Commentary on Psalm 16
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is yet to come” is a central passage in the Mark text for this week and it could serve as a parallel for Psalm 16.
The psalm is one of trust in uncertain times. The opening verse asks for God’s protection and refuge. The pleas are not as urgent as a lament, fitting well with the Mark text where the world seems to be falling apart and there is fear in the air, but no immediate or specific threat.
My family and I play a game with the local and national news programming. We list all of the things we were told to be afraid of in a 30-minute span. Try it; the average is 6-8 per broadcast and it ranges from races of persons, to scary multi-national terror groups, to “the dangers of sunscreen.” It is my way of showing my children just how much of the media is designed to keep them fearful. It is an inoculation of sorts because clearly, fear sells. The author of the Gospel of Mark and this psalm knew that and both texts serve as an antidote to a culture selling fear. The theme of both texts is to trust in the Lord and to ignore those who say otherwise. It means to trust God in the face of an uncertain future.
The psalm is written in five stanzas of 2 verses each, making it symmetric in nature. The first and last stanzas are statements of trust, providing a circular movement. The psalm begins with an imperative plea to God to “keep or guard me for I take refuge in you.” At the end of the day, nothing can protect us from danger and uncertainty is difficult and anxiety producing, but no matter what or where, one can find refuge in God. The stanza then quickly moves further declaring not only God’s protection but “I have no good apart from you.” It is more than safety then, happiness and God is found only in God or the gifts God provides.
Psalms usually provide some type of contrast. Modern folk can find this distracting, but it is simply the shape of ancient poetry and so the second stanza (Psalm 16:3-4) is just that. It contrasts the “holy ones in the land” with “those who choose another god” and a promise not to follow the latter. Scholars have tried to decipher who these holy ones are but even without an exact definition, it is clear that this stanza directly relates to the concept of what is good from above. Good is found in God and not others and this is simply a reaffirmation of the first commandment. In a similar way, Deuteronomy 10:13 implores the people to keep the commandments, not for God’s sake, but because it is good for them to do so.
The next stanza returns to the good that God gives (Psalm 16:5-6). Here the psalm moves far beyond combating fear or going after other gods. There are two words in Hebrew that defy easy definition. The first is ‘asher often translated as “happy” and the other is tamim or “complete.” Yet this psalm serves as a good definition for both. The person who has the characteristics in this psalm is “complete” and because he/she is complete, he/she is happy and content. God has provided boundaries that are praised. God’s gifts of a portion and an inheritance are enough for the one praying and worthy of praise. We are to be content in God and the parameters placed on human existence.
This concept of contentment can be tricky to preach today because it is not about material or monetary value. A preacher must be careful not to imply that the broken systems of this world are justified and one should just be content in the face or racism, sexism, under employment, and injustice. No! The psalm is not speaking in defense of injustice, nor should we be content with broken systems, but we should be content with God and our relationship with God and our place in God’s kingdom. Indeed, it is this type of personal “completeness” that provides the strength and confidence to speak out against worldly powers. Despite what we are not by the world’s standards, God has given to us what we need and even our conscience is a gift for it keeps us in the ways of the Lord. The next stanza (vv 7-8) continues the confession declaring the greatness of the Lord for God’s teaching and God’s constant presence. The psalm blesses God for the gift of counsel and a conscience that is guided by God keeping us from the wrong paths in life.
The psalm ends with resounding praise of what is to come in the future and that future is secure in God’s hands. Here again the Gospel lesson and the psalm mesh together into a powerful message. For the Good News of God often becomes twisted into a “rapture theology” that teaches humans to get right with God or face eternal wrath. The end times from the Gospels is yet another thing we are to fear. The Gospel lesson and the psalm both state that future is in God’s hands. The second coming is not the terrible end to our world, but the glorious transformation of old broken systems into justice for all whom the Lord made. “In your presence is complete gladness and everlasting pleasure at your right hand.” The kingdoms of the world are violent and unjust places so trust should be placed in God’s right hand where our complete selves are to be found.