1. Desperate needs
Desperate needs – A Study of Psalms 52 and 142
By Robert Morris
In the book of 1 Samuel, there comes a time when David finds himself in headlong flight from King Saul. The Jewish monarch, driven by unrelenting resentment and jealousy, has been attempting to kill David by indirect means. Saul has, at last, thrown all pretense and secrecy to the winds. He wants David dead, and he wants David dead right now! He does not care how it is done. He does not care who knows about it.
In his flight, David traveled to the priestly city of Nob, which is 2.5 miles from Jerusalem. There he received provisions, guidance, and weapons from Ahimelech the high priest.
Unfortunately, Ahimelech’s innocent help was observed by an Edomite name Doeg, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen. Doeg later used this information as an opportunity to gain Saul’s favor by falsely accusing Ahimelech of treason, a betrayal that resulted in the murder of all the priests of Nob and their entire families. Only one man escaped and found refuge with David.
David felt personally responsible for the tragedy that had befallen these innocent families. This was a dark time for him, and the most desperate time he had ever faced. Pursued by Saul and betrayed by the opportunist Doeg, David found himself slandered, persecuted, and alone.
However, in the midst of this desperate situation, David learned that God is not as interested in what He puts you through as He is in your response to what He puts you through.
Out of this wretched experience came two psalms that teach us how to respond when caught up in desperate times. The first grave situation that David dealt with was the experience of being slandered.
We begin in Psalm 52 with the superscription.
For the director of music. A maskil of David. When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: “David has gone to the house of Ahimelech.”
The director of music is instructed to take particular note of this psalm. He is to note that this is a maskil. The term is derived from a word that means “to wisely understand.”1 Accordingly, the rabbis consider a maskil to be a psalm composed with a special effort to teach an essential lesson.2 In this particular psalm, the lesson deals with the misuse of the tongue.
The example is Doeg the Edomite and his slanderous defamation of David, as well as the house of Ahimelech. Doeg serves as a symbol of all evildoers who misuse the power of speech and who will meet their just punishment. David, on the other hand, represents the righteous, who will be exalted because of their trust in God and because of their correct use of the tongue.
1 Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
2 You who practice deceit, your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor.
3 You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
4 You love every harmful word, you deceitful tongue!
David begins on a note of sarcasm as he calls Doeg a “mighty man.” Doeg’s act of treachery was anything but heroic. His exploit consisted of the butchery of defenseless priests, men who had never touched a sword. He had no reason to boast and instead should have been profoundly ashamed for his cowardice.
This man, Doeg, and any man who boasts inself-satisfaction over evil may be great in his own eyes, but he is certainly evaluated differently by God. His values are completely distorted. He loves anything that is twisted, perverted, or corrupt. He loves to think, speak, and do evil whenever it is to his own advantage. His falsehood and aggressive words aim at the undoing of others. He stands for whatever is against God’s standards of goodness and righteousness.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
However, do not be fooled into thinking that the problem with the tongue is limited to the tiny organ of speech. The problem goes much deeper because this tiny organ of speech simply reflects the character, the heart of each person—the inner man.
In Matthew 15:18-20, Yeshua said it in this manner:
18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.
The rabbis also have much to say about the evil hidden in our souls that becomes so obvious through our tongues. Here are but a few of the many rabbinic statements that deal with the evil words that spew out of our hearts through our tongue:
“He who slanders piles up offenses as high as the sky, and deserves to be stoned.” (Arakin 15) “Greater is the sin of the evil tongue than the sin of idolatry.” (Midrash Gadol u-Gedolah 18) “He who slanders, who listens to slander, and who testifies falsely deserves to be thrown to the dogs.” (Pesachim 118)
Here is one more insightful story:
Rabban Gamaliel commanded his slave, Tobi, to buy the best edible in the market. The slave brought home a tongue. The next day Rabban Gamaliel commanded him to buy the worst thing in the market, and again Tobi brought home a tongue. When asked for an explanation, the wise slave replied, “There is nothing better than a good tongue and nothing worse than an evil tongue.” (Vayyikra Rabbah 33)
Doeg is a slanderer. He is a man who will use his tongue to promote his own evil greed, even if it results in the death of others. David is bearing the full brunt of Doeg’s slander, and his heart is being torn apart by it. However, David is a man after God’s own heart, and he chooses a proper response to the anguish he feels. His response to this desperate situation is not bitterness or self-pity; his response is to choose to turn to God in trust.
