Psalm 16
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm is a joyous profession of faith and hope, springing from the sense of a living fellowship with Jehovah. The danger, if special danger there was, which prompted the prayer of Psalm 16:1, lies entirely in the background. The Psalmist’s whole soul is possessed and kindled by the thought that Jehovah is his highest good.

It has been suggested that the Psalm was written by David during his outlaw life. He had been banished from his share in the inheritance of Jehovah, and exposed to the danger of apostasy (1 Samuel 26:19, R.V. marg.). In this hour of trial he triumphs in the thought that Jehovah Himself is the portion of his inheritance, a fairer portion than the goodliest fields and vineyards which could have fallen to his lot (Psalm 16:5-6); and he energetically repudiates the idea of yielding to the temptation to serve another god (Psalm 16:4).

There are many links of connexion (see Introd. to Psalms 17) between this Psalm and Psalms 17, and they may with good reason be assigned to the same author. As Psalms 17 may with much probability be referred to the time of David’s persecution by Saul, the presumption in favour of the Davidic authorship of Psalms 16 is strengthened.

Many critics however refer both Psalms to a much later period. Ewald groups together 17, 16, 49 (in this order), and on the ground of language and contents places them in the Exile.

If, as is often assumed to be the case, Psalm 16:9-11 and Psalm 17:15 explicitly declare the Psalmist’s belief in a resurrection and a future life of blessedness, in sharp contrast to such passages as Psalm 6:5, Psalm 30:9, Psalm 88:10-12, these Psalms could hardly be placed earlier than the Exile. Delitzsch indeed, while admitting that the doctrine of a Resurrection does not appear in pre-exilic times as a truth of revelation, asks why it should not appear in Davidic Psalms as ‘a bold postulate of faith.’ But if the line of interpretation adopted below is correct, the Psalmist’s thoughts are to be viewed from a different stand-point altogether. “His antithesis is not this world and the next, but life with God and life without God.” (Cheyne.)

The Psalm falls into three divisions.

i. The Psalmist grounds his prayer for protection on his relation to Jehovah, Who alone is the source of happiness. His delight is in the society of the faithful; with apostates he will have no fellowship (Psalm 16:1-4).

ii. The thought that Jehovah is his sole good, the source of all his weal, is taken up and developed (Psalm 16:5-8).

iii. Secure in this faith he anticipates a life of true felicity in unbroken fellowship with Jehovah (Psalm 16:9-11).

For a valuable exposition of this Psalm by Prof. W. Robertson Smith see The Expositor, 1876, Vol. iv. pp. 341 ff.

On the title Michtam see Introd. p. xx.

Michtam of David. Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.
1. Preserve me] Not that he is at the moment in special danger; but only in God’s keeping (Psalm 12:7; Psalm 17:8) can soul and body be safe.

God] El, as in Psalm 5:4; Psalm 17:6.

for in thee &c.] For in thee have I taken refuge. God is responsible for protecting His liegeman. See note on Psalm 7:1, and cp. Psalm 17:7.

1, 2. The Psalmist’s prayer and profession of faith.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the LORD, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;
2. The Massoretic Text reads thou (fem.) hast said, assuming that the poet holds colloquy with himself, and addresses his soul, as in Psalm 42:5; Lamentations 3:24 (a passage evidently based on this psalm). So the Targum. But an ellipse of O my soul cannot be grammatically justified; and R.V. is certainly right in reading I have said, with LXX, Vulg., Syr., Jer. Cp. Psalm 31:14; Psalm 91:2; Psalm 140:6.

my Lord] The confession of Jehovah’s servant (cp. Psalm 35:23), in contrast to the self-asserting independence of Psalm 12:4. R.V. marg. the Lord is possible, but less satisfactory.

my goodness extendeth not to thee] Render with R.V., I have no good beyond thee. “Not merely is God the source of all his weal, but everything which he recognises as a true good, God actually contains within Himself” (Robertson Smith). Cp. Psalm 73:25. The P.B.V. my goods are nothing unto thee (cp. Psalm 50:9 ff.) follows LXX and Vulg., τῶν ἀγαθῶν μου οὐ χρείαν ἔχεις: bonorum meorum non eges.

