Studies in the Psalms

Psalm 16 (KJV)
Michtam of David

Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the LORD, Thou art my Lord;
My goodness extendeth not to thee;

But to the saints that are in the earth,
and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.

Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god:
their drink offerings of blood will I not offer,
nor take up their names into my lips.

The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup:
Thou maintainest my lot.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places;
yea, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel:
my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

I have set the LORD always before me:
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth:
my flesh also shall rest in hope.

For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell;
neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy;
at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

by Floyd Brand

Some of the verses in this psalm could be the prayer of anyone who puts his trust in God. These verses would also be the prayers of the Christ, for his trust in God was perfect. Other verses speak clearly of Christ alone. As the Psalm reads seamlessly otherwise, it seems natural to take the whole of it as directly Christological. It seems forced to divide the Psalm into parts as though some verses are the prayer of Christ alone and others the prayer of the faithful.The heading also steers the reader to take the psalm as a unit. A “Michtam” has the character of an epigram, that is, a concise, profound, and weighty statement, not readily divisible. This “Michtam” (ESV Miktam) then is a brief but comprehensive description of the Messiah in life, and in death, and beyond death. In this article the titles Christ and the Psalmist will be used interchangeably.


Verses 1-3:

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.

The life of the Psalmist stands in grave danger. He cries out to God. His cry is urgent and fervent. Yet it is not a cry of desperation and panic, but of absolute trust and love. He does not turn to the idols. He does not count on man. He does not indulge in a blithe and blind optimism that counts on things turning out well because they just have to. He does not rely on himself or take matters into his own hands. The devout person will take refuge in God because he cannot deliver himself from danger, decay, and death, and because God was his refuge and strength. The Christ took refuge in God because he would not deliver himself, and because God is his refuge and strength. The almighty power of Christ presented a unique temptation. He could have preserved himself, for he is almighty. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3).  He could also have refused the cup at Gethsemane. He could have avoided arrest. He could have come down from the cross. But he did not yield to these temptations or to the countless other temptations not recorded. The Epistle to the Hebrews states his experience: “One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

The Psalmist took refuge in God without pressuring or coercing him. He simply prayed, “Preserve me.” The verb translated “take refuge” occurs nearly forty times in the Old Testament, over half of these in the Psalms. It spans both the emotional and the practical. It embraces the activity of the heart and the activity of hands and feet. Christ conducted himself accordingly, doing what was pleasing to God even though this usually increased the danger to himself. From verses nine and ten it is clear that the Psalmist is facing death and the grave and that he feels the terror common to mortals. The dread was the more overwhelming to the one who saw all things clearly, including death. Out of this trust arises his final petition: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).

He says to the LORD, the living God, “You are my Lord, to you I belong. You are the one whom I serve, with total commitment and in unreserved confidence.” The trust that Jesus placed in the Father was the most childlike faith ever. “You are my Lord. Command, and I shall carry out.” This is the Savior’s own “Here am I! Here am I, send me!”

There are discrepancies in the translation of the last line of verse two and the transition to verse three. One possible construction would be,

I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; [you are] my good; beside you [I have] nothing.’ And to the saints in the land [I say], ‘They are the excellent ones; in them is all my delight.’

God is the highest good there is. He is the Psalmist’s entire treasure and joy and delight. Without God life would be empty. God means everything to him, and without God nothing means anything to him. The nineteenth century theologian Hengstenberg wrote, “Just as Thou art the LORD! is the response of the soul to the words I am the LORD thy God, so Thou only art my salvation! is the response to Thou shalt have no other gods beside me.”

Together with his joy in God is the Psalmist’s joy in the people of God. These are they who have taken to heart the high honor decreed at Sinai: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). As God set them apart for himself, they have set themselves apart for God. In attitude, thought, conviction, conversation, and conduct, they are devoted to God. Since God hates sin and loves righteousness, they are committed to fighting against sin and to the compounding of righteousness in their own heart and life. It was already clear in David’s time that these holy ones were a minority. The faithful are a only a remnant, but this remnant shall continue through all generations. If the Book of Isaiah were compared to a ship, this double truth would be the keel (see ch. 6). It was clear to the Psalmist that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” (Rom. 9:6-7) But the remnant is always there, and Christ rejoices in them, however many or few they may be. Their life is marred by sin and the flesh, but in the future they will be totally glorious, with the splendor and magnificence of God himself reflecting from them and radiating from within them. The basic meaning of the word translated “excellent” is “powerful” or “mighty.” The word then extends to mean distinguished, glorious, noble, splendid, even magnificent. Through the Christ all things were made. Yet his joy in the creation, that great accomplishment, fades before his joy in the sanctified ones. For them the creation was created in the first place. This word “excellent” was used as a title ascribed to gods, to God, to kings and rulers, to the noble ruling class, and even to majestic ships. The jealous God shares titles that properly belong to him alone with those whom he has set apart for himself. He has this unique and holy jealousy. He does not share his glory with another, yet he makes the sanctified “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4) All that makes glad the heart of Christ is bound up in them; for he has given his life to give them life.

