Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 1)

Psalm 52

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 5-11 [3-9])

This Psalm, like the prior Psalm 51, is part of the so-called ‘Elohist’ Psalter (cf. below), and is also a Davidic Psalm, being attributed in the superscription to David. The historical setting assigned (v. 2) is, however, rather puzzling, referring to events narrated in 1 Samuel 21:8 and 22:6ff. There is little about that narrative background that would apply to the thoughts expressed in the Psalm.

The heading designates Psalm 52 as a lyK!c=m^; the prior Psalms 32, 42, 44, and 45 were similarly described. The precise meaning of this term remains uncertain, but it is presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3+2 couplet format, though here in the first part a 3-beat (3+3) couplet is actually more common.

In terms of a poetic and thematic structure, I am inclined to divide the composition into two parts. The first part (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) contains a polemic diatribe directed at the wicked with their false and deceitful profession of trust in God; this part concludes, it would seem, with an imprecation against the wicked (see below on v. 7). The second part (vv. 8-11 [6-9]) declares the fate of the wicked, and also presents a familiar contrast between the wicked and the righteous—those who are truly faithful to YHWH. The Psalmist, of course, counts himself among the righteous.

Wisdom themes tend to dominate, centered around the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). There are also prayer elements in the Psalm, related to the covenant appeal setting that we find in many of the compositions. By emphasizing the faithlessness and deceit of the wicked, the Psalmist uses this point of contrast to affirm his own loyalty to YHWH.

An interesting rhetorical aspect to this Psalm is the juxtaposition of the terms la@ and <yh!l)a$ as Divine titles. la@ (°E~l) occurs in the first part of the Psalm, in connection with the wicked, while <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm) occurs in the second part, connected with the righteous. As an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, many commentators believe that the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) was used in the original composition, but was later replaced by the title <yh!l)a$. This would mean that, originally, the Divine names la@ and hwhy were juxtaposed. There are two ways of explaining the specific association of the title la@ with the wicked here:

    • The wicked have, at best, a nominal and superficial faith in ‘God’ (used as a general designation), rather than a true faith in YHWH and covenant loyalty to Him.
    • The false character of the religion of the wicked is indicated by its association with the Creator El (as understood by the Canaanites), in contrast with a true faith in El-YHWH, the God of Israel.

Israelites and Judeans, having become increasingly familiar with Canaanite religion and culture over the centuries, must have been aware of certain clear differences between the Canaanite conception of the Creator El and the Israelite understanding of El-Yahweh. Interestingly, however, there is scarcely a trace of this sense of conflict in the Old Testament. For the most part, YHWH was identified simply with the Creator (El), and the title la@, though relatively rare, almost always refers to the God of Israel. Here, in Psalm 52, we have one of the only instances in the Old Testament where the title is used in a negative context, being contrasted with the name YHWH (here as Elohim).

For readers who might be new to these studies, a brief explanation of the titles El (la@) and Elohim (<yh!l)a$) may be helpful. The word la@ is a fundamental (and primitive) Semitic term for deity. While the precise meaning and derivation is not entirely certain, the basic meaning would seem to be something like “mighty” —as a divine title, “Mighty (One)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@, “mighty (one)s”, but this is only rarely used in the Old Testament; much more common is the plural form <yh!l)a$, which is an expanded form to match the triconsonantal pattern of words (i.e., hla instead of la) that is more common in Classical Hebrew. As a divine title, <yh!l)a$ would literally mean “Mighty (One)s”, rendered generally as “Gods” (or “gods”); however, as applied to El-Yahweh, in an Israelite monotheistic context, the plural form is best understood as an intensive (or possibly comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier studies on the names El and Elohim.

Verses 3-7 [1-5]

Verse 3 [1]

“(For) what do you give shout with evil, O strong (one),
(you) ‘loyal’ of (the) Mighty (One), all the day planning disasters?”

The polemic begins with a sarcastic tone, describing the wicked person by the descriptive titles “strong (one)” (roBG]) and “good [i.e. loyal] (one) of °E~l.” As indicated above, I translate the name la@ (°E~l) according to its fundamental meaning, “Mighty (One)”, which is loosely parallel in meaning here to roBG] (“strong [one]”). However, la@ refers to God, to the Creator Deity (El-Yahweh). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 13) in vocalizing dsj (MT ds#j#) as dys!j& (spelled defectively). The expression la@ ds!j& means “loyal one of El”, which may have a double-meaning here: (1) it is used in a sarcastic sense for the false religious devotion of the wicked, and/or (2) the loyalty of the wicked corresponds to the corrupt/idolatrous understanding of the Creator God by the Canaanites (El vs. YHWH).

Part of the “shout” (vb ll^h*) given by the wicked likely involves a boast regarding his own religious profession of faith and loyalty to God. The actions of the wicked belie his/her supposed faith and prove it to be false. It is made “with evil” (hu*r*B=), probably best understood as “with evil (intent)”. Whatever the wicked person may say or claim, he/she intends to bring about disastrous things. The noun hW`h^, here in the plural, literally means “(down)fall”. The verb bv^j* reveals the true intention of the wicked, the planning/plotting of evil.

