The more usual, expected phrase is “fear and trembling.” But there comes a time for fear and laughing. Psalm 52 contemplates the fate of the powerful person who is evil and boastful, contrasting it with the faithfulness of God toward the righteous, meaning the people who live in covenant relationship with God.
Psalm 52, annotated
Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?
The steadfast love of God endures all the day.
- The person addressed is the gibor, the powerful man, the mover and shaker for whom the most important thing is being strong and acting with strength.
- A gibor can be a good man (like the “mighty men of valor” who served King David), but this gibor is immediately recognized as not good by virtue of his habitual self-praise.
- The opening words of the psalm are ma tithallel? The hallel in that verb should be immediately recognizable to anyone who knows the word “hallelujah,” the normal Hebrew way of saying “praise the Lord” (praise Yah). But the tit- prefix makes this form reflexive, in the second person singular: “Why do you praise yourself?”
- In case the implication of self-praise is not already clear enough, the psalmist adds barah (ba = in, rah = evil). The grounds, content, and manner of the gibor’s self-praise—the use that the gibor makes of his strength—is words and actions that are evil. These will be specified in what follows.
Your tongue plots destruction,
like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.
- The description of this gibor’s evil begins and ends with his lishon, his tongue, which is of course a concrete way of referring to his speech. He is always mouthing off.
- Plotting or devising is of course a particular kind of thinking. If the psalmist were a native speaker of English we might expect the subject of this thinking to be the mind or brain, but since the psalmist is Hebrew we would expect the subject to be the heart. But this gibor does his thinking, such as it is, with his constantly flapping tongue.
- This tongue is compared to a razor because his words are cutting. How do they cut? With deceitfulness. His tongue is a sharpened blade that shaves others naked, but this shaving does not reveal underlying truth. He does his shaving with remiyah, which indicates both slothfulness and deceitfulness: he is too lax and lazy to get at truth, preferring to spout self-serving distortions.
- Just as this gibor does not fail to praise but praises the wrong person (not God but himself), so also he is not a loveless person, but his love is misdirected, aimed not at tov (good) but at rah (evil). Tov and rah are common, essential words that any student of Hebrew learns in the first month if not the first week. This gibor is morally screwed up at a very basic level.
- The good that the gibor ought to prefer is specified as daber tsedeq, speaking righteousness, and the evil as sheqer: lying, deception, fraud, betrayal. I reckon the opposite of sheqer is emet: truth or truthfulness. But the psalmist is going for absolute moral clarity, so he uses the phrase “speaking righteousness.” It’s that basic: truth-telling is righteousness in the form of utterance. And that is what this gibor does not have, does not practice, does not value.
- The devarim (words) that this gibor loves are all about devouring, consuming, His lying, it turns out, is not purely for fun but intends at getting more power and wealth for himself by swallowing others up.
- The psalmist neatly wraps up his description of the gibor by repeating the word with which he began, exclaiming, “You deceitful lishon (tongue)!”
But God will break you down forever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous shall see and fear,
and shall laugh at him, saying,
“See the man who would not make
God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
and sought refuge in his own destruction!”
- I don’t have comments on every line of this section. The import is clear.
- I am, however, intrigued by “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him.”
- “The righteous” here is plural, tsadiqim, referring implicitly to those who are in covenant relationship with God and are thus the objects of God’s chesed (verse 1), which is God’s covenant-honoring merciful lovingkindness.
- There is a play on words in “the righteous shall see and fear.” Even if you don’t know Hebrew script you can see the similarity between the first and third words in this phrase: וְיִרְא֖וּ צַדִּיקִ֥ים וְיִירָ֗אוּ. We can put it in latin characters as follows: veyiru tsadiqim veyiru. The single-character difference that makes the first word “and they will see” and the third word “and they will fear” doesn’t even show up in this crude transliteration.
