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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 58

Verses 1-11

Psalms 58:1-11

THIS psalmist’s fiery indignation against unjust judges and evil-doers generally is not kindled by personal wrongs. The psalm comes hot from a heart lacerated by the sight of widespread corruption, and constrained to seek for patience in the thought of the swift sweeping away of evil men before their plans are effected. Stern triumph in the punitive manifestations of God’s rule, and keen sense of the need of such, are its keynotes. Vehement emotion stirs the poet’s imagination to heap together strong and, in part, obscure metaphors. Here emphatically "Indignatio facit versus." The psalm is Dantesque in its wealth of sombre imagination, which produces the most solemn effects with the homeliest metaphors, and in its awed and yet satisfied contemplation of the fate of evil-doers. It parts itself into three portions, -a dark picture of abounding evil (Psalms 58:1-5); its punishment prayed for (Psalms 58:6-9); and the consequent joy of the righteous and widespread recognition of the rule of a just God (Psalms 58:10-11).

The abrupt question of Psalms 58:1 speaks of long pent-up indignation, excited by protracted experience of injustice, and anticipates the necessary negative answer which follows. The word rendered by the A.V. and R.V. "in silence" or "dumb" can scarcely be twisted into intelligibility, and the small alteration of reading required for the rendering "gods" is recommended by the similar expressions in the kindred Psalms 82:1-8. Taken thus, the question is hurled at the appointed depositaries of judicial power and supreme authority. There is no need to suppose, with Hupfeld and others, whom Cheyne follows, that these "gods" are supernatural beings intrusted with the government of the world. The explanation of the name lies in the conception of such power as bestowed by God, and in some sense a delegation of His attribute; or, as our Lord explained the similar name in Psalms 82:1-8, as given because "to them the word of God came." It sets in sinister light the flagrant contradiction between the spirit in which these men exercised their office and the source from which they derived it, and thus sharpens the reproach of the question. The answer is introduced by a particle conveying a strong opposition to the previous supposition couched in the question. "Heart" and "hands" are so obviously antithetical, that the alteration of "in heart" to "ye all" is not acceptable, though it removes the incongruity of plans being wrought in the heart, the seat of devices, not of actions. "Work" may be here used anomalously, as we say "work out," implying the careful preparation of a plan, and there may even be a hint that the true acts are the undone acts of the heart. The unaccomplished purpose is a deed, though never clothed in outward fact. Evil determined is, in a profound sense, done before it is done; and, in another equally solemn, not done when "‘tis done," as Macbeth has taught us. The "act," as men call it, follows: "In the earth"-not only in the heart-"ye weigh out the violence of your hands." The scales of justice are untrue. Instead of dispensing equity, as they were bound to do, they clash into the balance the weight of their own violence.

It is to be noted that the psalm says no more about the sins of unjust authorities, but passes on to describe the "wicked" generally. The transition may suggest that under unjust rulers all wrong doers find impunity, and so multiply and worsen; or it may simply be that these former are now merged in the class to which they belong. The type of "wickedness" gibbeted is the familiar one of malicious calumniators and persecutors. From birth onwards they have continuously been doers of evil. The psalmist is not laying down theological propositions about heredity, but describing the inveterate habit of sin which has become a second nature, and makes amendment hopeless. The reference to "lies" naturally suggests the image of the serpent’s poison. An envenomed tongue is worse than any snake’s bite. And the mention of the serpent stimulates the poet’s imagination to yet another figure, which puts most graphically that disregard ox warnings, entreaties, and every voice, human or Divine, that marks long-practised, customary sinfulness. There can be no more striking symbol of determined disregard to the calls of patient Love and the threats of outraged Justice than that of the snake lying coiled, with its head in the centre of its motionless folds, as if its ears were stopped by its own bulk, while the enchanter plays his softest notes and speaks his strongest spells in vain. There are such men, thinks this psalmist. There are none whom the mightiest spell, that of God’s love in Christ, could not conquer and free from their poison; but there are such as will close their ears to its plaintive sweetness. This is the condemnation that light is come and men love darkness, and had rather lie coiled in their holes than have their fangs extracted.

The general drift of the second part (Psalms 58:6-9) is to call down Divine retribution on these obstinate, irreclaimable evil-doers. Figure is heaped on figure in a fashion suggestive of intense emotion. The transiency of insolent evil, the completeness of its destruction, are the thoughts common to them all. There are difficulties in translation, and, in Psalms 58:9, probable textual corruption: but these should not hide the tremendous power of gloomy imagination, which can lay hold of vulgar and in part loathsome things, and, by sheer force of its own solemn insight, can free them from all low or grotesque associations, and turn them into awful symbols. The intense desire for the sweeping away of evil-doers has met us in many previous psalms, and it is needless to repeat former observations on it. But it is nowhere expressed with such a wealth of metaphor as here. The first of these, that of crushing the jaws and breaking the teeth of a beast of prey, occurs also in Psalms 3:7. It is less terrible than the subsequent imprecations, since it only contemplates the wicked’s deprivation of power to do harm. In Psalms 58:7 a their destruction is sought, while, in the second clause of the same verse, the defeat of their attempts is desired. Psalms 58:8 then expands the former wish, and Psalms 58:9 the latter. This plain symmetrical arrangement makes the proposals to resort to transposition unnecessary. Mountain torrents quickly run themselves dry; and the more furious their rush, the swifter their exhaustion. They leave a chaos of whitened stones, that lie bleaching in the fierce sun when the wild spate is past. So stormy and so short will be the career of evil-doers. So could a good man of old wish it to be; and so may we be sure of and desire the cessation of oppression and man’s inhumanity to man. Psalms 58:7 b is obscure. All these figures are struck out with such parsimony of words that they are difficult. They remind one of some of the stern, unfinished work of Michael Angelo, where a blow or two of his chisel, or a dash or two of his brush, has indicated rather than expressed his purpose, and left a riddle, fascinating in its incompleteness, for smaller men to spell out. In Psalms 58:7 b it may be asked, Who is the archer? If God, then the whole is a presentation as if of an occurrence taking place before our eyes. God shoots His arrow, and at once it lodges in the heart of the enemies, and they are as though cut off. But it is better to take the wicked as the subject of both verbs, the change from singular to plural being by no means unusual in successive clauses with the same subject. If so, this clause recurs to the thought of Psalms 58:6, and prays for the neutralising of the wicked man’s attempts. He fits his arrows, aims, and draws the bow. May they fall harmless, as if barbless! An emendation has been proposed by which the clause is made parallel with Psalms 37:2, "As grass let them be quickly cut off," thus securing a complete parallel with a, -and avoiding the difficulty in the word rendered by us "pointless." But the existing text gives a vigorous metaphor, the peculiarity of which makes it preferable to the feebler image of withering grass.

