Another Verse I Never Understood

Another verse I never understood, and I’m pretty excited about this one. I can’t exactly blame the King James, because I don’t think the KJV translators did anything wrong. And the ESV and NASB translators did pretty much the same thing. Here’s the verse, Psalm 16:6:

  • KJV The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
  • NASB The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.
  • ESV The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Like I said, none of these are wrong in any way I can figure. But I’ve read it many, many times and never understood it. I asked another long-time Bible reader (a KJV-only youth pastor, as it happens—a gracious man), and he guessed that the verse is talking about lines of genealogy. He was a step ahead of me because, to my shame, I can’t say I ever stopped to ask: what lines? Or lines of what? I think I always assumed that it was just a very obscure way of saying that things were going well for David.

But I was doing some personal Bible reading the other day in BibleWorks—something I don’t normally do—and that meant that when I arrived at Psalm 16:6 I could easily see two other translations that instantly solved the puzzle I didn’t know was there:

  • NIV The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.
  • CSB The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Boundary lines! Now that makes sense. Why didn’t I think of that before? Largely, I think, because of the KJV word “heritage” at the end of the verse. It’s a fine word, but my sense is that today we rarely use it to mean the inheritance of physical property. Instead we speak of the “heritage” of shared values or traditions in a given culture or family. A heritage is an intangible inheritance.

Like Psalm 119:111—”Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart.” Testimonies aren’t an inheritance; they’re a heritage. I was never able to put falling lines together with goodly heritages. But boundary lines and inheritances—those fit well.

I admit that a few forays into English dictionaries (OED, AHD) failed to confirm absolutely my guess that in 1611 “heritage” was a closer synonym of “inheritance” than it is today, but if that supposition proves accurate we have yet another example of a KJV verse that is inaccessible to modern readers through no fault at all of the KJV translators. Words change their meaning over time, and no one—or no human—can stop them.

The commentaries confirm my reading. It’s really a beautiful line in a rich, beautiful psalm. Verses 5 and 6 are the tiniest bit obscure, but it appears that David—who in this psalm speaks so much about security that he may be writing from exile—views the Lord as his inheritance, even and especially when his own land is out of his grasp. “Lines” refers literally to boundary lines, but the whole verse is a metaphor: God Himself is David’s portion, lot, and heritage. What more beautiful and pleasant property could you get? It’s no wonder that David ends the psalm by saying,

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psa 16:11)

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

5 thoughts on “Another Verse I Never Understood”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I believe the passage is prophetic and the lines are speaking of Christ”s inheritance. David also gives the words of Christ in Psalm 2.

    Psa 2:7-8
    7 I will declare the decree:
    the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son;
    this day have I begotten thee.
    8 Ask of me,
    and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance,
    and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
    (KJV)

    Christ’s inheritance is the land promised to Abraham

  2. TWOT says the literal meaning of the word is rope or cordage, which of course would be used to measure out boundary lines. FWIW

  3. Don, HALOT says the same as TWOT, but makes it a bit more clear that “boundary line” probably counts as a separate sense (HALOT’s sense 2: “length of rope as a unit of measure”).

    Butch, I’m prepared to go messianic in just about any Davidic psalm, but in this case I think it’s worth noting Peter missed a great opportunity to use Ps 16:6 when in Acts 2 he quoted at length from the Psalm. I don’t think it’s necessary to see a reference to Christ here. But your Psalm 2 reference is as powerful an argument as I can think of.

  4. Hi Mark,

    The reason I believe the Psalm is prophetic is because Peter quotes it and applies it to Christ.

    22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: 24 Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. 25 For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: 26 Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: 27 Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. 28 Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance. 29 Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. 30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; 31 He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. (Act 2:1 KJG)

    Peter said David was speaking of Christ. That is why I believe the lines are referring to Christ’s inheritance. Psalm 2 speaks of that inheritance. In Genesis God promised to give the Land to Abraham and his seed as an everlasting possession.

    Genesis 13:15 For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. (Gen 13:15 KJV)

    In Acts 7 Stephen says that Abraham never received that land and Paul said in Hebrews that Abraham sojourned in the land of promise.

    The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, 3 And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. 4 Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. 5 And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child. (Act 7:1 KJG)

    8 By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. 9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: 10 For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb 11:1 KJG)

    The promise of the land was made to Abraham and his seed. The Jews believed they were the seed, but in Galatians 3 Paul makes the argument that the “Seed” is not the Jews but is Christ. The land was promised to Abraham and Christ. God also promised it to Isaac and Jacob. He concludes chapter 3 buy saying that those who have been baptized into Christ are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.

    16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal 3:1 KJG)

    27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
    (Gal 3:1 KJG)

    This is why I believe the lines in Psalm 16 are referring to Christ’s inheritance.

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