The Characterization of the Wicked in Psalm 5


“Give heed to the voice of my cry, My King and my God…” (Psalm 5:2)  Psalm 5 is a lament of the psalmist to God asking for protection, for guidance and for just punishment upon the wicked.  As Jacobson states, this structure is not an unusual format for a psalm of lament.  (Jacobson 2)  The challenge that the psalmist presents to the reader is a conflicting understanding of the wicked.  There seems to be a confusion of terms, “boastful”, “speak falsehood”, and “bloodthirsty.”  The psalmist’s conception of the wicked is broad but unclear.  In this article, we attempt to answer the following question, “What is the concrete understanding of wickedness conveyed by the psalmist?”  The answer can be found in the multiple structures used in construction of the psalm.

The Five Part Monologue

The psalmist takes the reader on a journey that yields three distinct structures attempting to convey the mind of the author.  The first structure is the most readily visible which divides the psalm into five parts.  The first strophe is encapsulated in verses two to three which are a plea for God to listen to the psalmist.  The second strophe, verses four to six, matter of factly explain God’s enmity towards evil.  Building on this same line of thought, the third strophe from verses seven to nine show a desire to worship and existence in God’s presence, thereby contrasting the psalmist from the wicked.  Verses ten and eleven form the fourth strophe which restate the rejection of the wicked.   Finally, the fifth strophe, verses 12 and 13, are the psalmist’s prayerful request for protection. (Craigie and Tate 85). In this initial structure, starting from the second strophe, one finds the psalmist alternating between diatribes against the wicked and petitions for his own acceptance and protection.

Strophe I           a plea for God to listen to the psalmist (vv. 2-3)

Strophe II          matter of factly states God’s enmity towards evil (vv. 4-6)

Strophe III        shows a desire to worship and for existence in God’s presence, thereby contrasting the psalmist from the wicked (vv. 7-9)

Strophe IV        restates the rejection of the wicked (vv.10-11)

Strophe V         psalmist’s prayerful request for protection (vv. 12-13)

The second strophe, the description of the LORD’s attitude towards the wicked, also conveys the psalmist attitude towards the wicked.  Rogerson and McKay confirm that the content parallels the Torah-based definition of entry into God’s presence found in Psalms 15 and 34.  While those passages describe the righteous, those allowed entry, this second strophe conveys the antithesis, those not allowed entry.  (Rogerson and McKay 30)  In this second strophe, the distinction between holeleem, “boasters”,  ish dameem, “men of blood”, and mirmah, “decietful” must be addressed.  Botterweck and Ringgren enable this connection by qualifying holeleem as those who boast in their lack of dependence on God.  In both the magicians of Isaiah 44:25 and Psalms 73:3, they are conveyed as appearing to have power, to an extent enticing jealousy from the psalmist, but the deceit is in the fact that their power is false and fleeting.  (Botterweck and Ringgren, 413)  The ish dameem can be understood in two ways.  First, the man of blood refers to those who shed the blood of the innocent for their own gain as is evidenced in 1 Kings 2:5.  (Botterweck and Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 3 243)  The alternative understanding stems from the fact that throughout the OT, dameem is connected with a wide variety of seemingly lesser offences than blood letting; in this instance, dameem is connected with mirmah, “deceitfulness”.  This indicates that ish dameem may be employed merely for intensification of the sin of deceit and should not be identified as a separate sin.  (Botterweck and Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 3 244)  One can see a single thread of wickedness which is slowly gaining steam, the sin of deceit and when connected more directly with holeleem, the sin of the deception that independence from God is to be prized.

The third strophe, seemingly a proclamation of the psalmist own righteousness.  As Maclaren notes, the psalmist believes in his access to God (Maclaren 43) but as Rogerson and Mckay affirm, this access is only through God’s berov chesed, “multitude of loving kindness” and the psalmist own reverence of God conveyed by beyiratheka, “in fear of you.”  This two-part entry into God’s presence conveys not only God’s mercy but also the self-righteousness of the psalmist in contrast with the wicked.  (Rogerson and McKay 31)

This understanding of wickedness is again reinforced in the fourth strophe in this second, more emotional depiction of the wicked.  Cola after cola, the psalmist uses verse 10 to describe the internal condition of the wicked and the expression of this condition through such graphic terms as qirbam hauoth, “hearts of destruction”, and qever pathuach geronam, “their throats are open graves.”  Such words depict the psalmist belief in the extreme corruption existing inside the wicked.  Verse 11 pronounces violent judgment upon the wicked and concludes the matter.

