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Psalm 139:5

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. (ESV)

That sounds very comforting. Other more literal translations sound different:

Thou didst press me behind and before, and thou wilt place thine hand upon me.

Furthermore, instead of "hand", "foot" could be translated which would sound even worse but nobody does. (kaph: hollow or flat of the hand, palm, sole (of the foot), a pan).

Is there any good explanation for why "hand" is used instead of "foot"?

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    – agarza
    Jun 18, 2023 at 14:32

2 Answers 2

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The question seeks to know specifically why 'hand' is used in Psalm 139:5, and not 'foot'.

First, it is worth noting that the Hebrew word 'yad' for 'hand' is used in Psalm 139:10. Context is the uttermost parts of the sea, where David says of God, "Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." (A.V.)

But in Psalm 139:5 the Hebrew word 'kaph' is used, which can mean 'hand' or 'sole of the foot'. So, why is not 'foot' used? The context of the whole of that Psalm shows why, for David is adoring the God who knew of him while he was in the womb, who had already determined the length of his days before he was born. David is so confident of the love and care of God for him, whether he ascends to heaven or descends to the depths of the sea, that he cries out to God to search him, to examine his heart and thoughts, to lead him in the way everlasting (vss. 23-24).

If 'foot' had been used, that might have wrongly conveyed an oppressive, domineering act of God. Conquerors are spoken of in the Bible as trampling their defeated enemies under their feet. But given how 'hand' is used three times in those two verses cited, verse 5 points to the hand, although foot is not inappropriate if the subtle nuances of the Hebrew language are appreciated.

The word 'kaphar' comes from the word 'kaph' (which relates specifically to the inside of the hand, the palm.) The outside of the hand, which onlookers normally see, is when work or activity is done; and that which may be seen when a fist is formed. It is 'yad' and is appropriate in vs. 10, for there God's hand is leading David - doing something requiring a grip (even a gentle grip, or a firm grasp). 'Kaphar' means 'containment', a sense of security.

As for vs. 5 where 'kaph' is used, here is a commentary on it meaning 'foot':

"The Hebrew letter Caph, expresses a cupped hand and the word kaph is also translated, spoon, as when a cupped hand is used to convey water to the mouth.

The alternative hand word is conveyed by the Hebrew word yad - also with an accompanying Hebrew letter - and is expressed so often that Robert Young simply states "frequently" for its usage without enumeration.

But as to our word, kaph, eighteen times is it used, also, of the sole of the foot. Evidently, then, it is the tender part, the sensitive part, of the foot or the hand that is referred to by this word. It is the inner part; that which feels; that which is intimate. The fingertips are involved. Some of the most sensitive nerve endings in the body are included in the meaning of kaph.

It may be, also, that the strength of the use of the arch of the foot is in view as the root word kaph is used, as we shall see, in words where load bearing is pertinent.

Not only so, but there is also the idea of the protection offered by a cupped hand to that which is vulnerable when it is held within it." The Burden of Sins, pp.69-70, Nigel Johnstone, Belmont Publications, 2013

So, the answer is that David's thoughts here are of God's hand guiding and supporting him, but that the strength of the foot's arch for load bearing would fit in nicely with the concept of the palm of God's hand, regarding God bearing the load of David's sins while his hand contains them. That is why the double-meaning of 'kaph' is appropriate, but the emphasis needs to be on the protection of the hand.

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  • The fact that a word that could be translated "hand" or "foot" was used, instead of a word meaning only "hand", was appropriate considering David's character. He was "a man after God's own heart" but he was also a vile sinner whom God punished severely. God saw that, in addition to protecting David with His hand, He was going to have to keep His foot on him, to keep him in check. And David knew this.
    – moron
    Jul 5, 2023 at 22:05
  • @moron Noted, but I'm inclined to think of God keeping his foot upon his enemies, to eventually trample the unrepentant ones. After a year of God's hand being heavy on him, disciplining him, David was truly repentant and bore the punishment. God's hand can both protect his children, and discipline them, but I'm inclined to think the analogy of the 'foot' is for the wicked, as per Rev.15:20, 2 Sam.23:32-51, 2 Kings23:14-15 etc.
    – Anne
    Jul 6, 2023 at 8:26
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First, the Hebrew of Ps 139:5 consists of only six words, with most words meaning a rather broad range of usage.

Second, Ps 139, as a whole, is a rehearsal of the greatness, goodness and kindness of God. Any Translation of V5 must be sensitive to that context.

Here is my very literal translation with the words numbered:

[1] Behind [2] and before [3] You confined me, [4] and laid [5] upon me [6] Your palm/sole.

Now to greater specifics about some of these words:

  • [3] צַרְתָּ֑נִי = "you hedged me". This word is used in several senses including (see BDB) (1) confine or secure something, eg, Deut 14:25, 2 Kings 5:23, etc; (2) shut-in or besiege a city, eg, 2 Sam 11:1, 1 Kings 15:27, etc; (3) shut-in, enclose in the sense of protection from enemies, eg, SS 8:9, Ps 139:5.
  • [6] כַּפֶּֽכָה = "your palm/sole". This word can mean (see BDB) (1) the palm of the hand, eg, 2 Kings 4:34, Gen 40:11, Ps 139:5, etc; (2) sole of foot, eg, Gen 8:9, Josh 3:13, 1 Kings 5:17, etc; (3) the hollow of a pan, eg, Ex 25:29, 37:16, Num 5:7, etc.

Thus, with all this in mind, I might idiomatically translate Ps 139:5 as:

Behind and before me you have enclosed me and laid your hand upon me.

Thus, David is saying something like this:

You have protected me in front and behind [ie, all around; and comforted me] by placing the palm of your hand upon me [to comfort me].

... a wonderful promise of the closeness of God.

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