Unformed Clump

Editors’ Note: This meditation first appeared on April 24, 2014, on the youth page of “De Wachter Sions,” a weekly publication of the “Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland.” It was translated for the Reformed Pro-Lifer and is reprinted here with permission from the editor.

You have probably seen a picture of a pre-born child, similar to the one I have in front of me while writing. It’s a beautiful full-colour image of an embryo five weeks after fertilization, about ten millimeters long. That’s only a third of an inch!

The subscription reads, “The head will begin to straighten and separate more from the torso. Eyes, nose, and mouth are clearly distinguishable—the eyes are developing to the extent that the cornea is beginning to form. The ear canal and ears are further forming this week, as are the limbs, though legs and feet grow somewhat slower than the arms and hands.”

The photo below this text shows a frontal image of the tiny head—the start of a recognizable face, eyes, nostrils, and a small opened mouth with the upper lip slightly pulled up. And all of that is part of a head of less than half a centimeter!

Psalm 139

There’s one thing I don’t see in these pictures: a uncoordinated clump of cells. Yet, in Psalm 139 verse 16, the Dutch Statestranslation (Statenvertaling) refers to the clearly formed embryo as an “unformed clump”—”Uw ogen hebben mijn ongeformeerde klomp gezien.” How is this possible?

Was David wrong? Was he not inspired by the Holy Spirit in writing Psalm 139? Is is not true for him, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21)?

Of course it is true that today’s advanced technology was not available at that time to capture images in the womb. Yet, the Bible cannot contradict reality—or can it? What we see in pictures like the one mentioned above by no means is an imperfect substance. Do the Bible and science contradict each other perhaps? You may not even dare to think or ask this but… is the Bible wrong in this case?


In situations like these, it is important to distinguish between the languages in which the Bible was written on the one hand, and the translation of that text on the other hand. God’s Word was inspired in the original language. Only of that version (Hebrew in the case of Psalm 139) we can say that it does not contain errors.

Then there’s the translation. The Dutch Statestranslation is generally known by friend and foe to be the most accurate Dutch version. It is nevertheless likely that small mistakes were made during the translation process. So let’s take a look at the translation of Psalm 139 verse 16, specifically the description of the young human embryo. Could this be a mistake?

As it turns out, the passage speaks of the very first beginning of a human being. The annotation to the Dutch Statestranslation explains that imperfect substance or unformed clump, in fact, refers to the very first period of our life, beginning at fertilization.

While contemplating this, I turn again to prenatal development pictures. What does an embryo look like one week after fertilization? When a sperm and an egg cell become one, cell division immediately takes place and it multiplies into all directions. To illustrate, there’s a picture of a small bunch of eight cells, then sixteen. In our beginning stages, during that first week after fertilization, we are an unformed clump of barely a milimeter.

The subscription of one image reads, “When the clump of cells reaches the uterus it consist of about 100 cells and is called a blastocyst.” There’s even a scientific term for this little clump! I cannot help but think that the Dutch translators were (no doubt unconsciously) far ahead of their time in calling a newly conceived human embryo “an unformed clump.”

The original

So what does the Hebrew text say? The inspired version of Psalm 139 verse 16 uses the word “substance,” the same word found in the King James Version. What is a substance? A dictionary defintion points us to “the foundation or core of a matter” or “the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists and which has a tangible, solid presence.” What a fitting word, especially considering what we know now!

When an egg cell and a sperm cell fuse, the new nucleus contains an entirely unique composition of DNA. The countless genetic characteristics of this new human being are stored there from his or her very beginning, and with every cell division the DNA is copied and passed on to the next cell. Physically speaking, this is the basis of an independent body and everything that functions within; in other words, a substance.

Add to this the imagery of verse 15—wrought or woven together—and you can’t help but be in awe at the knowledge and wisdom given to David by the Holy Sprit. The human body is like a piece of embroidery, made of many individual cells that together grow and form one final whole, and the blueprint can be found in each and every cell.

Have you ever thought about the process of growth? From the seemingly unformed clump or imperfect substance the cells multiply into all directions. Due to the continually copying example found in one’s DNA, the body internally “knows” exactly where the arms, legs, ears, nose, mouth, eyes, etc. have to be formed. Mindblowing!

