Saturday, November 26, 2011

Psalm 52

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 52 and its interpreters. I have two items:

1. The superscription states (in the King James Version): "A Psalm of David, when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech." In much of what I read in preparation for this post, interpreters addressed the question of whether or not Psalm 52 pertains to the events of I Samuel 21-22----Abimelech and the priests of Nob help David while he is fleeing from Saul (only they do not know that he is fleeing from Saul), Doeg tattles on them to Saul, and Saul slaughters the priests. Modern interpreters largely answered in the negative, for a variety of reasons: the Psalmist does not mention Saul's slaughter of the priests of Nob; the Psalmist refers to a gibbor who lied, whereas Doeg did not lie but rather told Saul the truth (that Abimelech and the priests of Nob were feeding David and his men, inquiring of God on David's behalf, and giving to David the sword of Goliath); and that Psalm 52:8 mentions the house of God, which did not exist until the time of Solomon, David's son. Many modern commentators think that the superscription was later added to Psalm 52 for a reason: the Psalmist criticizes a gibbor in Psalm 52, and Doeg was one of Saul's gibborim (I Samuel 14:52); but, for them, Psalm 52 does not fit well with the events of I Samuel 21-22.

But many Jewish interpreters (such as rabbis, Rashi, Radak, and others) and some Christians have interpreted Psalm 52 in light of the events of I Samuel 21-22, as well as their elaborations of that story. Many of them hold that Doeg indeed did lie and slander the priests of Nob before Saul, for Doeg conveyed that the priests were conspiring against the king by assisting David, when actually the priests had no idea that Saul was pursuing David with hostility; actually, they believed that they were showing loyalty to Saul by helping David, Saul's trusted servant. Regarding the "house of God" in v 8, Rashi interprets "But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God" to mean that David would be in the Temple through his son, Solomon. (One could also point out that the Tabernacle is called the "house of the LORD" in I Samuel 1:24.) An application of Psalm 52 to the events of I Samuel 21-22 holds that Psalm 52 is an affirmation after Saul's slaughter of the priests of Nob that God would protect David and punish Doeg in the sight of the righteous, who would fear God and laugh at Doeg's calamity.

But there is more. According to ancient rabbis and other Jewish commentators, Doeg was a prosperous scholar of the Torah. In Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106b, there is the view that Doeg is called a gibbor in Psalm 52 because he was mighty in the study of the Torah. A corresponding idea in the Talmudic passage is that Doeg was the person of Psalm 50:16 who declared God's statutes, yet turned right around and sinned grossly. According to the medieval Midrash on the Psalms, Doeg was not even committing his acts of evil for personal gain, for he already had wealth and influence; rather, Doeg's problem is explained in Psalm 52:3: Doeg loved evil more than good, and lying more than speaking righteousness. (Some Christian commentators maintain, however, that Saul rewarded Doeg for his act of evil, and that this is why Psalm 52 reproaches trusting in riches rather than God.) The orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gives his own impression of Doeg, in light of Jewish interpretations, when he says that Doeg could have used his erudition and position in the service of good, but instead he misused his attainments for evil. (For Hirsch, I draw from the language in the Artscroll commentary.)

Not all ancient interpreters applied Psalm 52 to the events of I Samuel 21-22, however. The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia contends, for example, that Psalm 52 is about Rabshakeh, who taunted Israel on behalf of the invading Assyrian king, Sennacherib. According to Theodore, some Israelites converted to the Assyrian religion when the Assyrians were invading Northern Israel, and Rabshakeh was one of those Israelites, looking out for his own safety and desiring a reward from the Assyrians. In this view, Psalm 52 reproaches Rabshakeh for trusting in wealth rather than God and for betraying his own people.

I'll close this item by quoting Marvin Tate, who (in my opinion) captures the essence of Psalm 52: "The 'hero' (gibbor) of v 3 has become a mere geber, an ordinary man (v 9), who exemplifies the person who refuses to make God a personal stronghold and trusts rather in wealth and in the ability to plan and promote harmful schemes." Such a summary would also fit interpretations of Psalm 52, the ones that apply the Psalm to Doeg, and the ones that do not.

2. A lady at a church that I attended once asked me about the part of the Lord's prayer that says "Lead us not into temptation". She wondered if that implies that God would lead us into temptation, if we did not ask him to refrain from doing so. A piece of the Midrash on the Psalms actually touched on a similar issue. On the basis of Proverbs 26:26 and Ezekiel 18:24, it said that God opens a door of iniquity before hypocrites so that they will sin in plain sight, thereby allowing God to demonstrate the justice of his punishment before onlookers: people will see the hypocrites' open sin and conclude that God is just to punish them. In this scenario, God does lead people into temptation, but only if they are already deliberate sinners. And, according to the Midrash on the Psalms, that's what happened to Doeg. Such a view overlaps with Psalm 52, which presents the righteous fearing and laughing at the punishment of the wicked one.

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