This article was written by Joe Rigney and published by Desiring God
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:2)
In Psalm 16, David is taking refuge in God. Taking refuge includes David’s prayer for God to keep him. In other words, the prayer “preserve me” (Psalm 16:1) is itself a taking refuge in God. But David doesn’t simply ask God to keep him. He also speaks and declares truth to God. He exults in Yahweh his refuge (Psalm 16:2).
The last phrase of verse 2 is packed with deep theological truth and precious fuel for worship. So, what does David mean when he says, “I have no good apart from you”?
God is the source of all goodness.
Every good that is good comes from the God who is Good. God is the maker and sustainer of all created goods. Thus, in Genesis 1, he creates and then appraises his work: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
“Every good that is good comes from the God who is Good.”
Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), the brilliant medieval theologian, saw in this truth compelling evidence for God’s existence. He noted that everyone agrees there is a great variety of goods in the world. There are physical goods, intellectual goods, relational goods. This is a basic fact of reality. From this fact, Anselm asks, “What makes all of the good things good?” And he concludes that the good things are not independently good. They are not good by themselves. Rather, there must be some ultimate good that makes all the other things good.
In other words, Anselm reasoned there must be a supreme good that is the source of all other goodness. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of David in Psalm 16. David confesses that there is a Supreme Good that makes all other goods good. And Yahweh is this Supreme Good. Or, as David prays elsewhere, God is my “exceeding joy” — literally, “the joy of joys” (Psalm 43:4). David knows his refuge is the foundational joy on which all other joys are built.
God’s goodness is unique.
All created goods are finite, temporal, and changing. But God is infinite, eternal, and unchanging. The apostle James celebrates this fact: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
Created goods cast shadows. As good as they are, they are not infinite goods. They are limited, and they fade. But God has no shadow, and he does not change. His goodness is without boundary or limit. His is an absolute and essential goodness.
God is goodness itself.
God’s perfections aren’t just qualities that he happens to have. They are essential to him. They are our human descriptions of his being, his essence, his nature, his very God-ness. This is what it means for God to be holy. His attributes are utterly perfect and wholly distinct from the derivative, dependent attributes of his creatures.
We call a man righteous because he meets the standard of righteousness. We call a man wise because he conforms to the pattern of wisdom. But God is the standard. He is the pattern. He is not merely righteous; he is righteousness itself. He is not merely wise; he is wisdom itself. He is not merely strong; he is strength itself. And he is not merely good; he is goodness itself. Or again, the Lord is not merely righteous, wise, strong, and good. He is the Righteous, the Wise, the Strong, and the Good.
This is what it means for God to be God, for God to be Yahweh, I Am Who I Am. This is why Jesus can say, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). He is the fountain of all goodness, the source and origin of all pleasure and joy. He is infinite, eternal, unchanging, inexhaustible, self-sufficient and all-sufficient, without limit or diminishment.
God has no need of my goodness.
Because God is the source of all goodness, my goodness does not benefit God in any way. He is above all need and all improvement. As Paul says, “God . . . does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25).
“The Lord is all-sufficient, and it is because he is all-sufficient that he can be sufficient for me.”
David in this psalm revels in the fact that he has nothing to offer God but his poverty, his weakness, his need. He has no gift to give to God that he might be repaid. The Lord is all-sufficient, and it is because he is all-sufficient that he can be sufficient for me. It is because he has no needs that he can meet mine. It is because he is the Supreme Good that I can take refuge in him.
Drops and the Ocean
Finally, don’t miss the fact that these weighty theological truths are deeply personal for David. David doesn’t merely confess that Yahweh is the Lord; he says, “You are my Lord.” What wonders are embedded in that little possessive pronoun. The infinite and eternal fountain of goodness somehow, some way belongs to me. In his infinite all-sufficiency, he condescends and allows me to call him “mine.” My Lord, my Master, my King.
And this means that God is not merely the ultimate and supreme Good. He is my Good. And for him to be my highest good is for him to be my greatest pleasure. My ultimate well-being and happiness are found in him and him alone. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) expressed this glorious truth as well as anyone else in his sermon “The True Christian’s Life a Journey Towards Heaven”:
God is the highest good of the reasonable creature. The enjoyment of him is our proper happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here: better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17:437–38)