The words of Psalm 58 leave me feeling uneasy and uncertain as to how to process its message. It’s not that I don’t understand the psalm, (though maybe I don’t), or that I don’t know how it fits into the arc of the surrounding psalms (though maybe I don’t know that either), but it’s that I don’t know how I should respond to the content. To explain what I mean, let’s begin with the psalm itself.
Psalm 58 seems to be arranged in a chiastic structure highlighting the central theme of God’s justice in the face of a fallen world. This may be best understood if you see the following outline:
A (1-2) The unjust nature of earth’s rulers and judges
B (3-5) The uncontrollable poison of wicked people
C (6-9) A plea for God to utterly destroy the wicked
B’ (10) The joy of the righteous as a result of God’s judgment
A’ (11) God’s just nature as revealed by his actions
While the conclusion to Psalm 58 (verse 11) seems to be that God reveals his just nature through the destruction of the wicked ones, the central focus of the psalm (verses 6-9) is the actual plea for justice. Given the frequent cries from God’s righteous people under attack found in the previous psalms, this focus seems fitting. But, unlike many of the previous psalms anticipating God’s final and ultimate judgment on the powers of wickedness, the cries of this psalm take pleasure in the judgment of the wicked, which is, I believe, why I feel uneasy: I mean, should we actually be excited about the results of all-consuming judgment of God?
I don’t mean to question the goodness of God’s justice, nor that our proper response to his justice should be praise, but I am asking how it is that we should respond to the devastation left in the wake of God’s judgment. This is a question centering on how to interpret verse 10. It says,
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
I realize this image of happily treading through the blood of my enemies is in the inspired and inerrant scripture, but, speaking honestly, this image gives me pause. Does it describe how God wants us to act, or does it describe the deep and unfiltered desires of David’s heart? In other words, should we take joy in the demise of the wicked or should we view it with sober recognition that there is very little difference between ourselves and them?
On the one hand, God’s active justice on earth should give us pleasure as we see righteousness rewarded, wickedness punished, and justice win. We should rejoice when the young girl is removed from sexual slavery and the perpetrators caught and brought to justice. We should rejoice when the child pornographers are caught and the children are freed. We should rejoice when the addict is freed, the pusher imprisoned, the terrorist caught, and the women and children being terrorized are freed. But how do I reconcile rejoicing over the judgment of the wicked with what is, I think, the most pointed statement Jesus ever made, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7)?
Scripture tells me I can’t be an instrument meting out my own vengeance: that much is clear (see Romans 12:9-21). But it also tells me that I can be an instrument meting out the state’s judgment, and thus God’s judgment (see Romans 13:1-7). But, does that also mean that I can, or should, rejoice in the downfall of another person who has been created in the image of God, even if they have been created for destruction (Romans 9:22-23)? For some reason, that just doesn’t seem right.
I think this psalm shows us something about God’s tolerance for our frustration, and thus how it is we should respond in the face of his judgment on the wicked. God, who has been rejected by every human being to ever have existed, is still willing to extend grace to those who acknowledge him and live according to his ways. He is even willing to listen to our complaints regarding the wicked even though we are all sinners and, if left to our own devices, no different than the unjust judges (Psalm 58:1-2) and the uncontrollably wicked people (Psalm 58:3-5). But what I believe he deeply desires is that we change our selfishly joyful cries regarding the enemy’s demise into humble prayers that the world would recognize God’s goodness and justice.
As such, the message of Psalm 58 that makes me feel uneasy is that even though we want to rejoice in the judgment of God upon the wicked ones in our lives, we must not miss the fact that we are all deserving of his judgment. And the only way to calm the sense of unease is to recognize that it is only by the grace of God we are not counted among the number of those on the receiving end of God’s justice.