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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Psalms 58

 

 

Verse 1-2

Heading (Psalms 58:1 a).

‘For the Chief Musician, set to Al-tashheth. A Psalm of David. Michtam.

The heading is a reproduction of the heading to Psalms 57 without the final clause. Psalms 58 is another of the many Psalms dedicated to the Choirmaster or Chief Musician. This may simply indicate Psalms put at his disposal. It is set to the tune Al-tashheth (‘Do not destroy’), and is one of the ‘Psalms of David’. Michtam is probably to be seen as a plea for protection.

Having himself been a victim of injustice, both at the hands of Saul, and at the hands of his duly appointed authorities, David inveighs against injustice in all its forms. It has brought home to him the sinfulness of man in general, and he calls on God to deal with it wherever it is found. He then ends the Psalm in the triumphant assurance that righteousness will prevail because it is God Who judges the earth.

Some have seen in the psalm a reference to Absalom’s rebellion, but it is difficult to see how the man who was so grieved over Absalom’s death because he loved him so much, could have written of him in such terms. It seems far more likely that the ideas spring from the time when David was himself suffering at the hands of unjust authorities.

Injustice Prevails Where There Should Be Justice (Psalms 58:1-2).

Having constantly experienced injustice at the hands of those who ruled over Israel, David gives his assessment of them. Instead of being men who quietly assess things and come to the right verdict, they make hasty judgments and act violently. It is certainly a fair assessment of the behaviour of Saul.

Psalms 58:1

‘Do you indeed in silence speak righteousness?

Do you judge uprightly, O you sons of men?’

David reminds men of what they are, they are ‘sons of men (adam)’, not gods or heavenly beings. And he challenges them to consider as to whether they are wise in their judgments. Are they of those who listen quietly before coming to a verdict? Do they judge uprightly? David’s experience is otherwise. He was constantly aware of how much he had suffered as a consequence of those who would not listen to the truth.

To ‘speak righteousness’ is in context to pronounce a righteous verdict (it parallels judging uprightly). To do it ‘in silence’ (elem) is to act thoughtfully without being swayed by outside voices, or inward prejudices. The wise judge listens and does not talk too much. ‘He who refrains his lips does wisely’ (Proverbs 10:19). The Book of Proverbs constantly emphasises the need for the righteous to be silent, and not to judge things precipitately and speak too quickly (Proverbs 10:19; Proverbs 15:28; Proverbs 17:27-28; Proverbs 18:13).

Note On ’Elem (‘in silence’).

There is no real justification for emending ’elem (‘in silence’), derived from ’lm - to be speechless, to eliym (‘mighty ones’), and then emending further to elohiym (‘gods’). None of the ancient versions would support such a change, and elem makes good sense as it is. Thus the emendation is unnecessary. It is done by those who are attracted by emendations, (something which has been all too common in the past), as a suggested contrast with ‘sons of men’.

End of note.

Psalms 58:2

‘No, in heart you work wickedness,

You weigh out the violence of your hands in the earth (or ‘land’).’

His reply to his own question is ‘No’. The tendency of men is not to judge uprightly (Psalms 58:1), not to listen (Psalms 58:4-5), but to ‘work unrighteousness’ (the word for wickedness constantly contrasts with righteousness), to come to hasty judgments, to be unrighteous of heart, to dispense (weigh out) their own kind of justice through violence. It was an assessment that came from his own experience.


Verses 3-5

David’s Verdict On The Unrighteous (Psalms 58:3-5).

David’s verdict on the unrighteous is that they are like this from birth. That there is within man that which causes them to go astray, a tendency to sin. They are like snakes who poison men, and never listen.

Psalms 58:3

‘The wicked are estranged from the womb,

They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.’

The unrighteous are like it even from birth. They are estranged from righteousness and justice, and therefore from God, from the womb. They are ‘alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their hearts’ (Ephesians 4:18). As soon as they are born they begin to use deceit to get their own way. Babes in arms soon discover how they can get attention for themselves by pretending that there is something wrong. And as they grow older such deceit becomes natural to them. It arises from what men are.

Psalms 58:4-5

‘Their poison is like the poison of a serpent,

They are like the deaf adder which stops her ear,

Which does not listen to the voice of charmers,

Charming never so wisely.’

As a consequence when they grow up they are like snakes who are filled with poison with which they harm others. And what is worse they are like the deadly poisonous deaf adders who will not listen to any attempt to make them hear. They go blindly on in their own way, without a thought of what they are doing. No matter how wisely God and good men speak to them, they are deaf to all attempts to reach them.

Snake charming was, and is, regularly practised in the east. By this means even snakes could be charmed into harmlessness. But not the deaf adder. It did not respond to any attempt to charm it, however subtle.

In the same ways David had made every effort to show Saul how wrong he was about him. But Saul even refused to listen to the pleas of his own son Jonathan. Whatever was said his ears were closed. All he could do was strike out with deadly poison.


Verses 6-9

David Calls On God To Deal With The Unrighteous As They Deserve (Psalms 58:6-9).

