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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 52

Psalms 52

THE words in Psalms 52:1: “Why boastest thou thyself of mischief, thou hero? the favour of God endureth for ever,” contain the theme, which is then more fully handled in four strophes, each of three verses, the first and second of which is also externally bounded by a Selah. First the wickedness of the hero is delineated in Psalms 52:1 and Psalms 52:2, then it is shewn how little reason he had for boasting himself, in that God, in his loving kindness toward his people, has appointed him to merited destruction, Psalms 52:4 and Psalms 52:5, to the lively joy and edification of the righteous, Psalms 52:6 and Psalms 52:7, while, on the other hand, the Psalmist attains to salvation, of which inwardly he is as confident as if he already had it, Psalms 52:8 and Psalms 52:9.

According to the superscription, David composed this Psalm after he had heard the report, how Saul, on the information of Doeg regarding what had passed between David and the highpriest Ahimelech, caused eighty-five priests to be killed. With this the situation entirely agrees. It must have filled David with grief and terror, when he received the tidings of this villany. In the conflict with an enemy capable of using such weapons, he must certainly fall. He must have despaired of his own life, when, in spirit, he looked upon the corpses of eighty-five priests, who, solely for his sake, had been killed, to inspire all with dread of sharing the same fate, and upon Saul, as it were, beside them, asking him in triumph, how he was furnished for such a conflict. Then, if ever, had he occasion for uttering the words: Why boastest thou thyself of mischief, thou hero? the favour of God endureth for ever.

The superscription has often been misunderstood to intimate that the Psalm was directed against Doeg. It does not say that, but only that the Psalm was composed on the occasion of Saul’s receiving information from Doeg, and of what thereupon followed. It mentions Saul along with Doeg, and that the former name appears to be written large, not the latter, is already probable from the circumstance, that David commonly has to do with Saul himself in the Psalms composed during the Sauline period of his history, and not with his subordinate instruments, whose agency was considered as embodied in that of the ideal person of the wicked one, who, in Saul, had become concrete. The subject fully justifies this view of it. The enemy appears throughout the Psalm as one who threatens destruction to the Psalmist, and what he has already done to others comes only so far into consideration, as it shows what the Psalmist had to expect from him. So at the outset: why boastest thou thyself of mischief, q. d. why boastest thou, that with the mischief, the frightful effects of which lie before the eyes, thou wilt soon get away with me? But history knows nothing of Doeg’s having undertaken to remove David out of the way. It knows nothing of the enmity of Doeg to David, who had kept silence regarding what had taken place between David and the high-priest, till the solemn charge of Saul to his servants appeared to render further silence inconsistent with his duty of service. Quite otherwise must he have acted if he had been the sworn enemy of David, which the hypothesis in question would make him.

The address: “thou hero,” suits much better to Saul, whom David, in his lamentation, 2 Samuel 1:19, still repeatedly calls a hero, who had even in his crime displayed the energy of the hero, than to Doeg, the chief herdsman of the royal flocks, of whom history records no heroic deed, but the massacring of the hapless priests, which none of Saul’s warriors would undertake to do. In order to make the reproach of lying, in Psalms 52:1-3, of calumnious and deceitful words suit Doeg, it is necessary to enrich the history with imaginary circumstances. In the whole history of the transaction with the priests, there is no indication of Doeg’s having been guilty of lying and deceit. He simply reports the fact; the hateful interpretation is added by Saul, comp. 1 Samuel 22:9; 1 Samuel 10, 1 Samuel 22:22. On the other hand, this reproach is perfectly suited to Saul. He accused David without any foundation, of high-treason, in order to have him taken out of the way with some show of right, and brought the same accusation against the innocent priests, comp. 1 Samuel 22:17, without paying the least regard to the simple eloquence of a good conscience, with which the high-priest defended himself because he had resolved to make an example for the destruction of David. The words: “he trusted in the abundance of his riches,” in Psalms 52:7, suit Saul better, who understood how to employ his riches for the establishment of his throne, comp. his own declaration in 1 Samuel 22:7, than Doeg, who, though as the chief of the herdsmen, and as such, the foremost among the servants of Saul, comp. 1 Samuel 22:9, certainly possessed considerable means, yet made no use of these to procure for himself servants and abettors to persecute David and the righteous in general. Finally, it is scarcely conceivable that David, in the presence of Saul, should have been fired with such zeal against a merely common instrument of his, which Doeg manifestly was, and should have laid claim to help from above against him.

With this rejection of the reference of the Psalm to Doeg, the attacks. of De Wette and others are at the same time set aside against the superscription, which proceed altogether and alone upon the misunderstanding, that it was directed against him.

