Seeing a Psalm in Context

psalm 52Imagine yourself in this scenario.  

You have been chosen by God to be the next leader of a country.


Most people wonder how to find God’s will for their lives, but you don’t. You have been anointed and you know you will lead one day. Your question is not what you will do, but when you will do it. Right now, there is another leader in power. You are waiting for God’s timing.


Then, one day, the leader finds out about how you were anointed, and decides to replace the oil on your head with a death sentence. 


Instead of fighting back, you go on the run; confident God will keep you safe until your time to lead comes. Some friends have fled with you, risking their own lives to protect yours.


One day, you and your friends run out of food. You ask the priest of a local town for help. And he gives you bread.


But the priest is not the only one in the room. One of the leader’s men is also there, watching the whole scene.


Later, when the leader is lamenting about his state, pontificating about how he is so much better than you, and offering to give power and wealth to any who will help him, that man steps forward and tells the leader everything.


In response, the leader and his men head to that town. And that man who told the leader about all this? In his effort to show his loyalty and seek his own status, that man slaughters everyone in the town. All the priests, the men, the women, the children, the cattle. Everyone.


Everyone that is, except one person, who escapes, finds you, and shares the news.


You are David. And this is the setting in which you pen Psalm 52.


This Psalm happens to tell us it is about Doeg, so it isn’t too difficult to do a word search and find the backstory. Sometimes that search is a little more difficult. The context  provided is so helpful in approaching this psalm.


On first glance, if you don’t know how terrible the atrocities of Doeg really are, David’s prayer sounds harsh,

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:     He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;     he will uproot you from the land of the living. – Psalm 52:5


But I wonder how we would pray if we were really in David’s shoes? He must be full of “if-onlys.” If only he hadn’t stopped in that village, if only he hadn’t asked for help, if only Doeg hadn’t overheard him, then all those people would still be alive.


David’s guttural plea for God’s justice to be done makes so much sense in context. In fact, I think I would use words a little more harsh than “boasting” and “deceitful,” words used in verses 1-4, to describe this man who wronged so many.


This Psalm, like so many, demonstrates how we can come to God with our honest requests, even if they aren’t pretty. And, also that there is something good and right about asking God to correct the evils we see in the world.


But this prayer is not only about justice.


Before Psalm 52 ends, David sets up a contrast. While David prays for this man to be uprooted, he prays that he himself will be an olive tree, rooted in the strength of God. While David prays about how this man trusted in his riches, he prays that he himself will trust in the unfailing love of the Lord.


David’s ending commitment to live according to God’s ways is interesting timing.  The confession of Psalm 51, which in the Bible is placed before this Psalm, chronologically took place after this Psalm. That reminds me how our earnest desires and our future actions don’t always line up. We fail. Over and over again.


So, as we ask for God’s justice, and commit to His ways, let’s also remain thankful for His grace.


(That was my reflection on Psalm 52. Up next week? Psalm 53.)