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Psalm 58

Prayer for Vengeance

To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam.


Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?

Do you judge people fairly?


No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;

your hands deal out violence on earth.



The wicked go astray from the womb;

they err from their birth, speaking lies.


They have venom like the venom of a serpent,

like the deaf adder that stops its ear,


so that it does not hear the voice of charmers

or of the cunning enchanter.



O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of the young lions, O L ord!


Let them vanish like water that runs away;

like grass let them be trodden down and wither.


Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;

like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.


Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,

whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!



The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;

they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.


People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;

surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

6. Break their teeth, O God! in their mouth 354354     “Break their teeth in their mouth” is most probably a continuation of the metaphorical illustration taken from serpents and adders immediately before, whose poison is contained in a bag at the bottom of one of their teeth, and who are disarmed by being deprived of this tooth which conveys the poison. This the charmer sometimes does after he has brought them out of their retreats by music. When the serpent makes its appearance, he seizes it by the throat, draws it forth, shows its poisoned fangs, and beats them out. To this beating out there seems to be here an allusion. “This mention of teeth,” says Hammond, “fairly introduces that which follows concerning the lion, whose doing mischief with that part is more violent and formidable, and so signifies the open, riotous invader, the violent and lawless person; as the serpent’s teeth, the more secret, indiscernible wounds of the whisperer or backbiter, which yet are as dangerous and destructive as the former, by the smallest puncture killing him on whom they fasten.” From this part of the psalm he assumes the language of imprecation, and solicits the vengeance of God, whose peculiar prerogative it is to repel oppression and vindicate injured innocence. It is necessary, however, that we attend to the manner in which this is done. He does not claim the judgment or patronage of God to his cause, until he had, in the first place, asserted his integrity, and stated his complaint against the malicious conduct of his enemies; for God can never be expected to undertake a cause which is unworthy of defense. In the verse before us, he prays that God would crush the wicked, and restrain the violence of their rage. By their teeth, he would intimate that they resembled wild beasts in their desire to rend and destroy the victims of their oppression; and this is brought out more clearly in the latter part of the verse, where he likens them to lions The comparison denotes the fury with which they were bent upon his destruction.

In the next verse, and in the several succeeding verses, he prosecutes the same purpose, employing a variety of apt similitudes. He prays that God would make them flow away like waters, that is, swiftly. The expression indicates the greatness of his faith. His enemies were before his eyes in all the array of their numbers and resources; he saw that their power was deeply rooted and firmly established; the whole nation was against him, and seemed to rise up before him like a hopeless and formidable barrier of rocky mountains. To pray that this solid and prodigious opposition should melt down and disappear, evidenced no small degree of courage, and the event could only appear credible to one who had learnt to exalt the power of God above all intervening obstacles. In the comparison which immediately follows, he prays that the attempts of his adversaries might be frustrated, the meaning of the words being, that their arrows might fall powerless, as if broken, when they bent their bow. Actuated as they were by implacable cruelty, he requests that God would confound their enterprises, and in this we are again called to admire his unshaken courage, which could contemplate the formidable preparations of his enemies as completely at the disposal of God, and their whole power as lying at his feet. Let his example in this particular point be considered. Let us not cease to pray, even after the arrows of our enemies have been fitted to the string, and destruction might seem inevitable.