But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.
3. A difficult verse, the text of which appears to be corrupt.

(1) The best rendering is that of R.V. It is true that it can only be wrung from the Massoretic text by some violence, but an easy emendation removes the grammatical difficulty.

As for the saints [lit. holy ones] that are in the earth [or, land]

They are the excellent [nobles] in whom is all my delight.

From God in heaven the Psalmist turns to men on earth. The true ‘nobles’ (Jdg 5:13) in whose society he delights, are not the wealthy or powerful in the world’s estimation, but ‘the holy’; those in whom Israel’s calling to be ‘a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6) has been actually realised. Cp. Psalm 15:4. These he proceeds to contrast with apostates (Psalm 16:4). For them nothing but calamity is in store: with them and their worship he will have nothing to do.

(2) We may however (with R.V. marg.) connect Psalm 16:3 with Psalm 16:2, thus: (I have said) unto [or, of] the saints &c., they are the excellent &c. The general sense will remain the same as in (1).

(3) Combining the two alternatives in R.V. marg., we may connect Psalm 16:3 both with Psalm 16:2 and with Psalm 16:4 thus: (I have said) unto the saints &c., and the excellent in whom is all my delight: their sorrows &c. Secure in his own choice of Jehovah he warns others against the fatal consequences of apostasy, and repudiates the idea of it for himself. In this case it is possible that saints may mean holy by calling, though not necessarily in character; and excellent may mean nobles in rank only.

(4) Taking the second alternative of R.V. marg. only, we may render: As for the saints … and the excellent in whom is all my delight: their sorrows &c. So Ewald, who explains, “This seems most profoundly to distress him, that the very Israelites, who ought to be the saints and pass for such … the noble, princely men, whom he especially so intensely loves, even these begin to betake themselves increasingly to heathenism.” But it is difficult to suppose that he would speak of men who were falling into idolatry in language such as this. (4) may safely be rejected; and (1) is simpler than (2) and (3), and deserves the preference.

(5) Of the host of conjectural emendations it will suffice to mention that of Baethgen, which is based on the LXX: ‘Unto the saints which are in his land doth Jehovah shew honour: all his delight is in them.’ It gives a good contrast to Psalm 16:4, but is not convincing.

3, 4. The Psalmist’s society.

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.
4. Their sorrows] This, and not their idols (Targ. Symm. Jer.), is the right rendering. Cp. Psalm 32:10; 1 Timothy 6:10.

that hasten after another god] The Heb. cannot be so rendered. Rightly R.V., that exchange the Lord for another god. Cp. Psalm 106:20; and the exact parallel in Jeremiah 2:11. Less probable is R.V. marg., give gifts for; for though the verb is used of giving a dowry for a wife (Exodus 22:16), and marriage is a common figure for the relationship between God and His people, the wife in this figure always represents the people.

Their drink offerings of blood] Variously explained of libations accompanying human sacrifices, or libations of blood offered in idolatrous rituals instead of oil and wine, or libations offered with blood-stained hands and therefore abominable (Isaiah 1:15; Isaiah 59:3); but probably meaning that their libations are as detestable as though they were composed of blood. Cp. Isaiah 66:3.

nor take up &c.] R.V., nor take their names upon my lips. Not the idolaters’ names, but the names of their gods, which are the expression of their religion. “In Semitic antiquity the very name of a god included a predication of his power, dignity, or virtues; so that even to utter such names as Baal and Molech, that is Lord and King, was an act of homage.” (Robertson Smith.) Cp. Exodus 23:13; Hosea 2:17; Zechariah 13:2.

