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Psalm 58 - Unjust Rulers
For the director of music. To the tune of “Do Not Destroy”.
Of David. A miktam.
1Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge uprightly among men?
2No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
3Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward
and speak lies.
4Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
5that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.
6Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
tear out, O Lord, the fangs of the lions!
7Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow,
let their arrows be blunted.
8Like a slug melting away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.
9Before your pots can feel [the heat of] the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—
the wicked will be swept away.
10The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they bathe their feet
in the blood of the wicked.
11Then men will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”
In this psalm, David speaks against the unjust judges and rulers who have allied themselves against him. We are not told the occasion David had for writing the psalm, but many commentators believe that David is speaking to those judges and officials who supported Saul in his pursuit to kill David. There are three sections to this psalm. First, David states his complaint (vss. 1-5); then, he prays to God for judgment to come upon the wrongdoers (vss. 6-8); finally, he predicts the result (vss. 9-11).
First, David expresses his amazement at the injustice of the officials: “Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth” (vss. 1-2). David’s amazement stems from the fact that the primary purpose of government officials is to administer justice: to “speak justly” and “judge uprightly”. All acts of injustice are bad, but especially those which are perpetrated by those who are ordained to maintain justice. These officials not only failed to properly administer justice, they “devised” to do “injustice”. They did not fail in their occupations through ignorance or even negligence, rather they failed through wickedness. Moreover, they were corrupt inside and out, as they devised injustice in their “hearts”, and meted out violence with their “hands”.
David points out that their wickedness began very early in life: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (vs. 3). “No wonder they act so unrighteously, for their very natures and principles are corrupt from their birth; they are the wicked offspring of sinful parents” [Pool, in Plumer, 599]. I suppose, given the innate depravity of all men, we should not be surprised to see wickedness in them when we encounter it. As God told Noah: “Every inclination from [man’s] heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21). “What parent’s heart has not ached at infallible evidence of a tendency to falsehood in his offspring? It requires the best precepts and examples, enforced by the highest authority and the most steadfast government to save children and youth from growing up to be arrant liars” [Plumer, 600]. Surely this makes a case for the strictest parental discipline, supported by Biblical teaching, and much prayer, so that our children may throw off their inheritance from Adam, and embrace the righteousness that can be theirs through Jesus Christ.
The unjust rulers chose to persevere in evil: “Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be” (vss. 4-5). The injustice they practiced was deadly, as David points out here—as deadly as “the venom of a snake.” Moreover, they were obstinate in their evil, purposely stopping their ears so as to make reformation impossible, just as a cobra that will not listen cannot be tamed by a snake charmer.
Having described their evil, David next prays that God would bring His judgment upon them: “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; tear out, O Lord, the fangs of the lions!” (vs. 6). He prays first that they be rendered powerless in their evil deeds, just as a lion with broken teeth is essentially harmless. "If they have no capacity for good, at least deprive them of their ability for evil" [Spurgeon, on vs. 6]. “However affluent and mighty the wicked may now be, God can at any moment make them entirely powerless” [Plumer, 603].
David prays next that their scheming would come to nothing: “Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted” (vs. 7). “It is as easy for God to scatter all our foes, as it is for Him to dissipate the mists of the morning, or to maintain the law, by which heaps of water separate from each other, seeking their own level, and thus entirely losing their power” [Plumer, 603].
David continues: “Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun” (vs. 8). “Every unregenerate man is a miscarriage. He misses the true form of God-made manhood; he corrupts in the darkness of sin; he never sees or shall see the light of God in purity, in heaven” [Spurgeon, on vs. 8].
In the final section of the psalm, David predicts the demise of the unjust officials: “Before your pots can feel [the heat of] the thorns—whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away” (vs. 9). Their judgment will come quickly, before they are ready for it.
David also predicts the reaction of the righteous to the demise of the unjust officials: “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (vs. 10). This is difficult language for a lot of people. It is the language of a warrior, for David was a man of war. David uses a battlefield image, where the victor walks through the blood of the defeated. Make no mistake, after a battle, it is much better to be a victor, than to be numbered with the defeated. And David was in a battle, for his foes, those allied with Saul, were trying to kill him. However, David did not go out of his way to shed blood. David had opportunities to kill Saul, but he chose to let the Lord execute justice.
To conclude, David speaks of the reaction people will have when they see how God works out the situation: “Then men will say, ‘Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth’” (vs. 11). There are times when God’s justice is not fully executed here on earth (for this, we can all thank God for His grace). Then again, there are times when God works His justice, intervening in the affairs of men. “If no sin were punished here, we might be tempted to think there was no God, or that He was not just. And if all sin were adequately punished, how could we believe in the divine mercy?” [Plumer, 604]. In David’s case, God’s intervention would strengthen men’s faith in the righteousness of God, as they say: “Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth.” “There is a God who does not entirely defer judgment till the judgment-day; but executes judgment now, even in this earth; and thus continues to give such a proof of His hatred to sin and love to His followers that every considerate mind is convinced of it” [Clarke, on vs. 11]