Verse 4:

The sorrows of those who run after another god
shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood
I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.

The Psalmist takes refuge in God, and thus he will have nothing to do with idols. He rejoices in the saints of God, and will therefore have nothing to do with those who worship idols. Entering confidently into the fullness of joy (v. 11), he sees the pains beyond measure and beyond count that lie ahead for those who trade the living God, with his benefits, for non-gods with their non-benefits. “Trade in” or “exchange” is a more exact translation here. The opposite of those excellent in the sight of God are they who trade in the living God for anything that is not God. In Jeremiah the same verb has the same meaning: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.” (2:11) The expression “another god” includes idols in the basic sense of the word.  It is a ruinous barter to exchange God, who has life in himself, for gods that are merely the manufactures of human hands and human minds. The verb exchange expands the thought to include anything and everything people choose in place of the living God. For one there is the universal idolatry, the pursuit of happiness through wealth. St. Paul warns against this:  “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim. 6:9) There are of course many other objects and pursuits which people chose in place of God. Except for a couple of modern non-Trinitarian monotheisms, crass idolatry is seldom monotheistic or exclusive. “There may be many so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords.’” (I Cor. 8:5) In living one’s life it is easily possible to pursue any number of things which substitute for God.

“Sacrifices of blood” does not necessarily indicate the substance of the idolater’s libations. This is rather the blood on their hands and on their consciences. It is the “innocent blood” of those who have fallen victim to the idolatrous pursuit of wealth. At the beginning of the Book of Isaiah  stands this verdict: “Your hands are full of blood.” (1:15) Near the end of the same book stands the same judgment: “Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood.” (59:7) Proverbs asserts the connection: “Whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished” (28:20). The KJV reads, “He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.” Because he is not innocent, he will surely be punished.

The Psalmist will distance himself so far from idolatry that he will not even take the names of the idols on his lips. He will not pronounce their names for cursing and swearing, or even in slang and small talk. As they do not exist, their names shall not be uttered.

Verses 5-6:

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

But for the Christ, God himself is his assigned share. His Father in heaven is the cup extended to him. “Cup” stands for one’s lot in life. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Jesus asked the sons of Zebedee. (Matt. 20:22) The reader readily understands the familiar assertion “My cup runneth over” of Ps. 23. (KJV) The “lines” are the surveyor’s measuring lines. These are for marking out the boundaries or the line fences (rural), or the lot lines (urban), to which one is making claim. The lines belong to the Father. He has marked out the Savior’s inheritance for him. The dividing of the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel comes to mind. The tribe of Levi however received no territory of its own, only the right to live in designated cities throughout the land. From these cities they could carry out their ministry of teaching the Word of God to all the Israelites. Their portion, lot, share, or inheritance, was not acreage as it was for the other tribes. Rather, it was the honor and joy and responsibility of teaching the Word of God and attending to the worship of God. The other tribes, though they were blessed with land beautiful and fertile, might well envy the Levites. “Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance.” (Deut. 10:9) In the tribe of Levi and its Aaronic priesthood was concentrated the divine purpose for all Israel, namely that they be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The blessing upon the tribe of Levi was that the Lord exalted them to be a blessing to the entire people of Israel.

Even so, it was a limited blessing. Where the Levites taught the Word of God, this Psalmist himself is the Word. (John 1) Where the chosen family offered sacrifices prophetic and promissory, Christ would offer himself. His propitiation would be effective and final. His sacrifice would be the highest and noblest act of worship ever. It would honor and exalt the character of God, for it would embody his grace. It would be the finest act of obedience. For that, God himself would be Christ’s reward and inheritance. The lines had fallen to him in the most pleasant of all places. The Lord made his inheritance glorious. This is the joy named in verse two: “You are my Lord, I have no good apart from you.” It includes the joy named in verse three: “In the excellent ones is all my delight.” Jesus was glorified with the glory that he had with the Father before the world was. (John 17:5) Furthermore all those whom the Father had given him would come to him. (John 6:37) This fellowship with God is the essence of paradise.

Verses 7-8:

I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.

I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand,
I shall not be shaken.

