Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 14, 2021
Psalm 16 Commentary
Probably we misread Psalm 16, or at least its most famous verses about how our bodies will rest secure. We have all been to our share of funerals that lift out verses 9-11 and put a resurrection spin on them. And maybe as Christians exegeting the Old Testament there is something right about that. All biblical authors told more than they knew. That is one of the things the Holy Spirit does when inspiring divine Scripture. So the idea that Psalm 16 points beyond itself all the way to the post-Easter reality in which Christians live is not far-fetched or wrong.
Still, let’s at least be clear that this Hebrew poet was not talking about life beyond the grave exactly the way most Christians think about such matters. When he says his body will rest secure, it is more likely he means he will sleep well. What he wants here is not a resurrected life beyond the grave but to avoid the grave for as long as possible, preferably forever if that were possible.
We too easily read backwards onto the Old Testament ideas about what happens to us when we die—most of our ideas would actually have been foreign to ancient Israelites. They believed that all people—the moral, the immoral, the indifferent—went to a not-so-pleasant post-mortem holding tank called Sheol, “the realm of the dead” as referred to in verse 10. To be clear, going to Sheol was a source of dread for even the most devout of Israelites. And it is going there that this psalmist is asking God to stave off for him by sparing his life from whatever threatening enemies he was facing when he penned this poem.
So when we read this as meaning, “I will die but I will be just fine because I will go to be with the Lord in delight and felicity, even prior to the resurrection of my body at the last day,” then we are not getting the original meaning of Psalm 16. Not even close. But what about “eternal pleasures” and being at God’s right hand forevermore? That sure sounds like a post-mortem hope that resonates with our Easter hope in Jesus, doesn’t it? Well, yes, and again: this poet pointed (by the Spirit) to more than he knew or was aware of. Even so, it may be that precisely how this psalmist would have filled in the details on what he meant would look quite different to us as Christians today.
So let’s proclaim the resurrection through Psalm 16 but let’s do so noting how our hopes for eternal life have changed over time. The truth is—and it is a wonderful truth if you approach it the right way—the ancient Israelites could not quite have conceived of how God would ultimately pull off salvation. But their wonderment at what we now know from reading the Gospel can become our renewed wonderment if we can see the Good News through fresh (or refreshed) eyes.
Is it possible that we have at times become too sangfroid about even the Gospel? Do we think that what God would end up doing through Jesus Christ had been fairly obvious all along? Because it wasn’t. It was an utter surprise. It remains a surprise. It remains what C.S. Lewis and others have called very simply “The Grand Miracle.” What an utter surprise that the God to whom we cry for help (even as the poet of Psalm 16 does) became a human zygote in the womb of a woman. What an utter surprise that he grew up mostly in obscurity until very late in his life when he finally lit out on a rabbinic ministry that few people understood at the time and that got him crossed out by the Romans before it was all over (and with some of God’s own people pulling the strings behind the scenes).
The Son of God got made flesh, and the world murdered that flesh. And this was not an accident. This was part of the plan. This WAS the plan. Because through that death God did an end run on death. The poet of Psalm 16 would find that to be utterly amazing, a newer thought than he could have ever imagined encountering. Death was what he was desperately trying to avoid and he could see no good coming out of any death ever. So the thought that God himself would one day involve himself directly in our human experience of death as a way to give us eternal access to those blessings in God’s right hand forevermore . . . well, that would have been a cause for deep wonderment and no small amount of marveling!
It ought to be no different for us.
As the global pandemic stretches on and on, a lot of us are thinking a lot more about vaccines than usual. Many of us got a COVID vaccine, some of us have recently gotten a booster as well as a seasonal flu shot, and now we are pondering whether younger kids will be getting vaccinated against COVID. Small wonder that on the first of November the Oxford Dictionary people entered a new word into its approved list and made it the 2021 Word of the Year: it is the word “vax.”
But as Neal Plantinga once pointed out, in John 3 in his conversation with Nicodemus when Jesus compared what the Son of Man would do to what happened when Moses cured snakebites by lifting up the image of a serpent on a pole, it was kind of a spiritual vaccine to which Jesus was pointing. Like cures like. We defeat diseases by infecting ourselves with a tiny or inert amount of that very disease so our bodies can build the army of antibodies to attack it in the future. (Or now the mRNA vaccines contain tiny instruction manuals for our bodies to produce the needed antibodies.)
So in the Gospel: the surprise of the crucifixion and resurrection is that death cures death. Christ’s death inoculates us from eternal death. The very thing the poet of Psalm 16 was in dread of—going down to the grave—somehow became the portal to that everlasting life of delight at God’s right hand that the psalmist desired.
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