Anger and vengeance are difficult things. Sometimes Christians talk about “righteous anger”, and how it can be appropriate, even right, to be angry and loud and “out for justice.” But sometimes Christianity is also propped up as a quiet and peaceful religion where we turn the other cheek, suffer for righteousness’ sake, and keep our earthly tempers and passions at bay. For sure, it is a difficult call to make – how much anger can we have until it becomes the sin of wrath? How much dispassion can we have until it becomes the sin of sloth?
Psalm 58 is a curious insight into this subject. It is by no means a complete explanation or answer, it is a prayer after all, not a theological treatise. Nonetheless, what it shows us is a godly example of prayer that deals with the angry cry for justice.
Do you indeed decree righteousness, O you rulers,
and do you judge uprightly, O children of men?
No, you devise evil in your heart,
and on the earth your hands deal out violence.
The ungodly err even from their mother’s womb;
as soon as they are born, they go astray and speak lies.
They are as venomous as the poison of a serpent,
even like the deaf adder that stops its ears,
Which refuses to hear the voice of the charmer,
no matter how skillful his charming.
An interesting feature of the opening verse is that the Hebrew word here rendered “rulers” is actually more literally “gods.” “Do you indeed decree righteousness O you gods?” The use of the word gods here is meant to be understood as earthly princes and rulers who are essentially like gods to their respective realms, so the Prayer Book rendition I’ve typed above is legitimate. But it is interesting to think about the ramifications of calling earthly leaders “gods”. How often do kings, princes, governors, and presidents think of themselves as gods? Or how often do their followers treat them as gods? It can be very easy to fall into this mentality. Some of the absolute monarchies of Europe and Asia approached deification of their monarchs. Some of the major despots of the 20th century presented themselves in god-like roles, explicitly or implicitly. Even Presidents of Western democracies, including our own, have had cult-like followings who speak as if their favored candidate or elected official can do no wrong, or is ultimately just despite his or her flaws. This is not a Left or Right phenomenon, nor is it a matter of a free society versus a caste-based, slaved-based, feudalistic, or any other social model. It is a human thing.
You see, these first 5 verses paint a picture of what Calvinists call total depravity, or in Anglican terms the effects of original sin or birth-sin. People simply do not judge uprightly; we devise evil in our hearts and we deal in violence. And this is a condition that we are born with, even conceived in (as Psalm 51 observes). No matter how skillful the charms of God’s blessings are offered, we shut our ears to God’s Word and continue in our sinful and unjust ways. That is the way of the world.
In Christ, we have redemption, and we have forgiveness, and the beginning of healing – sanctification – that transforms us into the likeness of Christ. We are becoming “gods” who will rule with Christ righteously – Jesus even speaks of his Apostles sitting on twelve thrones (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30)! And from that perspective of recovery, we can see the evil that we are (all too slowly) leaving behind, and cry out:
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouths;
smite the jawbones of the ungodly.
Let them fall away like water that runs off;
let them whither like the grass that is trodden underfoot.
Let them melt away like a snail,
and be like a stillborn child that does not see the sun.
Before they bear fruit, let them, be cut off like a briar;
let them be like thorns and weeds that are swept away.
Verses 6 through 9 there are pretty hefty. You almost need a content warning on that… I mean, I wouldn’t want to read this with my 5-year-old. And yet there is a poetry to this.
- The first image here is of violence: may God punch them in the face.
- Nature images follow, with runoff and stomped grass.
- Then it goes up to death: a snail “melted” by salt and a child that dies in the womb.
The last verse of this section is partly a culmination and partly a yet higher step in the chain. Not only is death wished upon the ungodly rulers, but a death swift enough to prevent their posterity from coming into being. This is evocative of a first strike scenario: may God destroy the wicked before they have a chance to multiply further!
I do not know very many people who would under normal conditions consider this a viable Christian prayer. And yet here it is, near the middle of the Bible (and near the middle of the 2019 Prayer Book too, as it happens).
There are two things, I think, that make this prayer pray-able.
- We must remember that all we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way. The death sentence is deservedly upon the head of every man, woman, and child. From birth we are steeped in sin and unstoppably wicked. By the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, are people rescued from this condition, redeemed, and brought to eternal life.
- The best way that the wicked can die, as this Psalm unflinchingly asks God to kill, is to die to sin. In baptism we are buried with Christ, we die to sin. Our greatest hope for wicked rulers is that they turn to God, die to the world, and finally truly live. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the American President, the North Korean Dictator, the Prime Ministers of Europe, and everywhere in between, learned to confess their sins to Jesus, take up their cross, and follow Him?
But the Psalm ends with equal ferocity as before.
The righteous shall rejoice when they see the vengeance;
they shall wash their feet in the blood of the ungodly.
So that people shall say, “Truly, there is a reward for the righteous;
surely, there is a God who judges the earth.”
Judgment is a very negative concept in popular perception. “Don’t judge me!” is one of the most frequent outs in hard conversation. Many Christians too, not just non-believers, tout this line as soon as they feel like their life choices are being questioned or threatened. And yet we all still know the positive meaning of justice; one needs only look to the political figures that one dislikes to realize that there is a positive desire for justice to be served. Whether it was “Lock her up” or “Never Trump” or “Black lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”, we all have a desire to see justice prevail.
And so that is where we need to reflect as we pray a hard Psalm like this one. The final verse is, I think, the most helpful clarifying line for us in the course of understanding how to pray Psalm 58. Ultimately, we want God to act such that everyone will be able to say “Truly, there is a reward for the righteous; surely, there is a God who judges the earth.” As we said above, the best way for someone to die is to die to sin, because that death is the entrance to eternal life in Christ.
Let our desire for justice, our anger and our vengeance, never overshadow the hope for the salvation of our enemies.