The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.
5. the portion &c.] Lit. the portion of my share and my cup: i.e. my allotted portion and cup. The word rendered share denotes a portion assigned, whether of land or property or food. The A.V., portion of mine inheritance, implies that Jehovah is compared to the share allotted him in the distribution of the land, a view supported by 5 b, 6; but my cup suggests rather the idea of a portion of food: Jehovah is all that he needs to satisfy hunger and thirst. Comp. Psalm 42:2; John 6:35; and contrast Psalm 11:6.

Thou maintainest my lot] Lit. thou holdest fast my lot. My welfare is in Thy hand; no man can rob me of it. But the form of the word rendered maintainest is anomalous; and context and parallelism seem to require a further statement of what God is for the Psalmist rather than what He does for him. Hence some critics render, Thou art the possession of my lot.

The language used here reminds us of the Levites, who had no portion or inheritance, but Jehovah was their portion (Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 10:9; Deuteronomy 18:1). Israel was a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6); and spiritually, Jehovah was the portion of Israel (Jeremiah 10:16), and of individual Israelites (Psalm 73:26; Psalm 119:57; Psalm 142:5; Lamentations 3:24).

5, 6. Jehovah is the Psalmist’s portion.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
6. The lines &c.] Portions of land measured by line and distributed by lot. The language is still figurative. Jehovah is to him as the choicest of possessions in the goodly land. (Psalm 16:11; Psalm 27:4; Psalm 90:17; Proverbs 3:17; Jeremiah 3:19.)

Yea &c.] The peculiar phrase in the original expresses his conscious sense of the beauty of his heritage.

I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.
7. given me counsel] Taught me to choose Him and to follow Him. Cp. Psalm 32:8 (R.V.); Psalm 73:24.

my reins also &c.] This clause may be taken as still depending on I will bless the Lord, and rendered, yea, that in the night seasons my reins have instructed me. In the quiet hours of the night God admonishes and instructs him through the voice of conscience. Cp. Psalm 4:4; Psalm 17:3. The reins stand for the organs of emotion, the feelings and conscience. ‘Heart and reins’ denote the whole innermost self, thought and will (Psalm 7:9).

7, 8. The mutual relation of the Psalmist and Jehovah.

I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
8. The true ‘practice of the Presence of God’ (Psalm 119:30; Psalm 18:22). The LXX has, I beheld the Lord always before my face.

at my right hand] As advocate (Psalm 109:31), or champion (Psalm 110:5; Psalm 121:5). A warrior defending another person would naturally stand on his right.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.
9. my glory] i.e. my soul. See note on Psalm 7:5. The LXX renders freely my tongue.

my flesh also shall rest in hope] So the Vulg., insurer et caro mea requiescet in spe. Beautiful and suggestive as this rendering is, it is inaccurate and misleading, and must be replaced by that of R.V.

My flesh also shall dwell in safety (marg. securely).

Cp. Jer., et caro mea habitavit [v.l. habitabit] confidenter.

Dwell in safety is a phrase repeatedly used of a life of undisturbed security in the promised land. See Deuteronomy 33:12; Deuteronomy 33:28; Proverbs 1:33; Jeremiah 23:6; Jeremiah 33:16. Fellowship with Jehovah guarantees outward security as well as inward joy. The words do not refer, primarily at least, to the rest of the body in the grave in the hope of a joyful resurrection. Flesh does not denote the dead corpse, but the living organism in and through which the soul works: together with heart and soul it makes up the whole man (Psalm 63:1; Psalm 73:26; Psalm 84:2; cp. 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

9–11. The blessed outcome of this fellowship is joy, confidence, progress.

For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
10. Once more the translation must be revised;

For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol;

Neither wilt thou suffer thy beloved one to see the pit.

Jehovah will not surrender him to the unseen world, which is like some monster gaping for its prey. He can plead, as one of Jehovah’s beloved ones (chasîd, see on Psalm 4:3, and Appendix, Note I) for the exercise of His lovingkindness (Psalm 17:7). The text (Kthîbh) has thy loved ones (plur.), but the traditional reading (Qrç) thy loved one (sing.) is supported by all the versions and required by the context.

