Psalm 52 is one of what scholars call wisdom psalms. Similar to proverbs, the psalms set up a binary of foolish and wise, wicked and righteous, pagan and godly, and present an implicit choice to the reader: Which side will you be on? Will you follow the way of the unrighteous, which will certainly receive God’s punishment, or will you pursue righteousness and receive God’s favor? It’s a trick question—the right answer is clear. Don’t be like them; be like us.
In this psalm, the evildoer is always up to no good—plotting destruction, working treachery, lying, and trusting in wealth—and they will receive their meet punishment. God will snatch them from their home and break them down forever. Meanwhile, the righteous will be protected by God, and will continue to grow in peace. It’s a standard construction. Those bad guys will be punished, and we good guys will be preserved.
The surprising twist of this psalm, however, is revealed in its introduction: “A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech.” This point in the timeline of David’s narrative is found in 1 Samuel 22. David is on the run from Saul, and Saul’s head of servants has just ratted David out. David is naturally a bit stressed that his location has been revealed to the guy who’s trying to kill him, and prays for his destruction. The “bad guy” in this psalm is Saul, who just so happens to be the King of Israel. That evil other is not some godless pagan or idol worshiper; he’s actually one of David’s own people.
Now, granted, Saul was not exactly an exemplar of Jewish moralism, but we might recall that neither was David. So not only are both Saul and David part of the same family of God’s chosen, they also seem to be cut from the same cloth. From our vantage point, with our ability to view the Hebrew Bible in its entirety, it’s not so easy to tell who between them we might call righteous or wicked.
Strict dichotomies serve to delineate who is in and out, who is righteous and unrighteous, who is them and who is us. They artificially ease the complexities of reality, assigning real people with webs of desires and motivations and behaviors to inflexible categories without possibility for change or question. But in constructing these distinctions (and they are always constructed rather than inherent) we often forget that “they” might well be part of “us.” Saul was an Israelite, just like David, serving the same God (though imperfectly) that David invokes to “break him down forever.”
While it’s certainly natural to desire the destruction of someone who desires yours, it’s less certain whether such a person’s attitude and actions actually set them apart as other when they are indeed your own kin, or whether it’s appropriate to invoke your God to punish them when that God is their God too.
Do we profess to worship that selfsame God of David? Shall we hope for that God to snatch up others of God’s children, uprooting them from their homes, while we, the self-professed righteous, green olive trees of God, grow happy and secure in God’s greenhouse? Perhaps the better part would be to question the otherness of that other. Does their evil make them different from us, or might it indeed reflect our own? Perhaps that evil other is actually one of our own, is actually us.
Categorizing and marking distinctions are natural human behaviors—as natural as our feelings of fear and anger and our desire for justice and revenge—but
in our zeal for rightness or our attempts at self-preservation, we sometimes lose sight of how arbitrary these dichotomies are and forget that we don’t have the last say of who’s in and who’s out in God’s Kingdom.
When we are calling down God’s wrath on some evil other—even if deservedly—we would do well to consider just how other that other is, and remember that they may indeed be one of us, just as we may indeed be one of them.