Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 58

Psalm 58

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied (cf. the previous study on Ps 57). Indeed, Psalm 58 has the same musical direction as Ps 57, designating it as a  <T*k=m! (miktam, cf. the study on Psalm 16) sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament (the phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26).

However, if both Psalms were to be sung to a common lament-melody, it is worth nothing that the meter of each poem is different; Psalm 58 contains longer verses, predominantly 4-beat (4+4, or 4+3) couplets.

The thematic structure of the Psalm may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 2-6 [1-5]: Descriptive lament regarding the wicked
    • Verses 7-10 [6-9]: Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
    • Verses 11-12 [10-11]: The reward of the righteous (contrasted with the fate of the wicked)

VERSES 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Are you firm, mighty (one)s, (in) justice (when) you speak?
You should judge (with) straightness (the) sons of men.”

These opening line is probably best read as a rhetorical (and accusatory) question. The MT <l#a@ should be parsed as a defective form of <yl!a@, “mighty ones;” alternatively, it could be a plural of ly]a^ (“leader, ‘ram’ [figurative for a human noble or ruler]), with defective spelling (<yl!ya@ > <yl!a@). Clearly, the Psalmist is referring to those powerful men who are supposed to be leading and ruling the people; when they are corrupted by wickedness, society becomes oppressive, characterized by lawlessness and perversion of justice. The emphasis here is thus on speaking (vb rb^D*) with justice (qd#x#), and on rendering judgment (vb fp^v*). The concept of being firm (root /ma) in justice (line 1) is parallel with the idea of judging in a straight (rvy, i.e., fair and right) way (line 2).

Verse 3 [2]

“Yet, in (your) heart you act (with all) crookedness,
in (the) land your hands balance (the scales with) violence!”

The wickedness of the situation here is contrasted with what it should have been (v. 2). The first line strikes a formal (contrastive) parallel with the first line of v. 2:

    • “…(with) justice | you (should) speak” (v. 2)
    • “…(with) crookedness | you act” (v. 3)

The plural form tl)ou (lit. “crooked/perverse [thing]s”) may perhaps be intended as an intensive or comprehensive plural. On the other hand, the plural could be understood in the judicial sense of “crooked judgments”. Dahood (II, p. 58) suggests that this spelling represents a Phoenician dialectal form of the Hebrew singular hl*w+u^. The noun lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) is often used in the specific socio-legal sense of injustice, and, given the context of v. 2, the idea of a perversion of justice is certainly in view.

The verb in line 2 is sl^P*, which specifically refers to weighing something out on the balance-scales; here it can be understood in the sense of the ‘scales of justice’. Injustice and corruption among the rulers in society inevitably leads to lawlessness, oppression, and violence (sm*j*).

Verse 4 [3]

“Perverse (are the) wicked (one)s, from (the) womb they stray,
(and) from (the) belly (they are) speakers of lie(s)”

This couplet has something of an awkward structure with an off-beat (4+3) rhythm, which may well be intentional, as if expressing poetically how the wicked stagger and stray (vb hu*T*). They are said to be perverse and deceitful (“speakers of lie[s]”) from birth. Again, the primary idea is of the perversion of justice brought about by the wicked leaders, and the corrupting effect this has on the whole of society.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“The hot poison of them (is) like that of a (venomous) snake,
like that of a deaf adder (which) closes its ear,
which does not listen to (the) voice of (those) whispering,
(the) binding of (those) binding (who) are (so) wise.”

These two verses should be taken together as a pair of 4+3 couplets that form a quatrain. The syntax of each couplet is a bit uneven. It would seem that the second occurrence of construct noun tm^j& in the first line ought to be omitted, in order to preserve the meter (cf. Kraus, p. 534). The image itself is straightforward: the deceit, perversion, and violent impulse of the wicked is like the venom of a poisonous snake. In particular, the figure of an adder is used,one which is “deaf,” a motif clarified (in v. 6) as referring to a snake that cannot be rendered harmless by the sounds of a snake-charmer. This person who “whispers” (vb vj^l*, resembling the ‘hissing’ of a snake) the charms represents the vain and futile wisdom of the world, which is unable to curb the wickedness in society.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“O Mightiest, break down their teeth in their mouth!
(The) fangs of (the) young lions, pull down, YHWH!”

The tone of the Psalm shifts here from a lament, describing the wicked, to a call for YHWH to bring down judgment on them. There is thus an imprecatory character to the Psalmist’s prayer here.

