A Meditation on Psalm 58

Kevin J Youngblood

To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy. A Miktam of David.

Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?

Do you judge the children of man uprightly?

No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;

your hands deal out violence on earth.

The wicked are estranged from the womb;

they go astray from birth, speaking lies.

They have venom like the venom of a serpent,

like the deaf adder that stops its ear,

so that it does not hear the voice of charmers

or of the cunning enchanter.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.

Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,

whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

10 The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;

he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.

11 Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;

surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

I was struck this morning by the irony of the heading of this psalm in the light of its content. This is one of those psalms I’ve commented on before that begins with the strange heading “Do not destroy.” The psalmist, however, goes on to beg God to destroy the wicked and to do so immediately and decisively! In the English translation I have cited above, the phrase “Do not destroy” is interpreted as a tune to which the psalm is sung. Nothing in the Hebrew text suggests this, however, as is usually the case with this heading when it precedes a psalm (Pss 57, 59, & 75 are the other occurrences of this strange heading).
Why would a psalm with the heading “Do not destroy” be filled with requests for destruction? One possible answer is that the heading is requesting that YHWH not destroy the psalmist, an outcome the psalmist considers inevitable if the wicked are not prevented from carrying out their plans. Thus, potentially, from the psalmist’s point of view, the prevention of his and Israel’s destruction depends on the assurance of their enemies’ destruction. I know we (post)moderns are not comfortable thinking in such black-and-white, either/or, all or nothing terms, but then again, few of us have faced existential threats as extremely and frequently as ancient (and for that matter modern) Israel. As the rhetoric of the oppressed, imprecation becomes understandable as the language of resistance, recognition and critique of injustice. Alternatively, the heading could be instructions for the preservation of the psalm itself: “Do not destroy (this psalm)! It belongs to the entire community and to all generations who are sure to face similar instances of oppression.”
Whatever the meaning of the title, the real stumbling block of this psalm is its brutal content. “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime. . . . The righteous . . . will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.” When have any of us ever prayed something so imaginatively vindictive and nihilistic as that?
It is easy for us today to dismiss such psalms as this as so much primitive nonsense, an embarrassing chapter in our evolution, or the evolution of our religion. This, I think, is much too hasty a judgment. The real difference between the psalmist and ourselves is not that we occupy a place of moral superiority and have a more enlightened view of the world that transcends such “us” vs. “them” thinking. Clearly, we do not. Rather, the difference is that the psalmist really believes in evil, has encountered it firsthand, and recognizes that it must be dealt with decisively and mercilessly. The psalmist, unlike ourselves, makes no excuses for evil, but confronts it in prayer as it is embodied in his human oppressors and enemies. It is difficult to know what the psalmist’s understanding of evil spiritual forces might have been. He certainly did not conceive of “the Devil” as the NT does. For this reason, perhaps, his only point of reference for evil are the human perpetrators of evil. When we are in survival mode, it is difficult for us to see our enemies as anything other than evil, as threat, and to want anything for them other than elimination. To the psalmist’s credit, he does not act on this instinct but prays instead, entrusting vengeance to God who alone knows what to do with the perpetrators of evil.
Such prayers as these have been preserved for us to assure us that God meets us where we are, in all of our fear, hurt, and anger. They assure us that all such sentiments are welcome in his presence. Indeed, in his presence is the best and safest place for them to be. It is not wrong to feel such things toward evil in the world. Indeed, it would be wrong not to be outraged by evil. It is true that when we are in such a state, we are quite prone to misplace our outrage and take aim at the wrong target, but this is why we pray. The prayer itself is a recognition of this propensity and a check against rash and impetuous action. But for such prayer to work, it must be brutally honest.

I have encountered evil in my life. Enemies have trampled on me and oppressed me to the point that I have lost sight of myself and you. I am angry, I am hurt, and I want to see your vengeance on those who have wrongfully accused me and estranged me from family and friends. On the other hand, I know that in my anger there is much that I cannot see and am not taking into account. Therefore, I relinquish all of my vindictive fantasies to you. You know what is best. Please do what is best. You know how to eliminate evil and what is the just penalty for those who perpetrate evil. Your will be done.