Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2016
Psalm 16 Commentary
On this sixth Sunday of Ordinary time, reading the sixteenth Psalm brings back extraordinary memories for me. In my Bible, I have underlined many individual verses of Psalm 16 over the years and I’ve filled the margins with dates and notes that remind me of why I underlined those verses. For example, verse 6 is highlighted because on Palm Sunday, 1978, I was installed as Pastor of the Heritage Christian Reformed Church. Psalm 16:6 was the theme verse of that church. The charter members derived their new church’s name from the RSV translation of the last part of that verse (“a goodly heritage”). For the next 9 years I often said that “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”
Further, verse 8 was a rock of refuge for me during the economic crash that set off the Great Recession in 2008. As the market plummeted down and down, putting my retirement nest egg in increasing jeopardy, I was fixated on money. Then God used verse 8 to redirect my vision and recalibrate my faith. “I have set the Lord always before me….” That’s what I must look at, not the market. My vision often wandered back to the numbers, and then the second part of that verse came to the rescue. “Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Even if I can’t keep my faith focused on the Lord, he is still at my right hand.
Verses 9-11 are also heavily underlined in my personal Bible, probably because of the many funerals I have conducted and, more personally, because of the number of times I have looked death in the eye. I can imagine that the Apostle Peter had underlined those verses in his “Bible,” because he focused on them in his first sermon on Pentecost, using them to proclaim that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy.
Even if you don’t have that kind of personal connection with Psalm 16, it is a marvelous preaching text for this day because of its focus on security. Its opening words set the tone. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” In a world fixated on security and safety, that is an existential prayer for everyone. Daily bombings and shootings around the world remind us of how precarious our existence is. Death is in the news everywhere. The world seems to be falling apart and fear is in the air.
What can we do to secure our lives? We can hire more TSA agents and buy more elaborate screenings devices. We can seal our borders with huge walls and fly more high tech surveillance drones. We can buy expensive insurance policies and develop fool proof financial plans. But in the end, we all know that we can’t make our lives secure, not really. Death will come for everyone.
So is there no security and safety in a terrifying world? Yes, there is, says David, who had known terror on every side. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” That’s the point of the whole Psalm and the key to security—those two words, “in you, in God, in Yahweh.” Only the living God can make us secure in the face of certain death. But whether we experience that security will depend on whether we can say what David said in verse 2. “I said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord (adonai in Hebrew), apart from you I have no good thing.’” In our sermons on this Psalm, we should focus on those two names for God.
We will never find a deep sense of safety and security if we have a general belief in God. We will experience complete security only if we see God as Yahweh, the covenant God, the God who wants a personal relationship with us, who takes us by the hand and walks with us through history, who, indeed, has entered history and become one of us in Jesus Christ.
And we will not experience security unless we view him as Adonai, as Master and Lord to whom we belong, body and soul, in life and in death. If we view God as a friend or as a therapist or as a dispensing machine or as a last minute rescuer, we will live our lives in fear. But if we know that we belong to him completely, we will be able to trust him to make life secure. “The Lord fills the horizon of the Psalmist. The Lord is everything to him. It is this focus on God, absorption in God, identity with God, the Lord who is the source of life, that gives faith a confident hold on life.” (James Luther Mays)
Trusting God that way is not easy, especially when we are surrounded by people who “run after other gods.” Verses 3 and 4 are notoriously difficult to interpret, but the general idea seems to be a contrast between trusting other gods and trusting the only true God. David lays a challenge at our feet here. When the whole world is putting its trust in better technology, in the political process, in economic development, in educational reform, in military action, in homeland security measures, in personal security programs, don’t run after those other gods. “I will not drink of that cup, I will not take their names on my lips, I will not bow down at that altar.” “Yahweh is my Adonai, apart from him I have no good thing.”
Those last words of verse 2 help us think about the meaning of security. Does Psalm 16 guarantee that no Christian will ever be blown up by a terrorist’s bomb, or be duped out of her life savings by a con artist, or be permanently disabled by a drunken driver, or get fired by a vindictive boss? Of course not. We know better. We’ve experienced disaster and tragedy ourselves. Well, then, what kind of security does God provide?
