Saturday, January 7, 2012

Psalm 58

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 58 and its interpreters. I'll post the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David.

1Do ye indeed speak righteousness, O congregation? do ye judge uprightly, O ye sons of men?

Translated literally from the Masoretic Text, the verse probably reads: "Truly, the silence of righteousness will you speak? Will you judge uprightly, sons of man?" The Hebrew word that I translate as "silence" is ailem (as in AY-LEM). The point here, according to many commentators, is that the Psalmist is rebuking judges for their silence in not executing righteous verdicts: they are not doing their job of speaking out for righteousness, in short. Although the verbs of this verse are in the second person plural, many interpreters have sought to relate them to individuals, perhaps thinking that the verses are directed at both the individuals and also the people in the individuals' party. Rashi says that David is speaking these words to Abner, rebuking him for not standing up for righteousness by telling Saul that David is innocent and that Saul is wrong to pursue him (see I Samuel 26:14). Keil-Delitzsch propose that Psalm 58 concerns Absalom, who sought to undermine David's authority by acting as a judge at the gate.

Others emend the text, in some manner. One approach is to read ailim as elim, "gods". That could mean that the Psalmist is criticizing the gods of the Gentile nations that are persecuting Israel (Sigmund Mowinckel), or that the Psalmist is saying that the judges of Israel act in a divine capacity or even assume that they are like gods, when actually they are mere sons of men. Mitchell Dahood thinks that the word is "rams", which he deems to be a metaphor for rulers. And the Septuagint and Jerome simply maintain that the word is ulam, "truly".

2Yea, in heart ye work wickedness; ye weigh the violence of your hands in the earth.

The Hebrew root for the word that is translated as "weigh" is p-r-s. That can mean to weigh, or to ponder, or to prepare a path (see here). The wicked are being berated for carefully thinking about ways to do evil, or for proudly surveying their evil deeds, or for preparing to do violence as their heart works wickedness. (Marvin Tate argues for the last one.) The last interpretation teaches a lesson about how bad thoughts can lead to bad actions, if one is not careful.

3The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.

I heard some Christian commentators appeal to this verse to support the doctrine of original sin, the notion that we are all born with corrupt moral natures. Quite a few noted that children do not have to be taught how to lie, since it comes naturally to them, whereas they do have to be taught to tell the truth! Jewish interpreters whom I read, by contrast, did not apply v 3 universally, but rather to specific wicked people. The orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary states that the point here is that the Psalmist's enemies have such a propensity for evil that it appears to be inborn. The Midrash on the Psalms affirms that God sanctifies the righteous in the womb, as God did for Jeremiah and the Servant (Jeremiah 1:5; Isaiah 49:1-3), whereas the wicked are evil even inside of the womb. Both the Midrash and also Rashi cite Genesis 25:22, which refers to struggling that occurred in the womb of Rebecca. Their argument is that wicked Esau was doing violence to Jacob even in the womb!

I think that there is a sense in which we are all inclined towards evil, though I seriously doubt that every single one of us is as wicked as the Psalmist's enemies in Psalm 58 and other Psalms. Not all of us take delight in plotting our next deed to hurt the innocent! And yet there may be some people who are born with especially destructive tendencies, but hopefully they can be acculturated to behave themselves as responsible members of society.

Something that has long challenged me about the Psalms is that I do not know many people whom I would label as absolutely evil, and so I often have a hard time identifying with the Psalmist's characterization of his enemies. Even those who do not particularly like me do not try to destroy me, nor do they get a kick out of plotting ways to trip me up. I'm sure that there are people like that in the world, but, fortunately, they haven't targeted me (yet). Their evil deeds may be rooted in jealousy, or anger at having been hurt, or selfish ambition. Saul and Absalom may have attacked David for any or all of these reasons. (Saul was jealous of David, and Absalom was upset that Amnon had raped Tamar, Absalom's sister.) But there are some who are so bored with life that they actually do entertain themselves by plotting mischief. In my opinion, it's important for us to be extremely cautious about attitudes that can snowball into destructive deeds.

