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Psalm 16 and Jesus

George W. Knight III

At this time of year, we generally remember in a special way the death and resurrection of one whom the angel Gabriel told Mary would "be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:32-33).

That promise reflected what God had said long years ago to the great King David, that on his throne descendants would rule—yes, even eternally. David and his son Solomon believed God's promise. They conducted their lives in the light of that wonderful truth (see 1 Kings 8:25-26).

This great truth was also known to the Jewish leaders, who, when asked by Jesus whose son the Messiah would be, replied immediately, "The son of David" (Matt. 22:41-42; cf. Mark 12:35; Luke 20:41). The expectation that the promised Messiah would be the son of David provides the key to understanding that Psalm 16 identifies Jesus as that Davidic Christ and does so by predicting his resurrection from the dead.

The Son of David

We find the apostles Peter and Paul utilizing this truth—that the Messiah was to be the son of David, and that he would be raised from the dead—to demonstrate to their Jewish hearers that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of these promises of God. Both Peter and Paul cite Psalm 16 to their Jewish audience to demonstrate from the Scriptures that God had promised to raise the Messiah from the dead, and that the Messiah is none other than the resurrected Jesus. Peter cites Psalm 16:8-11 in Acts 2:25-28, and Paul cites Psalm 16:10 in Acts 13:35.

Peter affirms that "God raised him [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24). He then goes on to affirm what "David said about him" (vs. 25a), and follows this affirmation by quoting David's own words from Psalm 16:8-11:

I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will live in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence. (Acts 2:25b-28)

David the Prophet

Peter argues that this passage, with its words "because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay" (Acts 2:27; Ps. 16:10), does not apply to David. He says to his hearers, "I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day" (Acts 2:29). (Paul makes the same argument in Acts 13:36, where he points out that David's "body decayed.")

He goes on to say that David uttered this psalm as a prophet, knowing "that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his 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" (Acts 2:30-31). David was able to write about the future Christ because he did so as "a prophet," that is, as one who speaks the message that God has given to him. With this prophetic insight, David was allowed, as it were, to "see" the future and thus to speak "of the resurrection of the Christ." What David had prophesied, Peter now declares to be true of Jesus as the one raised from the dead. Thus, Peter says explicitly that "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact" (Acts 2:32).

God made this promise when David wanted to build a house for him. God told David not to build a house for him; instead, he would build an eternal house for David! We find the account recorded in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. In both accounts, God promises to build that house for David. He says in 1 Chronicles 17:10-14:

I declare to you that the Lord will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.

Jesus in the Psalm

Paul picks up on that great promise, echoed in Isaiah 55:3, and refers to it in Acts 13:34, where he says, "I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David." He previously echoed the promised sonship by saying, "As it is written in the second Psalm: 'You are my Son; today I have become your Father.'" All of this truth from the Old Testament, Paul says, is the good news that he is telling them: "What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus" (vss. 32-33). Psalm 16:10 speaks of Jesus, he explains, because "the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay" (vs. 37).

Where did Peter (and Paul) get this great certainty of understanding? Although the passages in Acts do not give any indication themselves, I think that Peter is reflecting the understanding that Jesus himself had given to the apostles, as we read of it in Luke 24:44-48:

He said to them, " ... Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Peter did not forget the understanding that he had been given then and there.

Peter, Paul, and Barnabas

In both Acts 2 with Peter and Acts 13 with Paul, the response of the Jewish people is given, and it is a cause for rejoicing (Acts 2:37, 41; 13:43). Peter concluded his message by drawing out its clear implication and setting it forth before his audience: "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). When people asked Peter what they should do, he replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (vs. 38).

Similarly, Paul concluded his appeal to Psalm 16 and other passages of Scripture by saying, "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:38-39).

The narrative goes on to say that "as Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and the devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God" (vss. 42-43). How wonderful it would be for us also to be able not only to rejoice in this fulfilled Scripture, but also to speak further about the one of whom it speaks, Jesus the Messiah, and the offer of forgiveness that he gives, not only to all nations, but also, and particularly, to the children of the fathers, the descendants of Abraham and David, to whom it was originally given.

The author is a teacher at Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C., and an adjunct professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2002.

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