Psalm 16
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Ewald’s arguments for grouping this psalm with Psalms 17, 49, as those of one time, and even one author, are almost irresistible; and this not merely from the general similarity of language and sentiment, but especially from the feelings expressed about death. The vision of immortality wanting to the early Jews, to Moses, even to David, has at length, however faintly and dimly, dawned. It will be long before it becomes a world -belief, or even a definite individual hope. But the germ of a truth so great must grow, as we see it growing in the Book of Job, till the time is ripe for apostles to quote the words of the ancient poets, as if they had not only felt for themselves the necessity of an immortal existence, but had seen prophetically how in Christ it would be assured to men.

Psalms 16 is decidedly individual in its experience, and the inscription to David as author receives a certain amount of probability from a comparison of Psalm 16:5 with 1Samuel 26:19. But such slight indications give way before the reference to the bloody sacrifices in Psalm 16:4, which brings the date down to a time subsequent at least to Solomon.

The parallelism in this psalm is scarcely traceable.

Title.—Michtam (Mikhtam) occurs in five other psalms (Psalms 56-60)—all, like Psalms 16, ascribed to David. The greatest uncertainty attaches to the word. The marginal explanation rests on the derivation from kethem (gold, Job 28:16-19), and may be illustrated by the “golden sayings” of Pythagoras (comp. Golden Legend), an obvious expression for something rare and precious. Others compare the Moallakat of Mecca, poems written in “golden” letters. The LXX., “a pillar inscription” (Vulg., tituli inscriptio), follows another possible derivation, but does not suit the contents of those psalms so inscribed. Some take Mikhtam as a variety of Mikhtab (a writing). Most probably some musical direction, the key to which is lost, is conveyed by the word.

Michtam of David. Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.
(1) For in thee.—Better, for I have found refuge in thee (as in Psalm 7:1; Psalm 11:1). The verb is in the preterite.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the LORD, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;
(2) Thou hast said.—The text of this passage is exceedingly corrupt. This appears (1) from the actual existence of various readings, (2) by the variations in the ancient versions, both from the Hebrew and each other. It will be best to take Psalm 16:2-3 together first. The consensus of the ancient versions in favour of the first person, “I said,” instead of “thou hast said” (the italicised words O my soul, are a mere gloss from the Chaldee), gives for Psalm 16:2 the plain and intelligible rendering

I said to Jehovah, Thou art my Lord,

I have no good besides thee.

Psalm 16:3 also requires emendation, being quite unintelligible as it stands. The simplest device is to omit the conjunction and recognise one of those changes of person so agreeable to Hebrew, when the verse will run—

“And of the saints who are in the earth,

They are the excellent in whom is all my delight.”

The Authorised Version, in inserting “extendeth,” introduces the fine thought that

“Merit lives from man to man.

And not from man, O God, to Thee;”

but it could not have been the thought of the original, since “my good,” as Psalm 16:5-6 show, equals “happiness,” not “conduct.”

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 verse offers also great variation in the ancient versions. The literal text runs Their sorrows [or, idols] (fem.) are multiplied (masc); another they hasten [or, change]. I will not pour out their libations from blood, and will not take their names upon my lips, which, with one or two slight changes in the punctuation, becomes—

“They shall multiply their sorrows

Who change to another god:

I will not pour out their bloody libations,

Nor take their names on my lips.”

At the same time, from the evident allusion to the curse on Eve in Genesis 3:16, and the fact that the verb rendered “hasten” (comp. margin) means to buy a wife, it seems that the psalmist had the common prophetical figure for idolatry, viz., adultery, in his mind; but as he is not speaking of the Church as a whole, he does not work it out as the prophets do, by representing the idolaters as adulteresses.

The “libations of blood” seem to refer to the ghastly rites of Moloch and Chemosh. For the last clause comp. Exodus 23:13. To the Hebrews the very name of a god included a predication of his power. Hence the avoidance of even mentioning baal, but substituting bosheth, i.e., shameful thing, for it, even in proper names.

The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.
(5) The portion.—There is allusion here to the Levitical portion (Numbers 18:20): “I am thy portion and thine inheritance.” The poet, whom we must imagine exiled from his actual inheritance in Canaan, consoles, and more than consoles himself, with the sublime thought that this “better part” could not be taken away from him. Perowne quotes Savonarola’s fine saying, “What must not he possess who possesses the possessor of all!” and St. Paul’s, “All things are yours; for ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s;” which rather recalls Deuteronomy 32:9, where the correlative truth to Numbers 18:20 occurs.

