Literary analysis of Psalm 16

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Opening with three problematic verses, Psalm 16 is, nevertheless, stately, hopeful


and sure of God’s beneficence. The song centres about the image of a boundary in


verse 6: “Legacies have fallen to me, pleasant [ones].” Both Hebrew and English infer


an allotment, but the Hebrew suggests an inheritance of land whose boundaries


were measured out by rope lengths (see Notes).  The image creates for the singer his


means of delineating the difference between himself and the idolaters (v. 4);


between, that is, “the way of life” and the territory of death (Sheol, abomination, v.


10). The boundary lines of these two paths or dimensions, he insists, can never meet


or intersect. Indeed, “never” is repeated four times throughout the song (v. 2, v. 4


twice, and v. 8). But, most essentially, the image of boundary lines unites the singer


with God: his own physicality –his body — bridges the boundaries between God and


the singer in his  image of God at his right side, as if  they are in step. He completes


this image of boundaries bridged by envisioning God’s “right hand”, in verse 11,


extending “pleasures” to His followers. The singer has thereby transformed


physicality itself, that which separates humans from the divine, into an instrument


of connection, human body and divine hand meeting in metaphor.



The first line of the Psalm names a Michtam, the first of the song’s puzzles. In this


case, puzzling simply because the exact Hebrew meaning has been lost.


Interestingly, Psalm 32, doubling 16 numerically, also begins with the name, now


lost, but presumably of a musical instrument (maskil, v. 1), and, as if doubling as well


in theme, also imagines a “way”, but this time it is the singer who proclaims to the


people Israel that he “will enlighten you as to the way in which you should go” (v. 8),


as if pointing out , in the later psalm, the direction God has taught him in this, the





The second verse of the song poses another puzzle, this one a problem of ambiguity:


the last line of the verse declares, “my good is never up to You.” It could be that the


singer is stating that God does not owe him the quality of goodness; that goodness is


his own responsibility or choice. Or he could be asserting that God alone is his good.


Both interpretations are equally valid; in each, the singer affirms God. Thus the


singer pledges himself to God, through goodness, before contrasting himself to


those who “pledged” to “others” (v. 4), through savagery: pouring “their libations of


blood” to idols.



Whether or not these idol-worshippers are “the holy ones who are in the land, and


the powerful” is the puzzle in verse 3. For the singer adds, “all my desire [is] for


them”.  While he may be describing the devout whom he wishes to emulate –not the


idol-worshippers, that is, but, in fact, their opponents—it is more likely that he is


actually berating the idol-worshippers for their pretense of holiness, despite their


public authority.  This interpretation takes its credence from the very word “idol”:


the Hebrew root of “idol”, עַצְּבוֹתָם֘ , is similar to that of “sorrow”, עֶצֶב. The implication, then, is more subtle than sarcasm. It ensures the fulfillment


of the singer’s prophecy in verse 4: “Bountiful will be the sorrows of those who


pledged [themselves] to others”.  Their allegiance to idols has, certainly in the


Hebrew text, made their future of sorrow inevitable.


Verse 5 expands the contrast between the singer and the idolaters, though not

explicitly. Again the contrast is described in the words themselves. The blood


libations of verse 4 have their counter in verse 5 in the word ‘lot”:


Adonai, my share of my portion and of my cup,

You sustain my lot.


The Hebrew word for “lot”, גּוֹרָלִֽי, has the connotation of destiny as well


as of an allotted portion. The singer is thereby affirming that God is his allotted


destiny, his allegiance to God one of all time. His “cup “of benediction is the negation


of the blood of the idolaters’ cup: theirs is the spilt life-force of those they slaughter;


his, the transforming nourishment that is his “portion”. And so he makes clear that


his “legacies” of verse 6 are spiritual ones, not merely the allotment or portion of


land implicit in the Hebrew word.



The last 5 verses of the song build a sequence of bodily imagery: the singer declares


In verse 7 that “even [in the] nights, tormented me my conscience” – the literal


meaning of the Hebrew word for “conscience” is “kidney”, the organ that metaphorizes, in Biblical writings, the location of moral sense. And verse 9 proclaims,


“my being rejoices”; the literal Hebrew meaning for “being” is “liver”, the Biblical


seat of consciousness.  His body, sustained by God (v. 5), will never stumble (v. 8),


but will “rest securely”, no longer tormented but “gladdened” and rejoicing (v. 9).



The name “Adonai” sounds throughout the song (v. 2, 5, 7, 8), its four-times


repetition transforming the four repetitions of “never”. Negation has been


nullified as the song ends on jubilation. The song itself has mapped out “the way


of life” and the singer sees his bounty, his allotment, to be both “gladness’ and


“pleasures”, both emanating from God.  Imaging God’s “face” and “right hand” in the

song’s final verse, the singer metaphorically suggests a physicality that serves to


describe the guidelines to his song’s mapping. The last word of the song, “eternally”,


transforms time’s boundaries. “Life” and “eternally”, two words of affirmation,


allow the singer to follow, to “know”, God’s endless “way”.

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