Psalm 58: Vengeance
March 11, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Have you ever felt so angry with someone, or some situation in the world, that your thoughts turned to vengeance? Great literature, like parts of the classic Moby Dick, as well as contemporary movies, are replete with themes of revenge. It is clearly a common emotion.
Often what makes it particularly powerful in an individual is the sense that human justice is inadequate. As David puts it here, “Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?” [“gods” meaning the rulers or lords or human judges]. “Do you judge the children of men uprightly? No, in your heart you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth” (58:1-2). In other words, not only is wrong done, but also those who do wrong appear to get away with it. It is that lack of justice which fuels the fire for revenge. We want to “take the law into our own hands.”
There are many reasons why this is a mistake. First of all, we ourselves are not perfect. If the law was thoroughly applied, in a biblical sense, then “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). Second, human vengeance inevitably leads to more vengeance; a “blood feud” can rapidly build—and then no one wins. Third, and most of all, as the Bible says, justice and any kind of vengeance for wrongs done is God’s job: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Therefore, we should, as Jesus taught us, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
Why then do we come across psalms—such as this Psalm 58—that are plainly filled with thoughts of vengeance? “Tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” (58:6). “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun” (58:8). “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:10). These are not light, insignificant words; they are words filled with desire for revenge. Why is this here?
One observation is that they are words addressed to God. David is asking God to act in justice. Another observation is that they are a fair record of what David felt, not necessarily a record of what David knew he should feel. Further, we might note that as David was a king and had political power and lethal authority—in a way that the church in the New Testament does not—he was charged with administering justice in a way that no Christian ecclesial leader in the New Testament era should be today.
These “imprecatory” psalms make for uncomfortable reading nonetheless. The great C. S. Lewis in his thoughts on the Psalms struggled most with them; he thought they exposed a mindset that is foreign to what he recognized as right and ideal. Are we not to love our enemies? And when we say we should pray for them, are we really expected to pray an imprecatory psalm about them?
There is another aspect of this, though. And that is that if you are faced with true injustice, you need to find a way to “lance the boil” of the bitterness that it creates in you. It is often and rightly said that sin must find its resolution in only one of two places: either at the cross or in hell. The solution to these imprecatory psalms is in the blood shed for sinners at Calvary, where Christ took the wrath of God against sinners in his own body, that those who repent and believe might go free. But it requires such honest, truthful, yes even vulnerably open meditation to God to bring those wrongs done against us to that place of Calvary—where wrath and justice mingle, truth and mercy meet.
If you are facing a test as to whether to forgive someone for a wrong done against you, try praying this psalm. And then read of Jesus’ death on the cross for all the sins and injustices of the world. And remember that your sins have been forgiven too. And therefore you must forgive the sins of those who have sinned against you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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