This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
Psalm 52 is difficult for me to read, let alone pray. In fact, until verse 9, the psalm is not really a prayer. It’s an indictment of an enemy. It calls for God to “uproot” this enemy from the land of the living. The Psalmist imagines that righteous people will “laugh” at this.
It is difficult for me to imagine, much less condone laughter at someone’s death.
But whenever I read a psalm, I have learned to ask myself two crucial questions:
1) Who did pray this?
2) Who could pray this?
With those questions, I am drawn beyond myself.
I start by looking to historical references in the text; and for this psalm, we have been provided a “superscription.” Superscriptions are the notes before the first line of poetry starts that describe a potential setting or story behind the psalm, or give information about the author, or indicate how the psalm is to be performed. Now the truth is, these superscriptions were added after most of the psalms were composed—oftentimes a long time later. Especially in Book II of the psalms (Psalm 42—72), short references were added to link psalms to particular events in the life of King David.
The psalms teach us that we don’t have to pray like someone else would pray. In the psalms we learn who we are in prayer; reflected back to us, as in a mirror, is our conception of who God is. We learn what we believe. But we also come to understand that God loves and hears people who don’t believe like we do.
These superscriptions are important not for what they tell us about an actual event that happened in the psalmist’s life (though it may be the case that some of the superscriptions accurately link a psalm to an historical event), but instead for what they tell us about how those who prayed these psalms put them in context to be prayed.
In the case of Psalm 52, it’s fairly clear that the superscription is a poor match for the actual story. The superscription mentions the actions of Doeg the Edomite, who told Saul something about David and someone named Ahimelech. The reference is to 1 Samuel 20—22.
Doeg and Saul
In that narrative, Saul is king. David has married into Saul’s family and has befriended Saul’s son, Jonathan. Saul has gone mad. He is jealous of the acclaim that David receives, and of the perception that God now favors David over Saul. Saul becomes so angry that he decides to kill David. Saul even throws a spear at Jonathan for trying to stick up for David. Jonathan warns David to leave and the two part, weeping.
David flees, with no weapons, no supplies, and only a handful of people who are on his side. Saul, the King, has armies at his disposal. David winds up at the house of a priest, Ahimelech. Ahimelech provides David with bread (bread that had been dedicated as holy, set aside for the priests and offered to God), and gives him Goliath’s sword (yes, the giant Goliath that David killed with a sling and a few stones). Doeg is a servant of Saul’s, who just so happens to be consulting Ahimelech about a religious matter. Doeg runs back to Saul and ends up telling the king about what Ahimelech has done. In a rage, Saul summons Ahimelech and all of the priests of his house. Ahimelech tries to defend David, as Jonathan had done. Saul commands Doeg to kill Ahimelech and all of the priests (85 people). Then, Doeg is sent to Nob, Ahimelech’s hometown, the “city of the priests,” where he “put to the sword…men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep.” (1 Samuel 22:19).
We would call this a massacre.
The superscription does not fit the psalm incredibly well for several reasons. First, it is ambiguous. Is the “mighty one” of the psalm Saul or Doeg? No matter which one it is, in the story, neither Doeg nor Saul lies. Doeg, in fact, simply tells the facts about how Ahimelech helped David. Neither Doeg nor Saul gains any money or seeks security in riches. They certainly do plot mischief against the godly, and the words Doeg said and the commands that Saul gave led to a whole city being “devoured” by violence. But the psalm does not seem to match well the exact details of the story.
Make no mistake, however, this is a horrible story. And the psalm does resonate well tonally and emotionally with the story to which it is linked.
Then and Now
The story and the psalm grieve me. But this story is not foreign to those of us who are attentive to the news. Tyrants across the world are still killing their own people, by the thousands. Men, women and children are having to flee their homes because of war and genocide. The United States government has taken direct action to “uproot” these tyrants.
Some people applaud this. They believe that these tyrants should be killed. They hope that by doing so, thousands more lives may be saved. Others are disturbed by the manner in which these killings happen, in ways that often end up hurting more bystanders. Still others wonder about the continual overturn of corrupt rulers and about the lack of planning about rebuilding places where these massacres have happened. Still others believe that violence only leads to more violence and that God would not want Christians to kill anyone. And many are confused about the right course of action.
My point in this brief post is not to try to solve this ethical dilemma. Instead, by pointing to this superscription and to the current situations that the story of Doeg echo, I am trying to answer my two questions.
1) Who did pray this? – In the minds of the ancient Israelites, the people who prayed this were probably David and, even more, Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech, the only one of his family to escape. It may be that those who added the superscription imagined that David wrote this psalm for Abiathar. At the end of 1 Samuel 22, Abiathar finds David and David says: “I am responsible for the lives of all your father’s house. Stay with me, and do not be afraid; for the one who seeks my life seeks your life; you will be safe with me.” I can imagine Abiathar praying this prayer, knowing that he could not overcome Saul or protect his own life. The point is that this is a psalm linked to a story of powerless people, people like Abiathar, who are orphaned because of genocide. Which means…
2) Who could pray this? – Those who are left in the wreckage of the wars and mass killings that still occur around the world. And make no mistake, these survivors are not just “over there.” They live among us. Refugees and immigrants. And, of course, our country is no stranger to mass killings. Our young people are growing up and coming to faith in a world in which a mass killing or terrorist action comes across our screens every day. They are living in a global society, in which refugees from across the globe become classmates, in which their friends might be recruited by a terrorist organization, in which they have to fear someone with ill intent coming to their school or place of work.
In reading this psalm, in hearing the cries of someone who has lost everything because of the actions of power players, the “mighty ones,” those bent on destruction, I am put in the position of someone who listens. I am not forced to agree with the exact content of their prayer. But I am moved to hear their anguish and to love them. I am moved to discover the ways in which God might use me to offer them comfort, protection and help, to discover the ways in which those to whom I offer help have strength of their own, resources and deep faith in the God who helps them to stand firm like a green olive tree, rooted in God’s love.
The psalms teach us that we don’t have to pray like someone else would pray. In the psalms we learn who we are in prayer; reflected back to us, as in a mirror, is our conception of who God is. We learn what we believe. But we also come to understand that God loves and hears people who don’t believe like we do. God hears the cries of those who have lost everything because of the actions of powerful people who have no regard for human life. God hears those cries—even if those cries seem bloodthirsty to us. And if we have open ears, open hearts, open arms, we might encounter, alongside those who cry out loud, the God whose “steadfast love” is “forever and ever.”
There are not many musical versions of Psalm 52. But there are a few songs that pick up on some of the themes.
Robbie Seay, Psalm 118 – Though this is from Psalm 118, it carries a similar theme to verses 8-9 of Psalm 52. A great, meditative, slow-building song. To make this gender inclusive, change “he” to “God.”
Sandra McCracken, All Ye Refugees – This beautiful song is the first track on McCracken’s “Psalms” album. It’s a great encapsulation of the recurrent psalmic theme of God’s love for those pushed out and downtrodden. Again, McCracken provides chords on her website for this album here.
Bob Marley, Redemption Song – I think Marley’s well-known acoustic song is a spiritual cousin to Psalm 52. Listen. Listen well.
U2, Bullet the Blue Sky – Another powerful, but much less meditative spiritual cousin to Psalm 52.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.