Psalm 16 is exceptionally difficult to understand as a whole, but there are several themes interwoven throughout the progression of the psalm.
In verse 1, David asks God to preserve him. This may be related to verses 9b and 10a where David writes, “my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol.” Some would speculate that David’s life is in danger during the writing of this psalm (this is often the case). Nonetheless, he declares an all-familiar phrase in the psalms: “in you I take refuge” (v. 1). His life is wholly entrusted to God.
In verse 2, the theme that emerges is David’s undivided loyalty to the LORD. David uses the name “Yahweh,” which is God’s name revealed to his own people. He then tells God that he is his Lord, acknowledging the master-servant relationship between them and reinforcing the idea of undivided loyalty. In light of the first half of verse 2, David’s statement that he has “no good apart from” God means that God is the only source of his good (literally “happiness”).
But in verse 3, David shifts his attention from focusing on God alone to “saints in the land . . . in whom is all [his] delight.” Is David contradicting his declaration in verse 2 that his happiness is found in God alone? No, for these are “saints,” ones who are set apart to God. David is stating a profound truth here. The saints are those who are set apart to Yahweh, and David is glad to be numbered among them in mutual loyalty to their covenant Lord. For David, this is greater than being devoted to God on his own! But why do I interpret verse 3 that way? It makes absolute sense in contrast to verse 4, which speaks of “the sorrows of those who run after another god.” Idolaters find that their mutual devotion to false gods actually increases their sorrow, while we find that our mutual devotion to Yahweh increases our happiness!
Note also the language of pagan worship in verse 4 (“drink offerings of blood”). While the meaning of this reference to the drink offering in Old Testament law is unclear at first, the drink offerings of idolaters are considered here as ones “of blood.” First, note that David finds joy in being numbered with the saints and chooses fellowship among them rather than to join in the pagan worship of the idolaters. But second, in contrast to what is said in verse 5 (“Yahweh is my chosen portion and my cup“), note that David’s happiness and his sacrificial worship to God are synonymous! The language in verse 5 (“my chosen portion and my cup”) seems to be referring to the meal offering and drink offering in Old Testament law, reinforcing the themes of happiness and sacrificial worship.
The themes presented in the first five verses set the stage for the remainder of the psalm, in which David’s praise to God overflows. Although much more could be written about the psalm (such as the linking of verse 10 with its quotation in the New Testament and the oft quoted verse 11), verse 9 seems to be a fitting summary statement for the psalm: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.” Because David’s life is wholly entrusted to Yahweh, he also wholly rejoices! And the experience of this rejoicing also gives him the confidence that he is safe in God, having taken refuge in him.