Psalm 58 – Theodicy and Jungle Law

Bible opened to Psalm 58 with Green and Black's Organic Mint Dark Chocolate on white plate

Today’s passage: Psalm 58

Today’s chocolateGreen & Black’s Organic Mint Dark Chocolate

Let me lay it down. Verses 1-5, evil people are violent untameable cobras. Verses 6-9, O Lord, please knock their teeth out and make them like miscarriages. Verses 10-11, then the righteous people will rejoice and recognize God’s goodness. Bam, psalm summarized, we can go home now. No, actually, not quite yet.

First of all, by now we are familiar with David’s understanding of wicked people and how he responds when they afflict him. When he says things like “O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth” (6) and “Let them be…like the miscarriages of a woman which never see the sun” (8), we may well be shocked by the punishments he calls for, even if we take them as metaphors. Moreover, considering them as metaphors doesn’t blunt their impact. What does it mean for an evil man to be “as a snail which melts away as it goes along?” (8). Not anything pleasant for the evil man, that’s for sure.

The aim of the psalmist may be to have God thwart the schemes of the wicked–to prevent them from affecting anything with their attempts to do evil. At the same time, though, many of these metaphors seem like painful or destructive ways of stopping the wicked. And in places David seems as vengeful as the evil men he’s railing against. If you find these passages unsettling, I don’t claim to have an easy resolution to the issues they raise. The ancient Near East was Jungle Law, and without the veneer of safety that you and I probably know as inhabitants of the modern world.

One last thing I wanted to note about this passage is David’s theodicy. “Theodicy” is a defense of God’s goodness given that evil exists. To the modern person, the central problem of theodicy is the existence of evil, or even of suffering. If even one human being felt any pain at any point in human history, that would be enough for some people today to call into question the existence of God. But David concludes this psalm: “And men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth!'” (11). For David, God may be vindicated in allowing evil and suffering as long as justice is served. Provided that, in time, good is proportionally rewarded and evil is proportionally punished, God will prove himself good after all.

Question of the Day: Does David go too far in calling for the wicked to be shut down so aggressively? Do you think he wants them to suffer, or just to be prevented from hurting or harming others? Does he fall into the same trap of loving violent vengeance that his enemies embrace?

 

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5 thoughts on “Psalm 58 – Theodicy and Jungle Law

  1. “Do you think he wants them to suffer, or just to be prevented from hurting or harming others? Does he fall into the same trap of loving violent vengeance that his enemies embrace?”

    I think evil persons don’t just love violent vengeance, they love doing violence for the fun of it. If they can justify it in your eyes as ‘vengeance’ then they’re just more likely to get a way with it, and get a double points since they’ve snookered you in addition to the original ‘fun’.

    I think David wants them to suffer for great justice! Doing aggression to others logically implies that it is right to have aggression done to yourself. He is just longing for that to happen. He doesn’t even want to do it himself, but is urging God to do it. He *could* have asked God for the strength to fight them himself. Perhaps because he might get to *into* the vengeance thing, which should stay “the Lord’s”, go overboard, and be liable to judgement himself.

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    1. That answer makes sense, and is consistent with the Torah, which David as an Israelite would have made it a point to follow. Your principle of reciprocity, “Doing aggression to others logically implies that it is right to have aggression done to yourself,” is along the same lines as the “eye for an eye” bit in Exodus 21:23-25, and the principle that vengeance belongs to the Lord comes from Deuteronomy 32:35.

      David is wise not to ask God for the power to strike his enemies down himself. Good thoughts, Randy; thanks for sharing them.

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