Saturday, May 18, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 52

Let's begin by examining the context of Psalm 52. The inscription tells us that this is a “Maskil of David” that was written in response to an incident described in 1 Samuel 21 and 22. After David's success against Goliath, King Saul becomes jealous that he threatens David's life, and David flees from his presence with a band of followers. Hungry and on the run, David and his men stop at a shrine to the Lord at Nob and ask the priest, Ahimelech, for food. Ahimelech is a bit nervous to see David at first, but David soon calms him down, and Ahimelech offers him bread...not just any bread either. Ahimelech gives David and his men the bread of the presence, or the holy bread, that is set daily before the Lord as an offering. The priest has nothing else prepared, but since David and his men have the proper dispositions and have refrained from relations with women, he makes an exception to the rule and allows them to eat the bread of the Lord. The foreshadowing of the Eucharist is quite evident here, but we'll save that for another time. Doeg the Edomite happens to be at the shrine when David and his men arrive. Doeg is Saul's chief shepherd, a nice foil for David, who also has experience as a shepherd. Doeg apparently recognizes David but doesn't say anything to him. He merely observes as David and his men eat the holy bread, receive the sword of Goliath, and go on their way. Doeg then rushes right back to Saul. 

By this time, Saul is really, really angry. Doeg goes straight to him and reports, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech son of Ahitub; he inquired of the Lord for him, gave him provisions, and gave him the sword of Goliath” (1 Samuel 22:9-10). Saul calls Ahimelech to him and accuses the priest of conspiring with David. Ahimelech pleads innocence, telling the king that he was unaware of the rift between David and Saul, which is the truth. Saul doesn't care. He orders Ahimelech and all the priests of Nob to be executed. No one moves. Saul's servants will not raise their weapons against these priests. So Saul turns to Doeg and orders him to attack. Doeg does so immediately, killing Ahimelech and eighty-four other priests. He doesn't stop there. Doeg goes on to kill the entire city of Nob, men, women, children, and animals. The sword reaches everyone. 

When David finds out about the massacre, he is horrified and guilty. He tells Abiathar, the only son of Ahimelech to escape the slaughter, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I am responsible for the lives of all your father's house.” He invites Abiathar to remain with him, promising him safety. Was David really responsible for the massacre? Was there anything he could have done to prevent it? Would he have killed Doeg to keep him from going back to Saul? Should he have done so? These questions seem to be in the back of David's mind as he composes Psalm 52, a “Maskil,” a contemplative and/or instructive poem that he uses to sort out his reaction to the horrible incident that has just occurred. 

David addresses the psalm directly to Doeg. He begins with a question, “Why do you boast, o mighty one, of the mischief done against the godly?” Clearly sarcastic, David asks Doeg, the “mighty one,” why he is boasting of his evil deeds. He has killed eighty-five priests and who knows how many other innocent people, and he's proud of it. He brags about it. He praises himself for his deeds. The Hebrew word for boast here is hâlal. It is the root word for our “Halleluiah,” so we can see by the word choice that Doeg is definitely lifting himself up. 

David continues, “All day long you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.” David is very concerned about Doeg's speech. After all, Doeg does tell Saul about David's meeting with Ahimelech. Saul immediately assumes that David is conspiring against him. Doeg doesn't bother to correct him, and he is very quick to participate in the slaughter that results. David calls him out for that, even accusing him of plotting with Saul against David and his priest-helpers. Words can hurt, words said and words left unsaid. Lies don't have to be directly spoken. They can be a truth untold. Words can destroy. Silence can also destroy. 

There will, however, be consequences for Doeg's actions, and they will not be pleasant. David lays them out graphically: “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.” Doeg is in danger of losing more than Saul's favor and David's respect. God punishes those who sin. Those who do not repent are in danger of hell. Death comes to the violent, and not just physical death but eternal death. 

Those who will observe Doeg's punishment will laugh at him and mock him, but they will also fear God's great power. God will show His might in dealing with Doeg. He is a loving Father, but He is also a just judge. He is merciful, but He will not tolerate unrepentant evildoers. Those looking on will say to each other, “See the one who would not take refuge in God but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!” Their comment adds another dimension to Doeg's story. How much does Saul reward Doeg for his “loyalty”? Does the king pay his servant well for his information and his ready violence? Or does he promise the protection and favor that only a wealthy, powerful person can provide? According to the bystanders, Doeg decides to take refuge in wealth instead of in God. He could have turned to God for protection and strength rather than give David and the priests up to Saul. Even after he tells Saul about David, he could have followed the other servants who refused to slaughter the priests. He could have simply faded into the background and went away. He did not have to step forward. He could have returned to God right then and taken refuge in Him. But he does not. He chooses another path. 

In the last two verses, David turns to himself. He has learned from Doeg's sins. He will not follow that path. Instead, David says that he is “like a green olive tree in the house of God.” A green olive tree is a choice plant. It is beautiful and fruitful and strong and flourishing. David, despite his current hardship of exile, feels like he, too, exhibits these qualities because He is in God's presence. No matter where he is physically, he is in God's house. He is at home with God, and God makes him flourish. 

“I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever,” David proclaims. He knows where to turn in the midst of the horrors Doeg has committed. God's love remains. David takes refuge in it, and it gives him confidence and strength to keep going. He will never forsake God. 

In fact, even in the midst of tragedy, David thanks God. He remembers the good things that God has done for him, and he is grateful. He will always proclaim God's Name, for it is good. The Hebrew word for proclaim is interesting. It's qâvâh. It actually means to wait on, to hope, to expect, and to look for. There is an element of eagerness to this word. David is waiting for God, even in the darkness, expecting great things from Him for the present and the future even as he recalls the wonderful deeds of the past. God is good, completely good, completely wonderful, completely trustworthy, and David knows it. Neither Saul's jealousy and cruelty nor Doeg's horrible deeds can shatter David's faith in God. 

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