Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 23, 2017

Psalm 16 Commentary

Psalm 16 is the perfect Psalm for this second Sunday of the Easter season. The last 3 verses were the text for Peter’s Pentecost sermon, in which he proved from Scripture that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been at the heart God’s plan of salvation.  Psalm 16 is also the perfect Psalm for our times.  The first verse of Psalm 16, which sets the tone for the entire Psalm, taps directly into the intense search for security that dominates our terror haunted time.  “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.”  Fascinatingly, the Easter theme of Psalm 16 is exactly the solution to our frantic search for safety.  Let’s take a closer look at both.

In this second decade of the 21st Century, the old Peanuts comic strip paints an accurate picture of Everyman and Everywoman.  There stands Linus clutching his security blanket to his cheek.  As long as he has that blanket, all is well.  But all is not well, because Snoopy is lurking somewhere off on the next panel of the comic strip.  At the moment when Linus is feeling most secure, Snoopy will come tearing along and rip that security blanket from Linus’ hand.  And Linus’ world will fall apart.

That’s us, holding tightly to whatever give us a feeling of security, whether that’s the power of government assuring us of homeland security or a comprehensive insurance policy or a carefully constructed portfolio or a set of religious beliefs and practices.  But the dogs of war or sickness or accident or market collapse lurk just off the screen of our vision.

No wonder the construction of safe rooms is a booming business.  A safe room (also called a panic room) is a fortified room that is installed in a private residence or business to provide safe shelter, or a hiding place, for the inhabitants in the event of a break in, home invasion, tornado, terror attack or other threat.  The Internet is filled with ads for such safe room.  “Peace of mind with RSC steel safe rooms” reads one ad.

Psalm 16 points us in a very different direction in our frantic quest for security.  As I said, the first verse is the theme text of the entire Psalm, and it should be the theme text for our time.  “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.”  It’s a prayer of trust.  The simple petition is based on a simple profession of faith—“for in you I take refuge.”  You are my safe room.  The rest of the Psalm shows us the deep meaning of such a simple faith.

Verse 3 shows us the central pillar of that secure faith with a play on words.  “I said to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord….’”  The capital letters of the first Lord indicate that the Hebrew word there is Yahweh, the quintessential covenant name of God.  The smaller case letters in the second Lord point to the fact that this is a different Hebrew word.  It’s the word Adonai, a word that connotes power and authority.  In using that word, David is saying, Yahweh owns me; I belong to him.  Not only is he my covenant Lord who has promised to be with me through thick and thin, but he is also my Lord and Master, to whom I have given my whole life.

Here’s the point of that play on words.  Only when we have made God our absolute Master will we experience the security of dwelling in him.  This verse reminds me of the First Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism with which I was raised from a very early age.  “What is your only comfort in life and in death?  That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In verses 3 and 4 Psalm 16 continues to narrow the focus of the trust that brings security.  As James Luther Mays says, such trust must be monotheistic, not pluralistic.  I will not run after other gods.  I will rely on Yahweh, my Lord, alone.  Ancient Israel was surrounded and infiltrated by a host of other potential sources of security and prosperity, as are we.  But running after such false gods will disappoint us, because they cannot give security.  Even worse they will also “increase our sorrows.”  Dividing our loyalties between the true God and any of these fake substitutes will only deepen our insecurity.

In verses 5 and 6 David begins to describe the blessings of taking refuge in God alone, using familiar images from Israel’s life.  “My portion” and “my cup” and “my lot” have all been assigned to us by God himself.  The language harks back to the days of Joshua when Yahweh apportioned the Promised Land to the various tribes and clans and families.  They didn’t get their lot by human invention, but by divine intervention.  So human intervention cannot take that inheritance away.  It was God’s to give and to take.

So, as long as Israel trusted in Yahweh, their lot and portion and cup was safe.  It was only when they forsook Yahweh for the other gods around them that he took away their inheritance and sent them into Exile.  But then in his covenant faithfulness, he brought them back to the place where he had drawn the boundary lines.  Interestingly, Israel is back in that land again today, fighting like a wildcat to keep the inheritance.  Will such human efforts make them secure?  Or, as Psalm 16 says, will security finally come only to those who put absolute trust in Yahweh alone?

