John T. Willis

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Psalm 59:1-5

Powerful enemies threaten the composer of Psalm 59, but she or he turns to Yahweh in trust and beseeches him to manifest his steadfast love for the psalmist by delivering her or him from these enemies. Psalm 59 has two alternating recurring refrains or choruses:
a. Verses 6 and 14:
"Each evening they come back,
howling like dogs
and prowling about the city."
b. Verses 9-10a and 17:
"O my strength, I will watch for [sing praises to] you;
for you, O God, are my fortress.
My God in his steadfast love will meet me [the God who shows me steadfast love]."

The first section of Psalm 59 is verses 1-10, which falls naturally into two parts. The first part is verses 1-5:

"Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
from the bloodthirsty save me.
Even now they lie in wait for my life;
the mighty stir up strife against me.
For no transgression or sin of mine, O Lord,
for no fault of mine, they run and make ready.
Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!
You, Lord God of hosts, are God of Israel.
Awake to punish all the nations;
spare none of those who treacherously plot evil."

1. These verses use many terms to describe the psalmist's opponents: my enemies, those who rise up against me, those who work evil, the bloodthirsty, those who lie in wait for my life, the mighty, all the nations, and those who treacherously plot evil. It is impossible to know with certainty who these enemies are, or the historical setting of this psalm. The phrase "all the nations" in verses 5 and 8 suggest the enemies are foreign nations who are about to attack or are in the process of attacking God's people. In this case, the psalmist may be the king of Israel or the commander of the Israelite army.
2. The sin of the psalmist's enemies is a matter of the heart. Their activities express externally what is going on in their heart. This is clear from verse 5: "they treacherously plot evil." Before human beings DO anything ("WORK evil"--verse 2), they PLOT in their hearts what they hope to do. Jesus says in Mark 7:21-23:
"For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
3. In this case, God is not using the psalmist's enemies to punish the psalmist for sin (verses 3c-4a). Wicked people often oppress, harm, and destroy innocent faithful followers of God. Jesus is the supreme example of this (see 1 Peter 2:21-25).
4. In times of distress and reversal and loss, often it appears to those who are under stress or are suffering that God is asleep, that God is not concerned about the pain his faithful people are enduring, that God is silent, that God is not active and working in his world, as he has promised (see Psalm 44:23-26). Thus, the poet beseeches God: "Rouse yourself!" "Awake!" That is, "Swing into action and deliver your people!"
As "God of hosts" (God of the heavenly angelic armies), our heavenly King is able to protect us and save us from all opponents. May we learn to trust in him to do this in times of oppression and frustration and distress.

John Willis

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Psalm 58:6-11

Having described the wicked hearts, words, and actions of her or his enemies in Psalm 58:1-5, the Psalmist turns to Yahweh in prayer in verses 6-11:

"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!
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.'"

1. God's people do not retaliate when evildoers persecute them or slander them or misrepresent them or oppress them or undermine them. Rather, they do their enemies good (Exodus 23:4-5; 1 Samuel 24:17; Proverbs 25:21-22; Matthew 5:38-48), and they pray God to take vengeance on the ungodly (Romans 12:17-21; Galatians 1:6-10; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Hebrews 10:26-31), and trust him to do what he has promised (Deuteronomy 32:34-35, 42-43; Psalms 68:22-23; 94:1).
2. The author of Psalm 58 is not asking God for personal, malicious, vindictive vengeance, but rather for the overthrow of wickedness which hinders the spread of God's kingdom on earth and the promotion of justice and righteousness among human beings. God cannot establish justice for the oppressed without bringing judgment on the oppressor (Isaiah 1:21-26).
3. The real issue presented in Psalm 58 is: Who rules the world? Wicked, self-centered oppressors? Or God? The psalmist's answer is: "There is a God who judges [that is, maintains justice] on earth."
When others mistreat us, may God help us respond by returning good for evil and by trusting him to deal with the wicked in his own way and in his own time.

John Willis

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Psalm 58:1-5

Psalm 58 is strikingly similar to Psalm 57 in several ways: (1) both psalms fall into two parts: in both psalms, verses 1-5 and verses 6-11; although Psalm 58 does not have a recurring refrain in verses 5 and 11 like Psalm 57; (2) powerful, wicked enemies are threatening both psalmists; (3) both psalms entrust God with the overthrow of these enemies. Psalm 58:1-5 reproves the psalmist's enemies for perpetrating oppression (verses 1-2), then describes the evil deeds of the wicked (verses 3-5):

"Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
So 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."

1. It is impossible to know whether the Hebrew word for those addressed in verse 1a means "gods" or "mighty ones," which includes heavenly beings and human beings. If the meaning is "gods," Psalm 58:1 would be very similar in thought to Psalm 82:1, which describes Yahweh holding council in the midst of the gods concerning judgment he will bring on those who practice injustice and unrighteousness. In this case, the gods of Psalm 58:1 would be wicked angels, perhaps including the devil (see Matthew 25:41; Job 1:6; 2:1), demons (Deuteronomy 32:16-17; Matthew 8:28-9:1; 12:22-32), evil spirits (Acts 19:11-20), the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12), and the like. On the other hand, if the meaning is "mighty ones," Psalm 58:1 would be similar to numerous passages in the prophets which condemn influential and powerful and wealthy leaders of God's people for oppressing the poor and needy and helpless (Amos 5:11-12; 6:4-7; 8:4-6; Micah 3:5-12; Isaiah 1:21-26; etc.).
2. Injustice, unfair treatment, oppression, and violence toward others is a "heart" problem. Those who do such things first "devise wrongs" in their hearts (verse 2a). A person's whole life is determined by the attitude of her or his heart. The reason God destroyed humankind by flood in the days of Noah is that "every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). As sad and painful as it may be, those who seek to live godly in Christ Jesus can expect oppression from people who have corrupt hearts.
3. Evil thoughts in the heart produce ungodly speech. So Psalm 58:3 condemns evildoers for "speaking lies." Evildoers are experts in using smooth words to flatter the very people they are planning to try to destroy, and in praising God only to curse those made in God's image (James 3:9-10).
4. Evil thoughts in the heart produce "violence" which people practice with their "hands" (verse 2b). After the author of Genesis reports that God saw that "every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5), he says in Genesis 6:11: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." Those who have corrupt hearts can hurt innocent, loving, Christ-centered people viciously without feeling any pangs of conscience. They tell others what trusting people have told them in confidence, quote what people say out of context and thus misrepresent them, "dismiss" people who have given their lives to a business or institution or cause sacrificially, pretend to be the best of friends in one setting and snub "best friends" in another setting, etc. Paul says their "consciences are seared with a hot iron" (1 Timothy 4:2).
5. The statements in verse 3: "the wicked go astray from the womb" and "they err from their birth," are difficult to interpret. When viewed in light of the overall teachings of the Bible, these lines do not mean that people inherit sin from their parents. If this were the case, no one would be responsible for his or her sins, because he or she could not keep from sinning. Yet the Bible teaches that each person is responsible for her or his own sins (Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 10:26-31). Rather, apparently the psalmist means that his enemies are "hardened sinners," that is, they made sin a way of life long ago, and now it is a natural habit for them. Jeremiah uses several figures to describe God's people in his day like this in Jeremiah 2:20-29; 13:23; and other texts.
God's faithful servants should not be surprised at opposition and persecution from enemies. Jesus and the first century church faced just such violence. See 1 Peter 4:12-19.

John Willis