Commentary on Psalm 16
People are not sure what to think when they are asked questions like, “Do you want to be close to God?” or “How will you grow in trust and intimacy with God?” The answer sounds too simple to be true: read the Psalms. Over and over. The language, and the mind and spirit behind the language, creates just this closeness, this tender intimacy.
Psalm 16 can do this work for us, as the Psalm itself is witness to that work having been done in someone, and in the many someones who’ve prayed, sung, chanted and pondered these words for centuries. The words of our final verse are unmatched when it comes to simple eloquence, the single-minded articulation of the benefits of sticking close to God. Pray repeatedly that
“You show me the path of life
In your presence there is fullness of joy
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore,”
and you begin to experience that joy. You’re on the right path.
From various angles, the Psalm explores this life lived close to the heart of God, asking “What is good? With whom do you hang around? Where is your trust placed? Are you content?” Our society, perversely, describes the “good life” as precisely what the Church has warned us are the “seven deadly sins”: envy, greed, sloth, anger, gluttony, pride, lust. But they are still trouble, leaving you hollow. Our Psalm, like Psalm 73, knows that our only good is God. Oversimplifying things? The great saints have taught us what they learned: gradually shedding other goods until there’s nothing left but God is the fullness of life, the experience of complete joy.
What company do we keep? Verse 3 names the holy, noble ones. We might think of a friend as someone like me, someone I enjoy. In ancient times, Aristotle suggested that a friend is someone who makes you wise. St. Augustine said a friend is someone who helps you to love God. As I try to pray, what impact do the people around me have on my praying, and my life?
Verse 4 warns against adhering to false gods. If we recall that a god is whatever we cling to, whatever we think will deliver and bring the good life, then we begin to notice many gods clamoring for our attention, crowding out the one true God. Fawning after what isn’t God is the “multiplication of sorrows.” We have plenty of sorrow anyhow, without augmenting it by the sneaky griefs we bear when chasing after what promises to alleviate sorrow but cannot. Surely we hear an echo here of Genesis 3: Adam and Eve seize the fruit, and then God explains the struggles and pains that will ensue, not as God retaliating against them for sinning, but as the inevitable outgrowth of what life at odds with God the creator will be like.
These “boundary lines” that have “fallen in pleasant places” aren’t about luck or good real estate investments. It’s all about being content. When Israel entered the promised land, the property was divided up by lot, as they perceived that God was giving the whole nation enough land— and here’s your part. Not wishing for the other guy’s plot of land, but accepting what you have, only then do you realize you do have more than enough. Desire and envy are nothing but fear of insufficiency. But God is always sufficient. Even if you only have a little.
Verse 7 envisions a benefit of proximity to God as having excellent “counsel” or “guidance.” Most Christians err by not having all that much to do with God until they are in a pickle or have to make a tough decision—and then they dial up God for some guidance. But if you’re close to God all the time, you may not get in as many pickles, and the guidance isn’t a one-off bit of advice for what to do in a challenging situation, but a constant moving forward in sync with God. One so close to God isn’t blown about like autumn leaves or a small ship in a storm. “I shall not be moved” is a regular declaration of being on solid footing with God.
In religion courses or seminary, we learn that there’s no eternal life, no individual resurrection in the Old Testament. But is there a glimmer of such hope in this Psalm? Could it be that by letting the remarkable, overreaching words of this Psalm come down to us, we see God affording a peek behind that curtain of death—maybe seeing through the glass not so darkly after all? What the Psalmist experiences is knowing God face to face, up close, personally, intimately. Isn’t this what eternal life really is all about? Not the reward for a good life, or the prize for believing, or the payoff for accepting Christ as savior. Eternal life is this, or nothing: that God loves, that we have a relationship with God that is so very precious, not just to us, but to God, that death isn’t strong enough to sever it? God’s intense, relentless love for you is such that, even if you die, God’s not done; God wants, even needs it to continue.
As mentioned earlier, verse 11 doesn’t need to be exegeted. We just hear the words, immerse ourselves in the thought, letting it take on its own lovely reality in the soul and body. Cross-stitch this and hang it on the mantle. Get a tattoo running down your arm. Memorize, and make it your mantra. You may hear Mick Jagger singing “I can’t get no satisfaction,” and in that moment, you respond, with no smugness but only humble joy, “I can.”