In joy and love the Psalmist acknowledges the goodness of the LORD. The LORD, his portion and his inheritance, is the one who gives him counsel. “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, . . . the Spirit of counsel and might.” (Is. 11:2) In the night his reins (kidneys, the literal translation) instructed him. The kidneys were considered the location of the most intense emotion. The Psalmist spends his sleepless nights pondering the character of the LORD, keeping the LORD always in view. Knowing the character of the LORD, he finds counsel. He knows what to do at every juncture, and how to go about doing the will of the LORD and fulfilling his own unique mission. In his innermost being the Psalmist knows how the LORD loves him. His own love for the LORD is the equal of the love the LORD has for him. He knows that he belongs to God and God belongs to him. This love was perfectly pure and absolutely intense. He knew what God meant when he said “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14).   Since the LORD was at his right hand (as close as could be) he would not be shaken, moved, or dislodged; he would not wobble, totter, falter, or stumble. He would carry out the Father’s will, and the Father would exalt him.

Verses 9-10:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being
rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.

The LORD’s Holy One is neither David nor any other of the faithful of Israel. The faithful are called “saints,” or “holy ones,” but none of them is ever called “the Holy One” or “my Holy One.” “Your Holy One” is Christ. This title clearly identifies Christ as the speaker in this psalm. David with every reader and singer knows that his own body is subject to decomposition.

But the Psalmist knows that God is at his right hand. For this reason his heart is glad. His “glory” (a more literal translation than “my whole being”) is exultant and triumphant. The glory of a man is his soul. The soul makes a human being capable of bearing the image of God. and therefore responsible for the forfeiting of that image as well. By virtue of his soul a person is able to enjoy fellowship with God, and if this fellowship is broken he is in a wretched state. In Christ the human soul is what God intended it to be; it reflects the glory of the Creator. The soul of the Psalmist is overflowing with joy in God, and his flesh also rests in hope. “Flesh,” here, is synonymous with body, in contrast to spirit. His flesh dwells secure. The verb embraces the meanings of “dwell,” or “lie,” or “rest,” always in safety, security, and hope, free from anxiety and fear.

The LORD will not abandon Christ’s soul to Sheol. Sheol is the realm of the dead. It is the state and condition of the dead. The KJV (and Luther) translate “leave my soul in hell.”  This can be misunderstood because the connotation of the word “hell” has changed over time. In earlier English it could mean either the realm of the dead (Sheol), or the place of punishment. Only the latter definition has survived into modern English. To be sure, the Psalmist is not speaking here of the descent into hell. Any continuing of Christ’s suffering after his triumphant cry “It is finished!” is also out of the question. The LORD would not abandon the spirit of his Son to the power of death and the grave. Instead, when Christ prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” the Father received his spirit. Further, the LORD would not allow his Holy One to experience corruption. His body would not suffer decay. Worms would not destroy this body as Job knew they would destroy his body. Such preservation of the body from decomposition would occur only this one time.

In the New Testament the Greek “Hades“ corresponds to the Hebrew “Sheol.” The original concept of the realm and a condition of the dead was rather vague and in itself neutral, not always making a distinction between the blessed and the cursed. But these words in the respective languages readily expand to mean hell as the term is used today, namely the “everlasting fire” of Matthew 25 or the “outer darkness” of the parables. Christ did die, but even so he did not fall prey to the power of Sheol in any sense. In death he was triumphant over death. In death and in the grave the body of Jesus was preserved from decay. In this way also the prayer of verse one was answered, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” The Father received his spirit, and his body was honored and preserved until his resurrection on the third day.

This psalm is quoted twice in the Book of Acts, both times in a keynote sermon. Both times the quotation expresses a truth central to the sermon. The first was Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, where he spells out how this prophecy speaks of Christ and him alone:

For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. (Acts 2:25-32)

The decomposition of David’s corpse could readily be verified. In the Psalm therefore David must have been speaking in the name of someone else, namely, the Christ. Peter cites these verses as well as last verse of the Psalm as the words of Christ. This sermon serves as keynote to the apostolic preaching that began at Jerusalem, and as the focus of chapters one through twelve of Luke’s account.

The focus in chapters thirteen through twenty-eight of the Book of Acts is the labor of the Apostle Paul. His sermon at Antioch serves as the keynote for his preaching among the Gentiles, which in every place he initiated by preaching in the local synagogue. The truth expressed in this Psalm is central to the message, as it was in Peter’s Pentecost sermon. After relating the crucifixion of Christ, Paul continues:

And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.” Therefore he says also in another psalm, “You will not let your Holy One see corruption.”

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. (Acts 13:34-38)

The Light of the Gentiles and the Glory of Israel was not David. It was the Son of David.

Verse 11:

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

“Life” is life in the fullest sense. It is the resurrection life. It is the life glorified in God. The path is the way to life. In the presence of God, before his face, there is the maximum of joy. Literally it is joy to the point of satisfaction. This joy never becomes jaded or monotonous or cloying. In the resurrection Christ sees the holy and gracious face of God. Jesus Christ, as God and Man, with body, soul, and spirit, now rejoices in the glory that he had with the Father before the world was. The one whose heart and soul are boundless now lives in boundless joy, the joy that is full and forever.

(Unless indicated otherwise, Scripture quotations in the above are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.)


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