To the chief musician, an instruction of David. When Doeg the Edomite came, and informed Saul, and spake to him: David is come to the house of Ahimelech. It is not without reason, that the expression: “an instruction,” comp. on Psalms 32 is immediately connected with that of, “to the chief musician.” The Psalm was only then appropriated to be, sung in the sanctuary, when it had something more than merely historical import, when it contained a kernel of eternal and general instruction. To the designation in the superscription of an instruction, corresponds, in the Psalm itself, the regard to the righteous in Psalms 52:6 and Psalms 52:7, and in Psalms 52:9. At the end of the superscription is an etc. to be supplied. The history is supposed to be generally known, and hence it is simply pointed to. The Psalm could not be composed before David had heard the report of the murder of the priests.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. Why boastest thou thyself of mischief, thou hero? the favour of God endures for ever. There is here represented, beforehand, the essential matter of the whole Psalm, in brief, striking features. In presence of the malice of his enemy, the frightful operations of which David had inst seen, he must have been the more alarmed, as the bearer of this malice was a man of rare energy, of manly and heroic vigour. But a glance toward the favour of God, which he enjoyed, gave him unlimited confidence in regard to this powerful malice, and enabled him to laugh at its proud assurance. This favour must provide for his enemy, in spite of all his malice and strength, destruction, but for himself salvation. To the words here, “thou boastest thyself of mischief,” corresponds, in Psalms 52:7, “he is strong through his wickedness.” גבור is hero. The sig. tyrant, madman, which many expositors adopt, is entirely unsupported.

Gesenius adduces only this verse for it—and has this against it, that God, in the second member, with especial reference to the strength of the enemy, assumes the name of אל , of strength, whereby also is rejected the irony supposed by many; then, too, that in Psalms 52:7, as here, the heroic virtue, so there the abundance of riches, is coupled with malice. Not the malice alone, but that in connection with the power, was what could fill David with trouble. כל־היום , not all days, but the whole day, for, continually.

The malice of the enemy comes in for the first time, in the expanded descriptions Psalms 52:2-3.

Verses 2-3

Ver. 2. Upon mischief thinks thy tongue as a sharp razor, thou working deceit. Ver. 3. Thou lovest evil more than good, lying more than to speak righteousness. That we must take הוה , not, with Luther, in the sig. of misfortune, loss, hurt, but in that of mischief, appears from Psalms 52:7. The tongue here comprehends also the spiritual part, whose organ it is. The comparison with the sharp razor is here the more suitable, as the calumnious accusation of high-treason, which Saul brought against David and the high-priest, his charge, “Ye have conspired against me thou and the son of Jesse,” was indeed the cutting-point of his malice. For the measures he adopted against them, were only the consequences of this. The last words of Psalms 52:2, Luther has falsely referred to the tongue, instead of taking them as an address to the enemy. Psalms 52:3 derives its strength from its contrast to that which the wicked should do according to the prescription of the Divine law, comp. for the second half, Deuteronomy 16:20, “Righteousness, righteousness, thou must follow after it, that thou mayest live and possess the land which the Lord, thy God, giveth thee.” Righteousness here is not=truth, but it has respect to this, that the enemy, while he speaks lies, violates righteousness.

Verses 4-5

In the second strophe, we have now the grounding of the position, that the enemy unjustly boasts himself of his wickedness, while God’s favour toward the Psalmist will show itself in destroying him. Ver. 4. Thou lovest all words of destruction, tongue of deceit. Ver. 5. Therefore will God destroy thee for ever, take thee away as a coal, and pluck thee out of the tent, and root thee out of the land of the living. That ver. 4 is a mere resumption of Psalms 52:2-3 q. d. because thou so lovest, etc. God will, in righteous recompense to thee, etc.—appears besides the Selah and the fact, that the other strophes of the Psalm are divided into two verses from the contents, which only repeat in other words what had been already said. The design of the resumption is to point to the internal and inseparable connection of guilt and punishment. The same design is served by the גם , also, in Psalms 52:4, which marks the punishment as the necessary complement of the guilt, comp. Psalms 95:9, Ezekiel 16:43, Malachi 3:9. Our two verses, therefore, represent the revenge, as the two preceding ones the wickedness. בָ לַ ע , pausalf. of בֶ לַ ע , prop. devouring. The verb חתה in Psalms 52:5 everywhere else signifies: to take away the coals, and this sig. is here the less to be abandoned, as also in the words: he shall destroy thee for ever—make thee a monument of eternal ruin, there is an abbreviated comparison at bottom, as also in the words: he will root thee out, nay also in these: he will pluck thee out of the tent, q. d. he will snatch thee forth, as one who is dragged with strong gripe out of a tent. How this prophecy found its fulfilment in Saul, is recorded in 1 Samuel 31.

