Psalm 52

O mighty man, why wilt thou boast
Thyself in hateful cruelty,
When God Almighty is most kind,
And ever merciful is He?

To understand the conflict presented in Psalm 52, we need look no further than the first verse.  In this song, the psalmist David contrasts the goodness of God with the treachery of men.  A further explanation is given in the ascription to Psalm 52:

To the choirmaster.  A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”

The context of this event is found in I Samuel 22.  During David’s period of hiding from King Saul, an Edomite named Doeg came before the king and treacherously revealed his location.  When Saul ordered the priests who had aided David to be slain, even his own soldiers refused to carry out this wicked sin against God.  But Doeg had no such scruples.  Not only did he cruelly murder eighty-five priests, he also ransacked the entire Levite city of Nob.  It’s easy to see that the description of “hateful cruelty” in Psalm 52 fits this treacherous Edomite to a T.

What is David’s reaction to this atrocity?  Never does the psalmist lose sight of the bigger picture: that God is still in control.  After describing the sinful tongue and deeds of his enemy, he declares,

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
The righteous shall see and fear,
and shall laugh at him, saying,
“See the man who would not make
God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
and sought refuge in his own destruction!”

–Psalm 52:5-7 (ESV)

Finally, David gives a familiar affirmation that weaves its way through many of his psalms.  In contrast to the fleeting victories of evil men, he expresses his firm confidence in God:

But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever.
I will thank you forever,
because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly.

–Psalm 52:8, 9

This poem is an acute yet accurate picture of the Christian life.  Countless times we see the name of Christ and his followers mocked, degraded, and downright blasphemed.  The tongues of the wicked are constantly wagging in rebellion against God and his Church.  But what is the Christian’s proper response to the depravity of the world we inhabit?  We must learn, even from the bad example of the wicked, that we can only enjoy safety with God as our refuge.  This is the lesson of Psalm 52.

97, “O Mighty Man, Why Wilt Thou Boast”

For Psalm 52, the creators of the 1912 Psalter have handed down to us yet another excellent paraphrase, full of beauty and integrity.  Although the Scriptural text had to be squeezed or stretched in a few places to fit the meter, this versification is quite sound.  Even the highly paraphrased fourth stanza remains faithful to David’s original meaning.

Whenever the tune of Psalm 52 in the Psalter Hymnal is played, most people think it’s a Christmas song.  That’s because this beautiful tune, WALTHAM, is commonly paired with the words of an old carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  Maybe the editors of the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal were aware of this connection, because the themes of these two texts are surprisingly similar.  In this Christmas song, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow considers the battle between good and evil on a universal scale, while David’s words in Psalm 52 focus on a specific instance of the same conflict.   In the third stanza of his carol, Longfellow mourns that “hate is strong and mocks the song/Of peace on earth, good-will to men,” like the psalmist lamenting over the hateful treachery of his enemy.  And the song’s fourth stanza echoes David’s hope in brilliant color:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

This versification of Psalm 52, “O Mighty Man, Why Wilt Thou Boast,” ends with the same note of triumph: that all the evil in this world cannot so much as approach the goodness of God.

With endless thanks, O Lord, to Thee,
Thy wondrous works will I proclaim,
And in the presence of Thy saints
Will ever hope in Thy good Name.

Indeed, all praise to that Name!

–MRK

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