A Prayer for Justice (Psalm 58:1–11)

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Psalm 58 is a very honest, and yet somewhat disconcerting, psalm. It is perhaps not the kind of psalm you would expect us to study together at the outset of a new year, but it is an important one to consider. And it is one to which we can all relate in some way. It is a prayer for justice.

Have you ever been disturbed about a lack of justice? Have you ever been unjust? Have you ever prayed like this? Do the words of this psalm strike you as severe? Do they strike you as unchristian? Are they the words of an angry and vengeful man? Are they unworthy of holy writ? These are some of the questions to consider as we study this prayer together.

What exactly is this psalm about? It is about an experience in David’s life when those who should have known better actually did the worst. His response was this “Michtam.” The word means “to etch” or “to sculpt.” David “etched” these words in response to those who mistreated him.

The psalm is about those who should be speaking up who choose to remain silent (v. 1). It is about those who should have been hearing who chose rather to be deaf (vv. 4–5). It is about those who should have been exercising justice who rather meted out injustice. It is about a man who was concerned about righteous rules and righteous rulers. It is about a man who was concerned with God’s righteousness. It is about a man who expected God to bring righteousness to rule; he expected God to reward the righteous with such righteous rule. It is a about a man who believed God for the realisation one day of the fullness of the new heaven and the new earth. It is about one who had examined his own heart and who was in a right condition to pray this.

As noted, it is a psalm to which we can all relate, and thus it is very relevant. People treat us unjustly. They wrong us. They lie to and about us. They connive to harm us. People sometimes take advantage of us and in some cases they even oppress us. Those in authority abuse their authority and they use it in destructive ways. Those in authority are often corruptible and we suffer because of it. Those who rule as judges and those who write the laws do so unjustly. Criminals are not appropriately punished and victims often suffer even more as criminals are often treated as victims.

Consider, for a moment, the injustice that abounds in South Africa.

In our own country, babies are put to death in the womb with impunity because such actions are legally protected. Where is the justice?

Restitution is not made when wrong is done. Former Fidentia boss J. Arthur Brown committed financial fraud to the tune of millions of rands, and yet he was given a R150,000 fine and a suspended sentence. Recently, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but sentence has been postponed until further hearings early this year. In it all, where is the justice? What difference will a R150,000 fine and even some prison time make if restitution is not demanded for the defrauded?

In South Africa, the poor are routinely disadvantaged by corrupt officials and an unjust citizenship at large.

False religion and false teachers within the professing church are praised and enriched at the eternal expense of souls while the name of Christ is dishonoured.

In the world at large, Christians are persecuted even to the point of death. False teachers abound. God’s law is flouted to the point where evil is called good and good is called evil.

The realisation of such injustice may lead us to panic. If the kingdom has been promised, where is it? If Jesus is Lord and sovereign King, where is He? But rather than panic, we should pray—as David did.

This psalm is real: It deals with that which hurts and harms. It is relevant: It addresses history. It is revealing: It reveals our own hearts. It is reverent: It is holy and righteous. Therefore, the psalm is to be sung and prayed.

We will consider the psalm under two broad headings.

Making Sense of the Psalm

Psalm 58 is one of seven imprecatory psalms. The others are Psalms 6, 35, 69, 83, 109 and 137. And there are also numerous imprecatory statements in other psalms.

To “imprecate” means “to invoke evil upon” or “curse” one’s enemies. King David is the psalmist most associated with imprecatory verses, such as Psalms 55:15, 69:28, and 109:8. He often uses language like, “Let their way be dark and slippery, and let the angel of the LORD pursue them” (Psalm 35:6), and (here in this very psalm), “Break their teeth in their mouth, O God! Break out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD” (v. 6).

Here in Psalm 58, David charges the earthly system of justice with unfairness (vv. 1–5), commits his case to the Lord’s justice (vv. 6–8), and expects justice (vv. 9–11). This is the general pattern with the imprecatory psalms.

