Commentary on Psalm 16
In the context (wake, aftermath, light) of Easter, Psalm 16 proposes a contrast of sorts, between “the holy ones” (verse 3) and “those who choose another god” (verse 4).1
This contrast is set within the opening and closing verses of the psalm; the opening verse is a call for help, “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge,” while the closing verse is an affirmation of trust, “You show me the path of life…” This contrast lies between the “present” reality of need (Protect me!) and the hoped-for reality of deliverance (in your presence there is fullness of joy), and implies a decision of sorts: to say of the Lord, “you are my lord,” or to choose some other God.
The psalmist’s answer is clear. Verse 2 offers her declaration of intent, “I say to the Lord, you are my lord.” Here again we have “Lord” and “Lord.” The word “Lord,” capital “L” with “ord” in small caps, is the Hebrew name for God: Yahweh, and “Lord,” capital “L” with lowercase “ord” is the translation of the Hebrew word adonay, which means lord, or master. The psalmist’s theological declaration of intent pairs these words to say, absent any confusion, that Yahweh is her Lord and God.
The bulk of the body of the psalm that follows is an exploration of what it means that God, Yahweh, is my Lord. The key word there is “my.” Four more times the word “my” is used in the psalms to expand on theology at work. The Lord is called:
“my chosen portion,” “my cup,” and “my lot,” in 16:5
and is described as being “at my right hand” in 16:8. To claim God as “my Lord” brings an intimacy, a closeness, and a provision, that is entirely dependent on God. The lot of the psalmist is cast entirely with the Lord. “Portion” and “cup” are also found together in Psalm 11:6, in which the “portion of their cup,” “their” being the wicked, shall be “a scorching wind.” Portion and cup, in both of these cases, Psalms 11 and 16, are relational; one gets in kind what one deserves in these psalms, and this is used to call upon God to deliver the pray-er by providing the portion and cup of one who is in right relationship with God.2
Another striking element of Psalm 16 is just how much of the psalmist is given over to, and then influenced by calling the Lord “my Lord,” and, again, the word “my” is key.
In contrast to those who “choose another god,” our psalmist will not “take their names upon my lips.” The antecedent of “their” is ambiguous, and may mean that the psalmist will not speak the names of the unrighteous who have turned away from the Lord. But in the context of the comparison which the psalm sets up I am inclined to take “their” as referring to any other god than the Lord.
“My lips” will not speak their names; “my lips” will not speak any other name than that of the Lord. The psalmist argues that the confession of lips has an effect on the rest of the body:
“my heart instructs me,” because of the counsel of the Lord, in 16:7,
which leads to “my heart” being “glad,” “my soul” rejoicing, and “my body” resting secure in. The fundamental claim of the psalm is that in the Lord, there is security, joy, comfort, deliverance, and protection. When one says to the Lord, “you are my Lord,” the lot is cast, and the inheritance is ensured. The confession of faith and that which is trusted are bound together. And so, the aim of the psalm is the same as its claim; to invite all who read/hear it to join in claiming the Lord as God, to say to this God “you are my Lord,” and so be one with our God.
Easter Sunday provides a certain sort of context for this contrast, and this invitation. Will we choose a God who suffers and dies? Do we trust that it is to the cross and through the grave that the path of life runs? Shall we believe this unbelievable counsel—that in Christ Jesus God has chosen us, and shown us the way? Can we “drink his cup”?
- Commentary first published on this site on April 23, 2017.
- It is interesting to note that in Psalm 63:11 the word translated as “portion” here is translated in the NRSV as “prey”; those who seek the life of the author of that psalms are going to “be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for the jackals”; i.e. their “portion” is to be lunch.
April 16, 2023