Like so many verses of Scripture, the full meaning of Psalm 16.11 is fully unpacked by looking at the context from which it comes. While the promise of “fullness of joy” is indeed incredible, why settle for one piece of pie when the entire dessert buffet table is set before us. Let us not miss the significance and meaning of the entire psalm.
The psalm is a miktam of David. Hebrew scholars are unsure what the term miktam means, but most assume that it was either a musical or liturgical term. But the significant thing for us to note is that Psalm 16 was penned by David. The psalm talks about refuge, sorrows, and joys, and even though we may not have a specific context for this psalm (like we do for Psalm 51 and others), the general background of David’s life does shed some light on the meaning of this psalm.
David was no stranger to sorrows and struggles in life. As a young man, he watched over his father’s flocks by night, often defending his sheep from lions and bears (see 1 Samuel 17.34-36). Still in his youth, he was drafted by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel. Unfortunately for David, the throne was still occupied at the time, so he spent the next few years of his life running and hiding from Saul and trying not to be killed. Even after gaining the throne of Israel, he was a warrior familiar with the toils of battle. And as an old man, he fled his palace in Jerusalem as his own son tried to steal the crown by force (see 2 Samuel 15).
David did not sit around on his padded throne composing worship music with his harp. He lived out the sorrows of life. To be sure, some of those sorrows were self inflicted. He felt the sting and tragedy of his own sin after his sin with Bathsheba (see Psalm 51) and his foolish desire to number Israel (2 Samuel 24).
But regardless whether our sorrows are self inflicted or caused by an enemy, the question of refuge and joy are continually before us. What will bring life to me today? Where can I find peace and joy? Which path of life will be good? These are the questions of Psalm 16.
Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16.1-11)
The confession of verse 11 was not made in a vacuum. David had watched as others around him tried to deal with the sorrows and struggles of life. Some ran after other gods, hoping to find refuge and joy but only to find a multiplication of sorrows (Psalm 16.4). They placed their false gods before them, calling upon their name day after day, even offering sacrifices and trying to please them. Not only were they silent to answer, but they actually made their misery and sorrows worse.
We forget that false gods are more than just a silent hope. Any offering that we make to an idol, whether an image carved out of wood or an idol of money and greed, is really an offering made to demons.
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10.19-22)
The reason the sorrows are multiplied upon those who run after false gods is more than the sorrows missed by not trusting in the Lord. Worshipping demons, which is what idolatry is, places our hearts and souls in bondage to the spiritual forces of darkness. And Jesus was right, the thief (the devil) comes to steal, kill, and destroy (see John 10.10). Any promise of life or hope offered in conjunction with sin is much more than mere false advertising. It is the passing pleasure of sin that will quickly be replaced by the hook of destruction. And the multiplication of sorrows.
The toils and sorrows of life force every human to seek refuge. Where shall your help come from? (see Psalm 121.1). Psalm 16 is David’s confession of refuge.
Notice the different word pictures that David used to describe his choice of the Lord as his refuge: in you I take refuge, You are my Lord, the Lord is my chosen portion, the Lord gives me counsel, the Lord is always before me, and He is at my right hand. For David, his relationship with the Lord was more than just a passing visit to the house of an idol. He walked with the Lord as his refuge. The Lord was always before him.
David described the blessings of choosing the Lord as his refuge with graphic language. He knew that nothing good came into his life apart from the Lord’s hand. The apostle James repeated the same idea when he wrote, “Every good and every perfect gift comes from above” (James 1.19). John the Baptist did the same when he said, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).
The boundary lines had indeed fallen for David in pleasant places, but that was not a coincidence or an accident of history. The markers that indicated the scope of his blessings were indeed generous, and David knew whom to thank. But his gratitude was tempered by the fact that the Lord held David’s lot in the palm of His hand. In other words, a heart can be grateful for what the Lord gives to us only when we are not concentrating on what the Lord has chosen not to give to us. The boundary lines not only mark out our blessings, but also the blessings that belong to others. There is no room for “why didn’t God give that to me” in David’s gratitude. The Lord was his chosen portion, and whatever lot came to David’s life, he received it joyfully from the Lord. After all, he had no good thing in his life apart from the Lord.
This was why David did not envy the ways of wicked men (see Psalm 1). He delighted in the saints and in their ways knowing that their path was the excellent path. And one of the reasons that he was able to resist the urge to join the wicked on their path of folly is that the Lord gave him counsel (Psalm 16.7). The Lord instructed his heart, teaching him the paths of life.
And because of that, David was not shaken as he stayed near to his God. And a short reading of the life of David reminds us that there was much to shake him. The murderous rampage of Saul or the mutiny of his son would be enough to shake any man’s life, but we have to take into account the self-inflicted wounds of his own sin. But David had discovered that the only way to not be shaken by the storms of life was to stay near to the right hand of the Lord. Even if that meant that sometimes the right hand of the Lord leads to deep confession and repentance.
And after a life of seeking refuge in the Lord, he was able to confess that his whole being was glad. Even his physical body knew the security of resting under the shadow of God’s counsel and grace. Which is why David was able to make his glorious confession,
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16.11)
Taking our memory verse in the context of the entire psalm, we see some very important truths.
First, we don’t discover the path of life in a vacuum. We have friends and family and enemies around us that proudly proclaim their way as the path of life. And they make their path seem as attractive as possible, if not to convince us then to convince themselves. And to be sure, there are passing pleasures of sin that they could hold up as proof. But we must take a broader look at life. Those who pursue false gods are actually pursuing the spiritual forces of darkness, and the end result of their pursuits will be sorrows multiplied upon sorrows, whether in this life or the next.
Second, God must make known to us the path of life. This implies revelation. We will not know the path of life through our natural wisdom. With fleshly eyes, we cannot see the spiritual realities around us. God must breath them into our souls. He must make known to us the path of life. Which causes us to ask a question, “How will God make known to me the path of life today?” Will He burn bush? Will He give a vision? Will He speak to me through His word?
And that question leads us to the third observation. Fullness of joy is found in the presence of God not in the practice of religion. There is much discussion today about the distinction between religion and a relationship with God through Christ, and well there should be. A relationship with God is made possible through the one mediator between God and mankind, the person of Christ. Through Christ, we enter into the presence of God. And it is in this presence that we find fullness of joy.
The practical application of this is that we find refuge from our sorrows and struggles when we rest in the presence of God. David, through this psalm, is encouraging us to make the time to find refuge in the presence of God. How will you rest in His presence this week?
Finally, this verse reminds us that we are all born for eternity. Ultimately, our rest and joy will not be fully realized in this world. The pleasures of forevermore are what we are seeking, and these are found at the right hand of God. The right hand of God is a Hebraism for the throne room of God, what we generally refer to as heaven. The fullness of joy will be fully known when we step from this world into the right hand of God.
This reminds us not to fix our hope on the things of this world. This reminds us not to fix our hope on God giving us the treasures of this world to bring us joy and refuge. It is all passing away. The only hope is found in the re-creation of the heavens and the earth when Christ returns to make all things new. When all things are brought under the headship of Christ, when all things are under the right hand of God, then pleasures will abound forever more. Until then, we wait and long for what will be.
May the Lord use this memory verse in your life to keep you on His path of life and to resist the urge to follow the wicked on their path. May the Lord use this verse to drive you into His presence to find peace and joy. And may the Lord use this verse to keep your hopes set on things above.