When all goes well, the body is equipped in such a way that the heart can beat; that we develop eye sight, hearing, taste buds, and a sense of smell; and that our arteries, nervous system, gestational tract and many other systems begin to function. It is no wonder that David exclaims in verse 14, “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well!”

Of me

Did you notice that it says my substance? This implies that even this very beginning is of the person David, of me! “Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.” “I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.” That is when David, by God’s providence, came into existence. That is true for all of us. And that is also when the soul enters the body. Do you now understand our opposition to birth control, one of the arguments being that a separate and unique human may be destroyed during the very first stages of his or her life?

Yet, the essence and significance of this Psalm can be found much higher than in the physical alone. God’s might and providence in forming each human being is incredibly great—no doubt about it. But the greatest wonder for David was that this high and holy God was merciful to him, a wicked sinner. David received faith to believe that he, from all eternity, was known by God and loved by Christ—and that everything in life, also concerning his body, was provided for by His faithful Father, already long before David was born.

Blessed David!

Psalm 51: A Bible Study

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (verse 5).

 It was a lively discussion that morning on the mission field. The students of the Bible School found the words of Psalm 51 hard to understand, especially that word: “In sin did my mother conceive me.” What did that mean? Was David born out of adultery? Or was his mother a decent woman, but did God consider the deed of procreation as such as something sinful? Or had David himself committed a certain sin before his birth? The students struggled with that verse but just could not come to a conclusion. Can you?

An impressive psalm

Psalm 51 is a very impressive psalm. Just like Psalm 6, 32, 38, 79, 102 and 130, it is a so-called penitential psalm. Having a deep and humble tone, these psalms are expressions of a contrite heart. They show us what happens when God works repentance. Then a desire is born for remission of sin, reconciliation with God, and renewal of our life. We can clearly see this in Psalm 51. Again and again the poet asks the Lord to blot out his guilt and to show him a token of His favor. Fervently he prays that he may be cleansed and learn to serve God with a sincere heart. Is that also your prayer?

A sad background

Why did David bow so deeply in this psalm? The reason can be found in 2 Samuel 12. The king of Israel had fallen into a double sin. Not only had he committed adultery with Bathsheba; he had also caused her husband to die on the battlefield. As a result, the man after God’s heart had lost the joy of his salvation and the peace of his conscience. Yet he could not find the place of true remorse until the prophet Nathan had confronted him in a personal way. Then David broke down and became a guilty sinner before God. What a blessing it is when we may come to that place. Ask the Lord much to bring you there by the power of His Spirit!

Sinful from our conception

David had made a deep fall. It grieved him that he had sinned so horribly. But there was something else that grieved him: he had fallen in Adam long before he fell into actual sin. He had already fallen in Paradise. Consequently, he had been conceived and born in sin. Do we now understand what he means? David says, I did not become a sinner by committing adultery, but I’ve always been a sinner from my earliest beginning. God’s holy anger rested upon me when I was still in my mother’s womb.” How necessary it is for all of us to learn this. Martin Luther called this truth “the heaviest doctrine of God’s Word.” If we never learn this, there will be no room for that sinless Child of Bethlehem, for Him who is able to cover our original sin and guilt.

No soul?

It is hard to see how people who read Psalm 51 can deny that man has a soul right from the time of conception. Would God’s wrath really rest on something that is merely “beginning life”? If an “embryo” or “fetus” does not have a soul, can it ever be called “a child of wrath” (Ephes. 2:3)? Can “a piece of tissue” or “cluster of cells” be held accountable when it is not a human being in the biblical sense of the word? Moreover, denying an unborn baby his or her personhood leaves us basically helpless in the debate with the abortion movement. Let us realize that and take a firm stand on this issue. But above all, do not rest until you may know by experience what Psalm 51 means for your own soul.


  1. Upon David’s confession of guilt he immediately received a word of pardon (see 2 Sam. 12:13). Why then did he still have to bow so deeply in the dust and write Psalm 51?
  2. Many believe that also Psalm 32 was written after David’s fall. Read this psalm with attention. Is there a difference with Psalm 51?
  3. What does Lord’s Day 14 of our Heidelberg Catechism teach us about the profit of “Christ’s holy conception and nativity”?
  4. The truth of Psalm 51 verse 5 is a strong plea against abortion. In Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1 and Luke 1, there are similar passages. What do they tell us about life before birth?