Psalm 58: ‘Do Not Destroy’

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
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 skilful the enchanter may be.

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Psalm 58

One of the features of Presbyterian worship in Scotland was the use of the metrical Psalms. For those who are not aware of this particular tradition, this involved setting the whole Psalter to a set of limited but great hymn tunes.  

If you like lots of variety then singing several Psalms to the same tune might not be seem so great, but it has its benefits – not least that it would have helped ordinary folk to memorise these Psalms more easily and be able to benefit from them.

Psalm 58, intriguingly, follows on from and is followed by Psalms which apparently were to be sung to the same tune, ‘Do not destroy’. Of course, no-one knows what that tune sounded like… I envisage heavy metal or punk, but I could well be wrong.

The name of the tune is, to say the least ironic, ‘Do not destroy’, yet for much of the Psalm that is precisely what the Psalmist wants God to do to his enemies!

He calls on God to smash their teeth (v. 6), to vaporise them (v. 7), to dissolve them like a salted slug (v. 8).

This isn’t the first time – nor will it be the last time – we meet such violence in the Psalms. Many of us find such expressions of anger unsettling and disquieting. We quite like a line of the Psalms here or there during a time of worship, but it’s difficult to imagine these words being read out between a couple of praise songs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would find it uncomfortable sitting next to someone who is looking forward to bathing their feet in the blood of their enemies.

The Psalms are not nice. But while they may not be pretty, they are honest. Anger is as much a part of human life as the fear of the previous Psalm. It’s no use denying our anger or bottling it up, but it is worth taking it to God.

The anger expressed here is that of the victim, the one who is desperate and who has been systematically beaten down and degraded by those who are in power and who have been corrupted by evil (vv. 1–3). These oppressors have lost their humanity and have become like deadly animals, like the cobra and the lion (vv. 4, 6). There are sadly millions of people today around the world, made in God’s image and beloved by him, who find themselves beaten down and in some living hell because of the wickedness of others. At the very least the Psalm shakes us from comfortable complacency, reminds us that not all is well with the world and serves as a challenge to pray and to act on behalf of those who are in anguish.

The Psalm is a plea for justice, for evil to be defeated and for the right to be triumphant. When it comes to dealing with enemies, the Psalmist leaves that to God – there is no thought that it is something he or we should take into our own hands (v. 6). 

David’s description of the wicked (v. 3) reminds us of something he said about himself in a previous Psalm when he had abused his power with horrific results (Psalm 51:5). As well as being an encouragement to voice our own anger, to pray and act for the oppressed, the Psalm is also a mirror and a warning to anyone with any degree of power. What about us? How have we treated those around us?