< June 30, 2019 >

Commentary on Psalm 16

 

Psalm 16 is the prayer of one who has devoted herself entirely to God’s care.1 

The prayer of devotion begins with a petition for protection and a confession of dependence on God (verses 1-2). The psalmist then aligns herself with those who have also devoted themselves to God (verse 2). This faithful community stands in contrast to a violent community with a different set of allegiances (verse 3). After comparing these two groups, the psalm describes the many blessings that accrue to the one who seeks refuge in Yahweh (verses 5-11). 

The refugee

The only direct request in the psalm comes right at the start, an imperative verb: shamreni “Protect me!” This Hebrew word has a range of translations related to the act of keeping watch over someone or something and keeping them safe. Thus, in the first verse, the psalmist reveals her fundamental understanding of the nature of divine protection. For the psalmist to be safe means that God’s attention must remain fixed on her. This notion is in keeping with the logic of divine protection in the Psalms more broadly: God takes care of those whom God sees (see also Psalm 1:6; 10:11, 14; 80:14; 145:20; 146:9).

The psalmist has a role to play in getting God’s attention. She does so in two ways. First, quite simply, she calls out to God for help, claiming the status of a refugee (verse 1). Second, she proclaims her complete dependence on God (verse 2). She narrates her own confession of faith as way to underscore it: “I say to Yahweh: ‘You are my Lord. I have no good apart from you.’”2

In the confession, the psalmist recounts how she has claimed that Yahweh is “lord,” that is, the one to whom she owes allegiance and the one whom she obeys. This confession is also a powerful signal of her own agency. Like other types of vows, it is a speech-act that acknowledges, reinforces, and creates a relationship. These words cement the bonds between God and the psalmist.

Two communities

After the psalmist makes her confession of faithfulness to God, she acknowledges that there are others, who like her, have claimed Yahweh as their lord. They are “the holy ones in the land” (verse 3). That they are “noble” indicates that they have been blessed by God and benefited from God’s protection. The psalmist wants to be associated with this blessed community.

By contrast, the following verse describes a community marked by violence. The vivid imagery of “drink-offerings of blood” (verse 4b) suggests a community that has an entirely different orientation than the “holy ones” (verse 3). By choosing not to follow Yahweh, they choose the ways of destruction.

Their beliefs have an impact on their ethics. The psalmist claims fealty to a righteous God who protects refugees. Yet when a community pledges itself to other forces of power, violence results and relationships are destroyed. The psalmist wants no part of these communities and their rituals of violence (verse 4b). In fact, it may be that the psalmist is seeking protection (verse 1) because of the threats coming from this community.

The inheritance of the psalmist

Having described these two communities, the psalmist moves to a meditation on her own personal relationship with Yahweh (verses 5-11). These sections contain numerous first-person singular pronouns, at least one in every verse: “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup” (verse 5); “I bless the LORD” (verse 6); “I have a goodly heritage (verse 7);” “I keep the Lord always before me” (verse 8); “therefore my heart is glad” (verse 9); “You do not give me up” (verse 10); “You show me the paths of life” (verse 11). These verses explore the dynamics of the relationship between God and the psalmist, including both claims about God and direct addresses to God.

While the pronouns stay constant, the imagery shifts rapidly. She employs language drawn from the realm of feasting and celebration (verse 5a) and compares herself to one who has received an inheritance of land, one that is good and bountiful (verses 5b-6). Yahweh also provides wisdom (verse 7) and at all times gives the psalmist surety (verse 8). Such confidence comes only through the knowledge that God is constantly close by. Yet it is not clear whether the psalmist is anticipating these benefits in her life or if these are benefits that are already realized.

This divine nearness has an effect on the whole person. Her “heart,” “soul,” and “body” experience the delight of being with God (verse 9). With such benefits of divine closeness, the psalmist cannot imagine how death could ever touch her (verse 10). 

Connections and theological implications

A version of Psalm 16:8-11 appears in Acts 2:25-28, Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. Attributing these words to David, Peter sees them as a prophecy of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that Jesus “was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay” (Acts 2:31).

This interpretation is possible in part because the psalm seems to reflect a relationship between the deity and the psalmist that is marked by mutual faithfulness. It is also notable for the way the psalm presents an unwavering confidence in deity’s power to provide and protect based on divine intimacy. God is at the psalmist’s right hand (verse 8), and the right hand of God extends blessings to the psalmist forever (verse 11).

Such closeness seems to indicate a special relationship. Yet this in fact the very type of relationship offered to all who seek refuge in God. The psalm puts no limits on who can take up the prayer. Like the psalmist, any of us can say to YHWH, “you are my Lord.” Male or female, in antiquity or in the present. The good news of Jesus Christ is that all can seek refuge in God, as they turn away from violence and turn toward to blessed community who also seek God. The advent of Jesus Christ indicates that the horizon of God’s protection and care extends even beyond the experience of death (see verse 10).

Additionally, when we assume the voice of the psalmist, we put ourselves in solidarity with all of those who need protection, all who would say to Yahweh, “you are my Lord.” The psalm gives us a new identity with through a relationship with God and a new solidarity with any who would turn to God for refuge.


Notes:

  1. Given the historical and social context of Ancient Israel, it is reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the book of Psalms was written by men. Yet the first-person singular pronouns (in English: I, me, my) found so frequently the Psalms are not marked for gender in Hebrew. This grammatical ambiguity creates an openness within the Psalter, such that people of all genders can hear their own voice in the words of the psalmist, whether or not the psalm was originally written by a man. Thus, when speaking about the psalm in sermons or Bible studies, it is generally appropriate to refer to the psalmist with pronouns of any gender. There are special reasons to consider that the speaker in Psalm 16 is a woman. See the thorny text-critical issues in verse 2 discussed in the footnote below.
  2. The NRSV “I say to the LORD” utilizes Septuagintal traditions for this translation. The Masoretic Text, by contrast, suggests the following translation at the beginning of the verse: “You say / you said (’amart) to YHWH.” The “you” here is marked for gender, namely, feminine singular. As such, one could conclude that someone is instructing a female petitioner to make the specific confession of trust, “You are my Lord.” Whether one follows the Masoretic Text or the Septuagintal traditions, the rhetorical effect is similar. Setting the confession of trust apart as a quotation highlights its importance for establishing the relationship between the psalmist and the deity.