God’s Word for You
Psalm 52:3-4 A harmful man
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 2, 2022
3 You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth. Selah
Is David speaking to someone else in addition to Doeg? Certainly there is nothing in the Psalm that can’t be applied to Saul’s ranch hand. A half-truth is the same as a lie, and Doeg did not tell Saul all of the truth when he reported about David at Nob. Some suggest that Doeg was reluctant to kill the priests, but where is that reluctance in the text? What a brave man Doeg was, slaughtering unarmed priests and their families. What courage he showed swinging his sword, slashing with his dagger, and lunging with his spear at children while they played, at women as they nursed infants, and at men as they prayed in the tent of the Lord! What a mighty man he was!
We cannot let the argument stand that if Doeg told the truth to Saul, then he did not sin or lie in any way. “The Eighth Commandment forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor” (Large Catechism, para. 263). Doeg’s half-truth, his gossip, was in this way a complete falsehood.
At the end of this verse we find a familiar word in the Psalms: “selah.” There are seventy-one of these in the Hymnal of Israel (the Psalms) and three in a Psalm that appears outside the book (Habakkuk chapter 3). When we consider the meaning of selah, we must avoid an interpreter’s trap. It is easy to say, “This is what I think ‘selah’ means.” But once this has been done, the interpreter must be careful when his definition doesn’t match up with every single case. He can be trapped into saying, “This ‘selah’ doesn’t belong here, because it doesn’t live up to my definition of what ‘selah’ means.”
- Of the 71 selahs in the Psalms, all but three are connected so closely to the preceding thought and even to the preceding word (via the accent mark assigned ) that there should be no pause at all given to reading the word aloud. For example, here in Psalm 52:3, it should not sound as if the reader says “...the truth, selah,” but rather as if the words are connected: “...the truth-selah.”
- While the word selah appears to mean “lift up,” its use as a musical term in the Psalms suggests that where it occurs, an important point has just been made in the text of the Psalm:
- If selah refers to a key change or a higher pitch, then the reason for the change should have been suggested by the text.
- If selah might mean “forever,” as if a truth were declared that stands for all time, it would still depend upon the text (but I strongly doubt this definition for selah).
- If selah might mean a pause for a musical interlude (this is the most widely accepted theory) it would provide the listener with time to meditate on the words just spoken or sung (cf. Psalm 1:2, 119:15, 119:27, 119:97, 119:148).
- If selah might mean a change of voices, the reason for the change should have been suggested by the content of the passage (as with a key change as stated above).
- If selah might mean da capo or some other musical term, this would also depend firmly on the text of the passage.
Whichever of these definitions is correct for selah (which is reduced to a footnote in the newest NIV edition and some other translations), the idea remains consistent: something in the text immediately preceding the selah is being emphasized and we do well to pay attention to it. In this case, the stressed point is that Doeg loves evil and falsehood over what is good and what is true. He has shown himself to be God’s opponent and a willing slave to sin.
4 You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue! (NIV)
Although “you” in this Psalm is consistently singular (“You, O Doeg the Edomite”), does David have another “you” in mind? Is he calling out Doeg’s sins in order to show that another sinner, Saul, is behind the sins of this foreigner? It would be consistent with David’s caution about raising his hand against the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6, 26:9; 2 Samuel 1:16) to openly condemn a man close to Saul without touching Saul’s reputation in public. David did this truly out of love for his king and out of obedience to God’s will regarding the Fourth Commandment. If only David’s own children had felt the same way about their father!
Loving “every harmful word” was surely a sin of Saul as well as of Doeg. A man who loves harmful words is a harmful man. Here the Hebrew term translated “harmful” is bala‘, which often means “to swallow.” A harmful word or message is one that destroys, ruins, or swallows what was good (Job 2:3), the way a wildfire swallows trees without putting them to any better use, or the way a tornado swallows everything in its path (Lamentations 2:5; Jonah 2:1). With this we can understand this harm to be “accusing, disparaging, finding fault” and even “taking revenge and the exercise of violence” (Luther, LW 27:360).
If Augustine is correct that “doing” one’s (sinful) desires means having them, being titillated and aroused by them, whether to anger or lust; but “gratifying” them means consenting to them and fulfilling them, then “loving them” (as we have there) must be the sinful consent of the fallen will of man, which means that the individual has turned completely away from God and his conscience has become seared or cauterized, as Paul says of hypocritical liars in 1 Timothy 4:2.
Such wickedness is in the world, but we pray that the Lord would keep us from all harm and watch over our lives (Psalm 121:7). We will be hated because of Christ (Mark 13:13), but we have been rescued from the jaws of punishment by the blood of Christ. In this lifetime, we are preserved by the means of grace, the gospel in the word and in the sacraments. Our baptism sustains us through the forgiveness God gave. The Lord’s Supper strengthens our faith and douses the fires of doubt and confusion. The Scriptures bring rest to the troubled conscience through the many excellent examples of God’s forgiveness but also and especially by the forgiveness the Bible preaches in every corner. And again, even after our death, there is the hope and certainty of the resurrection. Our spirits will rejoice with God in paradise; our bodies will await the resurrection and the perfection it will bring, and our friends and loved ones will treasure our memories while their lives last.
Pastor Timothy Smith