With some reluctance, I have included the first two words of v. 4 [2] as part of the opening couplet (cf. Dahood, p. 12-3), yielding a 4-beat (4+4) bicolon.

Verse 4 [2]

“Your tongue, like a sharpened razor,
is (busy) working treachery.”

With this second couplet, the normative 3-beat (here 3+2) meter of the Psalm begins. The deceitfulness and false religious confession of the wicked person is described more pointedly here, with the image of a tongue that is sharp like a razor (ru^T^). With his speech, the wicked person is working deceit and treachery. The noun hY`m!r= (“deceit”) can carry the stronger meaning of “treachery” —that is, against the covenant, showing disloyalty to YHWH and intending evil against the righteous.

Verse 5 [3]

“You love (what is) evil more than (the) good,
falsehood more than speaking (what is) right.”

This couplet well-summarizes the character of the wicked, and also, implicitly, establishes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The comparative use of the preposition /m! (“from”) essentially has to be translated in English as “more than”. The noun rq#v# (“[acting] false, falsehood, deceit”) is contrasted with speaking “(what is) right” (qd#x#), a specific manifestation of the more general contrast between “evil” (ur*) and “good” (bof). Again the focus is on the speech of the wicked, with the relation between what is actually spoken (which may seem good) and the underlying intent (which is evil). That is why the deceitfulness of the wicked continues to be emphasized.

Verse 6 [4]

“You love all (those) words devouring (the truth),
(with your) tongue of treachery!”

The deceitfulness and treachery (hm*r=m!) of the wicked person’s speaking is here colorfully summarized as “all words of devouring” (ul^B# yr@b=D!-lK*). The root ul^B* (I) refers to a mouth that opens up and swallows something. This language is often used in Biblical poetry, applied to the ravenous mouth (and appetite) of Death, and this same allusion is probably also intended here. The deceit of the wicked person leads to death—both for his victims, but also, more importantly, for himself. The immediate point of reference, however, is probably to the idea of the wicked person’s mouth/speech ‘devouring’ all truth and rightness.

Verse 7 [5]

“(So) also (the) Mighty (One) will bring you down to the end,
He will take hold of you and tear you away from your tent,
and will (up)root you from (the) land of (the) living.”

This first part of the Psalm concludes with a dramatic declaration, in a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, of the fate of the wicked. The death of the wicked was already alluded to in v. 6 [4] (cf. above), but here it is described clearly and graphically. Such references in Old Testament poetry tend to have a double-meaning: both the ordinary sense of physical death, and the idea of a death that is permanent and final (with no hope of a blessed afterlife).

The initial particle <G~, “(so) also”, allows the Psalmist to express the idea that the fate of the wicked person (in death) will correspond to his/her wicked conduct (in life). Just as, through deceitful words, the wicked would “swallow (down)” what is right, so also, in the end, God will “bring (them) down” (vb Jt^n`) to the realm of Death. The two-fold aspect of death, noted above, is expressed through the final two lines:

    • The ordinary aspect of death—i.e., being torn away from one’s “tent” (home and, figuratively, one’s body)
    • The second/final aspect of death—being torn up (lit. uprooted) from the “land of the living”, from the possibility of any future life.

Gunkel (Die Psalmen [1926], p. 230) claimed that the imperfect verb forms here in v. 7 are not simple declarative statements about what will happen, but are precative—expressing a wish for something to happen (cf. also Dahood, p. 14). There are many such imprecatory sections in the Psalms, which essentially serve as curse-formulas; following this sense, the force of the translation would be: “May (the) Mighty (One) bring you down…[etc].” Such a curse-formula would be fitting to the polemic of the Psalm, and would make for an appropriate conclusion to the first part.

The reference to the “Mighty (One),” °E~l (la@), matches the earlier reference in v. 3 [1] (cf. above), thus framing the first part of the Psalm. The first occurrence of la@ seems to been intended to highlight the false religious confession of the wicked; however, in terms of the judgment rendered against the wicked, here la@ functions in a manner consistent with the true God (YHWH). To be sure, in Israelite religious thought, la@ and hwhy are different names for the same God, though, as noted above, la@ is the more general title, used throughout the Semitic world, and could also apply to a false/distorted view of God (as with the Canaanite conception of the Creator El).

The first part of the Psalm closes with a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. However, the presence of the marker itself really cannot be used to determine the structure of the Psalm (note the earlier occurrence of the marker after v. 5 [3]). In any case, the precise purpose and significance of these markers remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performing tradition of the Psalms, and seem to indicate a musical pause or (possibly) a shift in tone or key, etc. They do not appear to have been applied consistently, nor is it particularly likely that they have been consistently preserved in the text as it has come down to us.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms II: 51-100, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 17 (1968).


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