Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

The Path of LifeLast week we studied the first six verses of this psalm and found a single-minded, whole-hearted declaration of allegiance to the Lord. The psalmist looks to God himself as his inheritance, rather than to God’s blessings and gifts. And yet, the Lord does give blessings as well as his own presence; the second part of the psalm enumerates these many blessings that the faithful might experience. For the psalmist, these blessings include counsel and guidance, defence, security, and deliverance. Nevertheless, to have the Lord is to have all there is, every blessing and more besides.

David blesses the Lord “who has counselled me.” If we recall that this psalm was probably composed in the midst of desperate circumstances, we might assume that this divine counsel specifically addressed David’s present need. That may be the case. But it is also true that God’s general counsel provides the foundation for his wisdom in specific circumstances. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and unless one is instructed first in this initial wisdom which learns to view the world from a theocentric centre, it may be that they cannot discern the specific direction required in particular circumstances. David’s allegiance to Yahweh, and his whole-hearted trust in him, provides the framework within which he receives the divine counsel.

It is also of interest to note the manner in which this counsel came: “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night” (NASB). The counsel did not arrive in some spectacular manner such as via an angel or a vision, but by means of his own thought processes as David prayerfully pondered his circumstances. God can and sometimes may use more spectacular means to convey his wisdom and will, but it is good for us to be reminded that more often, it seems that God uses very ordinary channels to accomplish his purposes. Of course there remains the twin requirements of learning to distinguish the divine counsel from the counsel of our own hearts, and of learning to test and confirm this guidance by means of the other gifts of grace God has given us in Scripture and the community of his people.

The final verses of the psalm are a celebration of confidence in God, again, in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Craigie (153) titled his exposition on this psalm, “Confidence in the Face of Death.” Convinced that Yahweh is his only good, and thus his only hope, the psalmist sets the Lord continually before him, giving his attention to the Lord, placing his hope and confidence in him. More comforting still is the thought that the Lord himself is at his own right hand: even in dire straits he will not be shaken (cf. 15:5). Therefore, the psalmist rests in God, his whole being rejoicing in God’s presence, power and promise—heart, soul and even flesh.

Craigie reads these final verses as applying directly to the psalmists own immediate circumstances:

With respect to the initial meaning of the psalm, it is probable that this concluding section should not be interpreted either messianically or in terms of individual eschatology; … The acute concern of the psalmist was an immediate crisis and an immediate deliverance. His body had been endangered and his life threatened with untimely termination in Sheol. … The psalmist acknowledges that God makes him know, or experience, the “path of life,” not the afterlife, but the fullness of life here and now which is enriched by the rejoicing which emerges from an awareness of the divine presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 158).

In this interpretation, verse ten is simply the psalmist’s assurance that his present circumstances will not result in his death, while the eleventh verse portrays the ongoing life that God gives as one of joy and satisfaction. This joy is grounded both in who God is and what God gives: the joys of his face (“presence”) and the joys of his right hand (“in your right hand”; see Kidner, 86).

Craigie’s conclusion helps make sense of the psalm in its original context, with the added benefit of instructing our hearts in the ways of faith, especially when ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ loom large. The path of life issues from a steadfast allegiance to God in faith, a recognition that only in him is our good to be found; seeking our good and deliverance elsewhere is to embark on a different path where hope is vain and sorrows multiply.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has been read messianically. In his great Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter argues that David indeed died and was buried. But David spoke as a prophet of the resurrection, for it was Christ who was neither abandoned to hell and whose flesh did not suffer decay in the grave (Acts 2:25-31). And so from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has also been read in terms of individual eschatology: the “path of life” transcends the bounds of this world and its hopes, extending beyond the grave to the life to come, evermore in the presence of God and the fullness of joy.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord … Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 76).

4 thoughts on “Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

  1. Michael, you raise the question of whether it is appropriate to read the psalms christologically. I really like how Craigie handles the Psalms, but I differ with him on this question.
    Those who collated the psalms in the Second Temple period added headings such as “Of David” to provide some context for understanding the psalm. Should we take seriously the notion that the “I” in the Davidic psalms is the king?
    It’s not necessarily the original David, but the king (his descendant) who reigns in each generation (as in Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25). And it’s not the king as an individual, but the king in whom the nation is found. The enemies are then those who are seeking to terminate David’s rule.
    If we allow that “Of David” refers to the David ruler, and that the Davidic kingship had been cut off by Babylon, and that Jesus believed he was re-establishing the kingdom of God, then as the Davidic heir, these psalms apply to him as much as to any previous Davidic king.
    Is it worth pursuing that approach to argue that the Davidic psalms should be read christologically?

    1. Hi Allen, I am not sure that it is necessary: It seems like a modern attempt to justify first century Jewish exegesis in modern terms and on modern grounds. Is it necessary to provide a (supposed) historical reconstruction as a ground of a first century hermeneutic?

      No doubt Jesus – at least as he is presented in the New Testament – did read the Davidic psalms as referring to him. But he read the whole OT as referring to himself. So, too, did the early church, including Peter on the day of Pentecost.

      The fact is that they did read the Old Testament, including these psalms, christologically – and perhaps on a basis different to your historical reconstruction. It would be worth revisiting Longenecker’s book on “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period” (a title something like that…) to understand the exegetical and hermeneutical approaches of the first century. I suspect their assumptions did not require the kind of historical reconstruction you suggest. But I am no expert in these matters and am happy to be put straight!

  2. Thanks, for your response, Michael.

    I understand what you mean by “a modern reconstruction.” Clearly it would be need to be argued that the apostles did think that Jesus was rebuilding the fallen tent of David as they applied these Scriptures to him. And yes, this expectation is broader than the Davidic Psalms as you say. I’ll have to chase it further.

    Thanks for the Longenecker suggestion too. I’ve read him, Beale (NT Use of OT), and Moyise (Jesus and Scripture). I think there’s more going on, but it would be a big task to demonstrate it.

    Thanks again.

    1. Just went through the 79 quotations of Psalms in the NT, and you’re right, Michael. Many of the quoted Psalms are not labelled “Of David”, and yet they are still interpreted christologically/messianically (e.g. Psa 2, 45, 118). So the Davidic kingship is everywhere, but the attribution is not the crucial factor. Thanks.

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