8. Let him vanish like a snail, which melts away The two comparisons in this verse are introduced with the same design as the first, expressing his desire that his enemies might pass away quietly, and prove as things in their own nature the most evanescent. He likens them to snails, 355355     The original word for snail occurs only in this instance in the whole Bible. The LXX. render it ὡσεὶ κηρὸς, as wax, and the Syriac and Vulgate follow them. But the Chaldee reads “as a reptile,” interpreting the word as meaning some creeping thing, which affords an eminent example of melting, and this seems to apply to the snail, which, in its progress from its shell, leaves a slime in its track till it altogether melts away and dies. Comp. Job 3:16 and it might appear ridiculous in David to use such contemptible figures when speaking of men who were formidable for their strength and influence, did we not reflect that he considered God as able in a moment, without the slightest effort, to crush and annihilate the mightiest opposition. Their power might be such as encouraged them, in their vain-confidence, to extend their schemes into a far distant futurity, but he looked upon it with the eye of faith, and saw it doomed in the judgment of God to be of short continuance. He perhaps alluded to the suddenness with which the wicked rise into power, and designed to dash the pride which they are apt to feel from such an easy advance to prosperity, by reminding them that their destruction would be equally rapid and sudden. There is the same force in the figure employed in the end of the verse where they are compared to an abortion. If we consider the length of time to which they contemplate in their vain-confidence that their life shall extend, 356356     “Si reputamus quantum temporis inani fiducia devorent,” etc. Literally, “If we consider how much time they devour in their vain-confidence,” etc. The French version adheres to this translation of the mere words. “Si nous regardons combien ils devorent de temps par leur vaine confiance.” We have hazarded the more free translation given in the text, because this seems one of those instances where the brevity of the Latin idiom demands explanation, in order that the idea may be intelligible in any other language. they may be said to pass out of this world before they have well begun to live, and to be dragged back, as it were, from the very goal of existence.

9. Before your pots can feel the fire of your thorns. Some obscurity attaches to this verse, arising partly from the perplexed construction, and partly from the words being susceptible of a double meaning. 357357     This verse has been deemed one of the most difficult passages in the Psalter, and has greatly perplexed commentators. Bishop Horsley reads —
   “Before your pots feel the bramble,
In whirlwind and hurricane he shall sweep them away.”

   He supposes that the language is proverbial, and that the Psalmist describes the sudden eruption of the divine wrath; sudden and violent as the ascension of the dry bramble underneath the housewife’s pot. Walford reads —

   “Before your cooking vessels feel the fuel;
Both the green and the dry a whirlwind shall scatter.”

   The passage is supposed by this author and others to contain an allusion to the manners of the Arabs, who, when they want to cook their food, collect bushes and brambles, both green and withered, with which they kindle a fire in the open air. But before their culinary vessels are sensibly afflicted with the heat, a whirlwind not unfrequently arises and scatters the fuel. And this strikingly expresses the sudden and premature destruction of the wicked. Fry gives a somewhat different explanation. He reads —

   “Sooner than your vessels can feel the blazing thorn,
The hot blast shall consume them, as well the green as the dry.”

   And he observes, that “שער, or סער, no doubt expresses the action of the hot wind of the desert.” This wind is eminently destructive, and has not unfrequently been known to entomb and destroy whole caravans. Sidi Hamet, describing his journey across the great desert to Tombuctoo with a caravan consisting of above one thousand men and four thousand camels, relates that, “after travelling upwards of a month they were attacked by the Shume, the burning blast of the desert, carrying with it clouds of sand. They were obliged to lie for two days with their faces on the ground, only lifting them occasionally to shake off the sand and obtain breath. Three hundred never rose again, and two hundred camels also perished.” — (Murrays Discoveries in Africa, volume 1, pp. 515, 516.) Estius gives this sense: “Before your thorns shall arrive to their full growth into a bush, the rage of a tempest shall snatch them away, as it were, in the flower of their age and growing to maturity.” The words כמו-חי, kemo-chai, which Calvin renders flesh yet raw, are used in this sense in Leviticus 13:16, and 1 Samuel 11:15
Thus the Hebrew word סירות, siroth, signifies either a pot or a thorn. If we adopt the first signification, we must read, before your pots feel the fire which has been kindled by thorns; if the second, before your thorns grow to a bush, that is, reach their full height and thickness. What, following the former sense, we have translated flesh yet raw, must be rendered, provided we adopt the other, tender, or not yet grown. But the scope of the Psalmist in the passage is sufficiently obvious. He refers to the swiftness of that judgment which God would execute upon his enemies, and prays that he would carry them away as by a whirlwind, either before they arrived at the full growth of their strength, like the thorn sprung to the vigorous plant, or before they came to maturity and readiness, like flesh which has been boiled in the pot. The latter meaning would seem to be the one of which the passage is most easily susceptible, that God, in the whirlwind of his anger, would carry away the wicked like flesh not yet boiled, which may be said scarcely to have felt the heat of the fire.