- Anyone taking the time to read this post probably already knows that “fear” is a word commonly used in scripture to refer to the proper response to the presence of the Holy, i.e., the proper and usual response when God shows up. Throughout scripture, God shows up in various ways. Sometimes it’s by sending a messenger (“angel”) whose very appearance somehow signals the closeness right here, right now, of the melech of the ages, the maker of heaven and earth, the judge of the living and the dead. But sometimes it’s through an event, a deed exhibiting such power and such pure righteousness that the observer with eyes to see knows intuitively that it can only be put down as one of the magnalia dei, the mighty acts of God.
- This is the case, the psalmist implies, in the downfall of the gibor of this psalm. When the tsadiq, the person living in covenant with God, sees this downfall, the natural response is fear—not in the sense of “O my God what’s happening, I’m scared!” but in the sense of reverential awe at having witnessed an intervention of the Holy One.
- But—and here is what strikes and fascinates me—the psalmist does not stop with this pious reflex but adds vealav yischaku, “and at him they shall laugh.”
- To be clear, this laughter is derision, a laughing down at him, a laughing him down.
- People who take the trouble to theorize about what’s funny tell us that a key element in humor is irony, surprise, a sharp difference between what is expected and what happens, or between what appears to be the case and what really is the case, or, more to the point here, between on the one hand what a person thinks of himself (which determines what others who are in thrall to him, under his spell, think of him), and on the other hands what God knows to be true about him and may through a powerful intervention (judgment) reveal to all
- The following lines (what the righteous say about the gibor as they laugh at his downfall) show this to be the case here. There is a sharp contrast between the expectations of the self-praising, tongue-flapping, deceitful powerful man (namely, that his wealth and power will preserve him) and the actual outcome (namely, that the very things he trusted in, i.e., the fruit of the evil greed whereby he destroyed others for his own gain, brought about his destruction through divine judgment).
- When the tsadiqim laugh they are imitating God, who likewise laughs at the presumptuousness of the wicked and their downfall (see, e.g., Psalm 2:4, 37:13, 59:8),
- So derision in this case is not reducible to meanness, or to Schadenfreude (unseemly rejoicing in the ill that befalls someone else). Derision can be those things, and often is; but it can also be a participation in God’s own attitude toward the just judgment of wickedness in high places.
But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever.
I will thank you forever,
because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly.
- In this final section the psalmist outs himself as an individual member of the company of the tsadiqim, the “righteous ones” who are called righteous because they live in covenantal fidelity to the God who is faithful to them.
- The psalmist invokes an image close to that in Psalm 1, the premier expression of godly wisdom: a tree, flourishing and fruitful.
- Unlike the gibor, who trusted (batach) in his wealth, the psalmist trusts (batach) in the chesed of God.
- Unlike the gibor, who praised himself (tithallel) because of what he has himself done, the psalmist acknowledges, thanks, praises God (odcha), saying “You are the one who has done it” (asita).
- The psalmist does not keep his acknowledgment of God to himself, including his witness to God’s mighty act in bringing about the downfall of the wicked gibor. He expresses it in the presence of God’s saints—here, in the last words of the psalm, no longer simply the tsadikim but the chasidim.
- Finally, we should note that this section of the psalm corresponds to the second element of the psalmist’s opening contrast. This section talks about the righteous person, but the opening contrast has already established that what stands up against the evil of the mighty boaster is not the righteous person in his own right bu the covenantal faithfulness of God, which preserves and lifts up the righteous person—indeed, makes the righteous person righteous.
What to do with all this?
