Other sermons in this series
How long can a human being live? I’m asking that as a scientific question, because I read an article about it the other day. Which said the oldest person to ever live was a French woman
Jean Calment: who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 238 days. To put that in perspective, she died 101 years after she got married in 1896. She could remember meeting Vincent van Gogh; who she described as scruffy looking. She used to sell him coloured pencils in her dad’s shop.
Against the odds, as you can see in the picture, Jeanne was a regular smoker. Like everyone else in France. Jean said that the secret of her long life was eating lots of olive oil, as well as rubbing it into her skin. Which you might like to try whenyou get home.
But back to the scientific question. Because statistically, it seems, nobody. Anywhere. In any country or any culture, no matter how good the medical care… nobody, anywhere, seems to be able to crack Jean’s record. There have been a few who have hit one hundred and twenty. Jean hit 122. But no more. Scientists say, that’s the upper limit of human life.
Which makes King David’s words in Psalm 16 seem overly optimistic. Did you notice?
Psalm 16 verse 9. “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your faithful one… see decay.”
These are the words of Israel’s ancient king. Appointed and anointed by God. Who seems to be saying that no matter what the reality of other world leaders, no matter what the reality of ordinary people like you and me… that God wasn’t going to let him go the way of mortality. And die. And rot away.
You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
A KING’S CONFIDENCE
Now to make sense of that, let’s step back and start at the beginning of the Psalm, this optimistic ancient poem.
Which from the outset is about king David’s confidence in God.
We’re told in the small print at the start of Psalm 16 that it’s a miktam of David, and nobody is actually sure what a miktam is. Except that it’s one of these.
But one guess is, a miktam means an inscription. Words to be engraved for posterity. The sort of words you’d carve on a monument. Or a building. Or maybe on your gravestone or your tomb.
David’s miktam is spelling out where he finds his security. Where he finds his hope for the future.
And the point is as we look at it, it’s not in his fortress, it’s not with his army; and his hope’s not in a diet rich with olive oil.
In the ESV translation which is slightly more literal, verse 1 says, Preserve me O God; it’s the same meaning here. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.”
Verse 2, “I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; apart from you, I have no good thing.'”
David says without the Lord his God, apart from the Lord his God, everything else is a vain hope.
And yet the issue is when you come down to it, even with the Lord… if he’s thinking somehow trusting his God means he’ll avoid death and decay, maybe he’s being a bit too optimistic.
But let’s keep moving. Because in verses 3 to 6 there’s a picture of what David sees as two very clear options. Taking refuge in the Lord like he does. Or as so many of the other Israelites, running after other gods instead.
Because the thing with the Israelites, they loved to take an each way bet. And so there’s a shrine to the god Asherah up the road with its poles you can get drunk and dance around with the shrine prostitutes, and the upside is people say it guaranteesgood crops. Asherah’s a fertility Goddess. Which has got to be a win-win, hasn’t it? They’re saying, “What’s the downside? Some wild naked dancing. And good crops as well.”
So you’ll be off sacrificing to Israel’s God one day, and you’ll be up the road dancing around Asherah poles the next. You’d be honouring the God of Israel one day… and pouring out drink offerings of blood to baal the Canaanite God the next.
To which David says, no way. He says, “My security, my crops, my everything else. It all comes from the Lord my God. And my delight, he says, is in my fellow Israelites who are faithful.
Look at the contrast in verses 3 and 4.
As for the holy people who are in the land, they… are the noble ones in whom is all my delight. 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.
You’re not going to find me offering false sacrifices to false gods. Because David says, I know where the good things come from. I know the source of every blessing.
And look, it sounds like at this point that every promise of blessing God ever made to David has actually come about.
Which is what he says in verse 5.
Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.
Which is why in verses 7 and 8 David says he praises the Lord day and night. And why in verse 9 his heart is glad and his tongue rejoices.
As it is for most Australians, David looks around and says life is good.
But unlike most Australians, David’s confidence extends to the future as well. And it’s not just his life insurance.
Look carefully at the middle of verse 9 and there’s a grammatical change of tense. From the present. My heart is glad. To David’s confidence for the future. And what God will do.
And it’s at this point there’s the incredible claim we started out with… In a world where back then mortal bodies decayed exactly the way they do now.
Aubrey de Grey is an American scientist who says he’s going to cure aging and vanquish death. It’s a pretty big goal, but the key, he says, is the telomere; which is apparently a little kind of endcap on our chromosomes like the plastic bit on the end of ashoelace. Which is called an aglet in case you’ve always wondered. And the problem is the telomere gets shorter every time a cell divides. When it gets too short, the cell dies. Aubrey de Grey is researching an enzyme called telomerase that he reckons can stop our telomeres getting shorter which might maybe stop us ageing and dying. Or might on the other hand, cause immediate cancer.
Most other scientists think he’s crazy. But he’s still trying.
The technology guru Ray Kurzweil who works for Google has got another plan. By 2045 he’s saying you’ll be able to upload your personality and your memories to a hard drive. And live forever that way. On the Google cloud. I guess the only downside will be the little pop up ads all the time. And it might be hard to have a beer with your mates.
In an each way bet Ray Kurzweil says he’s going to have his body perfused with antifreeze and be stored in liquid nitrogen, until future medical technology can revive him.
Look, death and decay, people are still trying to beat it. And David, apparently, is convinced that he won’t need the telomerase and he won’t need the hard drive, and he won’t even need icepacks. David’s apparently convinced that as the holy oneof God, as God’s anointed one… that his life, that his body, is somehow going to be preserved for ever and he’s not going to be abandoned to the realm of the dead.