Verses 6-7

The third strophe, Psalms 52:6 and Psalms 52:7, describes the joy of the righteous at the manifestation of the glory of God in his judgment upon the wicked. Ver. 6. The righteous shall see it and be afraid, and laugh over him. Ver. 7. “See there the man, who does not make God his portion, and trusts in the abundance of his riches, is strong through his wickedness.” The fear is not a slavish, but a childish one, such as always arises in the minds of believers, when God manifests himself in his glory. The expression: they will laugh over him, forms no contradiction to that in Proverbs 24:17, “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth,” Job 31:29, where it is characterised as a heinous sin to rejoice at the misfortune of an enemy, or 2 Samuel 1:19, ss., where David expresses the acutest pain on account of Saul’s overthrow. John Arnd: “There is a twofold laughter. One, when a man, out of an evil spirit of revenge, laughs at his enemy. This no Christian virtuous mind does, but it exercises compassion toward an enemy. But the other sort of laughing arises from a consideration of the wonderful judgment and righteousness of God, as when a man sins so presumptuously, that he cares neither for God nor man, and will contend with God, as Pharaoh says: “I ask nothing after the Lord, nor will I let Israel go, and soon thereafter was made to sink in the Red Sea. Is it not a matter of ridicule for a man to fight against God, and God gives him a fillip in the ear, so as to make him fall, or God commands the vermin to plague such great kings as Pharaoh? Herod would himself be God, and was eaten up of worms—is not this a great God? Should one not laugh at this, and adore God’s judgment? Is it not laughable, that the king of Assyria threatens Hezekiah, that he would send so many horses and footmen into his land, as would be sufficient with the soles of their feet to drink up Jordan, and there would not be enough of dust in the land for every one to fill his hands withal, while yet in one night they were all slain in the camp by the angel of the Lord?” On Psalms 52:7, which contains the words with which the righteous mock the wicked, John Arnd remarks: “A rich man full of wickedness is like a bear, while he still walks at large in the forest; every one must take care of meeting him; but when he is caught, then a ring is put into his nose, a chain is thrown over him, his teeth broken out, and his claws cut off; and then one laughs at him and says: Thou poor rogue, it is done with thee at last.” For the being strong through his wickedness, we must not substitute: holds himself for strong.

Verses 8-9

The thought: God’s favour endures for ever, has hitherto been but imperfectly brought out. It must be shown not merely in the destruction of the enemies of the Psalmist, but also in the salvation which is imparted to him; it must not simply bring down and destroy, but also raise up and edify. And this is what the last strophe unfolds. Ver. 8. And I am as a green olive tree in the house of God, I trust in the favour of God for ever and ever. Ver. 9. I will praise thee for ever, because thou hast done it, and hope in thy name, because it is good, before thy saints. The house of God, in ver. 8, is the temple “where God dwells with his grace, blessing, protection, help, and consolation,” (Arnd,) and where the righteous spiritually dwell along with him, comp. on Psalms 15:1, Psalms 23:6, Psalms 27:4-5, Psalms 36:8. The Psalmist not merely expresses here, as elsewhere, the hope that he would dwell or abide in this corporeal place, but that he would there joyfully prosper. The green olive-tree as an image of joyful prosperity, also in Jeremiah 11:16, as in Psalms 92:12, the cedar and the palm. The position of De Wette, that the house of God is here to be taken spiritually, is to be rejected, (comp. on the other hand what has been said on the passages referred to,) equally with the exposition, which here, where a much higher thing is spoken of, finds the expression of David’s hope of an external return to the sanctuary, though this could certainly not be left out. The trusting in the favour of the Lord, has, according to the words: “spes confisa deo nunquam confusa recedit,” the manifestation of that favour for its inseparable accompaniment; so that we may supply: and hence shall never be put to shame. According to Psalms 52:9, the Psalmist will continually praise the Lord for the deliverance already internally obtained, (comp. the עשית ,) and for the future continually during his troubles wait in believing hope upon his trustworthy helper. The object is awanting for עשית : That which I hope. That in cases like this עשה never stands absolutely, the object being always to be supplied from the preceding context, was already shown in Psalms 22:31, Psalms 37:5. On the name of God, q. d. his glory, as that has been actually displayed, comp. on Psalms 20:1, Psalms 23:3. The expression; before thy saints, points to this, that the faith of the Psalmist, acquired through his present deliverance, will prove advantageous to the whole church, he will thereby build up this. That we must connect “before thy saints,” with “I will hope,” and must not translate with Luther: and will hope on thy name, for thy saints have joy, therein, is clear from a comp. of the parall. pass. Psalms 54:6. That Psalm agrees so remarkably with this, that the supposition of their being composed by the same author is rendered certain, and the superscriptions are consequently confirmed, which ascribe them to the same.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 52". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-52.html.