Psalm 52: The Fate of the Arrogant Man

Most pastors in their study of the Bible and in their preparation of sermons use only one version of the Bible. When they do so, most of them will not see textual problems that may be present in the text chosen for preaching or Bible study.

However, whenever students of the Bible consult more than one translation, they will notice that different versions of the Bible provide variant readings for the same passage. One reason for this discrepancy is that none of the original manuscripts of the Bible have survived. What is available to translators are copies of the original manuscripts. In most cases, translators must deal with copies of the copies of the original text.

Ancient manuscripts were copied by hand and distributed to religious groups or religious institutions. In the process of transmission, unintentional errors were introduced into the text. These unintentional errors were mistakes scribes made in copying from another manuscript. In some cases, when scribes wrote a manuscript that was being read to them from another manuscript, some scribes probably misunderstood a word that was being read and for this reason, they would write something different from what was in the original manuscript.

One good example of a text that reads differently in different translations of the Bible is Psalm 52:1 (Hebrew: Psalm 52:3). Below is the reading of Psalm 52:1 in seven different translations:

New Revised Standard Version: “Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly? All day long.”

King James Version: “Why boastest thou thyself in mischief, O mighty man? the goodness of God endureth continually.”

Holman Christian Standard Bible: “Why brag about evil, you hero! God’s faithful love is constant.”

The TANAK: “Why do you boast of your evil, brave fellow? God’s faithfulness never ceases.”

New American Bible: “Why do you glory in evil, you scandalous liar? All day long.”

New International Version: “Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?”

The New Living Bible: “Why do you boast about your crimes, great warrior? Don’t you realize God’s justice continues forever?”

The problem with translating Psalm 52:1 is that the Hebrew text is not very clear, and all English translations are attempts at clarifying the words of the psalmist for today’s readers. In the process of communicating the psalmist’s message to his audience, English translations rely on ancient translations of the text.

Hans-Joachim Kraus (1990: 509) believes that verse 1 as found in the Masoretic Text is corrupt and that the parallelism of the text makes no sense. So, Kraus takes the correction proposed by the Syriac and changes the word ḥesed, “steadfast love” for ḥasîd, “pious man.” Kraus translates verse 1 as follows: “Why do you boast of wickedness, ‘O man of might,’ against the pious man at all times.”

The translation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, is as follows: “Why dost thou, O mighty man, boast of iniquity in thy mischief? All the day.” The translators of the Septuagint changed the word ḥesed, “steadfast love,” for the word ḥāmās, “violence.” It also did not translate the word ʼēl, “God.”

The RSV and the NRSV follow the Syriac. The NIV and the NAB follow the Septuagint. The NLB is a paraphrase of the Hebrew text. The KJV, the HCSB, and the TANAK follow the Hebrew text.

Personally, I believe that the Hebrew Text makes sense as written and should be adopted. A good translation of this difficult verse would be as follows: “Why do you boast of evil, O mighty warrior? The steadfast love of God endures all the day.”

Psalm 52 is divided into four sections, each section identified by the person addressed in the text.

Psalm 52:1-4 deals with the mighty one who speaks evil against the godly.
Psalm 52:5 deals with the judgment of God upon the mighty one who defames the godly.
Psalm 52:6-7 deals with the righteous people who will see God’s act of salvation.
Psalm 52:8-9 deals with the psalmist and his trust in the steadfast love of God.

The psalm presents the contrast between two individuals, the one who trusts in riches and seeks refuge in material things and the one who trusts in God and in his steadfast love. The psalm also contrasts the arrogant rich man who takes pride in wrongdoing and who lifts himself with the upright man, the righteous person who flourishes like an olive tree in the house of God (Psalm 52:8).

The introductory verse (verse 1 in English; verse 3 in Hebrew) presents the theme of Psalm 52. The psalm speaks about the actions of an evil and an arrogant man “who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth” (Psalm 52:7).

The Hebrew word for “mighty man” is gibbôr. The word means “a warrior, strong, valiant, mighty.” It is possible that in Psalm 52, the word is used to designate a rich and important person in the community who boasts of his evil.

The psalmist enumerates the evil things this rich man does: He uses his tongue to carry out destructive plans (v.2a). His tongue is as sharp as a razor (v.2b). He is a person who loves evil more than he loves good (v.3a). He lies more than he speaks the truth (v.3b). He loves to use words that destroy (v.4a). He deceives with his words (v.4b). According to the psalmist, this individual does not promote the well-being of the community but seek to destroy it with his deceiving words.

The psalmist is worried about this individual, but he knows that God will vindicate him by dealing with this evil person. The psalmist says that God’s judgment against him is certain: “So God will tear you down for good, will break you and pluck you from your tent, and root you out of the land of the living” (Psalm 52:7 TNK). In ancient Israel, God’s judgment against this individual would be considered a severe judgment. To be removed from the land of the living means that the person not only will die, but his name will be removed in such a way that he will no longer be remembered in the community.

Psalm 52 has a relevant message for our society and for our church today. We live in a materialistic society where the conflict between good and evil is a reality which no one can ignore. Today people tend to achieve their goals by lying and by slandering others in order to advance themselves. They harm others with their weapon of choice: their words. In their commentary on the book of Psalms, Tesh and Zorn offer an excellent overview of the message of Psalm 52. They wrote:

Here again the contrast is drawn between evil and good, more particularly between one who trusts in riches and in his ability to do mischief and one whose trust is in God and his steadfast love. The former relies upon his own cleverness in lying, deceiving, and slandering to advance himself or herself at the expense of others. He is one who would embrace the doctrine of the survival of the fittest and make sure, by fair means or foul, that he is one of the “fit.” He entertains never a thought that the judgment of God will come upon him and that his wealth will be of no avail when the blow falls. This is his folly. The psalmist, by contrast, makes no boast. He simply bears testimony to the blessed quality of life that is his—he is “like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God”—and affirms his abiding trust in God.

The situation depicted in the psalm is clear. A “mighty man,” essentially godless, rich, and apparently of some reputation, is causing great damage to others with his wicked, lying tongue. Trusting “in his great wealth.” He even “boasts” of the “evil” that he causes. But his boasting is premature, for God will deal with him. Of this the psalmist is certain and predicts his downfall (Tesh and Zorn 1999: 375).

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Kraus, Hans-Joachim, Psalms 1-59. Continental Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Tesh, S. Edward and Walter Zorn, Psalms. Volume 1. The College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1999.

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