Commentary on Psalm 16
In the Acts 2:25-28 story of Pentecost, Peter recites Psalm 16:8-11 in his address to the gathered people about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, thus linking the death and resurrection of Jesus to the words of Psalm 16.
Psalm 16 is classified by some as an individual lament, in which an individual cries out to God in the midst of a perilous, even life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five elements:
- an invocation, in which the psalmist invokes the presence of God as she cries for help
- a complaint, or lament, in which the psalm singer tells God what is wrong, the situation in which she finds herself that prompts the words of the psalm
- a petition, in which the singer tells God what she wants God to do to alleviate the oppression that she feels
- words of trust, in which the psalmist recalls times in the past when God came to her rescue or to the rescue of others
- an expression of praise, in which the psalm singer acknowledges the good provisions of God for her.
But the psalm’s form is a bit unusual. First, an invocation occurs only once, in verse 1, and further references to God are in the third person voice—verse 2, “I say to the LORD”; verse 5, “The LORD is my chosen portion”; and verse 7, “I bless the LORD.” Second, Psalm 16 has no complaint/lament, and only a few words of petition—in verses 1 and 4:
“Protect me … Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.”
The remaining verses of the psalm express words of trust and words of praise in verses 1-3 and 5-11. The lack of complaint/lament and the abundance of words of trust and praise leads some commentators to identify Psalm 16 as a Psalm of Confidence or a Confession of Faith.1 So how do we understand this rather enigmatic psalm, one that seems to reflect a perilous situation for the psalm singer, but which lacks any description of the peril besetting the psalm singer?
One clue may be found in Psalm 16’s verbal and thematic links to the psalm preceding it, Psalm 15, which opens with the words “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” and describes that person in detail as one who “walks blamelessly, and does what is right” (Psalm 15:2). The final verse of Psalm 15 states that the person who does so “will never be moved” (verse 5).
The singer of Psalm 16 states in verses 1-4 that she has chosen to reverence the LORD and not any other gods; and because she has chosen the LORD and keeps God always before her, God is at her right hand, and she will never be moved (verse 8), echoing the promise of Psalm 15:5. Therefore, the psalm singer is confident that she may abide in the LORD’s tent, on the LORD’s holy hill.
One can only imagine the emotional dynamics of the people gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost after the ascension of Jesus. What happens now? What does the future hold? Peter’s words of confidence in Acts 2:25-28, quoting from Psalm 16, I suggest, reassured his listeners that the great psalm singer David affirmed centuries before the life and death of Jesus that Jesus said concerning God, “he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken … for you (God) will not abandon my soul to Hades … you (God) have made known to me the ways of life” (verses 25, 27, 28—NRSV). Peter spoke words of hope to this gathered community of followers of Jesus who were not sure what the next step in life was for them, assuring them that they could and would indeed abide in the LORD’s tent and dwell on God’s holy hill.
How then do we, in the 21st century, appropriate the words of Psalm 16 and understand Peter’s appropriation of them in the New Testament’s account of Pentecost? A clue, I think, may be found in its superscription, where it is called “a Miktam of David.” The Hebrew root of miktam means something like “to be inscribed, to be written,” with the idea of “to be made permanent.” Therefore, a possible meaning for miktam is a “carved inscription,” indicating perhaps that this prayer (Psalm 16) was written down and deposited at the temple so that it could be offered to God over and over again.2
Psalm 16 invites ever-new appropriations of its words in the lives of the faithful. With each breathing moment, we humans must decide between “other gods” (Psalm 16:4) and the one true God, between that which offers immediate gratification or easy answers to life’s pressing issues and that which remains unchanging throughout life.
Quoting the confident words of Psalm 16 from a psalm singer who has decided to reject the worship of other gods and throw her lot in with this Yahweh God, Peter assures the gathering at Pentecost that they, too, can cling to the perhaps unknown and unknowable presence of Yahweh God and know that they will not be moved (Psalms 15:5 and 16:8).
J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 343; and Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 96.
See Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 152.