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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Psalms 52

 

 

Introduction

Heading.

These headings were attached later and may well not be part of the inspired text (in the same way as we divide the original text into chapters and verses, divisions which are convenient but not inspired). They may have been later attempts to find a life situations in which to place the Psalms in question.


Verse 1

‘For the Chief Musician. Maschil of David; when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech.’

This is another Psalm dedicated to the choirmaster. It is the first of four Maschils of David in succession (52-55). Thirteen Psalm are described as Maschils, eleven of them in Parts 2 & 3 of the Psalms. (These are, Psalms 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89, 142). It may be that Maschil signifies ‘making wise/skilful’. The word maschil means ‘understanding’, and has been variously interpreted as meaning, ‘a teaching Psalm’ (although that does not appear to fit all its uses); ‘a meditation’, bringing understanding; or a ‘skilful Psalm’ indicating a complicated setting.

The occasion for the composition of the Psalm is seen as the time when Doeg the Edomite, Saul’s chief herdsman, saw David visiting the high priest Ahimelech in order to obtain food for his men as he fled from Saul. Doeg reported this back to Saul which resulted in the massacre of all the priests at Nob (a priestly city). See 1 Samuel 21:1-9; 1 Samuel 22:9-23.

There are indications in the Psalm which would tie in with this suggestion. As Saul’s chief herdsman (a post of high distinction) Doeg would be seen as a ‘mighty man’ (Psalms 52:1 b), a man of wealth (Psalms 52:7), and Psalms 52:5 could well have in mind what happened to the priests of Nob. He certainly deceived Saul into thinking that Ahimelech had betrayed him (Psalms 52:3). It is probable that David found rest and recreation in writing Psalms, and his feelings of guilt when he learned from Abiathar what had happened might well have been assuaged by writing this Psalm as a kind of curse on Doeg (Psalms 52:5), and a vindication of himself (Psalms 52:8). This would explain why the concentration is on the man rather than on the incident. He is drawing God’s attention to the kind of man that Doeg is. As a consequence the Psalm has reference to all evil men.

The Psalm is divided up by ‘Selah’ into three parts:

A Description Of Man’s Sinfulness (Psalms 52:1-3).

A Description Of The Consequences To Himself Resulting From His Sinfulness (Psalms 52:4-5).

A Description Of How The Righteous See His Fate And The Personal Vindication Of Each Of The Righteous Concerning Themselves (Psalms 52:6-9).


Verses 1-3

A Description Of Man’s Sinfulness (Psalms 52:1-3).

In the first verse the ‘man of substance’ is asked why he boasts continually about mischief he has wrought in the light of the fact of the continually enduring covenant love of God. He is then described as a man who speaks wickedness and deceit, and who loves evil rather than good, and lying rather than honesty.

Psalms 52:1

‘Why do you boast yourself in mischief, O mighty man?

The covenant love of God (endures) continually’

These opening lines sum up the message of the Psalm. Certain men of substance boast about their wrongdoing, failing to recognise that there is a God Who will call them to account. They see themselves as above the law, but can be sure that God will finally deal with them as they deserve. And this is because His covenant love towards His own (His love which fulfils His responsibility to those who are within His covenant) is continuous. He will not overlook anything that is done against them. He does not overlook what men do to His true servants, and will in time deal with them accordingly. They have thus no reason to boast. The implication is that they should rather hide themselves in shame.

We have in these words the assurance that those who truly respond to God from the heart, looking to Him as those who have committed themselves to Him on the basis of His declared promises (His covenant), can be sure that God will call to account any who seek to do them harm, because God’s love to His own never fails.

‘O mighty man (gibbor).’ Thus a man strong in either prowess on the field of battle, or in wealth and status as a consequence of his talents. There may be some sarcasm in the description, in that the gibbor is seen as opposing himself to the mighty God. He sees himself as ‘mighty’ but he pales into insignificance before ‘the Almighty’.

Doeg, holding a prominent position in Saul’s entourage, insidiously reported to him suggesting that Ahimelech, who was wholly innocent of wrongdoing, was a traitor. He could have enquired of Ahimelech and discovered the truth, but he preferred to go behind his back and spread insinuations. Ahimelech, the anointed High Priest, was seemingly a good man, and faithful to God’s covenant. Thus by attacking him Doeg was attacking God. And he no doubt did boast afterwards about what he had done. Such men always do. Thus the words are particularly apposite to his case. If he was still alive when David took the throne, we need not doubt that he would be called to account. Ahimelech’s son Abiathar, David’s High Priest, would see to that.

