He Sang in the Belly of the Earth

Holy Saturday in Hades

You will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
     or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)

I love to sing Psalm 16, because it’s a psalm of joy and gladness in God’s goodness. I love the truth in these eleven verses.

David begins, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1). The fundamental declaration is that God is our Lord and our good. In fact, all the goods that are good come from the Good that is God.

David celebrates the goodness of his people, brothers and sisters in the faith, in whom he delights (Psalm 16:3); the goodness of our inheritance, which he is keeping for us (Psalm 16:6); the goodness of his counsel (Psalm 16:7). In his presence is fullness of joy, and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). He is our portion and our cup (Psalm 16:5). He is our lodestar — set out before us, making us unshakeable. Because of all of his goodness, our hearts are glad. We rejoice with our whole being, and our flesh dwells secure (Psalm 16:9).

Who wouldn’t love to sing lines like these?

Death Comes to Us All

But those aren’t the only reasons I love to sing this song. I love to sing Psalm 16, because it reminds me of one of the glories of living after Easter. You see, the people of God have not always sung the psalm in the same way. We sing Psalm 16 differently than David did. For David, Psalm 16 contains a bit of a puzzle. It’s found in verse 10:

You will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
     or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)

This verse is a puzzle because of a simple fact: David died. He was buried. His soul was abandoned to Sheol. He was laid with his fathers and saw corruption (Acts 2:29; 13:36). And not only David, but all of the saints in the Old Testament died in this way.

Psalm 16 gives us a window into what happened when people died. At death, the soul is separated from the body. The body is laid in the ground and decays. The flesh falls to corruption. The soul is sent to Sheol, to Hades, to the realm of the dead. The righteous journey to Abraham’s bosom, to the place of waiting, while the wicked land, across the chasm wide, in a place of torment.

But everyone — wise and foolish, rich and poor alike — everyone goes the way of all flesh. No man can ransom another from the power of Sheol. No amount of wealth or riches can suffice to keep us from the place of the dead. Death comes as a shepherd, and all of us are his sheep.

He Descended into Hades

David sang verse 10 as a puzzle, as a riddle — until the Messiah came.

David died. He went the way of all flesh. And as a prophet, he could sing Psalm 16. But he was not the true singer. The true psalmist, the Greater Psalmist, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. But he was not abandoned there. His flesh did not see corruption.

As Jesus sang the Psalms during Holy Week, Psalm 16 was on his lips and in his heart. As he entered Jerusalem on the donkey, he prayed for God to preserve him, because he sought refuge in God alone. As he turned over the tables and cleansed the temple, he did so consumed with zeal for his Lord, who was his only good. As he confounded his enemies, he delighted in the saints in the land. As he contemplated Judas’s betrayal, he sang of the sorrows of those who chase the false god Mammon. As he ate the bread and drank the cup with his disciples, he delighted in God as his portion and his cup. As he sweat blood in Gethsemane, he steeled himself with a song of his beautiful inheritance.

As he carried his cross to Calvary, he set his Lord before him, so that he would not be shaken. He sang Psalm 16 up until his dying breath. And then he kept singing.

In the Belly of the Earth

As the human soul of Christ descended to Sheol, his heart was glad. His whole being rejoiced. His flesh, as it lay in Joseph’s tomb, dwelt secure. Unlike the myriads who had sunk down to Sheol before, Christ took the journey with joy. He wasn’t just going the way of all flesh. He was making a new way for all flesh. And he knew it. We know Jesus knew it, because he sang Psalm 16.

He had warned the scribes and Pharisees who would crucify him, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). And just as Jonah sang in the belly (Jonah 2:1–10), Jesus went in singing. Like Paul and Silas, who would shake the foundations of a prison with a simple melody (Acts 16:25–26), Jesus sang a greater earthquake into the prison of all prisons.

Jesus came to the City of Death. He entered its gates. Doors that no man can open slammed shut behind him. But Jesus was no mere man. Unlike those who had come before, he had come to this city willingly, voluntarily. He had laid down his life of his own accord. And he had the power to take it back up again. He had come to rip the doors off the City of Death. He had come to blaze a path of life back to eternal pleasures at the right hand of God, not only for himself, but for every sheep in his fold.

Christ had run his race and finished his course. For the previous six days, he had labored, and now, on the seventh day, he rested. In Sheol. In the belly of the earth. And while he waited, he sang Psalm 16.