Friday 16 April 2021

Keep me safe my God – Reflections on Psalm 16

Psalm 16, written in Hebrew about 3,000 years ago, is called ‘a miktam of David’.

What is a miktam? Commentators differ. It’s been suggested that means a golden psalm, a secret psalm or an inscribed psalm. I’m afraid I can't enlighten you further.

But what we do know is that this is only one of six miktams in the psalter. The other five are psalms 56 to 60.

All of these six psalms were written at difficult times in David’s life when he was feeling harassed or being pursued: when the Philistines had seized him at Gath, when he had fled from Saul into a cave in fear of his life, when Saul had sent men to watch his house in order to kill him.

We do not know the exact circumstances that occasioned the writing of Psalm 16, but we do know that David was under great pressure and asking God to keep him safe: ‘Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.’

There were many points in David’s life when he must have felt like this for different reasons: when facing the threat of Goliath, the persecution of Saul, the betrayal of Absalom, or dealing with his own personal sin over Bathsheba.

It’s not necessary for us to know the precise details, but we can imagine that David must have felt rather like he describes in Psalm 55:

‘Oh that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest - I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.’

I wonder if you have ever felt like that that; just wanting to run away and hide from whatever challenge you were facing. Perhaps you feel like that right now.

A close friend betraying you, people falsely accusing you, a moral failure of which you're deeply ashamed, an issue in your family which you feel unable to speak to anyone about, struggles at work - or perhaps in this season struggles to find work.

Perhaps a physical illness, a bereavement or disappointment. Whatever it is that is makes us feel this way, or which may do in the future, the message to us in this psalm is to take refuge in God.

One of the most striking things about Psalm 16 is that although the main petition in it is ‘keep me safe’ - the general mood is actually one, not of despair and desperation, but of joy and contentment.

What was David’s secret? Why does he appear so together in such difficult circumstances and what can we learn from this?

Some years ago, I visited Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland where one and a half million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the second world war. At the exit I picked up Victor Frankl’s classic work ‘Man's search for meaning’ to read on the bus on the way back.

Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who amazingly survived Auschwitz and had a very successful practice treating people with severe anxiety or depression in the post war years.

The book describes how he survived emotionally and spiritually through such a harrowing experience. The recurring quote throughout the book is:

‘He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how.’

This quote doesn't originally come from Frankl, but from Nietzsche, but what Frankl was saying is that a person who has found real purpose in life can overcome any obstacle in their path and can suffer through almost any defeat without giving up.

So, what was David’s secret; what was David’s ‘why’ which enabled him to bear almost any ‘how’?

When we examine what it is that enables him to maintain his composure, we see him actually counting his blessings.

First of all, in verse 2, he says to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord, apart from you I have no good thing’.

The words are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul saying that he counted everything as loss for the surpassing knowledge of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).

David is saying, in effect, ‘without you God, even though I have everything else in the world, I have nothing. But with you, I don't need anything else because everything good comes from you anyway. I have all I need.’

Next, in verse 3, he reminds himself that he is not alone. We know that David at times felt wretchedly alone but in many situations, he was actually surrounded by people who loved him.

At times it may have been just one or two, who loved and valued him and in whose company, he gained strength. Here he calls them ‘the saints who are in the land’ who are ‘the glorious ones and whom is all my delight’. Fellow believers who were there for him.

In verse 4 he reminds himself of the folly of idolatry, putting anything in the place of God. For David, these were the Pagan gods of the nations around Israel, but of course we know that an idol can be anything that we put in the place of God to give us pleasure or numb our pain.

It might be some deeply damaging addictive thing like drugs, alcohol or pornography, or it could be something relatively innocent like a relationship, hobby, interest or a job which has simply become the most important thing in our lives, but which will bring ultimately only sorrow because it can never satisfy our deepest needs. David didn’t look for comfort in the wrong places and neither should we.

In verses five and six he reminds himself of his ‘delightful inheritance’. The Israelites were all apportioned land in Canaan. As the eighth son in the family David’s allotment would have been small and there were times in his life when he had to flee even from his own home to save his life.

But he says, ‘Lord, you've assigned me my portion and my cup you've made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.’

The priests in Israel had no land (Numbers 18:20). Aaron was told that his share and inheritance was the Lord himself, and this is probably what David is thinking of here.

An inheritance is something we receive in the future by virtue of being the sons or daughters of our parents. Probably, what’s being alluded to here is the inheritance of hope in being a son or daughter of God.

In verse seven he talks about God’s counsel and the instruction of his heart. Here is a man who has laid up God’s commandments and wisdom in his heart so that they teach him through the day and the night. The truth of God’s word gives him confidence and security. He doesn’t wallow in self-destructive thoughts.

Next in verse eight, and again in verse eleven, he reminds himself of the glorious truth that God is always with him at his right hand and that therefore he can never be shaken by any circumstance he faces.

