Tucked away in Psalm 16 is a shocking statement:
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. (Psalm 16:3)
“All my delight?” Could King David mean that? Could he really mean that all of his delight is in the people of God? He could. He says the saints are “the excellent ones.” This word is an important word, found throughout the Bible. Elsewhere it is translated as majestic.
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1)
So then, as the name of the Lord is majestic and excellent, so the people who bear that name are majestic and excellent.
Ordinary and Majestic
This word for majestic (or excellent) can also be translated as mighty or noble. It’s often linked to glory, power, and magnificence. Mountains, ocean waves, massive cedars, great cities — all of these are described in the Bible as majestic. When used of people, the word often refers to princes, rulers, and lords, those who have official positions of authority over others.
David Mathis explores the meaning of this biblical term as applied to God:
In our language, as in biblical terms, the word captures not only greatness but also goodness, both bigness and beauty, awesome power together with pleasant admiration.
“God’s people have a kind of grandeur about them, one that calls forth awe and wonder.”
God’s people have a kind of grandeur about them, one that calls forth awe and wonder from David. Such grandeur may not be visible physically, but, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, someday it will be. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship” (The Weight of Glory, 45).
When Dante encounters the apostles Peter and James in Paradise, he bows down before these “great and glorious princes.” After an encouragement from his guide Beatrice, he raises up his eyes “unto those mountains that had bowed them” (Paradiso, canto 25, lines 38–39). Dante, like David, is awed and delighted by the saints, who are as majestic as mountains.
Mankind and My Odd Neighbor
It’s important to note that David doesn’t delight in the saints merely as they will appear in glory; he delights in the saints “in the land.” In other words, these are real people, on earth, at the present time. How easy it is to love mankind in general, and yet how difficult to love particular individuals. As the old joke says, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” The Christian variation of this is to love what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the visionary ideal of community” (Life Together, 27). But this idealized abstraction is merely a wish-dream, and the moment it comes into contact with concrete people, it vanishes like a mist.
Lewis identifies the demonic strategy in such a temptation. Screwtape encourages his young protégé to exploit the gap between glorious expressions like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.
Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. . . . Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. (The Screwtape Letters, 6–7)
“How easy it is to love mankind in general, and yet how difficult to love particular individuals.”
David’s celebration in Psalm 16 avoids precisely this disappointment. David is not confessing his delight in an abstraction, in a wish-dream community. The majestic ones that have captured his delight are the saints in the land, near at hand, singing out of tune with their double chins and odd clothes. David looks upon them and says, “Majestic. Excellent. All my delight.”
Captured by God for God
How is David able to do this? How can he see majesty in such mundane simplicity? Because David knows that these are saints. That is, they are not merely the excellent ones; they are the holy ones. What draws David’s delight is that God’s people are set apart for his purposes.
These people reflect, however imperfectly, the majesty and glory and beauty of God’s own holiness. Henry Scougal once said, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” And so, David looks upon those who love God, he sees their worth and excellence, the majesty of their souls, and he says, “These are my people, and I love them.”
Jonathan Edwards said much the same thing. When we love something, we love when others love that same thing. That’s why fans of the same sports team immediately hit it off. The mutual joy forms the foundation of a new friendship. How much more when the object of our mutual admiration is God himself?
What heightens and advances the pleasure of society is the excellency and the love of those with whom we converse. But the saints are the excellent of the earth; they are possessed of excellency of the highest kind, and they only are endowed with true excellency. Proverbs 12:6, “The righteous is more excellent than his neighbor”; and 17:27, “A man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.” And certainly in such conversation is the greatest delight to be found. Psalm 16:2–3, “My goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.”
And as religion makes lovely, so it begets love, the purest and most ardent. Nothing so much tends to charity, peace, mutual benevolence and bounty as Christianity, and therefore nothing so much sweetens human society. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 109).
Do We See Nobility?
David’s celebration, then, becomes an exhortation to us. It forces us to ask questions of ourselves and to seek God’s help in being conformed to the image of Christ. Do we see nobility in the simplest of saints? Do we delight in the saints in our land, particularly in our local church? Do we delight in actual people — quirks, warts, and all? Do we delight in them for their holiness and majesty, and do we delight in them in hopes of spurring them on to greater holiness and majesty?
If not, then perhaps we should turn Psalm 16 into a prayer.
Lord, we say to you, “You are our Lord; we have no good apart from you.” Help us to find your goodness in your people. Make us to know your holiness reflected in your saints. Lead us to see the worth, excellency, and majesty of each and every Christian that we meet, from the great to the small, from the strong to the weak. And then fill us with the joy of Jesus himself, who takes pleasure in you and in his people with all his delight.