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Psalm 16 (Read)
An expression that has always troubled me is the phrase, "Life is good." Usually when I hear it said, it is something of an afterthought, and usually is merely a casual statement that really means "at the moment, I'm happy enough." Have you ever thought about it when you hear people say it? I find myself wondering at the statement, because it has also been my experience that most people, including those who repeat this phrase, actually spend most of their time in a great deal of discontent with the way things are going and with how life is playing out. And what do we hear the Psalmist say in the text that was preached at my church today? "I say to the LORD, 'You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.'" (Ps. 16:2) On this labor day weekend, we ought to be asking ourselves: what is it after all that we are working for? Or as our pastor put it, how should we "define and illustrate a worthwhile life?" That's a question to which our society offers many, many answers, few of them of real value.
The life of the psalmist here is, simply, a life that has a home in God. God is his "refuge" (v.1), his place of safety and of rest. A refuge is a place where one can go when all other bets are off and there are no options left - a storm or bomb shelter. It is a place to be protected when one is not strong enough to protect himself. My experience in life has been that this is the case most if not all of the time. Pastor Jack mentioned two ways in which the psalmist could mean "I have no good apart from you," both of them perfectly valid. First, he means that God is the source of all that is good. He is at the root of all our blessings, and he orders the universe so perfectly and providentially that "for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose," (Rom. 8:28) even the things we find unpleasant while they are taking place.
Second, and at a deeper level (in Jack's words), "apart from you, all that I have is mere tinsel." Apart from God, all of the things with which we adorn our lives are ultimately empty and of no eternal significance. Life without God, the psalmist means to tell us, is simply vanity. We may busy ourselves; we may fill our lives to the brim with activities, interests, hobbies, relationships, money, sex, drugs, gossip, food, drink, and anything else our heart desires, good or bad, but in the end it equates to nothing, because "Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not... a man dies and is laid low; a man breathes his last, and where is he?" (Job 14:1-2, 10) Everything around us and indeed we too are dying, and without God there is no absolute truth beyond this undeniable reality, the reality of death. Calling all our possessions "mere tinsel" apart from God is so fitting, because it captures perfectly the way in which all our additions and pleasures that we append to our lives are ultimately decorations on a thing that will one day rot and wither, not matter how green it is for the time being. It is a somber reality with which the psalmist is asking us to come to terms. But if we can do that, we find the same joy that he does - joy in the eternal God, who will not let his saints see corruption or decay (v.10).
So it is not until the tree of our life is evergreen with God that the tinsel decorating it can have any meaning or lasting beauty. With God, all things are granted meaning, and become sacramental in their nature. That means simply that God created everything, and that therefore everything points back toward him in some way. Until we see that and realize that everything filling our lives is a gift from him, we will find neither security nor contentment in this life. "The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply," the psalmist tells us (v.4), and this is true in every way to this day. As preachers and theologians are often fond of pointing out, idolatry did not end in the west along with polytheism, because idolatry means so much more than the worship of false deities. Idolatry is simply the failure to place the eternal God before all else and failure to recognize, as the psalmist does, that "in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." (v.11)
John Piper, a Reformed Baptist pastor of great popularity, makes the statement in one of his books that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." This reality is visible in this last verse of the psalm, in which the psalmist voices the thing that binds him and God in such an unbreakable bond: "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." In God is the path of life - we don't search for it and find it, but he makes it known to us. All human philosophy and effort spent for the past millennia to find meaning and purpose in the cosmos has often remained ignorant of the fact that the God who created it all has manifested himself to us, and has "made known... the path of life." All good philosophy as Christians understand it is ordered around the basic presupposition that our eternal creator God is and can be known.
And not only that, but he can be loved, worshiped. The Psalmist understands this very well, and we would do well to see things as he does. We would do well to see through the veils of stereotypes about Christians, Christianity, and religion in general that have accumulated over the years. It is not about cold, empty observance; it is not about sitting in church and "getting to go to heaven"; it is not just about being "a nice person" and trying to find a solution to all the difficulties life throws in your way. Christianity, first and foremost, is about finding as the first and and greatest source of joy in your life the eternal God, so that you may glorify him and enjoy him forever. It is about delight, about joy and life and peace. "In your presence there is fullness of joy," the Christian realizes. "In your right hand are pleasures forevermore." It is quite scandalous, in fact. Why do we love and serve God? Because it is in God only that our hearts find true delight and real life as it was meant to be lived.
Do you have this joy in your life? If you are reading this and have never known Jesus Christ, I hope the psalmist's thoughts engage you and compel you to see things a bit differently. What is religion as you understand it? Is it about the rigid observance of rules toward the goal of getting into heaven? Or is it the practice of finding joy and peace in a God who is love? (1 John 4:15-16) Where do you seek joy in your life? When you consider the limits of your own mortality, do you find the things that fill your life of ultimate worth? In God there is fullness of joy, we are told, and the motive of Christians seeking to share the gospel should not be to "claim another soul for Christ" in order to add another mark on the evangelistic tally sheet. It is to encourage others to discover in their lives a greater joy than any the world has to offer, and to live in that joy for eternity, even during the trials with which our lives are filled. May God give you grace to find your joy in him, and may he make known to you the path of life, so that like the psalmist you too can say "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you." (Ps. 16:1)