10 The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance It might appear at first sight that the feeling here attributed to the righteous is far from being consistent with the mercy which ought to characterise them; but we must remember, as I have often observed elsewhere, that the affection which David means to impute to them is one of a pure and well-regulated kind; and in this case there is nothing absurd in supposing that believers, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Ghost, should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. That cruel satisfaction which too many feel when they see their enemies destroyed, is the result of the unholy passions of hatred, anger, or impatience, inducing an inordinate desire of revenge. So far as corruption is suffered to operate in this manner, there can be no right or acceptable exercise. On the other hand, when one is led by a holy zeal to sympathise with the justness of that vengeance which God may have inflicted, his joy will be as pure in beholding the retribution of the wicked, as his desire for their conversion and salvation was strong and unfeigned. God is not prevented by his mercy from manifesting, upon fit occasions, the severity of the judge, when means have been tried in vain to bring the sinner to repentance, nor can such an exercise of severity be considered as impugning his clemency; and, in a similar way, the righteous would anxiously desire the conversion of their enemies, and evince much patience under injury, with a view to reclaim them to the way of salvation: but when wilful obstinacy has at last brought round the hour of retribution, it is only natural that they should rejoice to see it inflicted, as proving the interest which God feels in their personal safety. It grieves them when God at any time seems to connive at the persecutions of their enemies; and how then can they fail to feel satisfaction when he awards deserved punishment to the transgressor?

11. So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward. We have additional evidence from what is here said of the cause or source of it, that the joy attributed to the saints has no admixture of bad feeling. It is noticeable from the way in which this verse runs, that David would now seem to ascribe to all, without exception, the sentiment which before he imputed exclusively to the righteous. But the acknowledgement immediately subjoined is one which could only come from the saints who have an eye to observe the divine dispensations; and I am, therefore, of opinion that they are specially alluded to in the expression, And a man shall say, etc At the same time, this mode of speech may imply that many, whose minds had been staggered, would be established in the faith. The righteous only are intended, but the indefinite form of speaking is adopted to denote their numbers. It is well known how many there are whose faith is apt to be shaken by apparent inequalities and perplexities in the divine administration, but who rally courage, and undergo a complete change of views, when the arm of God is bared in the manifestation of his judgments. At such a time the acknowledgement expressed in this verse is widely and extensively adopted, as Isaiah declares,

“When thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness,” (Isaiah 26:9.)

The Hebrew particle אך, ach, which we have translated verily, occasionally denotes simple affirmation, but is generally intensitive, and here implies the contrast between that unbelief which we are tempted to feel when God has suspended the exercise of his judgments, and the confidence with which we are inspired when he executes them. Thus the particles which are repeated in the verse imply that men would put away that hesitancy which is apt to steal upon their minds when God forbears the infliction of the punishment of sin, and, as it were, correct themselves for the error into which they had been seduced. Nothing tends more to promote godliness than an intimate and assured persuasion that the righteous shall never lose their reward. Hence the language of Isaiah, “Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him; for they shall eat the fruit of their doings,” (Isaiah 3:10.) When righteousness is not rewarded, we are disposed to cherish unbelieving fears, and to imagine that God has retired from the government of the world, and is indifferent to its concerns. I shall have an opportunity of treating this point more at large upon the seventy-third psalm.

There is subjoined the reason why the righteous cannot fail to reap the reward of their piety, because God is the judge of the world; it being impossible, on the supposition of the world being ruled by the providence of God, that he should not, sooner or later, distinguish between the good and the evil. He is said more particularly to judge in the earth, because men have sometimes profanely alleged that the government of God is confined to heaven, and the affairs of this world abandoned to blind chance.

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