And then in verses nine and ten he reminds himself of God’s protection. In saying ‘you will not abandon me to the grave’, David is probably thinking of the fact that God had rescued him from all his enemies and that he had always escaped with his life.

But there are hints of something more in verse 11 when he speaks of the joy of being in God's presence with ‘eternal pleasures’. There’s more than a hint here that he’s looking to a relationship with God himself that will endure beyond the grave.

And so, David demonstrates to us beautifully in this psalm the way of thinking, of counting one’s blessings, of thinking liberating thoughts in the presence of difficulty, of reminding us of all the things that nothing can ever take will strip away from us.

We see these same thoughts echoed in the New Testament in scriptures like, ‘I will never leave you nor for sake you’(Hebrews 13:5), ‘nothing will ever snatch you out of my hand’ (John 10:28), and ‘nothing can ever separate us from the love of God’ (Romans 8:39).

It’s so important that as Christians we cultivate these habits - thinking in this liberating way in spite of the difficulties that we may face and not allowing ourselves to be drawn down into the abyss of unbelief and despondency.

So, this psalm is extraordinarily therapeutic in the blessings that it brings to us in living the life of faith – holding onto God’s promises, his people, his word, his presence and his protection – taking refuge in him.

But we're looking at it as part of our Easter series because of the deeper truths that are buried in it.

It was Augustine who said of the Old and New Testaments, that ‘the new is in the old concealed and the old is in the new revealed’.

David’s readers at the time would not have grasped the deeper mystery in verses eight to eleven which had not been revealed to them.

But as the Apostle Peter reminds us, ‘the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come to you searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ in the glories that would follow.’ (1 Peter 1:10,11)

It is in fact the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul who in two sermons in the book of Acts demonstrate the deeper meaning of Psalm 16.

The question we might first ask is who is this ‘Holy one’ (v10) who not ‘see decay’ and will not be abandoned ‘to the grave’?

It surely cannot be David who, like all of us, was a sinner and who did eventually die.

The term ‘Holy One’ comes up several times in the New Testament. It is the exact term that the demons used to identify Christ in both Mark’s and Luke’s gospels (Mark 1:25; Luke 1:35). But it is also the term that Peter uses in John 6:69 to describe Jesus: ‘We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’.  

The ‘Holy One’ is Jesus Christ. And this is clearly spelt out for us in Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, recorded for us in Acts 2.

Peter, in talking to a Jewish audience about Jesus, in Acts 2:25-28, says that God spoke these words about Jesus himself, and then quotes Psalm 16:8-11.

He then goes on to say in Acts 2:29-32:

‘I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried and his tomb here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on the throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.’

Likewise, Paul, in his sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13 quotes the same verse from Psalm 16, ‘you will not let your Holy One see decay’, and then goes to on to explain that this is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection.

But what does this mean for us practically today?

It means that along with all the blessings we can count with David about God’s sovereignty, protection and provision for us in this life, is the overriding wonderful promise that for Christian believers, death is not the end but that we too will one day be resurrected like Jesus, with a body like his (Philippians 3:21), to live forever enjoying the eternal pleasures in God’s presence with each other in a new heaven and a new earth.

But both Peter and Paul also draw out the implications for unbelievers. They must turn from their sins and put their faith in Christ. But the wonderful promise is that, if they do so, they will have all their sins forgiven and also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit giving them the power to live a new life pleasing to God.

When I worked with the Christian Medical Fellowship in student ministry back in the 1990s I once met a couple of keen Christian medical students at Bristol University during a day of evangelism training.

A short time afterwards, Lucy and Debbie, were both tragically killed in a road accident in South Africa while on their medical elective together. There were only in their early 20s.

I will never forget attending the funeral and learning that Debbie had written a letter just before her death, not knowing what was about to happen to her, saying that Psalm 16 was her favourite because of the wonderful promise of the resurrection.

She did not, and could not, have known that her life would be cut short in the way that it was. But it’s a reminder to us that we can never presume that we will live to a ripe old age. We do not know what God has planned for us in the future, or when Christ will return. So, we must always be ready and make the most of the tine that God has given us.

Perhaps one of the good things about COVID is that it has reminded us all of our fragility and mortality.

The Bible talks about people being held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). And so many people have been so frightened by this pandemic.

But that fear of death is not a problem for Christians if we really understand that we are immortal until God decides to call us home – that he is absolutely in control.

The fear of death is not a problem if we really understand what Jesus’ death and resurrection have achieved for us, and that we look forward to a glorious future where ‘no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9), where the very worst sufferings of this life will seem but ‘light and momentary’ in the light of the coming ‘eternal glory that far outweighs them all’. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

As John Piper has put it, the message of this psalm is that ‘God will bring you - body and soul - through life and death to full and everlasting pleasure, because he is your safest refuge, and your supreme treasure, and your sovereign Lord, and your trusted counsellor.’

Let’s treasure and hold onto this glorious truth.

This blog is based on sermon preached at Spicer Street Church on Sunday 11 April 2021