The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Psalm 16:8-11

Psalm 16:8-11

This is another Psalm that appears to have been influential in the shaping of the Gospel Tradition (cf. the prior article on Psalm 22). Though Psalm 16:8-11 is not mentioned in the Gospels themselves, the reference in two different sermon-speeches in the book of Acts (by Peter and Paul, respectively [cf. below]) suggests that it had become a key Scripture in early Christian tradition for understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus.

[I have discussed this Psalm at length in my “Sunday Psalm Studies”, and this current article substantially reproduces that earlier study.]

I would divide the Psalm into two parts. The first (vv. 1-4) contrasts loyalty to El-Yahweh with the worship of other (Canaanite) deities. It is comprised of an initial petition (v. 1), followed by a declaration of allegiance and trust in YHWH (v. 2), and a statement whereby the Psalmist disavows any worship of other deities besides YHWH (vv. 3-4).

For a detailed study on verses 1-4, please consult the textual and exegetical notes in my earlier study.

Verses 5-11

“YHWH, you have numbered out my portion and my cup,
you (firmly) hold the stone (that is) my (lot);
the boundary (line)s fallen to me (are) in pleasant (place)s—
indeed, (this) possession is (most) beautiful over [i.e. next to] me.
I will kneel to YHWH who counsels me—
indeed, (by) nights His (inner) organs instruct me.
I have set YHWH to (be) stretched long in front of me,
(and) from His right (hand) I will not be shaken (away).
For this my heart rejoices, my heaviest (part) circles (with joy),
indeed, (even) my flesh can dwell in (peaceful) security,
for you will not leave [i.e. give] my soul (over) to Sheol,
you will not give your loyal (one) to see (the place of) ruin.
You will make me (to) know the path of Life,
being satisfied with joys (before) your Face,
(and) lasting pleasures at your right (hand)!”

After the syntactical and textual difficulties in verses 3-4, the remainder of the Psalm is relatively straightforward. The imagery in the first two couplets (vv. 5-6) derives from the binding agreement (covenant) idea as it would have been realized between a superior (sovereign) and his vassals. God (YHWH) is the good sovereign who bestows benefits upon his loyal vassals. He measures out (vb hn`m*, “number [out], count”, i.e. assign, appoint, etc) the appropriate benefit, viewed as a share (ql#j#) of the good things controlled by the sovereign. This includes the place at the table (“cup”, soK), also used to symbolize generally all that the person will receive—i.e. his “lot” (literally, “stone, pebble” lr*oG, indicating that the person is to receive the benefit). A common socio-political benefit is property—a territory or fief bestowed upon the vassal. The tribal territories of the Promised Land itself was seen as such a covenantal benefit (and promise) for the descendants of Abraham. The parallel wording used here in verse 6 relates to territory: “boundary (line)s” (<yl!b*j&) and “possession” (hl*j&n~), described as “pleasant” (<yu!n`) and “beautiful” (vb rp^v*, be clear/bright). It is given over to the vassal (“fallen to me”) and now belongs to him (“over me”, i.e. alongside, next to me).

In verses 7-9, the covenantal relationship itself (i.e. between sovereign and vassal) is depicted. The couplets in vv. 7-8 express this through two actions by the Psalmist (the loyal vassal):

    • “I will kneel to YHWH” —The verb Er^B* generally denotes giving praise and honor to a person; in the case of a person’s response to God (as the superior) it more properly indicates showing homage. It is acknowledged that there is a close connection between the root and the word Er#B# (“knee”), but it is not entirely clear if the verb is denominative (i.e. giving homage/honor by way of the idea of “bending the knee, kneeling”). My translation assumes this derivation.
    • “I have set YHWH (in front of me)” —Here the verb is hw`v* (“set, place”), the action perhaps best understood in the sense of a person placing his/her attention and focus firmly on God. The context would also suggest that the Psalmist is affirming his covenantal loyalty to YHWH. The word dym!T*, literally meaning something like “(stretch)ed out long”, is used here in an adverbial sense. It may be taken to mean that the Psalmist is continually doing this, or that it is a deep and abiding expression of his loyalty.

