Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?
The steadfast love of God endures all the day.
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.
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!”
But I am like a green olive treeEnglish Standard Version
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.
While the Psalms are focused on timeless truths, a few, like Psalm 52, are anchored to very specific historical events or people. David wrote this psalm in his anger at his betrayal by Doeg, a story recounted for us in 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 22 as David was running for his life from King Saul. We can get a sense of how emotionally David reacted to Doeg’s treachery when David wrote how the righteous would mock Doeg when God judged him for his evil.
Were this just a psalm of vengeance, it would not have been preserved for Hebrew temple worship and our scripture study. Had David only written from his anger at his betrayal, he would have described himself differently in the final two verses of this psalm, about how he had been wronged, how righteous he was compared to this deceiver, or how difficult his fugitive life had become now that Saul knew where he had gone.
Instead, David described himself as an olive tree, not in a longing wish for the future, but as a present state. This man who could not stay in one place for long, who had been cut off from his family and friends, thanked God for the roots that anchored him and sustained him with steadfast love. In other words, when this crisis in his life cut him off from everyone else that had supported him, David recognized that God had always sustained him and would continue to be his source of protection and strength. God is calling us to live in this profound truth that David recognized. David found his roots when he had to run for his life, but those roots had been growing within him for years as he communed with God through song, worship, service, and prayer. In the same way, our roots in God are the foundation for our faith and our existence. What we do, what we say, and how we treat others are the outcomes of how our roots have grown.
But like tree roots, we can’t see our roots or the roots in those around us directly. This sometimes causes us to get our theology backwards by focusing too much on the fruit in our tree rather than the roots. This misunderstanding reached dramatic levels at the church in Corinth when Paul reminded them in 1 Corinthians 12 that God needs all types of talents and efforts in the church, just as our bodies are made of many different parts. Some kinds of Christian service are much more visible than others—almost everyone in a church knows the preacher’s name, but far fewer know the name of the nursery worker or the custodian. Some types of Christian service don’t have special job titles, and these are even more easily overlooked: good friend, helpful neighbor, kind stranger, and faithful worker.
That David described himself as an olive tree further emphasizes the roots. An olive tree is a relatively small tree, or even a large bush, so it would have fit unobtrusively in the temple courts, not attracting attention as would a large shade tree. Olive trees grow with such a robust root system that, if the tree is destroyed, it can often grow back from the strong roots. One individual olive tree’s production would not be great, so farmers planted whole hillsides of olive trees to harvest large olive crops for food and to press into olive oil.
Individual households frequently planted fig trees for their varied uses. The canopy of large leaves provided plenty of shade, creating what for practical purposes was an additional room in the house. The fruit of a single fig tree was abundant and delicious to pick and eat directly off the tree. A fig tree grows rapidly, so the household could benefit soon from this tree. In contrast, and olive tree grows slowly to a modest height, limited in both shade and produce.
This contrast is part of the point in aspiring to be an olive tree. What is above ground is of secondary importance to what is below ground, rooted deeply into the foundation of God’s holy temple. That in us which is rooted in and sustained by God’s Spirit is far more important than our resume of impressive deeds. In God’s plan, the roots come first, and from the roots come the works that God calls us to do. These works are like the canopies of the trees, taking many different forms and shapes, but God’s eternal focus, and David’s celebration, is not on the canopy but on the roots.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.