Do You Rulers Speak Justly? A reflection on Psalm 58

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

The gift of the psalms is that they are always relevant. Even King David, the named writer of the 58th Psalm, knew that justice was not a feature that rulers possess. In fact, he knew this all too well. His judgement was clouded by sexual abuse that resulted in the death of one of his soldiers and the stillborn birth of a son, not to mention the psychological damage done to Bathsheba.

And those on the receiving end know the reality of corrupt power better than a monarch could understand. Call it Critical Race Theory, wokeism, intersectionality or Marxism, but the poor and the marginalized all over the world experience the injustice of rulers, of elected officials, of the religious elite, and of long standing systems that are set up to oppress them. And the result is always violence.

This violence is not limited, in the case of the US, to mass incarceration, to a government that consistently refuses to guarantee a living wage and that forces people to choose between health care and rent. The violence extends to sending drones to attack our brothers and sisters in Yemen, to escalate conflict with Iran at the cost of human lives and trillions of dollars that could otherwise be used to provide housing for the 500,000 Americans living on the streets.

So David’s words are as true today as they were when he put pen to paper.

It should come as no surprise, then, that David expresses his rage in what follows:

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
    whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.[c]
10 The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
    when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 Then people will say,
    “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
    surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

Certainly there is a time and a place for honest disagreement, for rational debate. But, as imprectactory psalms like this also show that there is a time for blind fury directed against rulers whose injustice results in the deaths of our brothers and sisters. The imprecatory psalms mock calls for civility in discourse. They instead invite a visceral solidarity with the oppressed. Only when the righteous are wading through the blood of the wicked, says David, will it be clear that there is a God that judges the earth.

The imprecatory psalms mock calls for civility in discourse. They instead invite a visceral solidarity with the oppressed

And that’s where the psalm resolves. In a desperate call for God to come and kick out the teeth of the lions who are perpetrating injustice and violence. The imagery used hardly need explanation. If it seems strange to our ears to hear this righteous anger on behalf of the oppressed, perhaps it is because we have identified fully enough with the targets of unjust rulers.

Perhaps we are too comfortable cheer-leading on behalf of leaders who pretend to represent our interests to prophetically speak to the fruit of their corruption. Perhaps we are too comfortable with injustice, so long as it does not directly impact our everyday lives. Perhaps we’ve become like the David’s deaf cobra, refusing even to be charmed by the divine enchanter.

One more word of hope here is that even David himself, a ruler whose injustice lead directly to violence against his own people, wrote this psalm. Because he was able to repent, to seek forgiveness, to amen his ways and to stand with the oppressed, David could count himself among the righteous, to identify with the people of God. And if there was hope for him, there’s hope for any of us.

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

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