Fearfully and wonderfully made: life before birth

21 July 2020

Dr Peter Saunders, chief executive of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association, reflects on Psalm 139 and what God really says about unborn life.

The Bible does not support the view that some human lives are worth less than others. All are made in the image of God and all are equally precious.

Devaluing or discriminating against any group of human beings is therefore inconsistent with God’s justice. He does not show partiality.

The heart of Christian ethical teaching is that we must love as Christ himself loved (John 13:34), that the strong should make sacrifices for the weak and if necessary lay down their lives for the weak (Philippians 2:5-8, Romans 5:6-8).

So, to suggest that the weak might be sacrificed in the interests of the strong is simply not Biblical morality.

But what about human life before birth? Do these principles apply here too?

It is striking just how many references there are in Scripture to human life in the womb.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Psalm 139. The psalmist, looking back to the beginning of his life declares:

‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth….

Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’ (Psalm 139:13-16, NIV)

John Stott has argued that this passage affirms three important things about the human life before birth.

First, it affirms that the preborn baby is God’s creation. It is God who knitted him together. The Hebrew word used by the Psalmist for ‘woven together’ in verse 15 (the ESV translates it as ‘intricately woven’) is raqam, a comparatively rare word in the Old Testament, which is used almost exclusively in texts that describe the curtains and veils of Israel’s wilderness tabernacle and the garments of the high priest.

To say that an unborn child is ‘raqam’ is therefore to say something about the cunning skill of the weaver and about the beauty of his fabric. The tabernacle was the place where the presence of God dwelt. The high priest acted as the mediator between God and man and was the only one able to enter the Holy Place. He also pointed forward to Christ, the true mediator and great High Priest to come who would deal with our sins once and for all (Hebrews 7:26-28).

With its allusions to the ‘raqam work’ of the tabernacle, the Psalm implies not only that God has made the infant in the womb, but also that the infant is being woven into a dwelling for God himself.

Next, God is in communion with the preborn baby. At this stage, the baby in the womb can ‘know’ nothing and is in fact not even aware of its own existence. But this is not important. The key point is that God knows it. It is God’s love for the psalmist during his time in the womb that gives him significance. We see echoes of John’s first epistle here, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). God’s relationship with the baby is a relationship of grace to which the baby itself contributes nothing. It is not its own attributes that give it value. It is the fact that God knows and loves it.

Finally, the psalmist affirms the continuity between life before and after birth. The baby in the womb is the psalmist, the same person, not a different person and not a non-person.

The strong Biblical testimony about life before birth, captured beautifully in this Psalm, points to the conclusion that human life, from the time of conception is, like other human life, made in the image of God and worthy of the utmost respect, wonder, protection and empathy.

Showing this degree of love and respect to human beings before birth may in some circumstances be very costly for us personally. But this brings us back to the foot of the cross, and the willingness to walk in the steps of the master who gave himself fully for us and who calls us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34,35).

Dr Peter Saunders is chief executive of International Christian Medical and Dental Association. This article was originally posted in November 2013 on Peter Saunders’ blog and has been republished with permission.

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