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Peter’s Use of Psalm 16 in Acts 2

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In Acts chapter 2, Peter proclaims the Gospel to a crowd, attempting to prove from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. During his speech, Peter quotes from Psalm 16 arguing that David foretold the Messiah’s resurrection from the dead. Peter utilizes a combination of typology and promise/fulfillment prophecy from Psalm 16 to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Though David, the author of the Psalm speaks in the first person voice, there is strong indication that he is speaking of both himself out of the immediate context of his own circumstances, as well as in the place of his future descendant, the Messiah. David, who trusts in God’s protection and is delivered from death, serves as a type for the greater David, Christ, whom God delivered from death in a greater way. Additionally, the Apostle Peter argues that only Christ’s resurrection could have fulfilled the Psalm’s prediction since David himself died and was exposed to corruption. While the text certainly emphasizes the hope of God’s presence beyond death, an immediate application even for David, Peter shows that this passage has an even greater future fulfillment- the bodily resurrection of Christ.

 

Context of Psalm 16

 

David is attributed to be the author of Psalm 16, as is indicated from the Psalm’s introduction, “A Miktam of David.” The opening words of the Psalm, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (v. 1) seems to indicate that the Psalmist is facing a severe trial. Krauss states that these words are “characteristic of the prayer songs of people suffering persecution and of those who are looking for the institution of God’s jurisdiction.”[1] The Psalm is both a plea for God’s protection and a praise for His deliverance. Additionally, the Psalmist finds great comfort in God’s continual presence with him, saying “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” (v. 8) Bratcher and Reyburn comment that “the place at the right of a person was where his defender in a trial would stand”, hence “Yahweh’s presence provides security to the psalmist and he cannot be defeated.”[2]

 

Nevertheless, in verses 9-11, “it will become apparent that the petitioner is in mortal danger.”[3] The Psalmist rejoices in the Lord, proclaiming “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (v. 10) Some commentators believe these verses mean that David “has been kept from untimely, unexpected death.”[4] In other words, God will not abandon the Psalmist to die prematurely by the hand of his enemies in his current situation, but instead, will keep him alive. Within this understanding, the words “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol” and “you will not let your holy one see corruption” are synonymous parallel phrases equivalent to saying, “You will not let me die right now.”

 

Other commentators, however, believe David is referring to a deeper meaning beyond premature death. “Briggs believes that it means that the psalmist hopes that in Sheol itself he will still have Yahweh with him.”[5] This interpretation would fit more in line with the context of the Psalm since God’s continual presence with the Psalmist is a major theme of the text. Because God is always at David’s right hand, he cannot ultimately be defeated in this life or even in death itself. While it is possible the Psalmist may partly be rejoicing in God’s deliverance from premature death, he is certainly thinking beyond this. The preceding verses indicate that David is reflecting on God’s continual presence; a comfort that assures him that God’s presence will be with him even beyond the grave.

 

Context of Acts 2

 

The book of The Acts of the Apostles (here on out referred to as “Acts“) is the second volume of a collection of works known as History of Christian Origins in which the first volume is The Gospel According to Luke (Here on out referred to as “Luke“) in the New Testament (Bruce 15).  Though neither Luke nor Acts reveal the author’s name, external evidence for Lukan authorship goes back to the early part of the second century, and the work of Acts itself shows signs of having been composed by someone who occasionally traveled with Paul and accompanied him to Rome, a description in which Luke fits the bill (Bruce 19).

 

The book is written to a man named Theophilus who had some prior knowledge of Christian teachings, as stated in the opening verses of both Acts and its preceding volume of Luke.  Since these two books are two parts of one whole, it has a coherent purpose running throughout and the purpose of Acts cannot be considered in isolation of Luke (Bruce 18).  It is in Luke‘s opening verses that we are given a reason for the writing.  Luke states, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you…that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (v.1-4).  Luke’s stated purpose was to provide an accurate and orderly account of the origins of Christianity.  Though the gospel of Luke dealt largely with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Acts deals with the actions and journeys of the apostles in spreading the gospel of Christ to the surrounding nations.  Though the intended audience was written as to be to Theophilus, Theophilus may have been a representative of the intelligent reading public in Rome, and thus part of Luke’s intended audience may have been to this Roman audience (Bruce 23).  Marshall argues that there is a considerable amount of material in Luke-Acts that appears to be written to a wider audience than just the Romans, but the language and style Luke uses shows that he was conscious he was writing literature for an educated audience (Marshall 18, 20).

