Psalm 16 is the prayer that Christians have said in the wake of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also a perfect prayer for pandemic times.
This prayer is a meditation taking us deeper and deeper into the fullness of faith. The Christian’s faith should be absolute. It is saying, “You, O Lord, are my everything, and I am your servant.” This is the reciprocity of Life: All that is good comes from you. Therefore I will give you my all. I therefore gain life as I give it.
We come across three verses that prove how important it is to go deeply back into the language and thought-world of ancient Scripture in order to get to the blessing of the right meaning.
In verse 3 the New Revised Version translates
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.
But the better translation may well be the New Jerusalem Bible, which reads
of the sacred spirits of the earth.’
They only take advantage of all who love them.
Of these two, almost opposite translations, the latter fits the entire structure of the psalm better. These “holy ones” or “sacred spirits,” are the other gods that people can be tempted to follow because of the good things that they promise. But they really only take advantage of their devotees. Therefore the truly faithful speaker of the psalm turns away from them.
There is a pledge that we make when we are baptized—to “renounce the Devil and all his empty promises.”
Today, in the midst of the pandemic, there are those who say getting the economy going should take precedence over minimizing the loss of life. Are these voices tapping into our propensity to make money our god? Should we, as Luther would put it, “fear, love and trust” the almighty dollar above all things?
The other two tricky, or strange, verses are five and six, where the NRSV does a better job, though it is important to understand the speaker’s thought-world:
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
Think here of the Book of Joshua, where the Land stands in for the salvation and gracious blessing of God. The God who portions out the Land to Israel as an eternal heritage, is understood as the source of every true blessing in life. The speaker says here that she got a very good portion.
The practice of absolute trust, that is the biblical idea of faith, is the subject of verses seven and eight. As the believer praises God, she is bolstered in the dark night of the soul—or even just the every night experience of loneliness and doubt. The more we practice our praise, the more our hearts keep us firm and strong.
But the main reason this psalm became the church’s prayer of the Sunday after Easter’s Resurrection, is that it was quoted by Peter in his speech in Acts, chapter 2, which gives us our First Reading for this coming Second Sunday of Easter. It is fashionable for modern scholars to point out that belief in the resurrection of the dead and the after-life came late into the imagination of Israel. However, the Hebrew Bible is thoroughgoing in its assertion that, the Lord God that they know is the Sovereign over all life. And if this faithful God holds the power of life and death, surely those who keep covenant with this God will not be given up to the dominion of death. A Harvard professor of Jewish literature, by the name of Jon D. Levenson, published a magnificent book, titled Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, in 2006, which explores just this theme.
Peter’s speech in Acts shows that the earliest Christians understood the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s clear signal that death, the last enemy, had been defeated, and that the hope of Israel had been fulfilled.
From beginning to end, this psalm is a prayer that anchors us deeply in Resurrection faith by crying out, “The Lord is everything to me.” We remind ourselves that we experience true life when we fear, love, and trust the Lord God above all things. We don’t let ourselves be suckered into empty promises of other gods. We practice our absolute trust through praise and prayer, and so we are fortified in return. And, ultimately, whether we are hale and hearty, and cooped up—but in our lovely houses, which we gratefully see as our “portion” from God, or we are living through the dark night of the soul, worried that we are over 60 years of age, with health conditions that make us vulnerable, and so might be struck down any time, we can pray, and God will be faithful and give us life.
Once more, this is a prayer that anchors us deep in Resurrection faith.
[This entire blog post was informed by the commentary on the Psalms by James Luther Mays, in the Interpretation commentary series.]
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