My conviction is that when we are told that the Word of God is living and active, one inference we should draw is that the Word as expressed in scripture cannot be, should not be, stuck on the page, locked in the past, or sealed up into a separate, sacred realm of discourse that is cut off from the world in which we live every day. The Word of God wants to interpret and shape our lives by inhabiting our thoughts, our meditations, on everything that we encounter. It wants to infuse itself into our understanding, including our self-understanding and our understanding of the people we meet in person and in the news. It wants to make us tsadiqim in the company of the chasidim, and—this is crucial—it wants to make us capable of telling the difference between a gibor who is one of David’s mighty men of valor, an agent of God’s work in this world, and a gibor who is a phony. It wants to make us wise. It wants to make it impossible for us to fall for the deceptions of the self-praising, wealth-trusting, other-slandering, lie-spewing, strength-focused gibor-tongue who is out to promote himself by demeaning and plundering everyone else.
I see no point in being vague or coy. So I submit these frankly worded theses to the judgment of the contemporary company of the chasidim:
- Donald Trump and his downfall come as close as possible to a complete, literal fulfillment of the mouthy, corrupt gibor of this psalm.
- A believer who looks at Donald Trump and sees in him an instrument of God’s will, even a flawed instrument, is a believer who has been deceived by the fraudulent mouthings of Trump himself and the false prophets who have promoted him as a divine agent.
- Wiser believers may rightly interpret the downfall of Donald Trump as a fulfillment of the righteousness and merciful lovingkindness of the God portrayed in this psalm.
- Their primary emotional response should be “fear”—awe-filled, grateful recognition that in the downfall of this person who came so close to overthrowing the constitutional democracy under which we live, we have seen a mighty act that we were unable to engineer for ourselves and for which we may rightly give thanks and praise to God. I say this with some hesitancy, because I am slow to look for or find the hand of God acting in American politics. There is a real danger in doing so, as we have seen in the grotesque way in which Trumpism has costumed itself as a form of biblical piety. There is also the danger that Trump will rise again! I have no way of knowing that his apparent fall is final. For all I know he could be supreme dictator of the planet a year hence. But I also say it with conviction and existential investment. I thank God that the Capitol Hill insurrection appears to have succeeded only in forcing numerous Trump collaborators to abandon him.
- An entirely legitimate and godly secondary response to the downfall of Trump is laughter. The witness of scripture is that such a character is scorned and ridiculed by God and therefore may or must also be scorned and ridiculed by those who identify as trusters in and followers of God. The piety that is too pious to laugh at the downfall of the proud is more pious than God, which means that it is a false piety.
Resolutions and observations
My own provisional resolutions and observations:
- I want to be careful to temper law with gospel. I will not blame, in fact I will appreciate, any of my sisters and brothers who forebear to participate in the derision because they wish to focus exclusively on offering grace to those who have been deceived—or even to Trump himself. But the grace they—we, because I also wish to offer grace—offer must not be the cheap grace of unconditional positive regard, of reconciliation without repentance. But I will not abide sanctimonious (falsely pious) admonitions not to make fun of Trump and Trumpism. Laughing at such evils is an integral component of properly godly response to them.
- I aim to confine derision to third-person discourse: I will laugh at “him” and at “them” but not at “you.” To you—whether you are one of my Trump-supporting friends or (if by some unimaginable chain of events I should ever have occasion to address him directly) Donald Trump himself, I say this: as a saved and grateful sinner, utterly dependent on God’s merciful lovingkindness, I wish to offer you nothing but grace. Grace with truth. Grace and peace. Grace that aims at unity both in fear of God and in holy laughter at all that is anti-God.
- As I think of the biblical prophets, I can recall many instances of speaking second-person (“You!”) words of grace, and of admonition, and of condemnation. I can recall cases of biblical prophets uttering derisive words in the third person. I cannot recall a biblical prophet laughing derisively in someone’s face. Can you?
- God will ultimately look you and me and Trump directly in the eye and call us by our true name and speak a final word, in the second-person singular, of acceptance or rejection, blessing or cursing, perhaps even praise or derision. I hope and pray for myself, and for you, and for all my fellow humans, including Trump, that this final word will be a word of blessing. It is not for me to speak such a final word to anyone or to predict what God’s final word to anyone will be. Nothing I say should be construed as attempting to do so.
What do you think?