Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 18, 2018

Psalm 16 Commentary

Commentaries. Sometimes they are a wonderful help to the preacher, sometimes they are a hindrance. I looked through a few commentaries on this Psalm, and came away somewhat more confused than when I started.

Commentaries often try to figure out the background of the Psalm in question. Who was the author? What was the occasion? What sort of liturgical background does it have? Is this pre-exilic or post-exilic? These are all good questions, and, perhaps, they are even important in their own way.

It’s just that sometimes they seem to miss the point. And I can’t see myself regaling the congregation with the various theories about its original setting, or testing their patience on whether, for example, the “holy ones” of verse 3 are actually holy, or are religious syncretists. I’ll have them either sleeping or rebelling before I’m half way through.

Why? Because that’s not the way we read Psalms, not even we preachers. We read them for their strong words of faith, their honest questions, their crushing laments. We take confidence in their depictions of God’s goodness, strength, compassion, and kingly rule. More than that, we read them as our own Psalm; the words become our words, not the words of some long ago figure at a far-off time and place.

I noticed that a number of commentaries either ignored or skimmed over the fact that both the apostles Peter (Acts 2: 34-38) and Paul (Acts 13: 35) directly linked the last verses of Psalm 16 to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In fact, the apostles combed the Psalms for every possible way in which they might refer to Jesus life and death.  This might be an opportunity to do a little teaching on that remarkable way of reading the Psalms (or the whole Old Testament for that matter.

David is one of the key figures in the Old Testament. The story of David is the longest single narrative in the whole Bible, stretching all the way from I Samuel 16 when he is anointed by Samuel through his death in I Kings 2. Despite his obvious faults, he is the quintessential king. And right from the beginning, David and Jesus are closely linked in the gospels. He is the “Son of David,” the one promised in the God’s covenant with David that a descendant (son) would sit on his throne forever. (II Samuel 7: 12-17, Luke 1:32) So, David is deeply associated with the Psalms (he wrote at least some of them) and he is deeply associated with Christ as the “son of David.”

That remarkable relationship made the Psalms the most quoted book in the New Testament. It was the text for many of the apostle’s messages, as well as the main Old Testament reference in Paul’s epistles.

This may not fit the modern hermeneutical principles of many biblical scholars today, but there is an increasing realization that we need to make room in our hermeneutic for this way of recognizing Christ in the Psalms, and throughout the Old Testament for that matter). The Bible is a deeply mysterious book that does not yield easily to our principles and methodologies. We need to learn to read it more humbly on its own terms, and with a reverence for the Holy Spirit’s deep involvement.

The Psalm begins with a plea for protection, but as a whole it reads like what we today would call a testimony. The title from the Septuagint calls it a Miktam of David. We don’t really know what a Miktam is; the term is used here, and in Psalms 56-59, and they are all associated with David, often with some experience in his life. Some scholars (yes we need them!) find an association with the word and a carved stone stile made in commemoration. If that’s the case, this “stile” is a personal testimony of David carved in stone.

As mentioned above, verse 2 is often understood as a contrast to the opening testimony. The “holy ones” as translated by the NRSV, are then seen as other pagan gods who are worshipped by “syncretists” alongside the God of Israel. That, in turn, gives rise to verse 3, a warning against choosing other gods. From that point on, the Psalm resolves into a pure testimony to personal faith in God, now Jahweh instead of the El in verse 1.

In verses 5 and 6 the Psalmist then recalls the early days of Israel when God led them out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Hebrew words translated “portion” and “boundary lines” are also used in Joshua for the dividing of the Land to the tribes and households of Israel.

The Psalmist now uses those words as part of a personal testimony of his relationship with God’s and God’s providential care.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.

These words are often read as one’s personal heritage, such as upbringing in the faith or in the church. But notice that the writer begins by saying “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.” The focus is on the Lord rather than on the various aspects of the heritage. The “heritage” is not so much the particular circumstances or familial gifts of the testimony, but the Lord himself. In other words, even when things are not so “pleasant,” when the Lord is his chosen lot.

In verses 7 and 8 the Psalmist gives testimony to the central place the Lord has in his life.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.

 I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.


The Lord gives counsel, the one who dwells not only in heaven, but in the human heart, gives instruction. I am struck by the very intimate and personal aspects of this relationship. In many Psalms, like Psalm 119, the counsel comes through the Law of the Lord. While not denying that, here the Psalmist seems to highlight the more personal and immediate aspects of the Lord’s counsel and guidance.

I wonder to what extent we are willing to leave room for this kind of immediate and personal guidance from the Lord. It can seem dangerous to rely on it exclusively, but to deny it altogether pushes the Lord, the Spirit, out of personal experience.

Finally, those famous words that are taken up into the apostolic testimony to Jesus.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.

 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

It is one thing for us to have glad hearts and rejoicing in our souls, but the Psalmist goes farther — “My body also rests secure.” This reminds us that the Bible is anchored not in heavenly or spiritual truth, but in creation. Our relationship with God is not only spiritual, but also physical, not only with our souls, but with our bodies. God’s salvation is aimed at the whole creation.

We may sometimes talk in terms of the body/soul dichotomy, but ultimately the Bible insists on the bodily reality of human life. We are not complete human beings apart from our bodily existence. As the Creed proclaims: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

The most terrible aspect of death for the Psalmists is separation from God. Psalm 115:3 acknowledges that it is not the dead who praise the Lord, death silences them. Therefore the ultimate hope for the Psalmist is that God will not give him up to Sheol, the place of the silent dead. The Psalmist cannot imagine that his deep bond with the Lord can be broken, even by death.

However tenuous this faith may have been for the Psalmist, it becomes the cornerstone of God’s saving power in Jesus Christ. In Acts 2, Peter’s great Pentecost sermon reaches its climax with a meditation on Psalm 16.

Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne.  Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

The “professional atheists” like Harris and Hitchens like to tell us that we have evolved out of a primordial soup by a meaningless and purposeless material process, and we will sink back into it when we die. Yet, the hope for life beyond the grave is graven into human consciousness as far back as we can go. It was always woven into human religious sensibility.

The bottom line message of the Bible is that God will not abandon us to death. David’s son and God’s Son, our human brother, has conquered the grave, torn open the bars of Sheol, and overcome the advancing weakness and corruption that plagues our existence.

The Psalmist (David?) sings in hope:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

David’s son declares:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11: 25-26)

Please Note: Year C Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are available on CEP.

Preaching the Text:

A couple of quotes from C. S. Lewis’ Miracles,

The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the pioneer of life,’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.

To preach Christianity meant (to the Apostles) primarily to preach the Resurrection. … The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought. (Miracles, ch. 16)


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