I think that human nature is often too complex for us to say that wicked people are born that way, which is what the Psalmist is essentially saying, even if there may be a grain of truth somewhere in that proposition. But when we are the objects of somebody else's attack, it's easy for us to conclude that our attacker is evil----that he has no redeeming qualities and was probably corrupt from his birth. Being a victim can lead one to make generalizations about the victimizer, as does the Psalmist.

4Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;

5Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.

The point here is that the Psalmist's enemies are so intent on destruction that no one can persuade them otherwise. They are deaf to morality and reason.

6Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD.

Some argue that the point here is that the Psalmist wants God to rob his enemies of their ferocious power, the way that removing a lion's teeth would make the lion less harmful and unable to eat people and animals. Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnegard, however, refer to instances in ancient Near Eastern literature in which breaking the teeth is a punishment for a breech of contract. Perhaps both are going on here: the breechers of contract are being likened to lions!

7Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces.

Vv 7-9 are difficult verses, but they are essentially the Psalmist asking God to cut short the deeds of the wicked. The second clause, "when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces", could be saying that the wicked will shoot arrows and the arrows will hopefully fail to destroy the Psalmist and others, or that God will shoot arrows that will destroy the wicked.

8As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.

Charles Spurgeon had an interesting comment on the second clause----"like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun." He says that those who are unregenerate are like aborted fetuses because they do not mature to the manhood that God desires people to attain, and they do not see the light of God in this life and the next. I think that it would be an incorrect and an insulting generalization to say that non-Christians are immature or do not see some (or a lot of) light of what God is about, for there are plenty of non-Christian thinkers (i.e., Buddhists, Taoists, atheists, etc.) who are quite mature, insightful, and wise, in terms of such things as empathy and compassion for others (even enemies), making peace with life, etc. For me, however, there have been times when Christianity (or some theistic spiritual path) has stood between me having that kind of spiritual life, and me being consumed by immaturity (i.e., pride, lust, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc.). So a part of me appreciates Spurgeon's point, even if I do not view it as a cart blanche summary of all of humanity.

9Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath.

The image here could be one of two things. One proposal is that the Psalmist is asking God to stop the wicked deeds of his enemies, the same way that a whirlwind could come along and interrupt a guy cooking his dinner. In this scenario, the wicked are looking forward to enjoying their evil deeds, as the guy cooking his dinner is eagerly anticipating his meal, but God cuts that short. The other proposal is that the Psalmist wants God to stop a thorn before it can mature, for the Hebrew word that the KJV translates as "pots" can also mean "thorns". The idea here may be that the Psalmist desires for God to nip his enemies' deeds in the bud, to stop the enemies and the deeds before they become worse.

10The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.

Why do the righteous wash their feet (or, in the Septuagint, their hands) in the blood of the wicked? John Gill says that people whose feet are washed feel refreshed, and so the righteous feel refreshed by God's punishment of the wicked. Augustine affirms that God's punishment of the wicked encourages the righteous to repent of their own sins, to wash their hands spiritually, if you will. And Theodore of Mopsuestia, a fourth century Christian exegete, states that the righteous here are disassociating themselves from the wicked, as Pilate disassociated himself from Christ's persecutors by washing his hands (Matthew 27:24). Some have appealed to Isaiah 63:3-6, which is about God treading the winepress of the wicked.

This verse is troubling because it presents the righteous rejoicing in the ill fate of the wicked, which goes against the principle of love for enemies that is in both the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament (Exodus 23:4; Proverbs 24:17; 25:21; Matthew 5; Luke 6; Romans 12). Some have affirmed that the downfall of the wicked is indeed a cause for rejoicing, since the wicked whom God destroyed are no longer wreaking their destructive havoc on the earth and its inhabitants. In my opinion, there is legitimacy to that point. But the Midrash on the Psalms attempts to add a degree of humility to the discussion when it says that only those deemed worthy by God to destroy the wicked can legitimately rejoice in their destruction. The Midrash probably wants us to ask ourselves: Is any of us truly worthy?

11So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth.

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