Look again at his words…
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; My body also will rest secure, Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
Which sounds just as crazy as Ray Kurzweil or Aubrey de Grey without the technology. Or at least an elevated idea of his own faithfulness. Kind of, “I’m so faithful I’m going to live forever.”
You’ve got to admit, that’s a big claim. And so’s the last verse, verse 11. “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.”
This faithful one. This king of men. Is going to sit at God’s right hand.
The obvious problem, of course, being that it was so easy to prove wrong. Because not so long after he wrote these words… King David got old. And he died. And King David was buried in a tomb. And not to put too fine a point on it, King David’s flesh… was eaten by worms. Exactly like everyone else.
Which makes words like you will not let your holy one see decay seem kind of hollow.
Like the famous last words of the bomb disposal expert – I’m 100% sure it’s the green wire.
So confident. So easily proved wrong.
A BETTER KING?
At the very least it’s got to raise the question that if God really won’t let his faithful one see decay, then maybe David hasn’t been all that faithful. Maybe David in all his kingly glory was just a shadow of what a real faithful one of God is meant to look like.
And just maybe the role of everlasting ruler, the role of God’s right hand man who’ll never see decay… Maybe if Israel wanted to keep dreaming of a king like that, the position is still vacant. Waiting for someone more qualified.
Whichever way you read it, at the very least it’s got to be confusing for the average Jew reading the book of Psalms for the next few hundred years.
Which we’ll see is exactly the point where the New Testament picks up on the words of exactly this ancient psalm in the first ever public Christian sermon preached by the apostle Peter in Acts chapter 2.
We’ve been working our way through a teaching series these last couple of months called sing with Jesus. And we’ve been looking particularly at the Old Testament psalms that are picked up later on in the New Testament, where over and over again they’re read in the light of Jesus.
And Peter’s point is exactly that the David who wrote these words… didn’t fulfil them… and his bones. Are still in the crypt.
But Jesus did. And his grave. Is empty.
Turn over if you can to Acts chapter 2. And follow along. Peter, surrounded by a group of Jews in Jerusalem for a festival. And Peter has been remarkably emboldened by the spirit of God. The people are saying, “What’s going on??” To which Peter says, it’s all about Psalm 16. It’s all about the holy one of God. It’s all about… not David, but this man Jesus – who you crucified. And if you think the high hopes of Psalm 16 were fulfilled in your great king David, you’re obviously wrong.
Acts 2 verse 29. Look what he says.
Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.
But listen to this. Verse 31.
Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.
David was a disappointment. But his words were hanging there ready. Waiting for the real Christ who was coming.
The one who, when he came… when he died… wouldn’t be abandoned to the grave. And wasn’t.
Peter says, if you’re looking for a good Christ test… if you want a way to recognise the real one… just watch what happens when he dies.
It’s a sure fire method. Watch a while. And see if he’s abandoned to the grave. Check to see if he sees decay. Because if he does… He’s no messiah.
So Peter says just listen for a minute to what we’re saying about this Jesus of Nazareth. Listen for a minute to what we’re saying about this crucified Galilean. Because the fact is, we’ve seen him. Back from the dead. Acts 2 Verse 32.
God has raised this Jesus to life… and we’re all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
And so he’s the one. To bow down to. He’s the one God’s put his hand on. The one you crucified. God has given full endorsement.
See, Peter and James and John and those guys, they’re not excited so much by the fact that it’s a really odd thing to see a dead guy coming back again.
And they’re not so much pumped by the nice kind of Easter Sunday messages you get in the newspaper editorials that say “Isn’t it nice to know that you should never give up hope.” As you have another chocolate egg.
I mean, that’s true and it is nice to know there’s a reason for hope. But ultimately Peter’s saying that Psalm 16 and the resurrection of Jesus are not talking so much about how you can face your death but about how you should live your life And more specifically, who the boss is.
Which means Psalm 16 isn’t so much a Psalm of comfort about you as it is a Psalm that gets you ready to understand how great Jesus is.
Because Peter says, if David thought it was all about him, then he failed.
But in the end it’s not. It’s a psalm that says when a king comes along who beats crucifixion and defies the grave… when an imperishable king comes along who doesn’t have a use-by date… when a king comes who even beats the 122 year mark set by Jean Calment… Then the thing to do is fall at his feet and repent.
Which is exactly what that first crowd of 3000 Jews goes on to do. As Peter winds up his sermon.
Because if there’s anyone worth bowing down to and putting at the centre of your universe, it’s got to be him.
If there’s anyone who can challenge your own ambitions and your goals and your drive to make yourself comfortable, and make yourself number one, it can only be him.
Let this be clear. Peter’s claim here in the light of the resurrection is that everything… exists to serve Jesus.
And on that message of the resurrection… the first church is born. A bunch of committed followers of the risen Jesus of Nazareth. Persuaded that he’s the one… Whose body did not see decay; and so the only reasonable thing to do is to bowto him. Without reservation. Without an each way bet.
If you’re not a Christian at this point and you’re visiting today, can I say to you, this is literally how we got started. A bunch of people persuaded. From Psalm 16. That Jesus qualifies as the holy and faithful one of God.
And so started to define their lives by their allegiance to him instead of by peer pressure, or by greed, or by the relentless ambition to suck as much as they could out of this life before it was over.
And you’re sitting with a bunch of people today who are giving it a shot at doing exactly the same.
We serve … an imperishable king. That’s the reminder every Easter Sunday, but it’s what we’re on about every other day as well. Because we’re persuaded God did not let his holy one see decay.
It’s given us a new way to look at death. But more than that a new way to look at life as well. And if you’re not there yet, you’re welcome to join us.