Through this five strophe structure, we see the author identifying the wicked as those who do not trust in the LORD and are proud of their ability to remain independent from that trust.  This is cofirmed by the final strophe in which the author states “but let all those rejoice put their trust in You…” (Psalm 5:10)  This is in clear contrast to the wickedness observed.  Through this structure alone, we can understand a specific definition of the wicked, those who do glorify in their own independence from God.  However, the following analysis will expose a broader scope for those who fall into this category of the wicked.

Three part Monologue for the Righteous.

The three-part structure depicted by Leupold illustrates the common belief that not only accepts the analysis of the wicked in the five part structure above but also conveys a psalmist who is righteous, able to come to God’s presence, and depicting himself apart from the unrighteous, the wicked.  The first division of Leupold’s structure is verses 1-4, the plea itself.  The second division is from verses 5 to 8 conveying the fact that the wicked cannot gain access to God’s presence.  The third and final division of the structure extending from verses 9-13 both requests God’s guidance out of piety and righteously condemns the wicked.  Leupold accepts this structure to show a marked contrast between the wicked and the psalmist.  (Leupold 74,75)

Brief mention is made to Leupold and this three-part structure to convey his agreement with Craigie and Tate in wickedness as set apart from the psalmist.  Leupold’s structure tends to highlight an ulterior motive of presenting the psalmist as righteous rather than depicting the psalmist through impartial analysis.  For this reason, the focus of the three divisions is on the relationship between God and the psalmist, his plea to God, his access to God, his guidance and protection from God, all in opposition to the plight of the wicked.

With reverence to the psalmist, the wicked are thus characterized as those out of relationship with God; the same relationship which the psalmist possesses with God, a clear demarcation between wicked and righteous.  In terms of understanding the wicked, Leupold does little more than agree with Craigie and Tate and expand the chasm between the psalmist and the wicked.  However, through the final alternative structure that follows, one can see that the psalmist himself may not have entirely agreed with Leupold.

Inverted Parallelism – A Change of Heart

Upon inspection of the reference to the person of God, another alternative approach to the structure of this Psalm is revealed.  It is in this structure that we may encounter a deeper understanding of the psalmist’s characterization of the wicked.  At first glance, Psalm 5 is a monologue plea directed to God in the second person.  Seemingly without fail, the author refers to God as “you”, consistently using the 2ms forms of the verbs to describe the action and attitude towards the wicked as well as his own plea to God.  However, in the middle of the psalm, in verse 7b, we find the lone exception to this rule.  “The LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”   This 3ms usage of yetheiv adonai is in stark contrast to the rest of the monologue to God in the second person.  Maclaren highlights that from 7b an inverted parallelism is created by the psalmist.  (Maclaren 38)  Maclaren observes that the specificity of the wicked in the depiction of ish dameem umirmah, “man of blood” and “liars”, indicates emotion possibly stemming from personal experience.  (Maclaren 43)   However, one can sense that the psalmist has come to a realization.  The psalmist then proceeds to take a step back and reassess his plea.    Using this as the fulcrum, the verses stem out in an inverted parallelism following an A-B-C-D-C-B-A  (Verses 1-4 paired with verses 12-13, Verse 5a paired with verses 10-11, and verses 5b-7a paired with verses 8-9).  This format is built surrounding verse 7b in the Hebrew OT (please note in the English versions, this is verse 6b).

Stemming outwards in reverse from 7b, one sees a set of four statements which characterizes the wicked, from verses 5b-7a.  A closer look into the word usage in this division shows that the strophe conveys more than mere requirements for entry.  In verse 5b, the characteristic of God is formed into an action of God, specifically yegreka.  Commonly translated as to dwell, Botterweck and Ringgren clarify that the usage “occupies an intermediate position between a native and a foreigner… therefore lacks the protection and privileges which usually come from blood relationship and place of birth.”  (Botterweck and Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 2 443)  The ensuing verbs used in verses 6 and 7a show a progressively growing hatred for the wicked.  Whether it is God’s anger that is growing or the author’s anger is yet to be seen.

