Greed and Unanswered Prayer (Psalm 16)

shop“The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and the bees.   I want money…that’s what I want.”  The song “Money” finds its origins with Barrett Strong, but you and I are probably most familiar with the version performed by the Beatles.

Greed: when having enough is never enough.  We live in a world of endless consumer choice.  And with so many choices before us, we feel exhausted with having to “keep up.”  The result is that we’ve learned to live with relatively little margin—both in terms of finance as well as time.   But spiritually speaking, greed doesn’t simply reveal our lust for more; it also reveals a lack of contentment in what we have.  The poet Thoreau once wrote that “most men live lives of quiet desperation,” but the bustling of the average shopping mall, or the array of consumer products available online reveal that our desperation is anything but quiet.  And what we won’t hear above the noise, is trust.  In fact, according to social analyst Juliet B. Schor, most money is spent in trying to keep up with a fast-paced world.

“[W]hat stands out most about much of the recent spate of spending is its defensive character. Parents worry that their children need computers and degrees from good colleges to avoid being left behind in the global economy. Children, concerned about being left out in the here and now, demand shoes, clothes, and video games….Increasingly overworked, adults need stress-busting weekends, microwaves, restaurants meals, and takeout to keep up with their daily lives. But the cost of each of these conveniences adds up. (Juliet B. Schor, The Overspent American)

Consumerism becomes the means by which we weather the storms of modern life.  But the gospel says that such things will never truly satisfy you.  Jesus warns His followers not to find their treasure on earth, “where moth and rust destroy” (Matthew 6:19).  Instead we should find our contentment and satisfaction in God.

This is what David essentially says in the sixteenth Psalm.

THINGS FALL APART

Some translations may label this psalm as a “mikhtam” of David.  Like selah, the word mikhtam is a musical term whose precise meaning has been lost to the pages of history.  Like the other “trust psalms,” David indicates some sort of suffering, but he never goes into detail.  Instead, the character of God becomes the focus of the psalm, and this forms the basis for David’s trust:

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.

David says that he has “no good apart from [God].”  If God is the author and creator of every earthly joy, then surely we can’t find joy and satisfaction outside His will.  Yet there are those who attempt to do exactly that.  If I look to money, wealth, and things for satisfaction, then those things become the true “gods” of my heart.  Listen to what David sings:

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.

Sorrows “multiply” when we seek comfort in things.  There’s actually a practical reason: things fall apart.  When the iPhone was first released, people waited in lines that stretched around the block.  Today I have an iPhone 3—and it’s so old that many apps no longer work.  Things break, they go obsolete, there’s always something more.

PLEASANT PLACES

Of course, this doesn’t quite address the question of unanswered prayer.  Can we still trust in a God who says “no?”  Maybe the Rolling Stones had a point: “You can’t always get what you want.”

But David’s focus remained on God:

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

A friend of mine says verse 6 is one of his all-time favorites.  “The lines” refer to property lines.  In an agrarian society, the amount of your wealth was equal to the size of your property.  What David is saying is his property lines had “fallen…in pleasant places”—he’s happy with what he’s got.

Is that sour grapes?  If I pray for something—and don’t receive it—isn’t it a cop-out to try and convince myself that I’m better off without a new car, or a spouse, etc.?  Maybe.  But think about it for a second.  Think of all the things you’ve ever prayed for.  Think of all the things you prayed for and never got.  Are there things on that list that—though you wanted them badly at the time—you can now look back and realize you were better off without it?  What percentage of things are on that list that you can honestly say you’d be better off if God said “yes.”  It doesn’t have to be 0%–some requests bear repeating.  But I doubt that the number is all that high.  What might this tell us?  It tells us that for us as well, God’s boundaries have fallen in pleasant places.

ETERNAL VALUE

Finally, David looks to things of eternal value.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.

 8 I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.

10  For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

11  You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy;at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

If any of the wording sounds familiar, it’s because Peter and Paul would later apply verses 8-11 (esp. 10a) to the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 2:25-28; 13:35-37).   Jesus’ followers can have the same confidence that we, too, will experience the resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns to restore creation.

If that’s true, it changes everything about my present.  If even the greatest enemy—death—has been defeated through Christ’s resurrection, what have I left to fear?  And if I can count on my own resurrection, what else do I really need in life to feel “complete?”  The gospel makes no promises of temporary happiness; it makes magnificent promises of lasting joy.

 

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