The Indictment

The indictment is found in vv. 1–5:

Do you indeed speak righteousness, you silent ones? Do you judge uprightly, you sons of men? No, in heart you work wickedness; you weigh out the violence of your hands in the earth. The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent; they are like the deaf cobra that stops its ear, which will not heed the voice of charmers, charming ever so skilfully. Break their teeth in their mouth, O God!

(Psalm 58:1–5)

In v. 1, David complains that the wicked rulers are insensitive to God, justice and the cries of the poor and needy. They should be speaking up for justice, but they are silent as they observe injustice.

Verse 2 perhaps offers a hint of the specific context. It doesn’t say so outright, but the language fits with Saul and his cohorts unjustly devising David’s downfall. The king and his forces were entrusted with the safety and security of Israel’s citizens; instead, they were doing everything they could to make sure David was not secure!

It can be argued that vv. 3–5 describe mankind in general—as Romans 3 clearly states—but the language used here is characteristic of the unjust, from early on. Just as a baby serpent can be as venomous as its mature mother, so humans from the youngest age are opposed to righteousness.

Richard Capel commented that “a liar is as like the devil as ever he can look: as unlike God as ever he can be.” The unjust are deaf to the call of righteousness. As Spurgeon lamented, “How early men do sin, how late they do repent.”

This is certainly not a pleasant situation. So what now? What can the righteous do? Where can we go but to the Lord? It is to the Lord that David turns.

The Imprecation

Verses 6–8 record the actual imprecatory language.

Break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them flow away as waters which run continually; when he bends his bow, let his arrows be as if cut in pieces. Let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, like a stillborn child of a woman, that they may not see the sun.

(Psalm 58:6–8)

This language may appear somewhat harsh at first glance, but as VanGemeren notes, “the radical nature of evil requires a response from the God of justice.” Only God can put it right. How can we not pray this?

The prayer is for the total overthrow of the wicked—obviously using metaphorical language. David prays that his enemies would be made harmless and ineffectual—toothless lions (v. 6). He asks God to remove them, as water ebbs away (v. 7a). He petitions the Lord to render their weapons useless (v. 7b), as God later did to Sennacherib’s army in the time of Isaiah the prophet. He prays that they would decrease in strength even as they move against him, like a snail leaving its body in a trail behind it (v. 8a). He wants them to be as helpless as stillborn children (v. 8b).

In short, David prays that God would defeat his enemies’ purposes, that He would defeat and destroy them.

The Expectation

In vv. 9-11 we see that David had every expectation that God would answer his prayer, that God would vindicate His name and His righteous standards.

Before your pots can feel the burning thorns, He shall take them away as with a whirlwind, as in His living and burning wrath. The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked, so that men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely He is God who judges in the earth.”

(Psalm 58:9–11)

Though of course he does not declare a timeline, David does expect vindication to occur throughout the whole earth on and in which Yahweh is God.

He expects the “tornado” of God’s wrath to put an end to all the cooked up schemes of the wicked (v. 9). He believed in God’s wrath. He knew that God is a consuming fire. He therefore believed that the righteous could expect to enjoy the spoils of war (v. 10). The righteous “rejoice” not because they are bloodthirsty, but because they delight in justice. Their prayer is that the unrighteous reign of terror must come to an end. David here shares the conviction of other biblical writers that God’s people will share in His victory (see Isaiah 63:1–6; Revelation 14:19–20; 19:13–14).

Ultimately, David believes that God’s name will be famed rather than defamed (v. 11). People will recognise God as righteous and His name will be vindicated. It is because of this conviction that he prayed for righteousness to be vindicated.

Some may think that this type of language is reserved for the Old Testament, and that the New Testament speaks only of love, but they ignore texts such as Revelation 6:9–11, where the martyred saints pray for vindication, which is really a prayer of faith in Jesus’ promise that the blood of the martyrs would be vindicated (Matthew 23:34–36).

