Psalm 16: A Psalm for High School Break-Ups
We sat across from one another in a plush booth with mugs of steaming tea warming our hands as she told me the story of her recent relationship. Their families were close and they had always been buddies, but on a weekend retreat, something new had sparked. Flirtation led to deep conversation, which led to defining the relationship. In the months that followed, they had grown very close—he was her best friend as much as a boyfriend. Suddenly, he broke it all off. He had ended things kindly, had taken the blame upon himself; still she was confused and hurt. Her blue eyes brimmed with tears as she expressed the loss she felt.
Looking across the table at her, I was transported to my own first love lost. I had been 16, just like her, and mine was a similar story: A youth group friendship-turned-romance had suddenly ended, and I was devastated. I remember it like it was yesterday—the overwhelming sense of grief, like something new and hopeful had suddenly died, like I’d never feel whole and happy again.
As I grieved a college breakup a few years later, I came across Psalm 16 in my daily reading and was heartened by David’s insistence that God is present in the midst of painful circumstances. How I wish I had known to read this psalm after my first real heartbreak in high school!
David’s words in this psalm of trust call to mind a sadness that only God’s loving presence can cure. Verses 9-11 seem to indicate that his prayer for God to preserve him (v. 1) relates to physical death. Our students will often experience a breakup like an emotional death , which makes this psalm well-suited to console them in heartache. Rather than minimize the pain of fleeting high school love, therefore, we must remember this is likely the deepest loss a teenager has experienced in life thus far.
With this in mind, we can seize the moment to shepherd our students toward the True Shepherd. Our goal is to help hurting students entrust their hearts to a God who is deeply committed to them.
The comfort Psalm 16 offers students grieving a breakup is threefold:
A Plea Against Idolatry
David begins by acknowledging Yahweh as God. Even in his distress, only God can comfort and uphold him as his refuge; no false god will do. He therefore dismisses idols, and those who pursue them, seeking God’s protection instead.
Shortly after the college breakup that first led me to love this psalm, my mom gently spoke a hard truth into my life by asking if perhaps I was coveting something God hadn’t intended to give me. The combination of her maternal insight with David’s warning against idolatry in Psalm 16 cut me straight to the heart. I realized I had “taken another god”—the idol of love and marriage .
We can speak to the hearts of our students in a similar way, reminding them that the gift God most longs to give them is Himself —and He has done it in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus! Handsome young men and pretty young women make fine companions but lousy gods. Any good thing with which our students attempt to fill God’s rightful place will only lead to heartache, as David indicates when he writes that “the sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (v. 4). By urging them to know God as their refuge, their highest good, and the delight of their hearts, we quip them to identify counterfeit gods.
A Profession of Hope for the Future
As though urging himself to steer clear of these false gods with their empty promises, David professes, “Lord, You are my portion and my cup of blessing; You hold my future” (v. 5, HCSB, emphasis mine). David acknowledges that, although it may be difficult to see in the present moment, God has ordained for him a hopeful future. Our heartbroken students are likewise desperate to be assured that it won’t always be like this.
Teenagers are notoriously short-sighted. Their prefrontal cortexes are still in development, causing them to focus largely on pleasure in the present moment rather than on long-term realities. They haven’t lived long enough yet to know that things really do get better, even after great loss, so they need the sympathetic wisdom of those who have lived a bit longer .
For David, part of trusting in God’s future promises also involved acknowledging “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (v. 6). These boundary lines call to mind agricultural plots, which serve as a metaphor for the boundaries of David’s life. This is a poetic way of reminding himself that God is not holding out on him.
Similarly, our students need to know the God who holds their futures, the One who establishes boundaries for their lives that are pleasant and good. Although a breakup may cause them to assume that God is withholding something, we can encourage them to trust His heart toward them. We know from the experience of our own lives what they have not yet learned: that in His sovereign goodness, He will give them only what He deems best. Indeed, they do have a beautiful inheritance, one “that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for [them]” (1 Pet. 1:4). No star-crossed lover can change the beauty of what God has stored up for those who are in Christ .
A Promise of God’s Abiding Presence
Finally, David declares that God is with him, even in the watches of the night. When he is alone or afraid, God is present to counsel him. The presence of God is David’s one assurance of joy and pleasure in the days to come.
When loneliness, doubt, or even regret wakes our student in the night, they need to know God as their ever-present Counselor. By pointing them back to the psalms, we give them words to pray in the middle of these dark nights of the soul.
In the final stanzas of the psalm, we see that David has moved from despair to gladness (v. 9) as he has declared the truth about our God. He writes in confident assurance that God will deliver him onto the path of life, granting him fullness of joy and pleasure forever (v. 11). This is exactly what we need to pray for our students as they wrestle with the sad and lonely feelings familiar to high school love.
A break-up is a sacred moment in which we may point students to the God who holds both their future and their broken hearts. As we do, we pray they will move from heartache toward trusting hope in the God who promises joy in His presence.
A note from the editors: Psalms are meant to be experienced, helping us to take the truths of God’s character deep into our souls. Here’s a song based on this psalm for your encouragement: Fullness of Joy (Psalm 16) by Shane and Shane.
 ALEXANDRA Sifferlin, “Why Teenage Brains Are So Hard to Understand,” Time Magazine, September 8, 2017, https://time.com/4929170/inside-teen-teenage-brain/.