Not allowed to rot.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 December 2018

Psalm 16.10.

Previously I referred to King David ben Jesse as “the prophet David.” Somebody actually tried to correct me for saying so. I remind you a prophet is someone who hears God and shares what he hears: By that metric David’s obviously a prophet. Considering all the Spirit-inspired psalms he wrote, David’s got more actual prophecy in the bible than Elijah and Elisha combined.

Jesus recognized David as a prophet, Lk 20.41-44 and taught his students to do likewise. Ac 2.30 This is why the apostles had no problem using David for proof texts when they taught about Jesus. One verse they particularly liked to use was David’s line, lo-tittén khacídkha li-reót šakhát/“You don’t give [over] your beloved to see rottenness.” Or in better English, “You don’t allow your beloved to rot.” Ps 16.10 Both Simon Peter and Paul of Tarsus quoted it in Acts—Peter in chapter 2, Paul in 13.

Acts 2.22-28 KWL
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words! Jesus the Nazarene is a man endorsed by God to you
by power, wondrous things, and miracles which God did through him in your midst,
just as you know personally.
23 This Jesus, by the decided counsel and foreknowledge of God,
was given into lawless Roman hands, crucified, and killed.
24 But God raised Jesus up, loosing death’s pains.
For it’s impossible for Jesus to be held by death.
25 For David spoke of him: ‘I foresee the Master before me, throughout all.
Because he’s at my right hand, lest I might be shaken.
26 For this reason my heart rejoices and my tongue exults. Again: My flesh will dwell in hope,
27 because you won’t abandon my soul to the afterlife, nor allow your Righteous One to rot.
28 You make the road of life known to me. You’ll fill me with joy with your face.’ ” Ps 16.8-11
Acts 13.34-37 KWL
34 “Because God raised Jesus from the dead, no longer to go back to rotting,
he said this: ‘I’ll give you the righteous, faithful David.’ Is 55.3
35 Because David also said in another place,
‘You won’t allow your Righteous One to rot.’ “ Ps 16.10

When Jesus died, he was only dead two days before the Father raised him the third day. His corpse wasn’t in the sepulcher long enough for decay to happen. So Jesus’s situation sounds exactly like this line from David’s psalm. To the apostles and their listeners, Jesus absolutely fulfilled it. Better than David himself.

Acts 2.29-30 KWL
29 “Men—brothers—if I may boldly speak to you about the patriarch David:
He died, was entombed, and his monument is among us to this day.
30 Thus, as a prophet, knowing God swore an oath to him—
one from the fruit of David’s loins is to sit on his throne—
31 he who foresaw, spoke about Messiah’s resurrection:
He’s neither left behind in the afterlife, nor did his body rot.
32 God raised this Jesus. All us apostles are his witnesses.”
Acts 13.36-37 KWL
36 “After serving God’s will to his own generation, David ‘slept,’ was gathered to his ancestors,
and rotted— 37 and Jesus, whom God raised, didn’t rot.”

Now. Because your average Christian nowadays doesn’t understand how fulfillment works in the bible, they immediately assume David’s psalm is a specific prophecy about Jesus. It’s actually not, as you can tell when you actually read the psalm.

Yeah, let’s read the psalm.

It’s a short psalm, so I include it in its entirety.

Psalm 16 KWL
0 David’s composition.
1 Protect me, God! I take shelter in you.
2 You told the LORD, “You’re my master. My goodness is nothing without you.”
3 The land’s saints, nobles, all those who delight me:
4 Their griefs increase. They rush to someone else.
I won’t drink their bloody drinks. I don’t have their names on my lips anymore.
5 The LORD assigns my inheritance and pours my cup.
You uphold my lot. 6 The borderlines end up in a pleasant place for me.
My allotment truly seems good to me.
7 I bless the LORD who advises me. My innards truly instruct me each night.
8 I continually set the LORD in front of me, so I don’t slip to the left!
9 So my heart rejoices, my glory exults, my flesh abides in faith.
10 For you don’t abandon my soul in the grave. You don’t allow your beloved to rot.
11 You show me life’s path. Your face is full of rejoicing.
Your right hand holds pleasant, permanent things.

David’s psalms are always about himself. They aren’t always in the first person; sometimes he’s only praising God. Even so, they consist of what he thought of God, how he wanted to praise the LORD. And general truths about what God does with his followers… and his opponents.

But the psalms, like all wisdom literature, are situationally true. That means, contrary to popular Christian belief, the psalms and proverbs are not God’s promises. They’re how things usually are—all things being equal. Ideally it’s all green pastures and comfort and joy. Ps 23 But there are exceptions. Like Job and obviously Jesus, sometimes good people, the very best people, get crapped on.

And there’s also hyperbole. Poetry is written to be memorable, not factually literal. Sometimes David picked a memorable idea instead of literal reality. Nothing wrong with that; our culture learns to accept a level of reasonable, non-deceptive poetic license in our literature. Problem is, literalist Christian interpreters think the bible’s an exception; that the bible doesn’t do metaphors. Which is ridiculous, but some of these interpreters get a bit ridiculous.

So when David wrote, “You don’t abandon my soul in the grave,” did he mean a literal grave? Or did he mean the afterlife? Or did he mean a rough situation that’s as bad as death? Common sense would say he meant the third thing. He’s being hyperbolic. Poets do that.

The apostles noticed David’s words look exactly like Jesus’s situation. Well, once you read ’em in the Septuagint. Y’notice the bible quote doesn’t line up perfectly, and that’s because the apostles (or Luke, who wrote Acts) was quoting a Greek translation of David, not the original. It’s how khacídkha/“your beloved“ turned into ósión su/“your Righteous One,“ and how šeól/“grave,“ possibly the afterlife, became ádin/“hades,“ definitely the afterlife.

Does this mean the apostles got it wrong? Nope. Fulfillment means something is like something else; it needn’t be exact. The wording of David’s bad-as-death experience very much describes Jesus’s actually-did-die experience. And as Peter said, David may very well have had the future Messiah who’d inherit his throne on the brain when he wrote this psalm. If you assume the allusion to Jesus was coincidental, Peter was entirely sure it wasn’t at all.

But allusion, strong similarity, David’s foreknowledge, even fulfillment, doesn’t transform this psalm into a prophecy of Jesus. It’s still David writing about himself… using words that describe Jesus better than they describe David. Which got the Pharisees’ attention long enough for both Peter and Paul to introduce them to Jesus, share their own personal experiences with him, and get people to follow him. Hey, if a culture is really big on historical similarities, use it when you share Jesus. Whatever works!