Psalm 16 and Why You Should Study It This Easter

If you’re the kind of Christian who is now wondering, “Here’s another Easter; what part of the Bible do I study/teach this year?”—then let me admit that I’m in the same boat. I’ve got to write a blog post about Easter; where do I go?

Let’s steer this boat together, guiding it from the shoals of our mutual ignorance to the high seas of knowledge and joy, while fishing for the 153 fish of insight and avoiding the storms of bad hermeneutics.

Sometimes I have trouble picking a passage to study or preach on (that’s one reason I prefer expository series). When that happens, I look for a responsible path to serendipity. “Responsible,” meaning I don’t close my eyes, open my Bible, and stick my finger down. But “serendipity,” because I’m open to whatever insights jump out at me through responsible means.

For responsible serendipity, I like to go to the New Testament Use of the Old Testament interactive tool, available with a subscription to Logos Now; it’s a reliable place to look for sparks of insight. I click on Acts, because I remember that Peter discusses the Resurrection in passionate detail in Acts 2—and I remember that he quotes the Psalms.

Yes, now I remember: one of the most profound comments in Scripture about the Resurrection comes from the “uneducated” apostle Peter. This is great stuff.

But perhaps a bit obscure, too, at first glance. By the time he gets to proclaiming the Resurrection, Peter has already given an extended quotation from a minor prophet (Joel), and his major scriptural citation for Jesus’ Resurrection comes from a somewhat difficult Davidic psalm, Psalm 16. Peter quotes in Acts 2,

25 For David says concerning him
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

A quick check of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament interactive, organized now (with a click) by OT quotation instead of NT book, shows that Acts is the only NT book which quotes Psalm 16.


But Peter is not the only apostle in Acts who quotes the psalm. Paul does too, in Acts 13. Peter and Paul both see in Psalm 16:27 (“You will not…let your Holy One see corruption”) a reference to Jesus in the grave and, subsequently, out of it.

But, as is sometimes the case with such quotations, when you read Psalm 16, it’s not obvious that it’s a straight prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Do Peter and Paul know what they’re doing? Or were they just credulous first-century zealots ready to pick up whatever Scripture passages sort of came to hand and sounded plausible?

No, Peter and Paul are not Scripture-twisters; they know that David wrote the psalm (they both mention it), and they know David’s dead (they both mention it). In fact, those are the only theological comments Paul makes; it’s actually that “uneducated” Peter who dives into justifying his own use of the OT. He has to: his audience knows their Bible. He’s talking to a group of Jewish people who are so religiously motivated that they have traveled to Jerusalem from all over the ancient world. They would know the source of Peter’s Psalm 16 quotation. And they would object if Peter misquoted.

Peter says, in explanation,

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

This is a remarkable piece of exegetical and theological reasoning. Peter acknowledges that David did in fact die; his body wasted away in a tomb. So how, in Psalm 16, can God promise that would never happen? Jesus himself declared that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). What exactly is going on here?

In essence, Peter is saying that David has performed one of his prophetic transpositions; all of the sudden you feel like you’re in a different key, not the key of David but the key of Jesus.

I. Howard Marshall, in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, suggests that

David here is speaking not in his own person, but rather as the Messiah, who refers to the help that God will give him. (537)

Admittedly, this is not something you could have known about Psalm 16 with any certainty before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Marshall raises “the inevitable modern question”: does Peter’s use of Psalm 16 “work”?

Marshall doesn’t give a ringing endorsement of Peter’s interpretation, but his reasoning is still helpful overall:

The psalm appears to say “You will not let me die,” but Peter takes it to mean something more like “You will not let me remain dead once I have died.” The psalm is thus understood to refer to a person, once dead, not being left in death and suffering the consequent decay of the body. In favor of this interpretation is the way that the last verse of the psalm appears to refer to experiences in the presence of God that follow death, unless we take the reference to be a metaphorical one to the experience of joy in the period that follows deliverance from premature death.

Marshall observes that David’s descendants (Solomon, Rehoboam) all died, too, so if Psalm 16 includes prophecies, those predictions must refer to someone else; they must refer to Jesus. Marshall concludes, somewhat tepidly, that,

Peter’s interpretation in a wide sense in 2:30 is sufficiently plausible. (539)

There is no denying the difficulties created by the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. We have to take them into account when we discuss the doctrine of inspiration. But I’ll offer one bibliological principle I’ve found helpful: the apostles weren’t dummies. Peter knew what he was doing; he knew that his citation of Psalm 16 required some explanation. That’s why he offered it. It isn’t just the citation of Psalm 16 in Peter’s Pentecost sermon that is inspired; it’s his reasoning.

Continue to focus your Bible study on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus with free video reflections on the life of Christ. Scholars like David deSilva, Tremper Longman III, and Peter Leithart follow Jesus’ Journey to the Resurrection through daily, 8–10 minute videos sent right to your inbox. Learn more about the Journey to the Resurrection, or sign up below to receive your videos.

Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is an editor in the book division at Crossway. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018). He is an active YouTuber.

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Written by Mark Ward
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