A Cry Against Structural Injustice: Psalm 58
Genre: Communal lament. Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of "cultic prophetic lament.”
Theme: While human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. The verb "judge" appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio [as well as cognates of "righteous"], and the imprecatory petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament.
I. Complaint (1-5).
A. Arraignment of Unjust Leaders (1-2).
B. Description of the Wicked (3-5).
II. Petition (6-9).
A. Imprecation (6).
B. Description of the Curse (7-9).
III. Praise (10-11).
A. Description of Results of the Curse (10).
B. The Confession of the People (11).
1. The judges ("gods") do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term here: cf. also 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4. God is the model for this equity. It addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4,6,11,52).
2. These rulers are like cobras with their lies--they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them--they are incorrigible. Note the description of them in 52:1-7. "They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence" (Mays, Psalms, 211).
3. "Break the Teeth" is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. It invokes a penalty for those who have not kept their contracts (Hackett). The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant.
4. God is addressed as the one who judges the judges. The imprecation is addressed to God who judges the earth. He is the sovereign King who exercises Lordship over judges.
5. Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9. Verse 9 is difficult to translate (see Althann).
6. The joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm's call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut. 32:42-43). The imagery of "feet in blood" is not about relishing cruelty, but victory (cf. Is. 63:1-6; Rev. 14:19-20; 19:13-14).
1. The reality of a victimized world must be taken seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely senario here). "The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it" (Pauls, "Psalm 58," 39).
2. The lamenter seeks justice from God. He prays to God and does not take up vengeance in his own hands. It is God's job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psalm 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psalm 52:6-7).
3. This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.
4. The lament evokes a vision of God's justice which takes the side of the oppressed and poor over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God's kingdom and his righteousness. "The words which we have sung must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, 'If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men'" (Augustine).
5. "The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence" (Zengar, 38).
1. This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones.
2. This psalm offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God's justice in their land.
3. This psalm functions to curse the wicked who have rebelled against God's kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God's curse that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.
1. Entrance into the Experience of Oppression.
a. Examples of Injustice.
(1) Bonhoeffer's Use of this Psalm Against the Third Reich.
(2) Use in the Third World (Sudan).
(3) Use in the Civil Rights Movement (Philadelphia, MS).
b. Empathy for the Oppressed.
c. Vision for God's Justice.
2. Contextualization of Psalm 58.
a. Injustice in Israel.
b. Covenantal Expectations of Justice by Judges in Israel.
c. Imprecation for Unjust Judges.
3. Recontextualization for Us: How does this form function for us?
a. Pray for God's Kingdom.
b. Stand with the Oppressed/Victims.
c. Rejoice in the Hope of God's Victory over Injustice.
4. Possible NT Application: Potential Texts.
a. Do we not cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8)? Application of the parable of the persistent widow would be most appropriate here.
b. Will we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God's kingdom is fully established (Rev. 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Rev. 6:10)? See also Rev. 18:20.
5. Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thess. 1:8) and believers will find rest. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ.
6. Blessing: This is God's judgment for the impenitent. God does not intend to destroy anyone--he seeks to bless everyone. But those who refuse his life only bring death to themselves.
Homiletic Point: When you find empathy with the oppressed, stand in their place and pray for God's justice to be revealed in this fallen world.
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