The prayer for destruction is caught up again in Psalms 58:8, in two daring figures which tremble on the verge of lowering the key of the whole; but by escaping that peril, produce the contrary effect, and heighten it. A slug leaves a shining track of slime as it creeps, which exudes from its soft body, and thus it seems to disintegrate itself by its own motion. It is the same thought of the suicidal character of bad men’s efforts which was expressed by the stream foaming itself away in the nullah. It is the eternal truth that opposition to God’s will destroys itself by its own activity. The unfulfilled life of a premature birth, with eyes which never opened to the light for which they were made and possibilities which never unfolded, and which is huddled away into a nameless grave, still more impressively symbolises futility and transiency.

In Psalms 58:9 the figure has given much trouble to commentators. Its broad meaning is, however, undoubted. It is, as Psalms 58:6 and Psalms 58:7 b, symbolic of the Divine intervention which wrecks wicked men’s plans before they are wrought out. The picture before the psalmist seems to be that of a company of travellers round their camp fire, preparing their meal. They heap brush wood under the pot, and expect to satisfy their hunger; but before the pot is warmed through, not to say before the water boils or the meat is cooked, down comes a whirlwind, which sweeps away fire, pot, and all. Every word of the clause is doubtful, and with the existing text, the best that can be done is not wholly satisfactory. If emendation is resorted to, the suggestion of Bickell, adopted by Cheyne, gives a good sense: "[And] while your [flesh] is yet raw, the hot wrath [of Jehovah] shall sweep it away." Baethgen makes a slighter alteration, and renders, "While it is still raw, He sweeps it away in wrath." Retaining the existing text (which is witnessed by the LXX and other old versions), probably the best rendering is, "Whether [it be] green or burning, He shall whirl it away." This general understanding of the words is shared by commentators who differ as to what is represented as swept away-some making it the thorn fire, the twigs of which may be either full of sap or well alight; while others take the reference to be to the meat in the pot, which may be either "living," i.e. raw, or well on the way to being cooked. Neither application is quite free from difficulty, especially in view of the fact that some pressure has to be put on the word rendered "burning," which is not an adjective, but a noun, and is usually employed to designate the fiery wrath of God, as it is rendered in the amended text just mentioned. After all attempts at clearing up the verse, one must be content to put a mark of interrogation at any rendering. But the scope of the figure seems discoverable through the obscurity: It is a homely and therefore vigorous picture of half-accomplished plans suddenly reduced to utter failure, and leaving their concocters hungry for the satisfaction which seemed so near. The cookery may go on merrily and the thorns crackle cheerily, but the simoom comes, topples over the tripod on which the pot swung, and blows the fire away in a hundred directions. Peter’s gibbet was ready, and the morning of his execution was near; but when day dawned, "there was no small stir what was become of him." The wind had blown him away from the expectation of the people of the Jews into safe quarters; and the fire was dispersed.

The closing part (Psalms 58:10-11) breathes a stern spirit of joy over the destruction of the wicked. That is a terrible picture of the righteous bathing his feet in the blood of the wicked. {Psalms 68:23} It expresses not only the dreadful abundance of blood, but also the satisfaction of the "righteous" at its being shed. There is an ignoble and there is a noble and Christian satisfaction in even the destructive providences of God. It is not only permissible but imperative on those who would live in sympathy with His righteous dealings and with Himself, that they should see in these the manifestation of eternal justice, and should consider that they roll away burdens from earth and bring hope and rest to the victims of oppression. It is no unworthy shout of personal vengeance, nor of unfeeling triumph, that is lifted up from a relieved world when Babylon falls. If it is right in God to destroy, it cannot be wrong in His servants to rejoice that He does. Only they have to take heed that their emotion is untarnished by selfish gratulation, and is not untinged with solemn pity for those who were indeed doers of evil, but were themselves the greatest sufferers from their evil. It is hard, but not impossible, to take all that is expressed in the psalm, and to soften it by some effluence from the spirit of Him who wept over Jerusalem, and yet pronounced its doom.

The last issue of God’s judgments contemplated by the psalm warrants the joy of the righteous; for in these there is a demonstration to the world that there is "fruit" to the righteous, and that notwithstanding all bewilderments from the sight of prosperous wickedness and oppressed righteousness "there is a God who judges in the earth." The word "judging" is here in the plural, corresponding with "‘God" (Elohim), which is also plural in form. Possibly the construction is to be explained on the ground that the words describe the thoughts of surrounding, polytheistic nations, who behold the exhibition of God’s righteousness. But more probably the plural is, here used for the sake of the contrast with the gods of Psalms 58:1. Over these unworthy representatives of Divine justice sits the true judge, in the manifoldness of His attributes, exercising His righteous though slow-footed judgments.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 58". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".