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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 52

Verses 1-9

Psalms 52:1-9

THE progress of feeling in this psalm is clear, but there is no very distinct division into strophes and one of the two Selahs does not mark a transition, though it does make a pause. First, the poet, with a few indignant and contemptuous touches, dashes on his canvas an outline portrait of an arrogant oppressor, whose weapon was slander and his words like pits of ruin. Then, with vehement, exulting metaphors, he pictures his destruction. On it follow reverent awe of God, whose justice is thereby displayed, and deepened sense in righteous hearts of the folly of trust in anything but Him. Finally, the singer contrasts with thankfulness his own happy continuance in fellowship with God with the oppressor’s fate, and renews his resolve of praise and patient waiting.

The themes are familiar, and their treatment has nothing distinctive. The portrait of the oppressor does not strike one as a likeness either of the Edomite herdsman Doeg, with whose betrayal of David’s asylum at Nob the superscription connects the psalm or of Saul, to whom Hengstenberg, feeling the difficulty of seeing Doeg in it, refers it. Malicious lies and arrogant trust in riches were not the crimes that cried for vengeance in the bloody massacre at Nob. Cheyne would bring this group of "Davidic" psalms (Psalms 52:1-9, Psalms 59:1-17) down to the Persian period (Orig of Psalt., 121-23). Olshausen, after Theodore of Mopsuestia (see Cheyne loc. cit.) to the Maccabean. But the grounds alleged are scarcely strong enough to carry more than the weight of a "may be"; and it is better to recognise that, if the superscription is thrown over, the psalm itself does not yield sufficiently characteristic marks to enable us to fix its date. It may be worth considering whether the very absence of any obvious correspondences with David’s circumstances does not show that the superscription rested on a tradition earlier than itself, and not on an editor’s discernment.

The abrupt question at the beginning reveals the psalmist’s long-pent indignation. He has been silently brooding over the swollen arrogance and malicious lies of the tyrant till he can restrain himself no longer, and out pours a fiery flood. Evil gloried in is worse than evil done. The word rendered in the A.V. and R.V. "mighty man" is here used in a bad sense, to indicate that he has not only a giant’s power, but uses it tyrannously, like a giant. How dramatically the abrupt question is followed by the equally abrupt thought of the ever-during lovingkindness of God! That makes the tyrant’s boast supremely absurd, and the psalmist’s confidence reasonable, even in face of hostile power.

The prominence given to sins of speech is peculiar. We should have expected high-handed violence rather than these. But the psalmist is tracking the deeds to their source; and it is not so much the tyrant’s words as his love of a certain kind of words which is adduced as proof of his wickedness. These words have two characteristics in addition to boastfulness. They are false and destructive. They are, according to the forcible literal meaning in Psalms 52:4, "words of swallowing." They are, according to the literal meaning of "destructions," in Psalms 52:2, "yawning gulfs." Such words lead to acts which make a tyrant. They flow from perverted preference of evil to good. Thus the deeds of oppression are followed up to their den and birthplace. Part of the description of the "words" corresponds to the fatal effect of Doeg’s report but nothing in it answers to the other part-falsehood. The psalmist’s hot indignation speaks in the triple, direct address to the tyrant which comes in each case like a lightning flash at the end of a clause (Psalms 52:1-2, Psalms 52:4). In the second of these the epithet "framing deceit" does not refer to the "sharpened razor," but to the tyrant. If referred to the former, it weakens rather than strengthens the metaphor, by bringing in the idea that the sharp blade misses its proper aim, and wounds cheeks instead of shearing off hair. The Selah of Psalms 52:3 interrupts the description, in order to fix attention, by a pause filled up by music, on the hideous picture thus drawn.

That description is resumed and summarised in Psalms 52:4, which, by the Selahs, is closely bound to Psalms 52:5 in order to enforce the necessary connection of sin and punishment, which is strongly underlined by the "also" or "so" at the beginning of the latter verse. The stern prophecy of destruction is based upon no outward signs of failure in the oppressor’s might, but wholly on confidence in God’s continual lovingkindness, which must needs assume attributes of justice when its objects are oppressed. A tone of triumph vibrates through the imagery of Psalms 52:5, which is not in the same key as Christ has set for us.

It is easy for those who have never lived under grinding, godless tyranny to reprobate the exultation of the oppressed at the sweeping away of their oppressors; but if the critics had seen their brethren set up as torches to light Nero’s gardens, perhaps they would have known some thrill of righteous joy when they heard that he was dead. Three strong metaphors describe the fall of this tyrant. He is broken down, as a building levelled with the ground. He is laid hold of, as a coal in the fire, with tongs (for so the word means), and dragged, as in that iron grip, out of the midst of his dwelling. He is uprooted like a tree with all its pride of leafage. Another blast of trumpets or clang of harps or clash of cymbals bids the listeners gaze on the spectacle of insolent strength laid prone, and withering as it lies.

The third movement of thought (Psalms 52:6-7) deals with the effects of this retribution. It is a conspicuous demonstration of God’s justice and of the folly of reliance on anything but Himself. The fear which it produces in the "righteous" is reverential awe, not dread lest the same should happen to them. Whether or not history and experience teach evil men that "verily there is a God that judgeth," their lessons are not wasted on devout and righteous souls. But this is the tragedy of life, that its teachings are prized most by those who have already learned them, and that those who need them most consider them least. Other tyrants are glad when a rival is swept off the field, but are not arrested in their own course. It is left to "the righteous" to draw the lesson which all men should have learned. Although they are pictured as laughing at the ruin, that is not the main effect of it. Rather it deepens conviction, and is a "modern instance" witnessing to the continual truth of "an old saw." There is one safe stronghold, and only one. He who conceits himself to be strong in his own evil, and, instead of relying on God, trusts in material resources, will sooner or later be levelled with the ground, dragged, resisting vainly the tremendous grasp, from his tent and laid prostrate, as melancholy a spectacle as a great tree blown down by tempest with its roots turned up to the sky and its arms with drooping leaves trailing on the ground. A swift turn of feeling carries the singer to rejoice in the contrast of his own lot. No uprooting does he fear. It may be questioned whether the words "in the house of God" refer to the psalmist or to the olive tree. Apparently there were trees in the Temple; {Psalms 92:13} but the parallel in the next clause, "in the lovingkindness of God," points to the reference of the words to the speaker. Dwelling in enjoyment of God’s fellowship, as symbolised by and realised through presence in the sanctuary, whether it were at Nob or in Jerusalem, he dreads no such forcible removal as had befallen the tyrant. Communion with God is the source of flourishing and fruitfulness, and the guarantee of its own continuance. Nothing in the changes of outward life need touch it. The mists which lay on the psalmist’s horizon are cleared away for us, who know that "forever and aye" designates a proper eternity of dwelling in the higher house and drinking the full dew of God’s lovingkindness. Such consciousness of present blessedness in communion lifts a soul to prophetic realisation of deliverance, even while no change has occurred in circumstances. The tyrant is still boasting; but the psalmist’s tightened hold of God enables him to see "things that are not as though they were," and to anticipate actual deliverance by praise for it. It is the prerogative of faith to alter tenses, and to say, Thou hast done, when the world’s grammar would say, Thou wilt do. "I will wait on Thy name" is singular, since what is done "in the presence of Thy favoured ones" would naturally be something seen or heard by them. The reading "I will declare" has been suggested. But surely the attitude of patient, silent expectance implied in "wait" may very well be conceived as maintained in the presence of, and perceptible by, those who had like dispositions, and who would sympathise and be helped thereby. Individual blessings are rightly used when they lead to participation in common thankfulness and quiet trust.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 52". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".