How to think and pray about wicked rulers (Psalm 58)

Psalm 58, like so many psalms, complains about human injustice but has a slightly different way of presenting the problem. Here the issue is cast as a drama in which the human actors are adam, the people, and elim or elohim, the “gods.” The narrator and suppliant—the psalmist—speaks on behalf of the people to elohim, the one God of Israel, also named YHWH, “the LORD.”

Here is the NRSV rendering of this psalm:

A
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.

B
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.

C
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
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!

D
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.”

The translation is NRSV, but I have divided the psalm into sections.

In section A the psalmist address wicked rulers directly. Two questions: do you decree what is right? do you judge fairly for adam (people)? And the answer to both: no. So this is the problem.

Section B elaborates on the bad character of the wicked rulers. Two things are notable: (1) Their current poor behavior—the injustice of their rule—flows from lifelong flawed character. And (2) there’s little hope of changing them, because their ears are stopped.

Section C uses a rapid succession of four metaphors to calls upon God, the Lord, to take these wicked rulers down in decisive and brutal ways.

And then in section D the psalmist predicts (threatens?) the glee of the righteous when justice is done. “They will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” This is of course a grim and violent image of the most extreme form of Schadenfreude, rejoicing in the downfall of another—mitigated here, if at all, only by the fact that it is prospective rather than actual rejoicing at a prospective rather than actual downfall. So it is a kind of self-soothing—because there is no reason to think that the wicked rulers addressed in this psalm are listening.

So this is a way you can think and pray about wicked rulers.

Is it the best way? Is it the most Christian way? Perhaps not. The feet bathing in blood in section D should strike most Christians as a level of enraged vindictiveness that they try to avoid, even in their imaginings.

But they should not avoid expressing anger by failing to address the wicked rulers clearly and honestly, recognizing and calling out their injustice, as in section A. Nor should they refrain from pointing out the deep roots of the current injustice in long habit, or the incorrigibility of offending rulers, as in section B.

Nor should they avoid expressing anger by refraining from praying for relief. The vivid prescriptiveness of the prayer for relief in section C may strike us as over the top—too angry!—but who are we, who have not experienced the specific expressions of injustice through which the psalmist has suffered, to condemn or even feel slightly superior to the specific form of the psalmist’s prayer for relief?

In fact there is something false and even despicable about the artificial serenity of parties not offended in the face of the anger of the grievously offended. The parties not offended against can strike a pious pose if they like, but it doesn’t help the angry oppressed, and I doubt that it pleases God, who prefers the honest anger of the downtrodden to the empty pieties of those who are at ease in Zion. And who approves when his children cry out to him in prayer rather than attempting their own forms of vengeance, which he reserves to himself.

One last thing about human rulers, wicked and otherwise: In the first first part of the psalm, according to the NRSV and numerous other translations, the psalm is addressed to “you gods.” This translation depends on the supposition that there is an error in the Hebrew text passed down to the medieval Jewish scholars who curated the so-called Masoretic text. That text says elem, which present difficulties. I’m not an expert in Hebrew lexicography, but from what I’m seeing in the works I have ready to hand, it could mean “in silence,” but that meaning fits the context so poorly that most translators assume there’s a vowel-pointing error in the Masoretic text and we should read elim rather than elem. And elim is what gets translated “you gods.” The unjust rulers are addressed as “gods”! Not because the psalmist thinks they deserve worship, but because the psalmist sees them arrogating to themselves powers and privileges higher than the common lot of humankind.

But then at the end, envisioning the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice, the psalmist avers that people (he says b’nei-adam) will say (1) there is a reward for the righteous, and (2), according to the NRSV and I guess most other translations, there is a God who judges on earth. That last clause, however, is not quite straitghtforward: אַ֥ךְ יֵשׁ־אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים שֹׁפְטִ֥ים בָּאָֽרֶץ. “There is a God” translates Hebrew yesh elohim, which is certainly possible, because the plural form “elohim” (gods) is regularly used as a name of the one God in the Hebrew Bible. But Goldingay points out that “who judges” here is the plural participle shoftim, whereas (and I’m taking his word for it) one would expect the singular if elohim were referring to the one God. So it seems it means rather “gods” in the plural.

John Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 42–89, p. 201

Which gives us a neat little inclusio with the Psalm’s opening. The “gods” who are the current rulers are unjust, violent, and recalcitrant. They do not deal out justice/judgment (mishpat), so their activity does not count as judging (they are not shophtim). But when the reversal comes, and God overthrows the unjust rulers, there will be new “gods,” rulers who rule in justice. New human rulers.

It is normal in Christian interpretation of the Psalms to look for and find Christ wherever a righteous leader of God’s people is anointed. We call this christological interpretation. Reading elohim as Goldingay suggests gives us in this case a hope that is not singularly christological but plural, referring then to people incorporate in God’s Messiah. This psalm does not give us much of a basis for elaborating upon their identity, character, and destiny, but it seems to me it would be safe to assume that these would be opposite to the identity, character ,and destiny of the unjust “gods” in sections, A, B, and C of this psalm.

Lest anyone think that what I am suggesting in this reading is that we would all be better off if we voted more Christians into public office—well, that’s not exactly it. The crucial difference between the wicked “gods” whom we pray God to cast down and the righteous “gods” whom we pray God to install in their stead is not how they label themselves but whether or not they judge fairly and decree what is right. You won’t find a psalm praising anyone for merely waving the right banner, shouting the right slogan, or striking the right pose.

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