In five more vivid illustrations David calls on God to deal with the unrighteous, followed by a sixth by which he assures the unrighteous that all their plans will come to nothing. In the first three he calls for them to be rendered harmless; to have their teeth broken, to be caused to disappear like dangerous, life threatening, fast flowing water, and to be robbed of their means of hurting people. In the next three he calls for them to have the life span of a snail, or the lifelessness of a still born child, and then assures them that they will lose their means of hurting people, because God will sweep them away. Note that along with the illustration about the snake there are seven illustrations in all, an indication of divine completeness.

Psalms 58:6

‘Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth,

Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O YHWH.’

As well as being like snakes, his adversaries are like lions on the hunt. The breaking of the teeth was an ancient way of rendering a fierce animal harmless. So David calls on God to ‘break the teeth’ of those who are arrayed against him, in other words to render them comparatively harmless. He describes them as young lions with large teeth. We have already seen his descriptions of his enemies as ‘lions’ (Psalms 35:17; Psalms 22:13; Psalms 22:21; Psalms 57:4). And he wants them neutralised.

Psalms 58:7

‘Let them melt away as water which runs apace,

When he aims his arrows, let them be as though they were cut off.’

His next illustration is of flood waters which suddenly arise, flow swiftly along the bed of the wadi sweeping all before it, and then as quickly disappear, leaving once more a dry river bed. Their life-threatening violence is replaced by calm. He calls on God to ensure this end for the unrighteous, no doubt with his own assailants in mind.

His third illustration is of an archer whose arrows have their points removed. When he lets loose his arrows, may they be rendered useless. In the same way, he prays, when unrighteous let loose their arrows, but let them be rendered harmless.

Psalms 58:8

‘ Let them be as a snail which melts and passes away,

Like the untimely birth of a woman, which has not seen the sun.’

His illustrations now change from asking for the unrighteous to be rendered harmless, to praying for their untimely end. His next illustration is that of a snail which is short-lived, and melts and passes away. The snail clings to the rock, but the burning heat of the son causes it to shrivel and melt so that all that is left is the empty shell clinging to the rock. This can especially be seen if salt is put on it, a device possibly practised by the ancients. It may also have in mind the trail of slime that it leaves behind as it moves. He prays that the unrighteous, who are equally disgusting, might be equally short-lived.

His next illustration is that of the stillborn child which never lives to see the sun. In the same way he prays for a swift end for the unrighteous.

Psalms 58:9

‘Before your pots can feel the thorns,

He will sweep them away with a whirlwind, the green and the burning alike.’

He closes his list of illustrations by referring to habit of the traveller to gather desert scrub in order to light his fire by which to heat his cooking pot. Having made a fire with some of it, and having piled up beside the fire a heap from which he can feed the flames, he sits there contentedly anticipating the heating up of his prey. But suddenly a desert storm arises, and a whirlwind sweeps away both the burning scrub beneath his pot, and the green scrub which is his reserve. To his chagrin he no longer has any means of heating his pot and burning his victim.

In the same way the unrighteous, who have claimed their prey and are eagerly preparing to devour them, will suddenly discover that all their hopes are dashed by a storm from YHWH which sweeps away their means of doing harm.

The word for ‘burning’ is a word regularly used of the burning of God’s anger, often being translated as ‘fierce’. But in Jeremiah 25:38 the lion is driven out of his covert by burning instigated by oppressors. It thus illustrates the unrighteous ‘burning’ their prey, and the rendering of them as unable to do so any more.


Verse 10-11

The Joy Of The Righteous At God’s Intervention Which Demonstrates That Righteousness Will Prevail (Psalms 58:10-11).

The Psalm ends with the assurance that there is a God Who judges in the earth (or ‘land’), which will be made known to the righteous by His acts of vengeance on their behalf, in accordance with what has previously been described.

Psalms 58:10

‘The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance,

He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked,’

When the righteous (those who are responsive to God’s covenant of grace) see the unrighteous rendered harmless or swept away they will rejoice, not vindictively as Proverbs 24:17-18 makes clear, but because it means that righteousness has triumphed. The righteous are warned against seeking vengeance with the assurance that they can leave it in God’s hands. “Vengeance belongs to Me,” says YHWH, “I will repay” (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30; Psalms 94:1; Deuteronomy 32:35). But they can only rejoice when God finally does deal with unrighteousness. The picture of washing the feet in blood comes from the battlefield. The idea is not that the righteous choose to use the blood to wash in, but that they will be unable to avoid it, because God’s judgment has made it inevitable. The thought is that judgment has come on the unrighteous and they have been totally defeated. Compare Revelation 14:20, and see Isaiah 63:2-3.

Psalms 58:11

So that men will say, “Truly there is a reward for the righteous,

Truly there is a God who judges in the earth.’

The reason for the rejoicing of the righteous is now made clear. It is because it brings home to them that righteousness is finally rewarded, and that there truly is a God Who judges the earth.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 58:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/psalms-58.html. 2013.

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Friday, December 6th, 2019
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