 

In addition to providing an organized history of the origins of Christianity, there is also a large apologetic element strewn throughout Acts.  In the eyes of many Romans, Jesus, the central figure of Christianity, had been condemned to death by a Roman governor on a charge of sedition, and tumult and disorder followed Christianity throughout the empire.  Luke seems to try to set right this negative view of Christianity by showing on numerous occasions that various leaders and those in authority are shown to find Paul and the other apostles guiltless on many of the accusations brought against them by the Sanhedrin and other Jewish authorities (Bruce 20).

 

Marshall again responds that though there may be an apologetic element to the work, the fact that it contains information on how the church proclaimed and confirmed the gospel of Jesus Christ and that this gospel was meant for the Gentiles as well as the Jews makes it probable that a political apologetic is not the primary concern (Marshall 20, 21).  In light of the aforementioned information, Marshall then puts forward that even though the stated purpose is to write a history of the early church, it is clear that Luke sees the story as having theological significance and was likely also used to strengthen the faith of believers and give a sound basis for their beliefs (Marshall 21,23).  Marshall argues that some key points of this theology are showing the continuation of God’s purpose in history, showing the importance of mission and the message of said mission, despite the plentiful opposition Christians may experience to the gospel they/we are called to stand firm and be faithful, and that the Word of God has continual triumph (Marshall 23-29).

 

Acts 2 begins with the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost and their subsequent speaking in tounges.  Some Jews gathered around them accuse them of being drunk when Peter stands up and gives a sermon defending the sobriety of the apostles and announcing that they are in the “last days” between the first and second coming of the Christ and ending with the proclamation that Jesus is the Lord and Messiah.  The section of Acts come right after the instructions by Jesus to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes and His subsequent Ascension, and right before the apostles perform many signs and spread the gospel out into the surrounding areas.  Acts 2 serves as a launching point for the great evangelizing that occurs throughout the rest of the book.

 

Promise & Fulfillment

 

When Peter preaches to the crowds in Acts 2 he quotes Psalm 16 to show that the Scriptures predicted the Messiah would rise from the dead. Furthermore, he attempts to suppress any counterargument that would suggest that these verses only apply to David. Peter does this by honing in on Psalm 16 verse 10, which states, “you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” He introduces the acknowledged facts that “1) David did indeed die” and “2) David knew that one of his descendants would be enthroned by God because God had sworn that this would happen.”[6] While the original Old Testament reader might have understood verse 10 in terms of David’s hope for God’s presence in the afterlife, Peter seems to interpret this passage more literally to the present life. He says that physical death could not keep hold on the Messiah “because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:24) This more literal interpretation is further supported by the words in verse 10 that says his “body will not see corruption.”

 

Thus, Peter is applying this passage to a specific moment in history where God would deliver David’s promised descendant from physical death. In his article, C.J. Collins defines “Promise and Fulfillment” prophecy as those Old Testament texts that provide “a promise about where the story was headed” and where the New Testament authors “identify a particular event as the fulfillment (or partial fulfillment) of a promise.”[7] Because Peter applies this passage to a specific event fulfilled by Christ, there is a strong basis to say that Peter is using a “Promise and Fulfillment” prophetical form.

 

Typology

 

Nevertheless, the immediate context of the passage shows the Psalmist clearly speaking of himself in the first person, implying that the events of the passage apply to himself. Peter, however, argues that David cannot be speaking of himself since David died and could not have fulfilled this Scripture. Howard reconciles this dilemma, stating that “David here is speaking not in his own person, but rather as the Messiah, who refers to the help that God will give him.”[8] Furthermore, immediately after quoting this Psalm, Peter mentions that David knew that “God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne.” (Acts 2:30) This allusion to David’s promised descendant seems to imply that Peter also believed David was speaking in the place of his future descendant. This statement by Peter may incline one to think that Peter understood this Psalm’s fulfillment in a typological sense as well. Collins defines typological fulfillment as the “patterns found in the Old Testament (which) enable Christians to understand their own situation in, through, and under Christ.”[9] Marshall quotes Rese’s view on this, which holds that Peter’s usage “is not so much prophetic (promise and fulfillment) as typological in that in what David says, he is stating a pattern that is true in the case of the Messiah (although it was not true of himself).” Marshall then questions whether it is “appropriate to use the term ‘typological’ of a statement that was not true of the ‘type’ himself?”[10] In other words, if David did not rise from the dead, himself, how could his future descendant be the typological fulfillment of his pattern

 

 

