Psalm 16: Theology Becomes Doxology

In 2003 the Free Church of Scotland published an updated psalter entitled Sing Psalms where Psalm 16 versus 8 through 11 reads thus:

 “Before me constantly, I set the Lord alone.
   Because he is at my right hand I'll not be overthrown.
   Therefore my heart is glad; my tongue with joy will sing.
   My body too will rest secure in hope unwavering.
   For you will not allow my soul in death to stay,
   Nor will you leave your Holy One to see the tomb's decay.
   You have made known to me the path of life divine.
   Bliss shall I know at your right hand; joy from your face will shine.”[1]

We often sing this Psalm at church and my family and I will sing these verses to the tune of Golden Hill either before the children go to bed or for our own family worship. We love this Psalm because it is the inspired language of hope in the face of adversity, a promise of life eternal in the face of death. If 2020 has taught us all anything it is that we ought not expect tomorrow to be like today; indeed, tomorrow very well may be dramatically worse. But even still God has promised this: “you will not allow my soul in death to stay, nor will you leave your Holy One to see the tomb's decay. You have made known to me the path of life divine. Bliss shall I know at your right hand; joy from your face will shine.”

There’s something particularly appropriate to singing these words, a Christ-like practice[2] which takes the theology of the text and enacts it in doxology; orthodoxy expressed in beautiful, musical orthopraxy. If you’ve not done so – if you’ve never sung a Psalm in rhyme and meter, stop reading this, go to YouTube, and sing Psalm 16 now.[3]  The practice itself will impact your thinking on this Psalm far more than any mere blog post.

If you’re not regularly singing Psalms as a part of your church’s worship, first, you should repent, since Christ commands it.[4]  But secondly, you should mourn because of what is a clear lack of allowing the “words of Christ to dwell within you richly.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely commented in his Introduction to the Psalms, “In many churches psalms are read or sung every Sunday, or even daily, according to a regular pattern. These churches have preserved for themselves a priceless treasure, for only with daily use does one become immersed in that divine prayer book. With only occasional reading these prayers are too overwhelming for us in thought and power, so that we again and again turn to lighter fare. But whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will ‘soon take leave’ of those other light and personal ‘little devotional prayers and say: Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard’ (Luther).”[5]

In Psalm 16 we find an extra portion of that “juice, strength, passion, and fire” which is so needed in giving believers the language to walk through adversity well. It begins with just the right request; not so much of deliverance but of preservation. “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Whatever suffering the believer is going through, it is a suffering which the Sovereign Creator has allowed, a suffering with divine purpose wrapped within it. And therefore, deliverance is not necessarily our first request; we don’t demand the trial to be taken away. No, we’re taught by David to ask God to preserve us. Sustain me, O God, through this trial. Keep me faithful within it and bring me out stronger on the other side.

Psalm 16 is, of course, firstly, a Messianic promise; it’s pointing forward to the divine care of the Son through the trial of his death (his body saw no decay) and to the sure promise of resurrection. Indeed, the Apostle Peter preached this Psalm in Acts 2 confirming to his Jewish hearers that the Messiah has indeed come in the person of Jesus and that his resurrection is a fulfillment of this Psalm (see also Paul’s use of Psalm 16 in Acts 13:35-37).

But for those who are recipients of God’s saving grace, believers united to Christ by faith and made one with the risen Messiah through the Spirit, this Psalm now becomes personal. The words read, and sung, and prayed can all be done as applicable to me! Because of Christ’s resurrection I am now made a participant in all that this Psalm is promising. And so in the face of deep trial, even in the face of death, Christians can sing, as the Sing Psalms edition renders verses 5 through 7:

“O LORD, you are to me my cup and portion sure;
  The share that is assigned to me you guard and keep secure.
  The land allotted me is in a pleasant site;
  And surely my inheritance to me is a delight.
  I’ll praise the LORD my God, whose counsel guides my choice;
  And even in the night, my heart recalls instruction’s voice.”

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.