Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Psalm 52 Judgement on the Deceitful
To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech.’
Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly?
All day long you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Selah
You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
But God will break you down for ever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous will see, and fear, and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
‘See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!’
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God for ever and ever.
I will thank you for ever, because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
The heading that the NRSV puts above Psalm 52 is: Judgment on the Deceitful
To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
To try to offer the quickest bit of context for this psalm, Doeg the Edomite (the head of King Saul’s servants) tells Saul that David, who is on the run from Saul, had been staying with the priest Ahimelech of Nob, and had been given food, shelter, and the sword of Goliath by Ahimelech. Doeg does this to curry favor with Saul. David escapes, but the result was that Ahimelech and the priests who were with him were summoned before Saul. They were accused by him of the crime and Saul commanded those who were around him to fall on Ahimelech and the priests and put them to death. When they all hesitated, Doeg himself fell upon them and executed Saul’s barbarous order. Eighty-five priests perished by the sword, and the city of Nob was destroyed. All the duplicitous, depraved details can be found in 1 Samuel 21-22.
It sounds like a news report, doesn’t it? Full of attention-grabbing buzzwords.
A great deal has happened in the world of current events since I spent my last Sunday with you all. Plenty of stories that are equally full of individuals who feel like they can victimize others just because it will see them benefit in the here and now. Indeed, this story sounds like it could belong in a hearing on Capitol Hill: “The committee calls Doeg the Edomite!” The psalm itself reads almost like a congressional report, but with added moral teachings.
As theologian Albert Barnes says in his commentary on the text: The fact that [the psalm] is thus addressed to the overseer of the public music shows that, though it originally had a private reference, and was designed to record an event which occurred in the life of David, it yet had so much public interest, and contained truth of so general a nature, that it might properly be employed in the public devotions of the sanctuary.
There is a message here about not just Doeg the Edomite, but about how all of us need to remember to look beyond the desire to elevate our own circumstances and think instead about how our actions impact those in more dire circumstances.
It may seem like a tempting road to go down, the road of short-term gain. “Well, I want to get in with the cool gang, the popular kids, so if I join them in their cruelty, if I give them something else to pick on that other person about, they’ll like me more and maybe I’ll become part of the cool gang!”
Hands up if you’ve either been that person trying to get into that cool gang, or if you’ve been the one turned on by someone you knew just so they could befriend your bullies. It’s not fun, is it? It’s childish. It’s hurtful. It’s so utterly human, hence it’s inclusion in scripture.
So, what does the psalmist say will happen to those who do these terrible things?
God will break you down forever; God will snatch and tear you from your tent;
God will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying, “See the one who would not take refuge in God
but trusted in abundant riches and sought refuge in wealth!
Phew! That sounds about right, eh? That sounds like the justice we want for those Doeg’s in our lives, right?! I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find these angry descriptions of God’s judgement really quite scary. They don’t marry up with the forgiving and all-loving God I feel like I know. Sure, Doeg did a pretty scummy thing, but to be broken down by God forever? To be “uprooted from the land of the living”?
But it’s then that I remember just how human our Bible is. In those moments where we feel angriest, where we want nothing more than for our tormentors to be torn down and forsaken forever, these are the words we share. This is the God we want to have turn up on our side. We are tired of being laughed at or teased. We want to do the laughing for a change.
I must confess that I have been in a very psalm 52 state of mind every time I glance at the news headlines. All I see are Doeg’s everywhere I turn. Petty, greedy people who care more for their own comfort than the comfort of those directly impacted by the words they say. All day long they plot destruction, saying these words that devour rather than build up. I’ve been feeling more and more like they could use a bit of that tearing down by God. Maybe a healthy helping of uprooting from the land of the living…
But then I look around and realize that maybe God is looking at me. Maybe God wants to see how I will react. What will I do in the face of such deceitful, treacherous words and actions? I don’t think uprooting from the land of the living is really my style. I’m not much good at physically tearing down people’s tents… but I’m quite good at laughing. Not the cruel, teasing laughter of the bullies. No, I’m quite willing to laugh at the concept that real riches are what you have in your bank account or declare (or don’t) on your taxes. You have to laugh because it’s so absurd. There’s a reason so many plays, novels, and films are based around a wealthy person separated from their riches only to discover that that is not the key to happiness. I can tell those stories, I can preach those sermons. I can encourage others to laugh at the absurdity with me.
Think about the image the psalmist uses for those who live in the house of God. It’s not that of a nobleman surrounded by laughably large jewels and cartoonish stacks of gold coins. It’s a tree. And olive tree. That’s what someone who has the right idea is like. The nice thing about olive trees is that they aren’t all perfect little replicas of one another, they’re not beautifully manicured popsicle sticks. They’re often twisted and gnarly. David himself was not a popsicle stick tree of beauty and perfection. These are what decorate the house of God. Not gorgeous tapestries spun from gold thread, not BMWs and framed pictures of all of God’s followers’ achievements, but lumpy, rough twisted trees that bear good fruit but all of which have little pits in them. I find that a much more pleasing image of the house of God, don’t you?
I was taking Buddy for a walk yesterday along a street not far from our home and I paused to take a video of the gorgeous day and the beautiful oak trees all around me. I wanted to send it to some friends online, to share a bit of that calm and peace with them. As I was chatting with them, we got to talking about trees and I realized that my iPhone camera roll is positively teaming with pictures of trees. Something about them arrests my attention and puts me in a very reflective mood. But maybe my favorite thing about trees is the sound of the wind through their leaves. I stand under them and listen to their response to the movement of the breeze. How do trees respond to the winds that blow their leaves all day? They laugh. They flutter and shake and yet, if they are firmly planted, they remain there for a very long time.
Here’s an odd confession, but I sometimes cannot help but reach out and touch big trees as I walk by them. To me they are almost like time travelers. They’ve seen so much and yet remain alive and active still. They still laugh. They know the truth that we sometimes forget in our 24-hour news cycle world: Breezes are fleeting things, much like all those riches Doeg might have been eyeing as reward from Saul. You see, the trees have the right idea. Laugh at those breezes. Stay planted in the good soil of the house of God and you’ll be fed by the things that last, the steadfast love of God that doesn’t care about your bank account or your diplomas, but that sustains you forever. Offer shade to those in need of rest. Maybe you drop a branch or two in a particularly nasty storm, maybe all of your fruit have pesky pits in them, but God doesn’t mind. If you use your voice, the sound of your leaves, to spread love, laughter, and healing, God’s house will always be your home, your arboretum of rest and comfort forever. Amen.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.