February 8, 2011

Psalm 52 - Pernicious Speech

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

1. For the leader. A maskil.1 Of David,
2. when Doeg the Edomite came and informed Saul, telling him, “David came to Ahimelech’s house.”

3. Why do you boast 2-of evil, O mighty one? The Deity’s faithfulness never ceases.
4. Your tongue devises destruction-2 like a sharpened razor, acting3 treacherously.
5. You love evil more than good; lying more than speaking righteousness.     Selah.
6. You love all pernicious speech, a deceitful tongue.
7. So the Deity will pull you down for good, will break you and tear you from your tent, and uproot you from the land of the living.     Selah.

8. The righteous will see and be awestruck; they will laugh at him:
9. “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold, but trusted in his great wealth, grew strong through his destructiveness.”

10. But I am like a flourishing olive tree in the house of God; I trust in God’s faithfulness forever and ever.
11. I praise You forever, for You have acted; I proclaim4 Your name, for it is good, in the presence of Your faithful ones.

1. Meaning uncertain.
2. Emendation, based on Syriac, yields, “[boast] O mighty one, of evil done against the faithful ones. You never cease devising destruction. Your tongue is…”
3. Or “O you who act.”
4. Meaning uncertain. See Dahood for background of this translation.

Psalm 52 is one of those poems that cause headaches among those who seek to interpret psalms by categorizing them. It fits no model. The speaker, however, tells the audience exactly why he wrote the poem. That happens, however, at the end, and I return to that subject later.

The progression of Psalm 52 is clear―the offensive (evidently self-proclaimed) “mighty one” is addressed, his evil described, his fate noted, and as the poem continues to a different audience, the reaction to his fate is also noted. Then the speaker talks of himself and, finally, addresses God.

I comment on this psalm in the following order: the subject, the comparisons (and repetitions), the metaphors, and the central role of speech. Within the additional notes I comment on the attribution of the psalm.

The Ostensible Subject

As so often, a framing term focuses the attention of the reader, in this case, “faithful” (“faithfulness, faithful ones,” vv. 1, 10, 11). The psalm would seem to deal with the familiar bifurcation of society into good and evil. However, as opposed to almost all other psalms on this subject, there is no reflection on any suffering of the righteous, nor is their fate a matter of concern. This alerts the reader to search for a different motivation for the poem and a different emphasis.

(Note that the emendation listed in the second note would alter this description. The emendation is based not only on a precedent, but also on the apparently extraneous inclusion of “the Deity’s faithfulness never ceases” in v. 3. The emendation does refer to “mischief against the righteous ones.” Nevertheless, there is a principle of interpretation that the more difficult text is more likely the original, as one that is logical more probably reflects a purposeful change. I continue to interpret, then, according to the Masoretic text, and I note that the interpretation here almost requires that there be no mention of the righteous suffering.)

I return to the question of a new emphasis after reviewing metaphors and comparisons.

Two Metaphors

Two metaphors in verse 10 should be clarified.

Olive tree – The olive tree bears fruit but is not deciduous—its leaves do not fall. It is not a large tree, but it is incredibly hardy, resistant to drought, fire, and disease. Its roots are particularly robust (and can re-grow a tree even if the trunk is cut off), and the tree can live for hundreds of years.

“In the house of our God” – In reaction to pagan nature worship, trees were banned from Israelite places of worship. The reference to a tree in the house of God conceivably survived from pre-Israelite times, but in any case had to be understood as a broad metaphor of “being with God” in Israelite usage. For a similar usage, see Psalm 92:13, 14.


The mighty one is constantly compared to the others (the righteous, the speaker) by use of terminology and metaphor, as follows: (a) The “mighty one” is uprooted (verse 7), a stark contrast to the olive tree (verse 10). (b) He either is called or calls himself a “mighty one” (gibbor,v. 3), whereas the Hebrew reduces him, with the same consonants, to a “man” (gever, v. 9). (c) He disdains “good” (v. 5), whereas the speaker praises God’s “good” name (v. 11). (d) His “acting” treacherously is compared to God’s “acts” (vv. 4, 11). (e) He disdains “righteousness,” but the “righteous” will see his downfall (vv.5, 8). (f) He is torn from his tent, whereas the speaker is in the house of God forever (vv. 7, 10). (g) He “trusts” in his wealth, whereas the speaker “trusts” in God’s faithfulness (vv. 9, 10).

