Psalm 142 follows the standard pattern of an individual psalm of complaint. The author, David, is being hunted and hiding out in a cave. His faith is stretched almost to its limit. Amid his soul-wrenching pleas for mercy and help, David cries to the Lord in hope-filled expectation of deliverance: “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:5).
When David described the Lord as “my portion in the land of the living,” he used an adapted version of a longstanding tradition from the tribe of Levi. God divided and distributed the Promised Land among the twelve tribes of Israel, but the Levites were not given a share (Deuteronomy 10:8–9). Instead, they were set apart to tend to the ark of the covenant and serve in the tabernacle. As priests, they were to be supported by a share of the people’s offerings.
The Lord said to the Levites, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel” (Numbers 18:20, ESV). Later, the confession “the Lord is my portion” began to appear in the prayers and psalms of the people of Israel: “LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure” (Psalm 16:5; see also Lamentations 3:24). When the psalmist acknowledged, “You are my portion, LORD,” he meant that God was the basis of his existence and everything he needed (Psalm 119:57).
The full force of David’s phrase my portion is brought to light in the New Living Translation: “Then I pray to you, O LORD. I say, ‘You are my place of refuge. You are all I really want in life’” (Psalm 142:5, NLT).
The word portion can also refer to that which is near and dear to a person. The people of Israel are called the portion of the Lord: “For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:9). Likewise, God is Israel’s portion: “He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the Maker of all things, including Israel, the people of his inheritance—the LORD Almighty is his name” (Jeremiah 10:16). The Lord has chosen us to be His portion, and we have chosen Him to be ours.
Traced back to the Levite tradition, the land of the living refers to the land of Israel, the territory God gave as an inheritance to all the tribes except Levi. With no physical land to claim as a source of provision, the Levites professed, “I have no other support for my existence but the help that comes from you, God.” This psalm of Asaph apprehends the sentiment: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).
“The land of the living” is this present world in which we live. It speaks of life on this side of the grave. In Psalm 27:13, David remained confident that he would “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” He believed that God would hear his cries and answer his prayer before he died. Therefore, he would wait for the Lord and trust in Him (Psalm 27:14).
Wisdom literature describes a person’s “portion” as one’s lot in life (Job 20:29; 27:13; Ecclesiastes 9:9). God becomes our portion in the land of the living when we confess and agree with David that God is all we want and need in this present life: “LORD, you alone are my inheritance, my cup of blessing. You guard all that is mine” (Psalm 16:5, NLT).
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The Lord is our all-sufficient portion. God fills himself; and if God is all-sufficient in himself, he must be all-sufficient for us. It is not easy to satisfy man’s desires. . . . But all that we can wish for is to be found in our divine portion” (Morning and Evening: Daily Readings, November 16, London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1896). When we, like David, can say, “Lord, You are my portion in the land of the living,” it means we trust God with the whole of our lives. We delight ourselves and are satisfied in Him because He is our all in all (Psalm 37:4; Ecclesiastes 5:18–20).