For the figure of the cup, see Psalm 11:6. It had already become a synonym for “condition in life.”

Thou maintainest.—The Hebrew word is peculiar, and causes grammatical difficulties; but the sense is clear. God does not only dispose (cast) the lot of the man in covenant relation to Him—He does that even for unbelievers—but holds it fast in His hand. (See this use of the verb, Amos 1:5; Amos 1:8; Proverbs 5:5.) At the same time Hitzig’s conjecture (tômîd for tômîkh), is very plausible, “Thou art ever my lot.”

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
(6) The lines are fallen unto me.—The allusion is to the “measuring cords” by which allotments of land were measured, and they are said to “fall” possibly because after the measurement the portions were distributed by “lot” (Joshua 17:5; Micah 2:5).

I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.
(7) Given me counsel . . .i.e., led me to a right and happy choice of the way of life.

My reinsi.e., my heart.

Instruct me.—Better, warn me. Conscience echoes the voice of God. The Hebrew word, from a root meaning bind, includes the sense of obligation. Once heard, the Divine monition becomes a law to the good man, and his own heart warns him of the slightest danger of deviation from it.

I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
(8) At my right hand.—Comp. Psalm 109:31; Psalm 110:5; Psalm 121:5. The image seems to be a military one: the shield of the right-hand comrade is a protection to the man beside him.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.
(9) Glory.—Heb., khabôd; but probably the poet wrote khabed, i.e., liver, or (comp. “reins” above, and the common use of the word “bowels”) heart. The LXX. paraphrase tongue. The passage was so quoted in Acts 2:25. (Comp. Psalm 57:8; Psalm 108:1.) “With the best member that I have” (Prayer Book).

Shall rest in hope.—This follows the Vulg. The LXX. also have “shall tabernacle in hope.” The true rendering, however, is shall rest in security. In “heart, soul, flesh,” the poet comprises the whole living man. (Comp. 1Thessalonians 5:23.) The psalmist feels that the body must share with the soul the immunity from evil which is insured by fellowship with God. Carried out to its full issue, the logical conclusion of this is the doctrine of immortality; but we must not see a conscious reference to it here.

For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
(10) Leave.—Rather, commit, or give up.

In hell.—Better, to the unseen world (Sheôl), as in Psalm 6:5, where see Note.

Holy One.—Better, thy chosen, or favoured, or beloved One. Heb., chasîd, which, starting from the idea of one standing in a state of covenant favour with Jehovah, gathers naturally, to this passive sense, an active one of living conformably to such a state; “gracious” as well as “graced,” “blessing” as well as “blessed;” and so generally as in Authorised Version, “saint,” “holy” (see Psalm 4:3; Psalm 145:17, and especially Psalm 1:5, “My saints, those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”) The received Heb. text has the word in the plural, but with the marginal note that the sign of the plural is superfluous. The weight of MS. authority of all the ancient versions, and of the quotations Acts 2:27; Acts 13:35, is for the singular.

Corruption.—Heb., shachath, a pit (from root, meaning to sink in), as in Psalm 7:15, where LXX. rightly “abyss,” though here and generally “destruction (not “corruption”), as if from shakhath, “to destroy.” Even in Job 17:14 “the pit” would give as good a parallelism to “worm” as “corruption.” The meaning of the passage is clearly that Jehovah will not abandon His beloved to death. “To be left to Sheôl” and “to see the pit” are synonyms for “to die,” just as “to see life” (Ecclesiastes 9:9, Authorised Version, “live joyfully”) is “to be alive;” or, as in next clause, “to make to see the path of life.” At the same time we discern here the first faint scintillation of that light of immortality which we see struggling to break through the darkness in all the later literature of Israel; the veil over the future of the individual, if not lifted, is stirred by the morning breath of a larger faith, and so the use is justified which is made of this passage in the New Testament (Acts 2:25). (See New Testament Commentary.)

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) There are.—The italics in the Authorised Version spoil the triplet:—

“Thou wilt show me the path of life,

In thy presence fulness and joy,

At thy right hand pleasures for evermore.”

It is another image for the same thought which dominates the psalm—the thought of the happiness of being with God. The fair heritage, the serene happiness, the enduring pleasure always to be found at God’s right hand, are all different modes of expressing the same sense of complete satisfaction and peace given by a deep religious trust touched, ever so faintly, by a ray of a larger hope beginning to triumph over death itself.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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