In each couplet, the second line describes the effect of this relationship on the Psalmist (the vassal). Even at night (every night) YHWH instructs the Psalmist out of His (i.e. YHWH’s) innermost being. The plural toyl=K! refers to the deep inner organs (i.e. kidneys) of a person, representing the source of deep feelings and emotions, i.e. God’s care and devotion to those who are loyal/faithful to him. If verse 7b emphasizes the inner aspect of the relationship, verse 8b stresses the outer aspect. Instead of the inner organs, we have the prominent outer motif of a person’s right hand. From the standpoint of the covenant, and expressed in terms of royal theology, it means the vassal has a prominent place at the side of the sovereign. Early Christians, of course, applied this royal motif to the position of the exalted Jesus, following the resurrection, at the right hand of God the Father. In both lines, the suffix y– is best read as a third person (rather than first person) singular. The suffixes y– and w– were often interchangeable, especially in poetry, which tended to preserve earlier (NW Semitic, i.e. Phoenician, etc) features otherwise rare in Old Testament Hebrew.

Verse 9 summarizes the preceding lines and anticipates the climactic reference to death and the afterlife in v. 10. The couplet begins with the expression /k@l*, “for this”, i.e. for this reason (LXX dia\ tou=to). The Psalmist can rejoice and be at ease because of the covenantal relationship with YHWH, entailing both benefits and protection. The former was emphasized in vv. 5-6, the latter here in vv. 9-10. The noun dobK*, usually translated as “honor” or “glory”, is better understood in terms of the related word db@K*, i.e. the liver as the “heavy” organ. The root dbk fundamentally refers to heaviness or weight, often in the basic sense of what is of value. The “heavy” organ is parallel here with the “heart”.

The security the Psalmist experiences extends to his very life being preserved and protected by YHWH. This is described in terms of being saved/delivered from Sheol, also here called “the (place of) ruin”. On the meaning and background of the term “Sheol” (loav=, Š®°ôl), see my earlier article. It is not entirely clear whether the emphasis here (esp. with the verb bz`u*) is on being left in the grave (i.e. after one has already died), or being given over to death in the first place. The references to Sheol in the Psalms suggest the latter. However, the New Testament use of vv. 9-10 in Acts 2:25-28ff (Peter’s Pentecost speech, cf. also 13:35) indicates the former, as it is applied to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (cf. below).

The closing tricolon of verse 11 suggests the imagery of a heavenly/blessed afterlife, with the covenantal relationship now being re-imagined in heavenly/eternal terms, with the Psalmist standing before God’s face and at His right hand. It is little wonder that early Christians would come to interpret these lines in terms of the place of the exalted Jesus with God in heaven (Acts 2:25-28ff).

Acts 2:25-28ff

The quotation from Psalm 16:8-11 is one of three key Scripture citations at the heart of Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2:14-41); for a detailed study of this sermon-speech, cf. the two-part article in the series “The Speeches of Acts”. The citation generally matches the Greek (LXX) version [15:8-11], which is itself a reasonably accurate translation (into Greek idiom) of the Hebrew (MT)—on which, see above.

The Exposition/Application.—Here we must consider two portions: (a) the kerygmatic statement in vv. 22-24 which leads into the quotation, and (b) the exposition which opens the next section of the speech (vv. 29-31). I will treat the kerygma of vv. 24 below; here note the exposition from the next section (vv. 29-31)—Peter makes three points which can be grouped together as a triad:

    • The Psalmist (David) died (i.e. completed/finished his life) and was buried—indeed his tomb is still known (v. 29)
    • David was a prophet (literally, a foreteller) and knew that “out of the fruit of his loins” an heir will come to sit on his throne (v. 30)—primarily a reference to 2 Sam 7:11b-14, which came to be a prime Messianic passage.
    • As a prophet, David foresaw the resurrection (lit. standing up [again]) of the Anointed [i.e. Messiah, Jesus] (v. 31)—here specifically Psalm 16:10 is cited again.

At the climax of the Psalm, the protagonist finds continual joy and security in God’s presence, even to the point of trusting that YHWH will not abandon him to the grave (i.e. the ‘Pit’ or Sheol). This latter reference is somewhat ambiguous (cf. above), but it does seem to express the idea that the author of the Psalm will not experience death, at least not permanently. Subsequently in Judaism and early Christianity, this would have been understood in terms of resurrection. And it is the resurrection of Jesus that is primarily in view for Peter (and the author of Acts), as indicated by the repeated citation of verse 10 in Acts 2:31. In this interpretation, the Psalmist (David) speaks not of himself, but prophetically of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Notably, the Greek verb e)gkatalei/pw (literally, “leave down in…”, but also understood generally as “leave behind, abandon, forsake”, etc) was uttered by Jesus on the cross in Mark 15:34 / Matt 27:46; and this no doubt helped establish the connection between Psalm 16 and the death/resurrection of Jesus.

