For my weekly quiet time this week, I’ll blog about Psalm 16 and its interpreters. Psalm 16 is called a “Michtam” in its superscription. What is a “Michtam”? There are different proposals! This post will use the different interpretations of Michtam as a fulcrum.
1. The most popular answer that I found was that the term Michtam indicated that Psalm 16 was an inscription on a monument, celebrating the deliverance of the Psalmist from peril. The Septuagint goes with that interpretation. Peter Craigie states that ancient Near Eastern texts have analogies to that. E.W. Bullinger cites Jeremiah 2:22, in which the root ch-t-m occurs. There, Jeremiah uses the root to express that Israel’s iniquity is marked before God, even though she has washed herself. I draw here from the King James Version, which translates nichtam as “marked,” but other translations render the word as “stain.” Ct-t-m appears to relate to leaving a permanent mark, which is consistent with viewing michtam as writing that is on an inscription. Psalm 16 would be on an inscription to remind Israelites on a permanent basis that they can trust God to preserve and deliver them, and so they should not go after idols.
2. While the interpretation in (1) associated the term michtam with salience and permanence, another view sees michtam in the opposite manner. W.O.E. Oesterley states: “It may well be…that Mowinckel has hit upon the true meaning; he connects the meaning with the Assyrian Katamu ‘to cover’, i.e., to cover sin; so that Miktam would be employed in reference to a Psalm which dealt with the subject of covering, or atoning for, sin, or uncleanness, or else sickness, the result of sin; it might even have been held that the saying or singing of the Psalm was of atoning efficacy.”
But is there anything about atonement in Psalm 16? The eleventh century Jewish exegete Rashi interprets Psalm 16:2 in light of that sort of theme: that the Psalmist is saying that God does not favor him on account of his (the Psalmist’s) virtue. The fourth-fifth century Antiochian Christian thinker Theodore of Mopsuestia offers a similar interpretation of Psalm 16:2: that God needs nothing from us, and that is what distinguishes God from other gods, who need honor, since they do not possess honor in themselves. Others have interpreted Psalm 16:2 to mean that the Psalmist’s only goodness comes from God. I suppose that, either way, Psalm 16:2 is an expression of humility, which is the attitude that people have when they ask God for forgiveness. And yet, at the same time, the Psalmist does appear to brag about his righteousness in Psalm 16, as he denies any involvement in idolatrous worship. But is he really bragging about his own righteousness there, or is he bragging about God, his portion, who blesses him richly, and whom he can trust even when his life is in peril?
3. Oesterley offers another definition of the term michtam: “Another word with which it might be connected is Katham, something ‘hidden’; in this case the term would mean that the psalm was of hidden import, not understood by all.” There are Christian interpreters who love this definition, for it helps them to make sense of Psalm 16:6-10, which Acts 2:25-28 and Acts 13:35 apply to the resurrection of Christ. Many scholars argue that Psalm 16:6-10 is about God’s deliverance of the Psalmist from death—which refers, not to an afterlife, but to God’s rescue of the Psalmist from a near-death experience. But some Christian interpreters have speculated that maybe those verses have a deeper import, one that was not even apparent to the author of the Psalm, and that import concerns the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Then another Christian view of Psalm 16:6-10 is that the Psalmist himself was talking about Christ, and actually knew that he was talking about Christ. When the Psalmist says in v 10 that God won’t leave him in Sheol, or permit his Holy One to see corruption, some have contended that the verse refers to two separate things: God will resurrect the Psalmist from Sheol, and God will keep Christ (his Holy One) from experiencing corruption. After all, Peter in Acts 2:29-31 makes the point that Christ did not experience corruption, whereas David did, and so the character of Peter was applying the second part of Psalm 16:10 specifically to Christ.
Many scholars would see parallelism in Psalm 16:10, contending that the verse is saying a single thought in two different ways for poetic emphasis—that God would deliver the Psalmist from death. But there were rabbis who did not believe in parallelism, for they did not think that God would be redundant. Although rabbinic literature emerged after Acts, could such an attitude have affected Luke’s interpretation of Psalm 16:10, leading him to conclude that v 10 refers to two events: God’s deliverance of the Psalmist, and God’s resurrection of Jesus Christ? But why would the author of Psalm 16 mention Christ’s resurrection? According to some Christian exegetes, David was saying that his own hope for a blessed afterlife was based on what God would do in the future: raise Jesus Christ from the dead.
4. The medieval Midrash on the Psalms offers two other interpretations of Michtam. One reads the term as Machtam, dividing it into two words: mak (“meek”) and tam (“undefiled”). The point, according to this interpretation, is that David was meek and undefiled. There are some rabbinic sayings that highlight the righteousness of biblical characters, and there are other rabbinic sayings that acknowledge the biblical characters’ feet of clay. I think that it’s good for me to remember that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, for that can help me to keep myself and others in perspective. I have a tendency to beat up on myself and others in my mind, or to amplify others’ goodness, or to amplify my own. What I need is a balanced perspective of myself and others, one that realizes that we’re all human.
Moreover, I can acknowledge that there were positive and negative elements of David’s character as it is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible: David did not try to usurp the throne of Saul, he returned good for evil, and he found strength in God. And yet, David also killed Urijah to get Bathsheba. In my opinion, I should try to live according to goodness, and not evil, as I use the goodness of others for inspiration, and view any evil that they do as a warning, and also as an opportunity for me to remember that I, too, have feet of clay.
The other rabbinic view associated Michtam with ketem, which means “fine gold.” This is why Jews and even Christians have referred to Psalm 16 as the “Golden Psalm.”