As David expected God to right the wrongs, so should we. The proper praying of these imprecatory psalms are acts of faith.

Making Use of the Psalm

With that very brief overview in mind, we now come to the all-important question: How do we make use of a psalm like this? We believe that the Psalms are a template for our prayers. So, may we pray words like these? And, if so, how?

May We Pray These Words?

Many wonder, may we pray these words? Are we permitted to do so? Perhaps we can begin answering this question by asking, in real terms, who prayed this psalm? Who prayed all of the imprecatory psalms?

I want to make the case—and seek to prove it—that Christ is the one who prayed these words—as He did the words of all the psalms.

In Hebrews 10:5–7, the writer quotes from Psalm 40:6–8. Interestingly, however, he attributes those words to Christ: “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said …” He does something similar in Hebrews 2:11–12. Clearly, the writers of Scripture believed that Christ was speaking in the Psalms.

This view can be further evidenced by considering some of the times that Christ quoted the Psalms. For example, when He cried, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit’” (Luke 23:46) He was quoting from Psalm 31:5. When He asked, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was quoting Psalm 22:1. His simple cry, “I thirst” (John 19:28) He was referencing Psalms 22:15 and 69:21.

James Adams says it well:

The New Testament understanding of Christ in the Psalms is fundamental to praying and preaching these psalms. The psalmist cries out for God to exercise justice and judgment. Christ came to establish His Kingdom and to extend mercy to all the earth. But let us never forget that Jesus will come again to execute judgment on the wicked.

We need to appreciate that the Psalms—the imprecatory psalms included—are the words and prayers of Jesus. This is His psalter. It should not be missed that David, the anointed king through whom Messiah would come, was “the sweet psalmist of Israel.” He is the most prolific author of the Psalms. Therefore, they are typological. Franz Delitzsch observes,

As the New Testament contains no writings of the apostles before Pentecost, so the Old Testament Canon contains none of the songs of David prior to his anointing. Only when he becomes “the Anointed of the God of Jacob” is he the sweet singer of Israel, on whose tongue is the word of Jehovah (2 Sam 23:1).

And so we see that the prayers of David are really the prayers of Jesus.

But some will immediately raise an objection: What about Psalm 51? What about the psalms in which David confesses his sin and asks for forgiveness? Are those also the prayers of the sinless Son of God? In a sense, yes, for although Jesus was guilty of no sin, He was the sin-bearer. He was punished for the sins of David. He knew the sense of abandonment that David felt (God had forsaken  Him!), and He knew the joy of God’s salvation when He cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

We need to read the Psalms as Jesus praying them through David. And it is at this point that we must apply the doctrine of inspiration (2 Timothy 3:15–17). If all Scripture is breathed out by God—and it is—then so are these psalms.

Sadly, not everyone is consistent here. There are those who hold to the inspiration of Scripture who yet call into question the psalms before us. For example, Halley’s Bible Handbook states:

These psalms are not God’s pronouncements of His wrath on the wicked; but are the prayers of a man for vengeance on his enemies, just the opposite of Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies. In Old Testament times God, in a measure, for expedience sake accommodated Himself to men’s ideas. In New Testament times God began to deal with men according to His Own Ideas.

S. Lewis actually considered these words “devilish” and “diabolical.” He wrote, “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.” Scofield thought that such prayers for vengeance are “a cry unsuited to the Church.”

Spurgeon had a more biblical view, commenting on another imprecatory psalm: “Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read, yet as it is a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgment upon it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein.”

If we take the doctrine of inspiration to heart then we must take these psalms to heart.

We Must Pray these Prayers!

In answer, therefore, to the question above, we say, “We may pray these words; in fact, we must pray them!” The real issue is, can we pray them?

