Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever

Ancient Olive Tree in Pelion, Greece

Psalm 52

To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,[1] of mischief done against the godly? All day long
2 you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Selah
4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
6 The righteous will see, and fear, and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 “See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!”
8 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
9 I will thank you forever, because of what you have done. In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
 
The basic question of the injustice that is present in the world when the boastful, deceptive, and wicked prosper while the righteous are persecuted informs the narrative of Psalm 52. This short poem or song which contrasts the wicked ‘mighty one’ and the righteous compares two opposing views of life and the poem pivots on God’s judgment of the mighty one in verse five. Although the superscription of this Psalm refers to a specific incident in the life of David, the big shot boaster who the first four verses describe can be found in any context. The way of the wicked may often appear to provide security in the moment, but the way of righteousness sinks deep roots of trust into the steadfast love of God.

The superscription of Psalm 52 places the words in the context of David’s flight from King Saul and the punishment of Ahimelech and the rest of the priests of the LORD. David, now fully convinced of Saul’s murderous intentions towards him, is fleeing Israel and arrives at Nob, a short journey away, where the tabernacle is. David seeks both food and a weapon from the priest Ahimelech, who is unaware of Saul’s intentions toward David, and after receiving these departs. Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s shepherds,[2] was also at the tabernacle and reports on these actions to Saul. Saul then gathers Ahimelech and the priests, accuses them of treachery, and then orders his guards to kill the priests. When the guards refuse this order from King Saul, Doeg the Edomite carries it out killing eighty-five priests and then putting the city of Nob, the city of priests, to the sword.

The psalm makes sense within the context of the narrative of 1 Samuel 21-22, as David can see the damage a violent and deceptive one has done to the righteous ones. Doeg could be viewed as one who does violence against the righteous, who plots destruction, whose words are sharp and who loves evil more than good. Doeg’s words and his sword have caused many deaths for those who offered David kindness and served the LORD as priests. In this moment, the suspicion of Saul and the deceptive words of Doeg are creating a world of injustice and violence.

Reading the Psalm in a more universal context, we can find many contemporary examples that fit the description of this ‘mighty one’ who ironically becomes the villain in this story. This ‘big man’ is one prospers at the expense of those attempting to live according to God’s will. They are schemers whose actions undercut the security of others and whose words are weapons that often cut deeper than a blade might. I’ve often parodied the old saying about ‘sticks and stones’ changing it to: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.’ When a person desires economic gain or power above the good of the community, deceitful words are often used and may do more damage to the life of the community than any action could. These devouring words once unleashed can seem to take up a life of their own, and the deceitful tongue that bears the sharp lie may produce great evil as it cuts into the trust which is the lifeblood of the communal life. As Beth Tanner can state:

We all know the damage of words. In a media-saturated world, lying words still cut like a razor. Indeed, we are surrounded by a culture that encourages us to be out only for ourselves and believes that our only protection is the wealth and possessions we amass behind gates that lock out the rest of the world. Words of advertisers and terrorists reduce our lives and diminish our delight. Abusive words by one we love and trust can do as much damage as a fist of knife. We know just as these ancient ones do that this way leads only to alienation and death. Any sane person would not choose this way to live, but instead grow slowly and surely as a great tree that flourishes in the house of God. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 462-463)

Yet, in our media saturated culture which amplifies the boast of the mighty one and seems to thrive on the blood spilt by razor sharp words there are a plethora of instances where words demonized a group, split a community, and often destroy lives. Yet, the Psalmist states that this way will not stand, that God will not allow the mighty one who speaks evil and plots destruction to escape destruction forever. God will be the one who intervenes and balances the scales by removing the mighty one’s house from the people, who breaks down their defenses and walls, and who uproots them from the ground where the righteous remain planted.

Once God has acted to restore justice by uprooting the wicked, the psalm turns to the response of the righteous ones. Psalm 52 carries similar themes and imagery to Psalm 1 and in both psalms “the way of the wicked will perish.” (1:6) Yet, Psalm 52, instead of ending on the theme of the wicked perishing, now turns to the reaction of the righteous. The righteous see, and fear, and laugh. The righteous ones see and understand that the actions that uprooted the unrighteous one come from God. Fear in this context is the proper response to God, it is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 110:11, Proverbs 1:7) and fear of God is understood throughout the Hebrew Scriptures mainly as reverence and awe. But the reaction to the ‘mighty one’ who has now fallen is laughter. The mighty one who trusted in the power and wealth gained through their deceitful ways and lying words has now become the fool who illustrates that wickedness and foolishness are ultimately the same thing. The way of the foolish may prove successful in the short term but in a world where God’s justice eventually levels the scales they find themselves uprooted while the wise/righteous endure like a green olive tree in the house of God. The wise know that the violence and deception of those who aggregate wealth and power will not endure, instead it is the steadfast love (hesed) of God which proves trustworthy and enduring. The injustices of this world and those who profit from them are real but they are not permanent.

[1] The Hebrew gibborim typically denotes a mighty warrior or hero. Here the context makes clear the ‘mighty one’ may be a big shot at the moment but is not in the Psalmist’s view heroic.

[2] Shepherds in the scriptures may be literally those who watch sheep, but the term is often used metaphorically to refer to a leader.

2 thoughts on “Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever

  1. Pingback: Psalm 54 A Cry for Deliverance | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Psalm 56 | Sign of the Rose

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