Psalm 16 presents the words of a person whose life appears to be going swimmingly. Everything is working for this poet. These look to be the words of a winner, of a person who was born sunny-side up as a confirmed optimist. And I suspect we’ve all met people like this. I also suspect that at least some of us have come to quietly despise these same people!
We know the type. They are the parents of golden children–offspring who never gave their parents any trouble, who did well in school, made profession of faith as teenagers already, succeeded in college, married well, and now have their own golden children. We know the type. They’ve succeeded in everything to which they’ve turned their hands. Their businesses have bloomed, even during recessions. On a lark they bought Microsoft stock when it was still in single digits. Their snazzy cars never break down, their bodies seem incapable of gaining weight, their skin is perennially tan, their golf came is shockingly good.
We know the type. Not only can they afford to take a Caribbean cruise, they also end up being the one-millionth passenger and so win another cruise free of charge. Oh yes, we know the type. Call them lucky, call them charmed, call them blessed. But if you are not such a person yourself–if you feel like you’ve had to struggle and scrape for what little you’ve got–if that’s you, then life’s winners drive you a little nuts.
So we don’t really want to read these folks’ autobiographies. We don’t want to be subjected to a litany of how life’s boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places, about how the one time they did get sick they were suddenly cured, about how full their cup is with expensive Cabernet. We don’t want to hear about all the flashes of insight God keeps pouring into their hearts seeing as we feel like we’ve not heard from God in months. We don’t want to hear the Jeff Bezos types of this world say, as this psalmist says in verse 1, “Protect me, O God! Keep me safe!” “Yeah right,” we are tempted to sneer. “Like the successful really need any more help! What do they have to worry about?!”
Then again, maybe we need to take another look at this psalm. Life is full of variety. There are some people whose lives have been charmed from the get-go. There are also some whose lives have seemed nearly cursed from the get-go. There are Psalm 88 folks and Psalm 16 folks. But in truth, most of us have experienced a little of both.
The Book of Psalms is designed to help us through all those different times. Psalm 16 fits the happy times. Psalm 16 reminds us that life does have a lot of pleasures, benefits, and delights. That’s true for some people all the time and it’s true for most of us at least some of the time. But this psalmist is not arrogantly saying, “Hey, everybody! Look at me! Look how good I’ve got it!” This psalmist is not trying to show off. Instead the point of this psalm is to suggest that particularly in prosperous times, we need to work hard to keep God the bright center to everything. And that’s more difficult than you might think. After all, when are we more likely to forget God: when we are beaten up by life’s heartaches or when we’re fluffed up by life’s joys? When do we find ourselves more prone to pray? When we’re in trouble or when we’re doing just fine? I think we know the answer.
Of course, if you are yourself in a wilderness period right now, you’re not much moved to hear about how perilous it is to be rich. Sometime back I was visiting someone who is quite well-off financially and I noticed a book on his shelf entitled The Agony of Affluence. And I thought, “Uh-huh, must be really rough to have so much money! You may as well write a book about The Heartache of Good Health or The Misery of a Meaningful Marriage!”
My cynicism aside, however, the fact is that the good times of life do present spiritual dangers. That’s why we should not read the opening verse of Psalm 16 and snort at how we don’t want to hear a well-off person pleading for safety. Because that opening verse sets the stage for the rest of the psalm. Verse 1 declares that the challenge of trusting God is to keep God at the center as the supreme reality of our lives.
Samuel Johnson once said that a death sentence has a marvelous way of concentrating the mind. True enough. If you are waiting for some lab results and the doctor calls you up and says, “I think maybe you’d better come in to the office so we can talk,” well, you can be assured that your thoughts will start getting very serious very fast. It’s not hard to think about the ultimate things of life and of God when a sword is dangling by a thread right over your head! The “trick” is to have a well-concentrated mind when there is no death sentence but only a full life of blessings and abundance. That’s why every single verse of this brief psalm drips with words of gratitude to God. Ten times in just 11 verses this psalmist uses the word “you” in addressing Yahweh. In every line of this psalm the psalmist is essentially declaring, “The Lord is everything to me.”
No matter who you are or what your particular lot in life, keeping God always before your eyes is your proper vocation. For this psalmist that means locating God in the midst of a life awash in blessings. Again, this psalmist is not bragging about his life but is instead taking proper stock in what he has and then locating God at every turn. God is the author of all this person’s blessings.
Now we know full well that those sunny preachers who guarantee material success to anyone who has enough faith are patently wrong. There are no such guarantees in the Bible. All those psalms of lament, all Jesus’ predictions of persecution for his followers, demonstrate that the simple equation “Faith = Success” represents nothing short of a heresy.
However, if your life has blessings in it, then you must assume the stance of Psalm 16 and attribute those blessings to God. Because the bottom line of this psalm is that God alone is the One who can show us the path of life. And when verse 11 talks about that path, the psalmist is not referring to the road that leads to Wall Street successes. No, this “path of life” is the road that leads to God’s kingdom. It’s the road home, to the place from which we came in God’s good creation and the place to which we need to return.
Sometimes in his paraphrase of the Bible The Message, the late Eugene Peterson maybe got a little too colloquial. But there is usually something in his language that can refresh familiar texts for us, including a fairly familiar poem like Psalm 16. Consider his paraphrasing of the final lines of the psalm:
5-6 My choice is you, God, first and only.
And now I find I’m your choice!
You set me up with a house and yard.
And then you made me your heir!
7-8 The wise counsel God gives when I’m awake
is confirmed by my sleeping heart.
Day and night I’ll stick with God;
I’ve got a good thing going and I’m not letting go.
9-10 I’m happy from the inside out,
and from the outside in, I’m firmly formed.
You canceled my ticket to hell—
that’s not my destination!
11 Now you’ve got my feet on the life path,
all radiant from the shining of your face.
Ever since you took my hand,
I’m on the right way.
The last line here of a pathway being lit up by the radiance of God’s face even as God’s hand is holding the hand of the psalmist may speak to what was suggested in this sermon commentary: namely, this is not the bragging of some “lucky” winner in life who just never seems able to catch a bad break. This is all a tribute to the God from whom we receive whatever blessings we may have at any given moment and from whom we are promised the ultimate blessing of being in the kingdom of God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 30, 2019
Psalm 16 Commentary