In contrast to this increasing vehemence to the wicked, verses 8 – 9 show the psalmist expressing his own decreasing security in his relation to God.  In the initial cola, the psalmist is entering the house of the LORD.  The second cola shows the psalmist worshipping towards the temple, but not so close to enter or not permitted to enter.  The third cola is the psalmist now requesting guidance towards God (stated as in righteousness) due to the influence or obstacle of his enemies. The fourth cola in verse 9b is almost an impersonal request asking God to simply prepare a path towards him.  Maclaren indicates that the usage of havshar is a request to not just clear a path from obstacles but possibly obstacles caused by the individuals own doing.  For this reason, the contrast can be seen in verse 11 in which the wicked are succumbing to their own counsel, their own obstacles.  (Maclaren 45)  One can clearly sense the psalmist slow realization that possibly his own connection with God is not so strong.


Through these initial two sets of cola stemming from the focal cola in 7b, the psalmist first builds his enmity towards the wicked, attributing it to God.  Then the realization occurs that he may be straddling the boundary of the realm of the wicked, in stark contrast to the claims of Leupold and similar commentaries.  This realization takes shape in the four cola proceeding from 7b in which the psalmist expresses his growing understanding in his disconnect from God.


Coming to verses 10 and 11, the sense is that of a desperate outburst of emotion in contrast to the statement of fact in 5a.  Verse 5a states in very bland terms that God is not pleased with the wickedness of men.  Verse 5a, shows a characteristic of God.  Botterweck and Ringgren present clarity in the vocabulary that illustrates an orderly thought within the strophe.  Chaphetz, occurring 12 times in Psalms, refers to a derived pleasure stemming from a source.  This pleasure is in many cases produced through a repeated action, in this case the acts of the wicked.  Psalms 40:14 indicate a pleasure derived from nonmaterialistic values.  (Botterweck and Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 5 93–95)  The simplicity and lack of emotion in the text stems from the fact that psalmist feels disconnected from the wicked.  Contrast this text with verses 10 and 11, one can see a deluge of emotion exploding from the psalmist.  Such emotion must find its source in the realization that the simple statement in 5a may in fact apply to himself.  Verse 10, “they flatter with their tongue” reveals the fact that the wicked have, to an extent, successfully tempted the psalmist.  The tone of the psalmist attack on the wicked in verses 10 and 11 illustrate a clear anguish which was not present in the earlier depiction of the wicked from verses 5b-7a, possibly a result of the realization that the wicked were successful in their flattery.  The psalmist distress is born of fear of this realization.


Finally, the two forms of plea that bracket this psalm attest to the same fact.  In the opening plea from verses 2-4, the plea is an expectation of help.  It shows a calmness and an entitlement for that help.  Verse 4b makes this clear in its ending of “In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.”  The psalmist has confidence in his very personal demand of the LORD.   With the psalm flipped in focus around 7b from a calm attack on the wicked to a desperate diatribe against the wicked, verse 12 and 13 are no longer a general plea to “do something”, but a more targeted request for protection.  One can note that in the opening plea, the wording was referring to the psalmist as “my” and “I’.  By the closing request, the psalmist has come to the somber resolution that he may not be included in the righteous, and so the request is a more general request for a protection of the third party from those who have tempted him to stray from the LORD.  Usage of col chosei ban, “all who trust in you” in verse 12, illustrate the psalmist’s aloofness from the group of righteous.


In this inverted parallelism, one can see that the characterization and classification of the wicked, though matter of factly similar to Craigie’s understanding of those who glorify themselves in their independence from God, is slowly broadening in scope to those, such as himself, who are wavering due to the influence of the wicked.


Wickedness Extended


Psalm 5, when approached with reverence for the psalmist, is misconstrued as an attack on the wicked.  Authors and preachers alike share this opinion and resort to preaching the gap between the righteous and the wicked.  However, this deeper look into the psalm has shown that the psalmist has revealed to himself, if not to all preachers and authors, that the gap between the wicked and himself is much smaller than he may have first believed.


