by James D. Oord & Michael R. Kearney
- Quick! Name some comforting psalms. If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on Psalms 23 and 103 as the first to come to your mind.
- Quick! Name some sources of Christian comfort. Let me guess: God’s love, faithfulness, and providence; the doctrines of divine election, the covenant, and the preservation of the saints; the promises of the Gospel.
Did anyone think of Psalm 58 as a comforting psalm? Did anyone list God’s judgment as a source of Christian comfort?
Probably not. If someone were to say, “A great source of comfort to me is the knowledge that my enemies will dissolve into slime like a dying snail,” I would be greatly shocked and probably consider finding some new friends.
But, that is what David says in Psalm 58. The snail bit is found in the eighth verse.
We’ve mentioned Psalm 58 before and we’ve talked about the Christian’s proper use of imprecatory psalms (psalms that call down curses on the singer’s enemies) when we shared some thoughts from puritan pastor William Gurnall (read that post HERE).
But seriously, is there really a place for the reading and singing of Psalm 58 in the Christian life and worship?
I suppose the first answer to that question would be: praise God that you don’t have more occasion to sing this psalm! If you don’t initially relate to the sentiment of Psalm 58, that means that you live a relatively easy life, in a country with a tolerant and permissive government.
But there are many places in the world and many times in history where such was not the case. The church has faced and will continue to face times of intense persecution. There have been and there will continue to be times of great injustice. And it is in those times that Psalm 58 is indeed a source of comfort.
The ESV Study Bible helpfully divides Psalm 58 into four stanzas:
- The challenge to the tyrants (verses 1-2)
- The charge against the tyrants (verses 3-5)
- The curse upon the tyrants (verses 6-9)
- The celebration when God judges the tyrants (verses 10-11)
A quick note about verse 1: as in Psalm 82, the reference to “gods” in this psalm refers to the powerful rulers of this earth. That’s why some translations and versifications might say “princes” or “judges.” So when David sarcastically asks the “gods,” “Do you indeed decree what is right… do you judge the children of man uprightly?” (verse 1), he is addressing a situation in which the mighty of the earth have established a pattern of injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression.
In verses 3-5, David accuses such rulers of belonging “to their father, the devil,” (John 8:33), ascribing to them characteristics of serpents, the very form Satan took in Genesis 3. They have such hard hearts that they are as snakes that pay no attention to a charmer (verses 4-5). They are beyond listening to reason, serving only themselves and their immoral desires.
And so David calls down the vivid curses of verses 6-9. And then he goes so far as to rejoice in their downfall, extending his celebration to the entire congregation of the righteous: “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
To our “cultivated” minds, this might seem barbaric and horrifying. But think about it: David is saying that good will win. No matter how oppressed the church may be, no matter how much the wicked may seem to prosper, God will judge the earth. God and His Word will be vindicated. He will receive all the glory. And in that fact, there is great comfort for a persecuted church!
If you’re still having trouble with Psalm 58, take some time to read Psalm 73 as well. Psalm 73 speaks of the same feeling: we look around at the world and sometimes, we can’t help but despair. We see the prosperity of the wicked and the trouble of the church. In Psalm 73, Asaph is in a depressed funk until “I went to the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” Meditating on the final judgment of God, the final vindication of righteousness, brings peace to the heart of the troubled Christian.
We know that in the end, when the world sees the justice of God, then all will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth” (verse 11). In other words, “Let us not grow weary of doing good,” (Galatians 6:9), for we know that in the end, “every knee shall bow… and every tongue confess to God” (Romans 14:11). It is only after the bloody fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 that the hallelujah chorus of Revelation 19 breaks out.
So Psalm 58 invites us to have patience under persecution, to take comfort in the justice and judgment of God. Why? Because we know that that judgement – all the curses of Psalm 58 and the rest of the Bible – was borne for us by Christ. We, too, were children of the devil, deserving of all of this curse. But now, because that curse was carried for us, we know that when that last trumpet shall sound we will in Christ be found. So we need not fear the judgment. Rather, we look forward to it, knowing that finally God will be ultimately vindicated and glorified. All persecution and war and strife shall cease. Wickedness will be punished and we can celebrate the end of sin forever. If we are in Christ, we can sing and rejoice along with David in Psalm 58.
106, “Do Ye, O Men, Speak Righteousness”
The primary word that comes to mind as I evaluate this versification of Psalm 58 in the Psalter Hymnal is “dull.” The creators of the 1912 Psalter, for whatever reason, chose to soften the message of this fierce imprecatory psalm to an almost unrecognizable extent. One can tell from its very brevity that much of the meat of Psalm 58 has been omitted from this setting. Since the blue Psalter Hymnal contains no other settings of Psalm 58, our options are limited; still, I hope to see a new (or thoroughly revised) versification of this text in the new URC Psalter Hymnal.
The tune, SWANWICK, is just as unsuitable as the text. Its lilting matter-of-fact melody line and awkward repeat encumber the already struggling lyrics. A variety of alternative tunes could be implemented here; I tend to favor something in the vein of NORTHSIDE (number 68). Without a doubt, Psalm 58 is one of the hardest psalms to set to music; however, the version in the Psalter Hymnal could still be much improved.