The Psalms are the prayers of the body of Christ. While this is true of all of them, occasionally we have a clear and unambiguous testimony from the Holy Spirit. Peter and Paul both directly connect this Psalm to the passion of Christ. David’s own experience informs this psalm, to be sure, but only in a partial way, just as ours does. Yet Christ fulfills this psalm to the utmost. His own struggle with His enemies has become our own. His trust has become ours. His experience fills up and informs our own, because we are in Him.
Psalm 16 presents some difficulties, but may be divided into three sections: calling on God to deliver (verses 1-4), trust in God who provides (verses 5-8), and a blessing of God (verse 9-11). The exact issue prompting this psalm is not specified. However, since David refers to idolaters and the grave throughout the psalm, it is safe to say that he faces a peril from his enemies which threatens his life. Yet the primary focus of the psalm is not the danger, but the trust in God to deliver, so that even in the grave, God will not abandon His people.
A Miktam of David. Preserve me, God, for I take refuge in you.
You have said to the LORD, You are My Lord. My goodness is not apart from you.
The term “miktam” occurs here and in the titles of Psalms 56 through 60. Like so many of the other terms in the headings of the psalms, its exact meaning is uncertain. Some associate it with another word meaning “gold,” as in Job 28:19. If this is true, a miktam is a “golden psalm,” perhaps signifying its special importance. However, its usage also in Psalms 56-60 shows that we should be cautious of reading too much into such an interpretation. On the other hand, the Septuagint rendered miktam as “inscription,” suggesting that it is suited for use as an epigram. It is equally likely, however, that the term is either a tune name or a form of poetry.
David calls on the Lord to deliver him from trouble. While the first verse is thus straightforward, the next three are the most difficult to interpret in the psalm. The second verse begins “you have said” without specifying the subject. It seems most likely he is speaking to himself or to his soul, so that some translations insert “O my soul” to this verse. Others, following the Septuagint, modify the verb to “I have said,” which is more or less the same idea. God gives the soul, after all, and is its Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:7). All good that we have is also from God, so that apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
To the holy ones who are in the land, they are the mighty ones. All my pleasure is in them.
Translations differ, sometimes widely, on this verses. The Septuagint and the Vulgate render it something like “To the saints who are in his land, he has made wonderful all my [or his] desires in them.” Some older translations like Luther and the King James render it differently: “But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.” Many modern translations are similar to my own. Much of the difficulty comes from an unusual word order and several ellipses.
Following the translation I have given, David associates himself with the godly, especially against the ungodly. Identifying with the body of believers is another way of associating with God. If we group ourselves with the godly, then we are by extension grouping ourselves with the Lord to whom they belong. We are, after all, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). To leave off meeting together is to separate ourselves not only from other believers but also from God (Hebrews 10:25; 1 Corinthians 12:21).
They will multiply their pains. They have acquired another [god]. I will not pour out their libations of blood, and I will not lift up their names on my lips.
This verse can also be difficult, because the subject is not stated. However, since it seems to make little sense to interpret this in terms of the holy ones, David distances himself from the ungodly. Their way is a way of pain and sorrow, because they have sought another god. The verb translated here as “acquired” is identical to another verb meaning “to hasten” or “to run after.” However, as in Exodus 22:15, it can also refer to paying a bridal price. Idolators seek to betroth a false god to them, instead of the Lord who identifies Himself as the Husband of Israel (Hosea 2:16). “Hasten after,” however, carries the same idea, since they are pursuing another god.
Their libations or drink offerings may indeed be of blood, given the depravity of some Canaanite practices, but it is more likely that David means that their offerings are stained with sin (Isaiah 1:15). David also refuses to take up the names of their false gods on his lips. This is not literally avoiding naming them, since the prophets frequently give the names of false gods, but to avoid naming them in a way which shows them honor (Exodus 23:13; Joshua 23:7). There is, after all, no other name than Jesus by which we will be saved (Acts 4:12).
The LORD is the portion of my portion and my cup. You hold my lot.
The measuring lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Indeed, a pleasing inheritance to me.
I will bless the LORD who advises me. Also, by night my kidneys discipline me.
I have set the LORD before me continually. Because [he is] at my right hand, I will not be made to stagger.
Having called on God to deliver, the psalm now confidently turns toward the fulfillment. There is no need to fear those who trouble us, because our inheritance is with God. Like the Levites, our inheritance is God Himself (Numbers 18:20). Indeed, the Lord is called the portion of Israel as a whole, because our hope and confidence is in Him (Jeremiah 10:16; Deuteronomy 32:9). He is our cup, because He is our salvation (Psalm 116:13). He holds our lot, because He has all things in His hand.
The imagery of “measuring lines” here hearkens back to the division of the land in passages like Joshua 17:5, where it is rendered as “portion.” The word itself means a rope or a cord, as in a surveyor staking out property. It is, however, a pleasant place, because the godly one delights in what God has given to him. It is not too small, as the portion of Joseph (Joshua 17:14-17), nor displeasing like the land of Cabul (1 Kings 9:12-13). What comes from God is pleasing, because it is meant for our good (Romans 8:28).
Kidneys in the Old Testament are regarded as the innermost part of man. This is why the word is frequently translated as “heart” in English, since we use the heart to denote the same idea. Since the heart shows the truth of the soul (as Jesus says in places like Matthew 15:34), it “disciplines” in a positive sense by calling to mind the words and promises of God. It is not necessarily a negative thing to be instructed or disciplined, as we often use the word. Rather, just as God counsels us through His Word, so He also calls forth in our memory those same words for our reflection.
Therefore, my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices. Indeed, my flesh dwells in security.
Glory here is a reference to the tongue, because we glorify God through praising Him with it. David also refers to his tongue in this way in Psalm 57:8, calling on it to awaken with God’s praises. Peter also, when he quotes this psalm in his sermon at Pentecost, renders it as “tongue,” following the Septuagint (Acts 2:26). His flesh or body dwells securely, not in a carnal way, but knowing that God cares also for the body (Matthew 6:25-34).
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol. You will not give your pious one/faithful one to see the pit/corruption.
On the basis of this verse, both Peter and Paul refer to Psalm 16 in direct connection with Christ. The idea is straightforward. David expresses confidence in God, knowing that God will not abandon him even in the grave. He will not cast us off once we have passed into the pit or into corruption. Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25-26).
Yet, as Peter says to the Jews at Pentecost, this cannot be fully true of David. David, after all, died, and his body fell into corruption (Acts 2:29). Yet Christ Himself fully fulfills this prophecy, because though He died, His body did not see corruption (Acts 2:31). Paul makes the same point to the Jews at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:35-37). Thus, according to the testimony of the Spirit, Psalm 16 only indirectly speaks of David, but directly of Christ Himself.
The word rendered as “pious” or “faithful” can certainly be rendered as “holy,” but it also emphasizes the obedience of Christ. Jesus was obedient even to death on the cross, and thus God raised Him from the dead and exalted Him far above all things (Philippians 2:8-11).
You make known to me the path of life. Fullness of joy is before your face. At your right hand is delight everlasting.
David thus closes this prophecy with joy. In God and in God alone is a joy which knows no end. Because Christ lives, we also will live with Him to glorify Him forever. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Christ is our highest joy. Christ is our everlasting rest and delight. We have no reason to fear anything in this world, because Christ reigns triumphant at the right hand of God, exalted above all earthly things.