As noted briefly above, the language of the imprecatory psalms is not unique to the Old Testament. The martyrs of Revelation prayed in similar fashion:

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed

(Revelation 6:9–11)

Some of the “harshest” language in all Scripture are the words of Jesus directed at the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 23. He was angry at them and warned them plainly of God’s judgement. It is not as if Jesus is a meeker, more lenient version of the Old Testament Yahweh. He is indeed meek and lowly, but the thought of Jesus the same yesterday, today and forever is a comfort only to those who are His. He stands as the judge of the wicked, the very one who would bring the judgements of Psalm 58 on the heads of His enemies!

If we do not pray these prayers, then we are not being faithful to Scripture, and therefore we are not being faithful to Jesus Christ our Lord. But this brings us to a very important question.

How Can We Pray These Prayers?

There is something in us that is uneasy at the thought of praying imprecatory prayers, and yet the inspired psalter includes such prayers for us. So, how can we go about praying these prayers as faithful believers? We can only do so the same way that David did: by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The last words of David are recorded in 2 Samuel 23:1–7. There, “the sweet psalmist of Israel” says, “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue” (v. 2). David was led by the Spirit to pray these words, and we can be led by the Spirit to do the same. But, as noted, we will only do so when we see that all the psalms are actually Christ at prayer—both in the “sweet” and in the “harsh” psalms. By the Holy Spirit, we need to see Christ in them.

Practically, there are a number of attitudes with which we must pray these prayers.

We must pray with humility and holiness. Note the spirit in which these words are written: with heartache, but not with personal hatred. Clearly, David had been injured, but apparently he guarded his heart. After all, he wrote under inspiration.

We must pray with perhaps some confusion over what the Lord is doing—or not doing. After all, David had been anointed king and the kingdom had been promised. So why did he face all these seemingly insurmountable obstacles?

We must pray with God-centeredness. Ultimately, we want to see the downfall of God’s enemies, who also happen to be ours. Imprecatory prayers are not designed to attain personal revenge on personal foes. If you feel that your employer has mistreated you, please do not pray for God to break his teeth in his mouth!

We must pray with faith and hope. God has made promises concerning a kingdom of everlasting righteousness. We do not know God’s timeline, but we can cling in hopeful faith to His promises and pray accordingly. David certainly did, and He was not afraid to pray for the overthrow of the wicked. And so, while we pray with affliction, we also do so with great affection for God and with great anticipation of what God will do.

This is how David prayed, and if we pray in a similar way, we will be Christ-centred and Christ-motivated in praying these psalms. After all, the Holy Spirit came to earth to glorify the Son.

Let me just stress again that we do not pray these words for personal vengeance, for the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself (see Romans 12:17–21). We will therefore be sure to examine our own hearts before we condemn others.

As we bring this study to a close, let me briefly note a few practical ways in which praying in an imprecatory manner will work itself out in the life of a believer.

First, pray for the conversion of the unrighteous. May God “defang” them by the gospel. The lost, no matter how “moral” or “nice” are opposed to God. The imprecatory psalms call for the conquest of God’s enemies, and that is precisely what the gospel accomplishes.

Second, pray for justice for God’s people and for people in general. And this means that we need to pray for transformed lives and transformed minds. Natural man has no understanding of what justice really looks like. Man needs to be brought to see justice as God sees it before justice will truly be done.

Third, pray for Jesus to publicly be vindicated by either transforming or by destroying the unrighteous. I have a standard prayer that I pray for our government officials: “Lord, please save him, or silence him.” Salvation would be first prize, but if God chooses not to save the godless, then my petition is that He would silence them—however that happens.

Fourth, pray believing that God will, in the end, balance the scales of justice. And live like it. Have a long view of justice. Don’t despair when you don’t see justice meted out immediately. Know, by faith, that God will ultimately right all wrongs.

Micah tells us that we are to love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Notice that he does not say that we must love justice, but that we must do justly. If we simply love justice we will either become discouraged as we do not see it, or we will become overzealous and lose our humility as we cease to be merciful. Be careful what you do and what you love.

The mindset and heart attitude of Micah 6:8 will empower us to pray these prayers properly. So, let’s pray, and may God’s kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.