George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 52

This psalm is well-supplied with titles and subscription. These must be given attention first.

1. Titles

Maschil: “Causing to understand”. See notes on Psalm 32, title. Is this title included here because the experience it commemorates taught David a lesson about Saul and his intentions, or because there is an important truth for all to learn from the behavior and fate of Doeg? The LXX reads: sunesis, understanding: s.w. Col. 1:9; 2:2; Eph. 3:4; 2 Tim. 2:7.
A Psalm of David, when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech. There is no reason for discarding this as inappropriate. However, many moderns do so, and some who are not so modern, out of deference to a theory about the late date of the Psalter: e.g. Aglen in Ellicott’s Commentary: “The traditional title has not the slightest support in the contents or tone of the psalm... There is not a syllable in the poem which conveniently applies to Doeg or to the occurrence narrated in 1 Sam. 22:17.” (See, however, Par. 3.)

2. Subscription

Mahalath means “dancings” (Song 7:1; Exod. 15:20; 32:19; Judg. 11:34; 21:21), and calls to mind the song of the women in praise of David’s exploits:

“And it came to pass as they came, when David was re-turning from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. And the women answered one another as they played, and said, ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’ ” (1 Sam. 18:6,7).

This earlier incident is recalled in 1 Sam. 21:11, during the incident to which the title refers (1 Sam. 21:7-22:23). (The same word mahalath also occurs in the subscription of Psalm 87: Mahalath-Leannoth.)

3. Historical background

When David came, in the course of his flight from Saul, to Ahimelech the high priest at Nob (1 Sam. 21:1-10), the presence there of Doeg, a high official at Saul’s court, spelled worse danger. Hence David’s eagerness not only for food but also for weapons and a quick departure. Later (1 Sam. 22:9-23), Doeg not only told Saul of the encounter at Nob but also showed a considerable willingness (contrast the rest of Saul’s men: v. 17) to massacre all the priests at Nob and their families. It was one of the vilest deeds described in the Old Testament. But Edomites were ever ready to express their spite against men of Israel, ever since the time of Esau and Jacob.

Why boastest thou thyself? Not so much open boasting as self-praise (tith-hallel means precisely this).

O mighty man. There is a marked irony about this. Doeg, the butcher of defenseless priests, women, and children, is called gibbor, a great hero! (Compare the men “mighty” —gibbor! — in drinking wine in Isa. 5:22.) Yet is another sense Doeg was a mighty man, for he was “chiefest of the herdmen of Saul” — not a mere shepherd in charge of other shepherds, but quite probably a high official, just as the Chief Butler and Chief Baker were top men in Pharaoh’s cabinet.
Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs. 1 Sam. 22:9,10. The language of this and the next few verses... “mischiefs”, “deceitfully”, “evil”, “lying”, “devouring words”, “deceitful tongue”... easily suggests the serpent in Eden. Doeg is a rightful “seed of the serpent” (Matt. 3:7; 12:34; 23:33). On the evil of the tongue in general, see James 1:26; 3:2-12; Prov. 12:19; and 18:21.

Like a sharp razor. A strange figure of speech. Why not “a sharp sword”? 1 Sam. 21:7 explains: “detained before the Lord” implies a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:9,18) or the need for a priestly decision concerning leprosy or some similar disease (Lev. 13:33-37), either of which would require the removal of the hair. Probably not the former, for how could an Edomite of all people be a Nazarite unto the Lord? Instead, probably some communicable disease. (Poole: “Like a man pretending only to shave off the hair... suddenly and unexpectedly cuts one’s throat.”)

Working deceitfully. At Nob there was no open hostility from Doeg, but David knew human nature.
Lying. “He inquired of the Lord for him (that is, by Urim and Thum-mim)” (1 Sam. 22:10) seems to be Doeg’s invention. Is it at all likely that a divine instruction would bid David flee to the court of Achish the Philistine?

Selah suggests association with the sanctuary at Nob, as also does speak righteousness.
Thou lovest. With reference to Doeg how sinister this repeated phrase (v. 3) is!

All devouring words (“words of swallowing”) suggests Psa. 5:9: “Their throat is an open sepulchre.” With such a mouth he swallows up the people of God (53:4, the same incident).
God shall likewise destroy thee. This “likewise” is meaningless, except with reference to the “devouring” of the priests of Nob.

And pluck thee out of thy dwelling place. The Hebrew word is ohel (tent), appropriate both to the tabernacle at Nob and to the Chief of the Shepherds. With “pluck out” (s.w. Deut. 28:63) contrast v. 8a: David is a green and fruitful tree, well-rooted in the Lord and not about to be plucked out!
This is the man that... trusted in the abundance of his riches. What a contrast with v. 8b: “I (David) trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.”

The abundance of his riches. Doeg was assuredly a very important (and wealthy) member of Saul’s court (see on v. 1).
Is the olive tree in the house of God a sad reminiscence by David of the sanctuary at Nob, once green and fruitful with worship of the Lord, but now decimated? A good guess is that the ancient Nob was located on the mount of Olives, on or near the later site of the garden of Gethsemane (which signifies an oil press — for olives!).

4. Messianic reference

In place of David there is the Beloved Son, and in place of Doeg the men of power ruling the Jews at the time of Christ. Verses 2-4 are immediately obvious in their application to these evil men. Saul and his henchman Doeg stand for Jewish priests and Roman governor (or Edomite Herod?): “Jew and Gentile ... both under sin” in the matter of the death of Christ (Rom. 3:10-12; Acts 4:25-28; cp. Psa. 2:1,2, notes).

God shall likewise destroy thee for ever. The complete and permanent elimination of the Jewish priesthood in the first century.

And pluck thee out of thy dwelling place. “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). As Jesus spoke of the fig tree being plucked up and cast into the sea (Luke 17:6), so the Jewish nation — and especially the temple and the priesthood — would soon be overthrown (Mark 11:20-23; 13:1,2; Jude 12).
This is the man that... trusted in the abundance of his riches. This is the only kind of “faith” these evil men could muster. Luke 12:15-21, as discussed in notes on Psa. 49, is an intended parabolic prophecy of the fate of these men.
A green olive tree suggests Christ kneeling amongst the olive trees of Gethsemane. All around him was “wilderness”, but he was fully rooted in faith.

For ever and ever. Who else but Christ, and those in him (v. 9b; 22:25)?

5. Other details

The goodness of God endureth continually. This comes in very abruptly. Perhaps it is to be understood as an ironic question: ‘Is this your idea of the lovingkindness of God all the day (i.e. when detained before the Lord)?’
God shall likewise destroy thee forever. The fate of the wicked is eternal destruction (Psa. 37:34,36,38, and references in the notes there).
See and fear. An impressive play on two nearly identical Hebrew words. Note the emphasis in the Law on “hear and fear” (Deut. 13:11; 17:13; 19:20; 21:21).

At the end of the verse, RV and RSV quite correctly add “saying”; e.g. Psa. 41:5, RV.
This is the man that made not God his strength: 53:4; 54:3; 55:19. Maschil!
A green olive tree in the house of God. The olive tree is proverbial for light, prosperity, peace, and joy (Jer. 11:16; Hos. 14:6). This alludes to an olive tree planted in the sanctuary enclosure; later it was replaced by the twin pillars of Jachin (established) and Boaz (strength) (1 Kings 7:21) and was itself fashioned into a gold-covered cherub of glory (1 Kings 6:23-28). The righteous will be like pillars in God’s temple (Rev. 3:12). See also Psa. 1:3; 92:12,13; Ezek. 47:12; Rev. 22:1,2.
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