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.
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.
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.
Reflection – Well, yes. So. When I decided to do this comprehensive commentary on the psalms, I probably wasn’t thinking of this one particularly. And it would be tempting for me to simply pass over this one in silence; meaning no disrespect to the Lord or to the Word of God, it is a bit much.
But no – I am a man of my word, and a commentary on the psalms is what I promised, and what I will deliver. So we have hear this cry of rage against the wickedness of the powerful, against the sins and iniquities committed by people in high places, people in positions of authority. Abuse. Exploitation. The use of power to do evil, not good.
Well, this is real. We can, and if you’re me, usually do, try to exercise some mode of understanding or compassion or analysis of why people come to do the things they do and end up doing things truly monstrous to behold. I am not one to demonize or vilify anyone. I have never had a great urge to bathe my feet in the blood of the wicked, to be perfectly honest. Maybe I’m wrong on that point—I don’t know.
The psalms are really perfect, though, taken all together. They contain the full spectrum of human responses to God and to the world. Here, it is the seething, unfiltered rage that is ours when we do behold, not just someone we disagree with or who does things we deem a little off, but when we see real evil, real wickedness afoot in the land, especially by those who have great power.
And this is real. In our Christianity we can and must strive for a spirit of caritas, for mercy for everyone. We cannot really exclude anyone from the circle of our mercy and our love, even the very powerful who do great wrong. (I am deliberately trying not to name any names here, by the way, as I don’t want this or that politician or media figure to become the focus of this post.)
This psalm with its over-the-top denunciations of such people calls us to a stark realism in this, though. We cannot pretend that we’re all really very nice people at heart and that some people are just misunderstood or maybe confused in their minds about stuff, but that everyone’s a good person, really. No. It is possible for a human being to give themselves over to evil, to wickedness, and to dedicate their lives to a course of action that wreacks death and destruction, misery and pain far and wide in the world.
It is no part of Christian charity to avert our eyes from all that because we just want everyone to play nice. But it is also not the fullness of revelation to just stay in the Psalm 58 place—break out the blood foot bath, folks! It is OK, natural really, to go there, in the moment of confrontation with real evil, real wickedness, but it is not OK to stay there. Jesus doesn’t leave us there, and we have to go where He leads us.
We have to find a way to love our neighbors, even when our neighbors are genuine evil-doers. That love may indeed involve denouncing the evil, may even involve taking strong measures indeed to oppose that evil. I am not a pacifist.
But whatever right and just course we discern that we must do in the face of monstrous evil, if we are serious about Christianity we have to pray for a merciful spirit, a heart that desires not the destruction and damnation of our enemies, but their salvation, their conversion, their return home to the Father’s house. Even when it is people who make our flesh crawl and our blood boil… we have to want to spend eternity with them in the kingdom of heaven, or we are no kind of Christian.
Psalm 58 is good for us, even if we are not going to make it part of our daily morning prayer. It reminds us of just how hard it is to love everyone, just how real evil is, and just how heroic is the call of Christ to us in the face of it. Today, for a practical exercise, think of one powerful person who you truly dislike, distrust, maybe even despise (Obama? Clinton? Trump? Putin? Trudeau? You decide)… and pray for that person, simply, directly, mercifully.