The question then remains whether the words David wrote might in some sense apply to him, in addition to the future Messiah. Was David’s cry, “you will not abandon me to the grave” purely referring to a future David or did it have an immediate application to David’s own life? The context of the Psalm implies that David was confronted with some sort of life-threatening situation, but then is delivered by God. Though he was not resurrected the same way Christ was, David was delivered up from the enemy of death, similar to Christ. Because of his analogous immediate context, we hold that David served as a type for his future descendant, as one who modeled the ideal servant who hopes in God on the fringes of death and is delivered up by God’s right hand. Barth reasons that the Psalmist “hopes and trusts that he, as a member of the community of Yahweh, will be able to proceed on his life’s way through all dangers.” Furthermore, Kraus says “we should seek an appropriate understanding of the text along the lines of this interpretation.”[11] Just as David, the Lord’s servant, trusted God to preserve his life, so in a similar but greater way will his future descendant trust God to deliver him from death.

 

Integrity of Peter’s Interpretation

 

One might argue, however, that Peter has stretched the meaning of the text beyond its original intent. Peter quotes Psalm 16 from the Septuagint, which arguably mistranslates the Hebrew word for “pit” with the Greek word for “corruption.” Therefore, it has been asserted “that whereas the Masoretic Text refers only to deliverance from premature death, the Septuagint envisages deliverance from the corruption that follows death. Consequently, an interpretation in terms of resurrection is possible only on the basis of the Septuagint.”[12] However, it’s also possible that Peter simply used the Septuagint’s translation in order to help bring out the fuller meaning of the text in relation to its fulfillment. Marshall writes “it may be fairer to say that this rendering simply made it marginally easier to interpret the psalm as referring to the actual destruction of the human body in the grave.”[13] Peter is not simply pulling out verse 10 and misapplying it to Christ’s resurrection apart from of the greater context of the passage. Peter also shows how Christ, similar to David, has fulfilled the greater theme of deliverance in the passage by being “exalted to the right hand of God.” (Acts 2:33) Marshall writes that “the right hand of God is a familiar Old Testament expression for God acting in power” and “on this view, “the right hand of God” is understood instrumentally as the means of resurrection.”[14] Just as the Lord, who is seated at David’s right hand, protects and delivers David from death, so in a greater way, God has delivered and exalted Jesus from the pangs of death to the right hand of the Father.

 

Similar to other typological prophecies found in the Old Testament, there is an immediate application to the Psalmist but also a hint of ambiguity in the text that leaves the reader wondering whether a deeper meaning is being alluded to. David’s words in Psalm 16 leave the reader in a subtle state of suspense and hopeful expectancy in God’s deliverance from death; thus preparing the reader’s heart for the greater hope of the resurrection to come. Peter, recognizing this allusion, clarifies this ambiguity by showing how the Psalm is alluding to a deeper promise, to a greater David and a greater deliverance from death than that of David’s.

 

Conclusion

 

In his defense of Christ in Acts 2, Peter utilizes a combination of typology and promise/fulfillment prophesy from Psalm 16 to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. It is promise/fulfillment because Peter identifies the event of Christ’s resurrection as the specific fulfillment of the passage. Peter’s interpretation is also typological because the character of David in the Psalm is a type of the servant of the Lord who trusts in God, and who is delivered from death by God’s mighty hand. The passage has a present fulfillment and application to David, but also a future greater fulfillment in the greater David, in whom this passage’s meaning is fully consummated. The Psalmist’s hope in God’s deliverance in the face of death sets the precedent for the future hope of the resurrection that comes through Christ.


[1] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Continental Commentary. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 235.

[2] Robert G Reyburn, A Handbook on Psalms. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 145.

[3] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Continental Commentary, 235.

[4] Reyburn, A Handbook on Psalms, 146.

[5] Reyburn, A Handbook on Psalms, 146.

[6] Howard Marshall, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 538.

[7] John C. Collins, “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament,” 2009, 3.

[8] Marshall, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 537.

[9] Collins, “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament,” 4.

[10] Marshall, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 538.

[11] Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Continental Commentary, 240.

[12] Marshall, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 538.

[13] Marshall, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 538.

[14] Marshall, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 540.


Works Cited

Bruce, F.F. Commentary on the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983.

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries. Translated by William Pringle. Vol. XVIII. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009.

Collins, C. John. “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament.” Echoes of Scriptures, March 2009: 1-8.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Commentary, Psalms 1-59: A Continental. Translated by Hilton C. Oswald. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.

Marshall, Howard. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by D.A. Carson and Beale G.K. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Reyburn, Robert G. Bratcher & William D. A Handbook on Psalms. New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1991.

AUTHOR - Zach Schwartzbeck

Zach helps design and run a discipleship program that combines theological training with practical outreach in order to train Middle Eastern Christians for ministry.