Indeed, Psalm 16 suggests very strongly that the greatest blessing for those who take refuge in God alone is their relationship with God.  The greatest benefit of trusting God is not what God gives us; it is precisely having such a relationship of trust.  Verse 2 says, “apart from you I have no good thing.”  That might be nothing more than an acknowledgement that all blessing flow from God.  But it might also be the deeper confession that God himself is the greatest blessing in life.  Psalm 73:25 says that most clearly. “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”  If that is our deepest confession, nothing can ultimately rip away our security, because God is our all in all.  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In verse 8 David expresses the complete security of those whose focus is on God and God alone.  “I have set the Lord always before me.  Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”  In that first sentence, David “practices the presence” of the Lord.  By deliberate actions of our wills, and by strong concentration of our faith, perhaps supported and strengthened by spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation, we must keep our focus on the Lord.

But even when we lose our focus and our eyes begin to dart around in search of our Snoopy, the Lord is still at our right hand.  Our security, in other words, does not depend on our vigilance.  It depends on the Lord’s faithfulness.  Because he is beside us in the position of complete authority, we will not be shaken.

That’s easy to say.  But what happens when the ultimate enemy attacks.  It’s easy to have a glad heart and a joyful tongue when the lines have fallen in pleasant places, but what happens to our faith when death comes to visit.  If we have not made the Lord our refuge in life, our Master in all things, and the Center of our desires and loves, the invasion of death will shake us.  I’ve seen it happen to many a fine church member who had professed faith in Christ.  Death shakes us.

So, it helps us to hear David’s confidence in the face of death: “my body will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”  That is a remarkable statement of faith for the Old Testament, where almost uniformly death is the end of things, including one’s relationship with God.  “Death in the Psalms is not only the loss of one’s vital existence.  It is also the loss of the presence of God and the pleasure of his presence.  It is God who is lost in death.”  (Mays)

David has confidence that this will not happen to him.  His hope is for more than this life.  It is true that many scholars wonder exactly what to make of these last 3 verses.  But Peter and Paul in the New Testament knew exactly what they meant.  In Acts 2:24-32 and 13:34, both of those central apostles proclaimed that these verses in Psalm 16 were about the resurrection of Jesus.  Though David could not have known that, the early church knew because of their encounter with the risen Christ.  As Patrick Henry Reardon says in Christ in the Psalms, “The Church’s experience of the risen Christ is the source of all correct understanding of Holy Scripture.”

Perhaps because of the Lord’s “counsel” (verse 7), David had new insight into the fate of believers after death (cf. the way Psalm 23 ends).  “You have made known to me the path of life,” he says in verse 11.  God has surely made that path known to us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the path of eternal life has been opened to all who put their trust in him.  His resurrection guarantees ours (cf. I Cor. 6:14, II Cor. 4:14, and Romans 8:11).  We will not be abandoned to the grave.  Our bodies will not see decay.  We will not lose God when we die; rather he “will fill us with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at his right hand.”

The ultimate security is knowing that even when we die, we live.  In speaking to Martha whose life had been deeply shaken by the invasion of death, Jesus spoke to all who take refuge in him.  “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  Our answer will determine whether we enjoy security in our times.

Illustration Idea

An estranged wife and her diabetic pre-teen daughter have just purchased a renovated brownstone in New York.  To their delight they discover that the previous owner had installed a safe room.  Very soon they discover to their horror that they will need that room, because three burglars break into their new home.  Mother and daughter race to the safe room, followed by the sinister thieves.  Unfortunately, the previous owner hadn’t gotten around to installing a telephone in that room, so they can’t call out for help.  The daughter has no insulin with her and is slipping into diabetic shock. And, worst of all, the intruders know they are in the room.  In fact, they have broken into the house precisely to get something that the previous owner had left in that room, namely, three million dollars.  In a movie filled with terror, the safe room becomes the title of the movie, “Panic Room.”  Ultimately all of our safe rooms become panic rooms, because they cannot provide us the safety we crave.  Only by trusting the Lord as our refuge can we enjoy a panic free security.


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