As I said, David gives us a hint when he confesses, “Apart from you I have no good thing.” That sounds like a variation on the more famous Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want, or I lack nothing.” That smacks a bit of a prosperity Gospel guarantee, but, of course, what follows in Psalm 23 has nothing to do with health and wealth. Nor does Psalm 16 talk in economic or medical terms. The “good things” that comprise true safety and security are much deeper and more spiritual than mere food and fitness.
Verses 5 and 6 seem to be about land, but they are really about the Lord. Using language that is reminiscent of Joshua 13-19, where Yahweh apportions the Promised Land to the 12 tribes, David rejoices in the fact that Yahweh himself is his portion. Even if David loses the land, as Israel did in the Exile, he will still have a place to dwell, a pleasant place, a delightful inheritance. Our security is not tied to a plot of ground or anything built upon it. It is tied to the Lord, who is our refuge, our portion, our cup, our possession. Psalm 73:25 and 26 puts it this way. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” If that is our confidence, we are truly secure.
Further, in verse 7 David rejoices in another dimension of security. In our insecure world, people are always searching for another thing they can do to make things secure. After the terrible bombings in Europe this year, security officials were asked, “What else can we do to guarantee that these kinds of things won’t happen again?” And the answer was, “We have no idea.” Everyone is looking for answers.
That’s why David rejoices in God’s leading. You may recall that David mentions such leading in Psalm 23: “I shall not want. He makes me lay down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters… he guides me in paths of righteousness for his names sake.” No wonder David says here in Psalm 16, “I will praise Yahweh who counsels me….” In a lost world, where everyone is trying to find their way in a trackless wasteland, it is a great source of security to know that the living God is leading you, speaking to your heart with his Word and his Spirit. When he says, “even at night my heart instructs me,” David is probably referring to his conscience as counseled by the Spirit.
This is security. In a world where we can lose anything in a split second, we cannot lose God. In a world where everyone is looking for a way to live happily and fruitfully, we have the leading of God himself. And, in a world where everyone will die, we have the assurance that death won’t get the last word in our lives. God will, and because of that “my heart is glad, my tongue rejoices, and my body will rest secure.” Even when I die physically, I have complete security, “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your Holy One see decay.”
Who is that “Holy One?” It might be David himself or any other Israelite who takes refuge in Yahweh as David does in verses 1 and 2. Or it might be corporate Israel, taking refuge in Yahweh in Exile, looking forward, as Ezekiel 37 does, to the day when God raises those dry bones from the grave. Or it might be any believer today who trusts God to give life after death, even as we confess in the Apostles Creed—“I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”
Or most important, the Holy One is Christ himself, at least according to Peter and Paul in the earliest Christian messages. It is fascinating and telling that the very first evangelistic proclamation of the Gospel relied so heavily on Psalm 16:9-11. According to Peter in Acts 2:24-32, the idea of Jesus resurrection was not some novelty dreamed up by fanatical followers of a dead Rabbi. It was the fulfillment of a prophecy given by Israel’s greatest king and unexpected prophet. And according to Paul in Romans 8:11, I Corinthians 6:14, II Corinthians 4:14, and many other passages in his epistles, Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of ours.
A sermon on this text should be permeated with the joy of verse 11. Because of the eternal security we have through Christ, a believer’s life should be a joyful affair. In the Good News of Christ’s resurrection, God has, indeed, “made known to me the path of life.” Even though we journey through a vast and howling wilderness filled dead bones, God is our portion and our possession, who leads us day by day. Even death cannot destroy our joy, because “you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasure at your right hand.” Note that the promise of eternal pleasure does not focus on the physical pleasure of having 70 virgins, but on the spiritual pleasure of being in God’s presence. And being God’s treasured possession does not lead to jihad, but to joy. The security that comes from belonging to Jesus Christ leads to a joyful affirmation of life even in a world filled with death and sorrow.
After 9/11, America has poured untold trillions of dollars and man hours and technological expertise into creating what we call “Homeland Security.” We all support the general idea of trying to make our nation secure from terrorist threats. But we also know very well that no amount of human effort can produce genuine security. Talking about all that human effort will provide us with a ready-made opening for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” (First question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism)
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