Growing up as the youngest kid in a game-playing family, I had to learn to be strategic from a very early age just to survive. I learned well.
The tile-based game Carcassonne is one of my family’s favorites and the app version of it is surprisingly great, too. So, a friend of mine who lives in Colorado plays with me online every now and then. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t raised in the same crucible of game playing I was. I’ll just leave it at that.
The key to winning at games is to create lots of options for yourself so that no matter what happens, you’ve got something to work with. Fewer options leads to fewer successes. And I’ve discovered that I’m a master of keeping my options open.
While keeping options open is great for game playing, it’s terrible for prayer. Faith is an all-or-nothing venture, not a hedging of the bets game.
In Psalm 16, David throws his lot in completely with Yahweh, the God of the Scriptures, while watching others hedge their bets.
The psalm starts with David in an unsettled situation but going all-in with God.
Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.
This is all-in language. No bets are hedged. God is “my God.” He has but one and they’re tied together. But that’s the case with those around him.
Now, I rarely take exception with the major Bible translations, since they have incredible teams of scholars working on them — people who know the biblical text far better than I do. But in the case of Ps. 16:2-3, the major translators actually take the minority view among scholars. Rather than “I say” as the first words in both verse 2 and verse 3, our best Hebrew texts have “you said.” In other words, David isn’t quoting himself. Rather, he’s quoting what he’s heard from others.
So, here’s how the text ought to read:
You said to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
You said of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
These people David is quoting have expressed basic biblical faith. They’ve expressed a loving trust in God and they’ve expressed a joyful participation in the people of God. In other words, they’re good, solid church-going types of people. You’d trust them as elders, Sunday school teachers, and worship leaders.
But they hedge their bets as seen by how David describes himself in contrast to them in the next verse:
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
or take up their names on my lips.
These Sunday Christians, if you will, do what David won’t do. They run after other gods. They sacrifice to them. They speak their names in prayer.
They’re hedging their bets. They’re keeping their options open. If the God of Israel won’t come through, then maybe one of these others ones will. This is an excellent strategy, but it’s terrible faith.
Now, you and I don’t sacrifice to other gods or whisper their names in prayer. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hedge our bets as well. You see, we still bow to the same exact gods as those David finds himself in contrast with. We just refuse to name our gods.
Back then, they named their gods of health, fertility, business success, family, security, etc. We still bend the knee to them. But we’re just dishonest, refusing to name them as gods. Because by not naming them, we don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt when we keep our options open.
In verses 5-6, David gives an example of how he’s thrown his lot in completely with Yahweh. He takes the language of inheritance, which would be tied to the land (portion, lot, boundary lines, inheritance), and turns it into metaphor. No longer do these words refer to the source of food and finances and family that the literal land was to an Israelite, the words here refer to God as David’s inheritance. In other words, he’s giving up on any claim to the land and its ability to sustain his life through farming and is claiming God alone as his inheritance and the source of what he needs to live.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
He finds himself in a dark time, but
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
The night is the time of fear and confusion. We can’t see (especially in a pre-electric light era). We don’t know what’s going on.
But even here in the dark, David is settled. Even here, he listens for the voice of God and his heart is instructed.
Others look here and there for other options, but
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
It doesn’t take a lot to shake most of us. A plan goes awry. The weather isn’t what we hoped for. The government is in the wrong hands. Our sports team loses. The doctor gives unhappy news. A co-worker says something unkind. There’s no coffee in the morning. We are easily shaken.
The problem with options is that we count on them. We expect them to come through for us. We hope in them. But when they fail to give us what we need, we panic.
Options have a tendency to seem equal. So, when God is just one of many options, we’re shaken if the other options don’t pan out. But when he’s our only option, we’re just fine with other things don’t work out. We weren’t counting on them anyway.
This is where we discover the beautiful life. The Hebrew word shalom describes the whole life, the put-together life, the life where all the pieces fit together — life as a peaceful unity. And that’s what we see in the life that hedges no bets but trusts fully in God. It’s a whole, united life.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure
Heart. Tongue. Body. They’re all in harmony.
Or at least, they’re moving toward harmony. The heart and the tongue are there already, with the body soon to follow.
This is the place of trust. David’s body isn’t safe — not yet. He can’t rest secure — not yet. But because he knows and trusts his Lord, his heart is already glad and his tongue is already rejoicing. And eventually, his body will be in a secure place where it can rest and all of who he is finally will be at peace.
Life, not death, is the destiny of the faithful. Life both in the near future and in the final future.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
There is no strategy to faith. Options that work with game-playing only become a muddled maze where we get lost and confused. Instead of a single solid rock to be built on, keeping our options open leaves us on shifting sands where we are easily shaken.
We’re dealing with God here, not a game. Though the night is dark and confusing, he is here and he is faithful.