These lines have a chiastic syntax spread over the eight (4+4) beats:

    • O Mightiest [Elohim]
      • break down
        • their teeth
          • in their mouth
          • (the) fangs
        • of the young lions
      • pull down
    • [O] YHWH

The image is of the wicked as a group of ravenous lion-whelps, with their deadly and oppressive teeth/fangs. The plural noun touT=l=m^ is apparently the same (by metathesis) as touL=t^m=, referring to the devouring teeth/bite of an animal.

Verse 8 [7]

“Let them flow (away) like waters (that) go to their (place);
like (the) <grass> (on which) one treads, may they wither!”

The second line of the MT as we have it makes little sense. Here we are very much in need of a reliable Dead Sea manuscript to offer clarity, but, alas, nothing of Psalm 58 survives. A reasonably sound line can be achieved by a small emendation of the text (cf. Kraus, p. 534), reading ryx!j* (“grass”) instead of wyX*j! (Qere, “his arrows”). The motif of the grass that is worn down on the path (ird) is a suitable parallel with the flowing waters in line 1, preserving the nature-imagery of the couplet. This also fits the verb in the second line, which I take to be ll^m* (III), “wither, languish, fade”; also possible is ll^m* (IV), “cut off”. My translation above of the second line requires a reordered text (with the one emended word) that reads:

Wll*m)t=y] Er)d=y] ryx!j* omK=

Verse 9 [8]

“Like a <miscarriage> dissolving, may they go (away);
(like the) failed birth of a woman, may they fail to see (the) sun!”

Instead of the MT lWlB=v^, I am inclined to read lWKv* (or loKv*), which is a less significant emendation than it might at first appear, since some manuscripts read lwlkv instead of lwlbv. The image of a miscarriage provides a suitable parallel for the motif of a failed birth (lp#n#, i.e., stillbirth or abortion) in line 2 (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 77f).

Verse 10 [9]

“Before thorn-bush(es) can <produce> their thorns,
(the) Living (One in His) burning anger, shall sweep them away!”

The MT of this verse makes very little sense, and is doubtless corrupt. Again, one wishes a reliable Dead Sea manuscript of the Psalm had survived, as it likely would have clarified the situation; but unfortunately that is not the case. Any reading or reconstruction of these lines will have to remain hypothetical and speculative. I have adopted the following changes, so as to produce a relatively clean 4+3 couplet that makes decent sense:

    • Following at least one Hebrew MS, I read <h#yt@r)ys! with the third-person suffix (“their thorns”)
    • I follow Kraus (p. 534) in reading WbWny` (“they bear [fruit],” “they produce”) in place of MT Wnyb!y`.
    • I omit the two occurrences of the suffixed preposition omK= in the second line; these probably crept into the text at this point due to their presence in the prior lines.

Here we have an announcement of YHWH’s coming judgment on the wicked, with the Psalmist anticipating God’s answer to his imprecatory prayer.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

Verse 11 [10]

“The righteous shall be glad when he sees (the) vengeance;
(with) his footsteps, he shall wash in (the) blood of (the) wicked.”

The contrasting fates of the wicked and the righteous are presented in these closing verses. The scene, in spite of the promise of rejoicing, will doubtless strike modern readers as unduly harsh and gruesome. Very few Christians, I think, would find any enjoyment in the idea of washing our feet in the blood of the wicked who have been slaughtered. However, there can be no denying that the terrible death and destruction of the wicked is an integral part of the tradition of the (end-time) Divine judgment inherited by early Christians. It is depicted vividly enough in the book of Revelation (6:10ff; 14:14-20; 16:3-6; 19:2, 13).

Verse 12 [11]

“And man will say, ‘Surely (there is) fruit for the righteous!
Surely there is a Mightiest (One) making judgment on the earth!'”

The eschatological dimension of the Judgment is expressed here rather clearly, as humankind (collectively) is forced to admit that God exists, and that YHWH is the true God (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”). He has the power and authority to act as Judge over the entire world (“making judgment on the earth”). By contrast to the imagery in verse 10 [9] (cf. above), where the wicked are depicted as thorn-bushes that are swept away in the wind, the righteous are presented as plants that produce a rich and succulent fruit. This is part of a well-established Wisdom tradition that was inherited by the Psalms, and which exerted a significant influence on many of the compositions. The same basic contrast is featured in the famous Psalm 1 (vv. 3-4) at the beginning of the collection.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

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