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”.