order to really understand who we are, and to operate on the basis of our true role in life, we must first face our inevitable death. We are hemmed in by the fact that we won’t always be here.
Once we have confronted the end of life (the future), then we can deal with the beginning (qedem). We can meet and confront our origins only after we have settled our termination. But knowing we will not live forever allows us to engage all those circumstances, situations and emotional conditions that brought us into the world. In other words, you and I will only be willing to unpack why we got here if we know that we won’t be here very long. As long as we keep pretending that life will continue without interruption indefinitely, we have no motivation to look deeply into our origins. But once death knocks, we have every reason to participate in the fearless inventory of our beginnings.
And the psalmist helps us see that God Himself has ordered life this way. He kicked us out of the Garden. He provided the prime directive for human existence that can only be accomplished in conflict. He pushes us toward confrontation. He refuses to allow us to retreat to innocent ignorance. He hems us in.“ . . . the human being is, in himself, lacking, incomplete; the fatal illusion is to ignore finitude.”
Topical Index: behind, ʾāḥôr, before, qedem, ʾaḥărît, future, life, death, Psalm 139:5
R. L. Harris comments in TWOT, “Theologically, the only instance that calls for discussion is Ex 33:23, ‘thou shalt see my back, but my face shall not be seen’ (KJV, most versions the same). But in no other place is the word used for the back of a person’s anatomy. This is gab or gaw or ʾōrep. The word ʾāḥôr means ‘back’ in the sense of direction.” (TWOT, Number 68d).