A characterization of the wicked must understand that it will fail if done as a study in defining what is wicked.  Similar to the idea that sin can be described as the lack of God, wickedness can be described as the lack of righteousness or right relationship with God.  The psalmist attempts to characterize the wicked independently of God and in terms of their observed behaviors.  In doing so realizes, in verse 7b, the psalmist realizes his flaw.  Slowly his tone changes to understand that wickedness, is not just the glorification of ones separateness from God, but also must include those who waver in their connection with God.  Sadly for the psalmist, he realizes that he too may fall into this category at some level.  We too must learn such humility.


One can see that it is easy to preach the evils of the wicked.  It is easy to accept the differences we have with those we perceive as wicked when we try to classify them.  However, this too is a trap of the counsel of the wicked.  An impartial approach must lead us all to the understanding that wickedness is broader than any action or personality trait, but must be expressed in our own relationship with God.  Any separation from God is wickedness.  Our psalmist comes to this realization as we all must do for in this realization we can both continue to grow closer to God as well as find solidarity among all man; for all have sinned.



Works Cited

Botterweck, G. Johannes, and Helmer Ringgren, eds. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 2. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975. Print.

—, eds. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 3. Grand Rapids (Mich.): Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975. Print.

—, eds. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986. Print.

Craigie, Peter C., and Marvin E. Tate. Psalms 1-50: Second Edition. 2 edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004. Print.

Jacobson, Rolf. “Psalm 36:5-11.” Interpretation 61.1 (2007): 64–66. Print.

Leupold, Herbert C. Exposition of Psalms. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Pub Group, 1970. Print.

Maclaren, A. The Expositor’s Bible: The Psalms, Vol. 1 by Alexander Maclaren. Ed. W. Robertson Nicoll. N.p. Print.

Rogerson, J. W., and J. W. McKay. Psalms 1-50. First Edition edition. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Print.





A great study 🙂 enjoyed it. As to your request about being brutally honest with your paper, I think this was a very nicely executed exgesis. I do not think you have used it as a platform to fly off somewhere else. The word studies were helpful and you did not extrapolate too much out of them, or make too much of a fuss so as to get stuck in them. The structures reveal so much about the Psalm and you used them to the optimum. So, good!


Some things to note: i) next time, try to present structures as structures rather than as descriptions of strucutres, ii) would have loved to see a little more in the application beasue this is an excellent piece for this purpose. Would make for a nice sermon or a group bible study piece, and iii) a bit repetitive – some parts, but not a big deal, I understand that because we are looking at three structures of the same passage some repetition has worked its way in.


Nice job 🙂


Grade: 67% A

[A R1]As pointed out in the class, place full stop after the citation.

[A R2]Broad and unclear, yes could be. But conflicting?

[A R3]Could you have presented the structure more graphically? Easirer for your reader’s eye and hence more quickly absorbed and understood. It adds to a sense of clarity.

[A R4]Mention the verse nos., always. It’s helpful for your reader, otherwise your reader will have to keep going back to where your structure division is.

[A R5]Aviod? Makes the sentence a little confusing.

[A R6]Is it possible to hold both in view?

[A R7]In the sense of one who fears the LORD, right? (just to make sure I am reading it correctly)

[A R8]Interesting isn’t it that the wicked are considered to be in rebellion against God

[A R9]Nice. Many a times we think the wicked are those who steal kill beat up people etc., but we forget that something as non-aggressive as not trusting in the LORD constitutes wickedness.

[A R10]Aha!

[A R11]Right

[A R12]Yes

[A R13]Ok so here it is

[A R14]Yes, and hence the more personal and emotional tone of the psalmist in these verses

[A R15]could probably use another word? Aloofness seems to imply that the psalmist himself is uninterested or distant, whereas, if I read you right, here the psalmist probably wants to be part of “all who trust in you” but feel is feeling a little inadequate or unsure.

[A R16]Like this reading, it’s a little different and definitely a reading of the psalmist’s charactersization I can realte with 🙂

[A R17]Indeed

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