The word shachath, rendered corruption by LXX, Vulg., and Jerome, probably means the pit (R.V. marg.) i. e. the grave. ‘Pit’ must be its meaning in many passages (e.g. Psalm 7:15; Psalm 30:9; Proverbs 26:27), and may be its meaning always. Shachath might be derived from a root meaning to destray (not properly to decay), but it is unnecessary to assume that the same form has two derivations and senses. ‘To see the pit’ (Psalm 49:9) = ‘to see (i. e. experience) death,’ Psalm 89:48.

Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
11. Thou wilt shew me &c.] Lit. Thou wilt cause me to know (Psalm 143:8) the path of life: not only preserve me from death, but lead me onward in that fellowship with Thee which alone is worthy to be called life. See Proverbs 10:17; Proverbs 15:24; Matthew 7:14; John 17:3. ‘The path of life’ is not merely a path which leads to life, but one in which life is to be found. It is ‘the path of righteousness’ (Proverbs 12:28). ‘The way of life’ is frequently contrasted in the Book of Proverbs with ways that lead to Sheol and death. Cp. too Deuteronomy 30:15. It leads onward in the light of God’s Presence; and in that Presence is satisfying fulness of joys. Cp. Psalm 17:15; Psalm 21:6; Psalm 4:6-7; Proverbs 19:23.

at thy right hand] R.V. rightly, in thy right hand, as the sole Dispenser of all lasting good. Cp. Proverbs 3:16. The world’s joys fade; God’s joys alone are eternal.

Comp. Hooker’s noble words (Eccl. Pol. i. ii. 2): “Then are we happy when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight; so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God.”

Psalm 16:8-11 were quoted by St Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:25-28), and Psalm 16:10 b by St Paul at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:35), as a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection. The quotation is made from the LXX., which is a free rendering of the Hebrew. St Peter shews that David’s glowing words of faith and hope (the argument will be the same if the psalm was the work of some other writer) were not fully realised in himself. He did not finally escape from death. Were his words then a mere idle dream? No! Guided by the Holy Ghost he ‘looked forward’ to Christ. Over Him Whose fellowship with God was perfect and unbroken by sin, death could have no dominion (Acts 2:24). In His Resurrection the words first found their adequate realisation, their fulfilment. But their prophetic character does not exclude their primary reference to the Psalmist’s own faith and hope.

But the question must be asked, What was the meaning which the Psalmist’s words had for himself? Does he speak of fellowship with God in this life only, or does he pierce the veil, and realise not only the possibility but the certainty of a continued life of conscious fellowship with God hereafter, and even of the resurrection of the body?

It is difficult to divest the words of the associations which have gathered round them, and impartially to weigh their original meaning. On the one hand, however, it is unquestionable that similar language is used elsewhere of deliverance from temporal death, and enjoyment of fellowship with God in this life; while in other psalms we find the gloomiest anticipations of death, and the dreariest pictures of the state of the departed. On the other hand it is clear that the words admit of reference to an unending life of fellowship with God.

The truth may be (as will be seen more clearly in Psalms 17) that the antithesis is not between life here and life hereafter, but between life with and life without God; and for the moment, in the overpowering sense of the blessedness of fellowship with God, death fades entirely from the Psalmist’s view.

The doctrine of a future life is however involved in the Psalmist’s faith. He grounds his hope of deliverance on his relation to Jehovah; and such a relation could not be interrupted by death (Matthew 22:32). But this truth could only be apprehended gradually and through long struggles, and only fully realised when Christ “annulled death, and brought life and incorrupt ion to light through the Gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10.)

For ourselves the words must bear the fuller meaning with which Christ’s resurrection has illuminated them. To us they must speak of that ‘eternal life’ which is begun here, and is to be consummated hereafter (John 6:47; John 6:54; John 14:19).

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