גלמי ׀ ראו עיניך ועל־ספרך כלם יכתבו ימים יצרו ולו* אחד בהם
The difficult text of verse 16 has challenged interpreters throughout the centuries. The LXX renders almost word for word, yielding a translation not much better than the standard English versions:
το ακατεργαστον μου ειδοσαν οι οφθαλμοι σου και επι το βιβλιον σου παντες γραφησονται ημερας πλασθησονται και ουθεις εν αυτοις
Your eyes beheld my unformed [body] and in Your book all will be written; they will be formed [over a period of] days, and none [is] among them.
While LXX doesn't make a whole lot of sense here, they did, in my opinion, get one thing right: they took ימים (yamim,
'days') adverbially rather than parsing it as the subject of the verbs יכתבו (yikkatebu,
'were written') and יצרו (yussaru,
'were formed'). LXX doesn't supply a clear subject for its renderings of these verbs (γραφησονται and πλασθησονται), merely picking up "all" (παντες) from the כל in כלם. But I believe we can find a subject for those verbs with a little innovation.
The usual approach, of course, is to take ימים ('days') as the subject — quite reasonable in light of ימים being apparently
the only plural noun in the sentence. But this makes no sense in my opinion in the context. It's odd that the suffix on כלם would be anticipatory to its antecedent (postcedent?) noun. The verb יצר ('form') normally describes the shaping of a physical substance, and only rarely the formulation of an idea or such (and the notion of 'forming days' is unattested in Scripture). Further, the verb is used in Genesis to describe the formation of Adam from the soil, and is used in Isaiah 49:5 to refer to God's formation of His servant 'from the womb' — both of which lead me to associate it here with גלמי ('my fetus'). And the notion of the divine formation of the fetus is quite consonant with such texts as Ecclesiastes 11:5 ("Just as you do not know the way of the wind, or how the bones develop in the pregnant woman’s womb, so you do not know the action of God who does it all") and Job 10:8-11 ("Your hands fashioned and made me altogether — yet now You destroy me! Remember that You made me out of clay and to the dust You will return me. Did You not pour me out like milk, and curdle me like cheese? You clothed me with skin and flesh and knitted me with bones and muscles"), as well as with David's preceding description of this process ("my bones were not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, [when] I was woven in the lowest parts of the earth").
So, how can גלמי be the subject of יצרו? Since גלמי is a hapax legomenon,
it's hardly a stretch to question the word's vocalization. I propose that MT's גָּלְמִי
(golmi) be revocalized as גָּלְמַי
(golmay), a plural form representing the diversity of elements in the embryonic human body. The form would then be understood in English as a sort of collective noun. By way of analogy I would cite the frequently used noun פנים (panim,
'face'), which “always occurs in the plural, perhaps indicative of the fact that the face is a combination of features” (TWOT:727). One might object that פנים takes singular verbs and adjectives. True, it usually does; but there are exceptions, both with verbs (פָּנָיו יֶחֱוָֽרוּ, Isaiah 29:22, referring unambiguously to the face of a single person) and adjectives (וּפָנִים נִזְעָמִים, Proverbs 25:23). A plural גָּלְמַי would also parallel nicely with the plural עצמי in the preceding verse.
In this light, my proposed translation of Psalm 139:16 —
Your eyes watched over my fetus [in all its features]
(In Your book [this process] is fully described in writing)
as it was being formed over a period of time.
And one of those [features] is His.
(The second clause is understood as somewhat parenthetical; the third clause is subordinate to the first. The final clause is a bit abrupt, but such transitions — including the shift from second to third person — occur earlier in the composition and are well documented in Psalms generally.)
What does it mean that David’s features were written in God’s book? This is usually taken as a reference to the book of life, which is then understood (in the light of Revelation 21:27) to mean that God determined David’s eternal destiny at the moment of his conception. However, the book of life is not the only divine book mentioned in Scripture. Revelation 20:12 refers in the plural to “the books,” echoing Daniel 7:10. In addition to the book of life, God has other books in which He records people’s deeds and also the experiences of His people (Psalm 56:8). There is even a “book of HaShem” concerning the natural activities of the animals (Isaiah 34:16). I believe that David is referring to God’s careful record keeping concerning His beloved, even numbering the hairs on our heads.
What then is the sense of the final clause? What “feature” of the fetus pertains especially to God? In the standard take where "days" is the subject, you'd have to find a particular day in David's life that would be especially God's. (Or make sense of the negation in the alternative textual reading.) In my take, I believe this refers to the inner man, the soul or spirit. HaShem is “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Numbers 16:22 & 27:16). (Certainly the spirit of every child of Israel would be His in a special way simply by virtue of the covenant.) “The spirit (נשׁמה) of man is HaShem’s lamp, searching the chambers of the belly” (Proverbs 20:27).
There is simply no need to understand this verse as teaching that all the details of our lives are pre-ordained. The thought is completely intrusive in this psalm of David's awestruck wonder of God's care for him.