Kerygmatic statement/formulae.—There are two statements to note: (a) in verses 22-24, part of the introductory address which leads into the citation of Psalm 16:8-11, and (b) verses 32-33, which are part of the introductory address of the next section (leading into the citation of Psalm 110:1). Verses 32-33 are addressed below; here let us examine briefly verses 22-24, which begin with the exhortation “hear these words…”:

    • V. 22: “(of this) Yeshua the Nazarean, a man presented from/by God unto you with works of power and wonders and signs which God did in your midst, even as (you your)selves know”
      • V. 23: “this one, by the marked will/purpose and foreknowledge of God, given out through the hand of lawless (ones), fastening (him) to (the stake) you took (his life) away”
      • V. 24: “whom God made stand up (again), loosing the pains of death, according to (the fact) that there was not power to hold him firmly under it”

I regard these verses as an example of early Christian kerygma (Gospel proclamation), using formulaic phrases, terms, and images which would stand out and be easy to remember and transmit. Here they are still rough and fresh, but over time such statements would take on a cleaner form (which could be used in early hymns and liturgy; for possible examples, cf. Romans 1:2-4; 1 Tim 3:16).

Acts 13:30-37

In Paul’s sermon-speech at Pisidian Antioch (cf. the article in the series “The Speeches of Acts”), the central Scripture citation is Psalm 2:7, which, however, is followed and expounded with quotations from two further passages of Scripture, as follows:

    • An allusion to Ps 16:10 in verse 34a—”(God) made him stand up out the dead, no more about to turn under into (complete) ruin/decay [diafqora]”
      • Reference to Isa 55:3 in v. 34b (see below)
    • Citation of Ps 16:10 in v. 35—”you will not give your holy/righteous [o%sio$] One to see (complete) ruin/decay [diafqora]”

The association between Isa 55:3 and Ps 16:10 is based on the substantive adjective o%sio$ (Hebrew dysj); here is the relevant portion of Isa 55:3, in the three versions (MT/LXX/Acts) side by side:

Isa 55:3 MT

<yn]m*a$n# dw]d* yd@s=j^ <l*ou tyr!B= <k#l* ht*r=k=a#w+
“…and I will cut for/with you a lasting agreement,
the (well) supported loving/loyal things of David”

Isa 55:3 LXX

kai\ diaqh/somai u(mi=n diaqh/khn ai)w/nion ta\ o%sia Dauid ta\ pista/
“…and I will arrange for/with you an arrangement of-the-ages,
the holy (and) trustworthy things of David”

Acts 13:34b

dw/sw u(mi=n ta\ o%sia Daui\d ta\ pista/
“…and I will give you the holy (and) trustworthy things of David”

The Greek verb diati/qhmi has the fundamental meaning of setting (or arranging) things through, i.e. in order, or for a specific end purpose. The noun, of course, is related, i.e. an “arrangement” —in basic English, the Greek expression could be fairly rendered “I have arranged with you an arrangement…” (as above). The noun diaqh/kh often had the more technical sense of a “disposition (of goods/property)”, “testament”, or the like, and was also regularly used to translate the Hebrew tyrb (“agreement, covenant”). It is this latter sense (from the Old Testament) that diaqh/kh is typically carries in the New Testament. Paul’s quotation does not mention the agreement/covenant, but only the final phrase, “the holy (and) trustworthy things of David”, which is synonymous with the covenant (promises).

The Hebrew adjective dysj has a wide and diverse semantic range, but perhaps could be summarized as “good, kind/loving, loyal”. The corresponding Greek adjective o%sio$ more properly relates to the religious sphere—that which is proper, good and right (“pure, whole, holy, sacred”, etc); in the LXX and New Testament it is largely synonymous with di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”).

Verses 36 and 37 apply Psalm 16:10 to the death and resurrection of Jesus in a manner very similar to that in Peter’s Pentecost speech (cf. above). Based on this evidence, we can be reasonably confident that verses 8-11 of the Psalm formed a key Scripture used by early Christians in their proclamation of the Gospel message. It also doubtless was used by the early missionaries to demonstrate that the death and resurrection of the Messiah (was prophesied in Scripture). There were relatively few passages that were suitable for such a purpose, and Psalm 16:8-11 was clearly one of them.

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