Opening The Old Testament
A God of Joy and Pleasure: Reflections on Psalm 16
The NRSV assumes that verse 6 refers to a physical location: "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage." One could also read, "An inheritance fell to me with delight; my estate, too, is lovely to me." If that translation is given, the poet may mean that he celebrates his continuing connection to YHWH that sustains him in his life and belief. This latter reading is supported by verse 7: "I bless YHWH who gives me counsel; especially in the night my conscience teaches me." Again my translation differs from the NRSV, because here the word it reads "heart" is in fact the Hebrew "kidneys," the place in the body thought to be the source of deep emotion, not the place of will or intelligence, which is the "heart." The psalmist expresses his deepest gratitude that YHWH offers him counsel even through his strong place of emotion and desire.
"I keep YHWH always before me; because he (God) is at my right hand, I will not be moved" (or "will not stumble") (v. 8). The poet is sturdy and solid, because YHWH is ever near, as close as his right hand. And because of that solidity, that certainty of YHWH's presence, "my heart is glad, and my 'pulse' rejoices; my body also rests secure" (v. 9). The NRSV reads Hebrew kavod as "soul" (though the word is regularly translated 'glory') but I have tried to illuminate the poet's concern to use various parts of the body to illustrate his complete physical and emotional connection to YHWH alone. The "kidneys" ("conscience" in my reading) of verse 7 lead to the "heart" and "pulse" of verse 9, then finally to the "whole body" resting securely and in safety.
As a result, the poet is not "given up to Sheol," nor is forced to see "the Pit," two common designations of the place of death (v. 10). On the contrary, "You show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore" (v. 11). And there is the reason why Psalm 16 is read on the Second Sunday of Easter. This God, this great YHWH, is in the business of life, not death. This God's presence is filled with joy and pleasures forever. All of our beings—kidneys, heart, pulse, our whole bodies—are claimed for this God who calls us to reject all other holy ones and mighty ones, and to give ourselves over to this God only. Jesus is alive, and so can we be if we live in the power and gift of this joyful and pleasurable God.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.