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Psalm 16

Psalm 16 finds its place in the readings for the Easter period because of v. 10: ‘For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.’ This could be understood to refer to resurrection. This was the understanding of the writer of Acts 2:24-32; 13:32-39 as they read the latter part of Psalm 16 in relation to God raising Jesus from the dead. The first of these readings is part of the Acts reading set for today. But the psalm is simply not a prediction or foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus. It is unlikely that in Old Testament times Ps 16:10 was understood in terms of resurrection the way we understand Jesus’ resurrection. It was more likely a prayer by an individual for God to preserve their life in the face of some grave difficulty or threat. Alternatively, it may have been a reflection on the way the Lord had preserved Israel through the period of exile (cf. Ezek 37:1-15; cf. the comment on that passage for Lent 5 this year).

The psalm begins with a basic statement of trust: ‘in (the Lord) I take refuge’ (cf. Pss 7:1; 2:12). The rest of the psalm is an exposition of that statement using different metaphors and images. Verses 3-4 are uncertain in the Hebrew and different English translations give different meanings and nuances. At least it is clear that the psalmist does not give allegiance to any god other than Yahweh, the Lord. This is the one in whom the psalmist trusts and of whom they say: ‘You are my Lord’ (v. 2a). In vv. 5-6 the metaphor is that of land or property. The words ‘portion’, ‘lot’, ‘boundary line’ and ‘heritage’ all come from this area. The background of this language is, in part, the division of the promised land under Joshua, where each tribe received a portion as heritage (see Josh 13:7; 14:2). The words ‘portion’ and ‘heritage’ also have covenantal connections. In the psalm the Lord is the psalmist’s portion. This invokes thoughts of the gift of the land, its provision of all that is necessary for life, the fulfillment of promise and the close covenant relationship. With this image in mind the psalmist can freely say that ‘the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places’ (v. 6). In addition, thoughts of the Lord as the portion and inheritance of the Levites also come to mind (cf. Deut 10:9 and Num 18:20). The priests of the tribe of Levi did not receive a portion of the promised land but carried out their priestly duties in or close to the sanctuaries of the Lord. A further sense of the nearness of the Lord to the psalmist is fostered.

The thought of vv. 7-8 moves on to the teaching of the Lord. The near presence of the Lord ‘at the right hand’ means the psalmist shall not be moved (v. 8). Moreover, the psalmist is so near the Lord that even their own meditations serve as an opportunity for instruction (v. 7). The result of this in vv. 9-10 is that both internally and externally the psalmist is glad and rests secure (v. 9). In this context the psalmist could seek deliverance from premature death in v. 10. Alternatively, they could be proclaiming boldly that not even death would separate them from the joy of God’s presence. This is not a statement of belief in resurrection or immortality of the soul or other similar thought. Those come much later in biblical and other writings. For the psalmist we must remember that the most threatening thing about death was separation from God (cf. Ps 6:5). In Psalm 16 we may have an early expression that not even the overwhelming power of death can ‘separate us from the love of God’, which Paul much later sees embodied in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:35-39).

The psalmist finishes with the wonderful statement that the Lord shows them the ‘path of life’ and in the Lord’s presence there are ‘fullness of joy’ and ‘pleasures forevermore’ (v. 11). The metaphors and images of earlier verses are brought together in this climactic statement: the pleasures and benefits of the land, the privilege and joy of serving in the temple, and the constant guidance of the law.
These statements of confidence could easily be taken out of context and read as a kind of prosperity theology, where faith and well-being or security go hand in hand, where faithfulness is the key to pleasant places, a goodly heritage, and pleasures forevermore. But the psalmist is talking about a deeper security than that. Note the context of the psalm. The psalmist seeks protection (v. 1). They speak out of the context of some kind of threat or insecurity. For the psalmist, trust in the Lord is neither an easy thing entertained only in times of relative ease, nor a general statement covering all of life. It is an attitude or position that is truly tested and refined in times of darkness. So if we do read Ps 16:10 in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, as many will this day, it is never out of the shadow of the cross. The psalmist knows fear and insecurity, even possibly the fear of death, and in that context recognizes that their ‘welfare indeed rests on (the Lord)’ (v. 2b as one commentator translates this difficult clause). While we read the psalm in the context of Jesus’ resurrection, it is good and important to remember that the psalm was written by someone who struggled with faith and life and death issues in their daily existence. The message of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be proclaimed in any other context.

One writer on the psalm puts it that the Lord fills the personal horizon of the psalmist. It is this that gives rise to the psalmist’s confidence in the face of life’s issues. What seem like statements of naïve security and a shallow sense of well-being are in fact built on an all-embracing relationship with God, a relationship wholly dependent on God.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Psalm 16 lends itself, with some minor adaptation, to the prayer of confession and assurance of forgiveness. For example:

Protect us, O God, for in you we take refuge.
I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’
(....First prayer of confession....)
Protect us, O Lord, for in you we take refuge.

(...Second prayer of confession....)
Protect us, O Christ, for in you we take refuge.

(...Third prayer of confession....)
Protect us, O Lord, for in you we take refuge.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
I keep the Lord always before me.
because the Lord is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore, your heart is glad, and your soul rejoices; your body also rests secure.
For the Lord does not give you up, or let the faithful one go.
In God’s presence there is fullness of joy;
in God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore.
The Lord shows you the path of life and proclaims in Jesus,
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.

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