Psalms 52:2-3

‘Your tongue devises wickednesses,

Like a sharp razor, working deceitfully.’

‘You love evil more than good,

And lying rather than to speak righteousness. [Selah

The mischief of the mighty man in Psalms 52:1 is now defined. He is a man whose tongue devises many types of wickedness, cuts men and their reputations to shreds like a sharp razor, and works deceitfully. Such men prefer evil to good (compare Isaiah 5:20), and lying to truthfulness. They reckon that in order to be successful in life goodness and truthfulness must be forfeited because they can be too much of a hindrance. And as men mature in sin they become more and more incapable of discerning right from wrong. Their consciences are ‘seared with a hot iron’ (1 Timothy 4:2).

Such a man sounds totally disreputable. But there is something of this in us all. Before we nod and pass on we should consider our own lives. We also may scheme to hurt people whom we do not like, may use our tongues like a sharp razor, may pass on rumours and insinuations, may at times act deceitfully and prefer evil to good. So this man is just ourselves amplified. And it is only the power of Christ that can root this out of us.

That it was true of Doeg is unquestionable. He was not concerned to find out the truth of the situation, (Ahimelech genuinely thought that David was on the king’s business), but preferred sneaking to Saul behind Ahimelech’s back, no doubt hoping for reward. Why discover the truth when you can turn what you know to such good account? It is a warning to us all to discover the truth before we pass information on. False information is deceit.

At the end of the three verses we find the word ‘selah’. This was possibly a musical pause, and may well be seen as saying, ‘think of that’.


Verse 4-5

A Description Of The Consequences To Himself Resulting From His Sinfulness (Psalms 52:4-5).

The Psalmist now tells us that what a man sows he will reap. In the final analysis God will do to men what they have done to others. Thus those who devour with their words will themselves be devoured.

Psalms 52:4-5

‘You love all devouring words,

O you deceitful tongue.’

In the same way God will destroy you for ever,

He will take you up, and pluck you out of your tent,

And root you out of the land of the living.’ [Selah

‘Devouring words’ are literally ‘words which swallow up’. They cause harm, and even death. The deceiver loves such words, for they enable him to obtain his ends, at whatever cost to those whom he denigrates. Doeg’s words certainly ‘swallowed up’ Ahimelech and the priests of Nob. And they were certainly ‘plucked from their tents (homes) and rooted out of the land of the living’. Thus the application to Doeg as a recompense for what he had done is very apposite.

And the warning to all who love devouring words which ‘swallow people up’, is that they also will be ‘taken up’ by God, will be ‘plucked from their tents’, and will be ‘rooted out of the land of the living’. What they have done to others will be done to them. God will destroy them for ever.

The verbs are forceful, almost violent. ‘Plucked from their tents’. Compare how in Deuteronomy Israel were warned that if they did not observe YHWH’s Instruction (His Torah - Law) they too would be plucked out of the land which YHWH had given them (Deuteronomy 26:63). ‘Tents’ was a synonym for their homes, commonly found throughout the Old Testament. ‘Rooted out of the land of the living’ may have in mind weeds which, in order to be destroyed, were torn up by their roots. This was precisely what had happened to the priests at Nob.

‘O you deceitful tongue.’ In other words, ‘you man with a deceitful tongue’. The man is spoken of in terms of his tongue.


Verses 6-9

A Description Of How The Righteous See The Deceitful Man’s Fate And The Personal Vindication Of Each Of The Righteous Concerning Themselves (Psalms 52:6-9).

Psalms 52:6

‘The righteous also will see, and fear,

And will laugh at him, (saying),

The righteous will see what happens to such a man and will be filled with awe. And ‘they will laugh at him’ in incredulity. Being themselves filled with awe at the thought of the holiness of God they will be amazed that he could be so foolish. The laugh is not vindictive. Rather they are laughing at his folly. They cannot believe that he could be so foolish. The aim is to bring out the extreme foolishness of his ways as will now be described. Compare Proverbs 1:26-30. To laugh vindictively at what befalls an evil man is forbidden in Proverbs 24:17-18 with the warning that God will not be pleased..