There are also reinforcing repetitions. Related to the "mighty one" we find “evil” (vv. 3, 5), “tongue” (vv. 4, 6), “destruction” (vv. 4, 9), “love” (vv. 5, 6), “speak” (vv. 5, 6), and “strong” (vv. 9, 9), as well as a sound echo from one root, “treacherous” (v. 4 – rimiyah) and “deceit” (v. 6 – mirmah). For the righteous, there is one repetition, “forever” (vv. 10, 11) and one sound echo, they “see” (yir’u) and are “awestruck” (yira’u), verse 8.

The Crime of Speech

As often in Psalms, the last verse provides sudden enlightenment, clarifying its purpose. The verbs are in the imperfect, indicating that the speaker does praise-and-proclaim and/or will do so: in fact, both seem to be accomplished at once, for the verse takes the reader back to the beginning of the poem with the realization that the psalm itself is the speaker’s praise and proclamation.

His use of words as his chosen reaction, in turn, sensitizes one to the nature of the misdeeds of the character described. The "mighty one" boasts of his evil, which is described in the opening section almost exclusively in terms of speech. The reaction of the righteous is also a statement.

The poet invites us into a world of words. Clearly the attitude of the "mighty one" is lambasted (he trusts in his wealth, not in God), but the primary reaction is elicited by his boasting and his slander, that is, his words. One wonders whether there is an implication here in the eyes of the speaker that the good person not only has to act properly, but that he must speak out as well.

* * * * * * *
Additional Notes

Psalm 52 is attributed to Doeg, whose actions are noted in II Samuel 21–22. Through his (accurate, but slanted) report to Saul, Doeg fuels that king’s rage, and then Doeg personally oversees the slaughter of the priests of Nob and their families. Literary license or diverse historical traditions might explain away several marked differences in detail compared to the Samuel text. Still, the relative distance of the psalmist from the events in the life of the "mighty one" would indicate that the attribution to David is a later addition. David and his allies were directly affected by Doeg’s actions, a situation that hardly leads to a contemplative piece on the failures of self-trust, boasting, and slander. Even so, the attribution remains fairly apt, for Doeg’s evil does begin with slander. Moreover, the author of Psalm 52 could have included the attribution as an act of literary imagination. Certainly the emphasis on speech befits the circumstance.

Many cultures have tales, parables, preachings, etc., warning against the evil that one can accomplish through speech. It is worth noting that in the long confessional of the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), a forty-four line double acrostic, one quarter of the confessed crimes are accomplished by speech.

The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at psalmblog@gmail.com.


(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ מַשְׂכִּיל לְדָוִד:
(ב) בְּבוֹא דּוֹאֵג הָאֲדֹמִי וַיַּגֵּד לְשָׁאוּל וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ בָּא דָוִד אֶל בֵּית אֲחִימֶלֶךְ:
(ג) מַה תִּתְהַלֵּל בְּרָעָה הַגִּבּוֹר חֶסֶד אֵל כָּל הַיּוֹם:
(ד) הַוּוֹת תַּחְשֹׁב לְשׁוֹנֶךָ כְּתַעַר מְלֻטָּשׁ עֹשֵׂה רְמִיָּה:
(ה) אָהַבְתָּ רָע מִטּוֹב שֶׁקֶר מִדַּבֵּר צֶדֶק סֶלָה:
(ו) אָהַבְתָּ כָל דִּבְרֵי בָלַע לְשׁוֹן מִרְמָה:
(ז) גַּם אֵל יִתָּצְךָ לָנֶצַח יַחְתְּךָ וְיִסָּחֲךָ מֵאֹהֶל וְשֵׁרֶשְׁךָ מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים סֶלָה:
(ח) וְיִרְאוּ צַדִּיקִים וְיִירָאוּ וְעָלָיו יִשְׂחָקוּ:
(ט) הִנֵּה הַגֶּבֶר לֹא יָשִׂים אֱלֹהִים מָעוּזּוֹ וַיִּבְטַח בְּרֹב עָשְׁרוֹ יָעֹז בְּהַוָּתוֹ:
(י) וַאֲנִי כְּזַיִת רַעֲנָן בְּבֵית אֱלֹהִים בָּטַחְתִּי בְחֶסֶד אֱלֹהִים עוֹלָם וָעֶד:
(יא) אוֹדְךָ לְעוֹלָם כִּי עָשִׂיתָ וַאֲקַוֶּה שִׁמְךָ כִי טוֹב נֶגֶד חֲסִידֶיךָ:


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