This response of trust, of faith in God, is seen in four facets. The first aspect of David’s response has already been seen in verses 1-4. David faces the problem head-on rather than to deny it or run from it. He has laid the problem out eloelquently. But what good is this?
So what if we recognize and face a moral problem when it crashes into our lives? What good does that do, especially if we are helpless to do anything about it?
This brings us to the second aspect of David’s response. He could not do anything about Doeg and Doeg’s slander except to place his desperate need into the hands of God. David trusted that God would do what was right. That faith in God’s inevitable and righteous judgment is brought out in verse 5.
5 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.
A righteous God cannot tolerate evil forever. Ultimately—and it may not happen in the lifetime of the righteous—the righteous have the assurance that God will act. In the end, all that is wrong will be made right by our just and loving God. Goodness and righteousness will eventually prevail.
Violent verbs jostle against each other in verse 5 such as “bring down,” “snatch up,” “tear from,” and “uproot.” Each suggest a different word picture that portrays the fate of the wicked after they stand before the bar of God’s justice:
The wicked will be brought down and demolished like a building shaken by a violent earthquake.
6 The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at you, saying, 7 “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
The reaction of the righteous to God’s judgment is first characterized by awe and terror. Gradually, however, they come to understand the appropriate nature of the sentence and their fear turns into joy. The downfall of the wicked is proper and just. The wicked have simply reaped what they have sown; they are simply suffering curse for curse in kind. David’s former oppressor, Doeg, has become an example of what not to be like.
You may think that you are a mighty man because you have wealth and power and because you can get away with exploitation. However, if you refuse to make God your stronghold, if you place your trust in wealth, if you go up the ladder by stepping on others, in the end God will bring you down.
Please make no mistake. The joy of the righteous here is not malicious or vindictive. This joy is simply the expression of relief and peace that come over a soul when justice is correctly executed.11 Rejoicing at the calamity of one’s enemy is condemned in the Holy Scriptures.
Proverbs 24:17-18 tells us:
17 Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,
18 or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them.
Spiteful laughter is not the appropriate reaction to the destruction of the wicked. However, the
downfall of the wicked, as proof of the just government of God, will be welcomed with joy by the righteous.12 Righteousness will triumph over evil. This is the thought that burned itself into David’s heart and helped him through his time of desperate need.
The negative lesson that David learned was this: “I refuse to be like Doeg because I know that it is not worth it.” Doeg and those like him may prosper in the short run, but in the ultimate end, they will be held accountable for their wickedness. David is responding correctly to this struggle, and he is growing into a man of God because of it.
God is not as interested in what He puts you through as He is in your response to what He puts you through. The positive lesson that David learned during this time of desperation is brought out in verses 8-9.
8 But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. 9 For what you have done I will always praise you in the presence of your faithful people. And I will hope in your name, for your name is good.
Never forget that these words were composed during a period of desperate need. David starts out with that teeny, tiny, but oh so significant word “but.” In contrast to the so-called “mighty man,” there is the godly man. The mighty man trusts in himself, works evil, and hedges himself with ill-gotten gains and power. The LORD uproots him like a tree, makes him a vagabond, and destroys him.
The godly, on the other hand, are compared to a luxuriant, productive olive tree that remains green throughout its lifetime. The olive tree can live for hundreds of years and is a symbol of long life and usefulness.14 The roots of this olive tree go deep into rich, moist soil; it will never be uprooted. In contrast to the wicked, who will be removed from his tent, the righteous man is a welcome guest in the house of God—God’s tabernacle, God’s tent. The godly man refuses to trust in himself or his wealth, but instead, he trusts in God.
The wicked curse God for bringing them down, while the response of the godly is praise. They boast in God’s righteousness. They know that He is good. This is the fourth lesson that David learned. This is the lesson that David refuses to abandon: God is good.
No matter what our great Shepherd allows to come into our lives, He allows it for our good and because He is good. No matter what comes into your life, be like David, cling to this thought, and never let it go: GOD IS GOOD!
At this point, David has shared with us how to respond when slandered. In Psalm 142, he shares with us how he responded when he was one.
For quotes and references, please see the full article in the Summer 2016 issue.