Psalms 52:7

‘See, this is the man who did not make God his strength,

But trusted in the abundance of his riches,

And strengthened himself in his wickedness.’

They will say to one another, ‘This is the man who did not make God his strength, but rather trusted in the abundance of his riches, and thus strengthened himself in his wickedness’. Like all men he had had a choice. He could have found his strength in God. He could have looked to Him for strength. But he rather trusted in his riches. He saw being wealthy as more important than pleasing God, for he was convinced that in riches he would find security and happiness. They would be his stay. But they would be of little use when disaster struck, and his wealth was taken from him, or when he became ill and died.

And because his trust had been in the abundance of his riches, striving to obtain more and more by any means, he became convinced that nothing else mattered. He felt that nothing could harm him, and this bolstered him up in the wrongdoing that he perpetrated. After all, it was through wrongdoing that his riches had been gained. And wrongdoing would make him richer.

Doeg had become wealthy. He was chief of all Saul’s herdsmen, which in those days, in a land where agriculture was its mainstay, was a very important position. And it was this that had persuaded him to act as he did in the hope of gaining favour and obtaining more wealth. His mind was fixed on ‘getting on’. He thus disregarded truth, whilst his wealth, and his desire for more, strengthened him in his wrongdoing. Jesus warned men of the deceitfulness of riches (Mark 4:19), and Paul pointed out that a desire for wealth was at the root of all evil and had brought on men many sorrows (1 Timothy 6:10). It is one thing to prosper. It is quite another to make it your goal in life.

Psalms 52:8

‘But as for me, I am like a green olive-tree in the house of God,

I trust in the covenant love of God for ever and ever.’

These may well be a continuation of the words of the righteous, individualised to each one. Or else they may be the words of the Psalmist himself, as representing the righteous. The change to the individual may well be intended so as to cause each singer to make his own personal dedication to God as he sings the Psalm in the Temple area.

In contrast with the man who will be rooted up is the one who, rather than being rooted up, is firmly established like a green olive tree in the house of God. A green olive tree was so because its roots went deep and were well watered (compare Psalms 1:3). And being established as such in the house of God indicated his loyalty to God and to the covenant. It was this that made him fruitful. The covenant was the covenant established at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 onwards), as partly reproduced and expanded on in Deuteronomy. It was the covenant of those who had been redeemed responding to their Redeemer. It was a covenant that constantly revealed God’s covenant love for his obedient people (Deuteronomy 7:8; Hosea 11:1; Malachi 1:2), a love that could be wholly relied on by those who walked with Him. It was a love in which they could trust for ever.

‘The green olive tree’ is said elsewhere to be God’s designation of Israel (Jeremiah 11:16). Paul would later use it a picture of the remnant of Israel who received the Messiah, where it incorporated Gentiles who believed in the Messiah (Romans 11:17). These were the true Israel as opposed to the false who were broken off.

(We should note the clear indication in this and many Psalms that ‘not all Israel, were Israel’ (Romans 9:6). The covenant only benefited those who were obedient to it. The remainder would be rooted out and cast off. This was continually so throughout Israel’s history).

Psalms 52:9

‘I will give you thanks for ever, because you have done it,

And I will hope in your name, for it is good, in the presence of your saints.’

The Psalmist ends with thanksgiving and praise. He gives thanks for what God has done, rooting out the unrighteous, and establishing the righteous. And this causes him to have continual hope in YHWH’s Name, the Name which is ‘good’, revealing the love and holiness of God. He is confident that God will continue to cause the righteous to flourish, and the unrighteous to be rooted out. And he does it in the presence of God’s ‘beloved ones’, that is, beloved within the covenant, those who are true to Him, an indication that this Psalm has been made suitable for public worship.

Psalms 53.

This Psalm is mainly a repetition of Psalms 14 but here using ‘God’ all the way through. The other main change occurs in Psalms 52:5, a change which suggests that this Psalm is an adaptation of Psalms 14 written in order to celebrate the defeat of a particular enemy. But the adaptation is a careful one for the consonants used (in the Hebrew text) are very similar as though the writer wanted to keep as near to the original text as possible. It is a clever piece of adaptation.

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 52:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/psalms-52.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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