Theme: Two Damaging Accusations
In this week’s lessons, Psalm 58 teaches us that although evildoers continue to do great harm, God will eventually intervene both in judgment against sinners and the vindication of the righteous.
Scripture: Psalm 58:1-11
The stanzas of the New International Version are a reasonable way to outline this psalm. The first stanza is itself in two parts, since verses 1 and 2 address the wicked directly while verses 3-5 describe what they are like. But there is a sense in which the entire stanza is a portrait of these people. Stanza two is a prayer that they might be overcome or destroyed, a malediction. It occupies verses 6-8. The final stanza, verses 9-11, is a prediction of the end of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. It concludes with a striking summary in verse 11.
The opening verses, then, are a rebuke of the corrupt rulers of David’s day. They are addressed directly, and they are accused of failing to do the one thing they are appointed to do, which is to speak and judge justly.
But there are problems with the text, which you can easily see by comparing the English translations. What I have just said is clear in any translation. But there is a problem with the Hebrew word the New International Version translates “rulers” (v. 1). The word is elem, which means “muteness” or “silence.” It is hard to fit this word and its form into the text, but the older versions do the best they can and come up with something like the New King James Version, which says, “Do you indeed speak righteousness, you silent ones?” However, because the word is close in form to the Hebrew word elohim, which means “gods” but is also used in the sense of “mighty ones” or “rulers” in the psalms, some of the more recent versions take it as referring to the judges themselves. So we have translations like the New International Version: “Do you rulers indeed speak justly?”
I am not sure that it is possible to reach certainty about how the text should be taken. But I tend to stick with how the text actually reads and avoid emendations, however reasonable, and if that is right, then the problem is that these judges did not speak up for the right course of action when evil was being planned. Perowne says, “They are dumb when they ought to speak, as afterwards they are said to be deaf when they ought to hear.”1 The next sentences show that these evil persons also plotted evil and put it into practice. But if “silence” is the right translation in verse 1, then the opening stanza accuses them of silence and reminds us that to remain silent when evil is planned is also an evil and deserves God’s condemnation.
Are you careful to stand up for righteousness when evil is proposed and good is challenged? Remember that a courageous, good word can be extremely effective. It was because of the protest of one righteous man, Ebed-Melech, and he a Cushite, that the prophet Jeremiah was saved when his enemies had thrown him into a cistern to die (cf. Jer. 38:1-13).
Verses 3-5 add two damaging accusations to the charge against the unjust judges or rulers.
They are evil from birth (v. 3). David is thinking of this special class of evildoers, as opposed to occasional wrongdoers or the righteous. But we should remember that this is also an accurate description of all men and women in their natural state. No one is born righteous. We are born sinners. In fact, it is because we are born sinners that we sin. Even David said, “Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). He meant that there was never a moment of his life, even from his conception, when he did not possess a sinful nature. It is because we are sinners that we need a Savior.
They will not listen to appeals to act differently (vv. 4, 5). Psalm 58 is noteworthy for its striking imagery, and one of these is its description of evildoers as snakes. This is not an uncommon image with us, since we also might call some particularly devious person a snake. But here David calls attention to the snake’s venom or poison. The snake’s bite kills. Then he adds an additional striking thought, describing these persons as snakes that cannot hear and therefore cannot even be controlled by the tunes of the snake charmer. I am told that snakes do not actually hear very much, if anything. They are controlled more by the motion of the flute than by the tune. But that is irrelevant to the writer’s image. His point is that people intent on evil will not listen to those trying to dissuade them, either to man or God. Therefore, they are equally deaf both to reason and to revelation.
God told Ezekiel, “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people” (Ezek. 12:2). Isaiah said to them, “You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing” (Is. 42:20). That is true of us in our natural state.
1J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 455. Original edition 1878-1879.
What is the significance of “silence” in verse 12?
What are the two damaging accusations in verses 3-5?
Read Jeremiah 38:1-13. How does this passage relate to today’s study in Psalm 58?
Reflection: Have you ever been in a situation when an evil proposal won out over what was right? What was your response? Did you stand up for what was right?