Psalm 59 – Destroy Without Killing

Bible opened to Psalm 59 with Green and Black's Organic Mint Dark Chocolate on white plate

Today’s passage: Psalm 59

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

The epigraph of Psalm 59 tells us which time that evil men sought David’s life and meant to kill him that he’s writing songs about today. It reads, “when Saul sent men and they watched the house in order to kill him,” an incident which you can review in further detail in 1 Samuel 19:8-18. And artists, writers, poets: remember that, like David, your life experiences can enrich your work with the manifold abundance of inspiration drawn from reality. So if your stuff is boring–like mine–then try drawing the ire of a demon-haunted king and going on the run while your country is beset with violent national enemies.

While reading David’s latest plea for God to deliver him from his foes’ treachery, one verse immediately leapt out at me. “Do not slay them, or my people will forget; scatter them by Your power, and bring them down, o Lord, our shield” (11), I read. I thought to myself: huh, David isn’t calling for his enemies to die! He wants their lives to be an ongoing reminder to the nation, perhaps a reminder of God’s justice and goodness to those who trust him, or perhaps an ongoing example of what happens to traitors. And then I read this verse: “Destroy them in wrath, destroy them that they may be no more, that men may know that God rules in Jacob to the ends of the earth” (13).

Cue record scratch.

Okay. Number one, so much for mercy in David’s prayer. Number two, he wants God to “not slay them” and to “destroy them that they may be no more?” How is that even possible?

To resolve this apparent contradiction, I turn to Strong’s Concordance. Strong’s identifies the verb from “Do not slay them” (11) as the Hebrew harag, meaning “to kill, slay, murder.” This is what Cain did to Abel, this is the death penalty that the Torah prescribes for certain sins; it’s killing, plain and simple. So David will have none of that. Now according to Strong’s, the verb in “destroy them that they may be no more” (13) is the Hebrew kalah, “to complete, finish, accomplish.” This is what God does to the universe in Genesis 2:1-2. But, speaking more to the question at hand, Moses uses the verb kalah when he tries to persuade God not to wipe out Israel for their sin. He says:

Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. (Exodus 32:12)

Moses is basically saying: “God, if you wipe out your people now, the Egyptians are gonna think you delivered them just to mess with them. Do you really want a reputation as some fickle, evil deity who saves people just to turn around and wipe ’em out?” And in other verses such as Deuteronomy 7:22 and 1 Samuel 15:18, the word is used similarly to refer to wiping out nations, finishing them off.

All of which doesn’t really help me see how one could put an end to a group of people, so that they are no more, without actually killing them. God might cut off their generational lines, so that their family tree ends with them and their legacy is cut off. Or God might make David’s treacherous enemies cease to be as enemies, so that they can’t actually carry out any harm against him, while living powerless and shameful lives. But none of these seem like what David is really driving at, because wherever I see kalah is applied to people, it appears to mean making them cease to be as living beings, taking their very breath.

So, Question of the Day: Is David simply so overcome with emotion that he desires two different things, conflicted and changing his mind from verse to verse? Do you see a resolution to this apparent contradiction?

10 thoughts on “Psalm 59 – Destroy Without Killing

  1. The NET translation reads here “do not strike them dead suddenly,” which makes sense of how they translate the latter part of the verse:
    “Use your power to make them homeless vagabonds and then bring them down.” So perhaps one might read this verse, “do not MERELY kill them, but do x, y, z, THEN bring them down by wiping them out.” David doesn’t want those who witness their downfall to quickly forget about the wrath of God, but witness it in its fullness.

    As a side note, if you are at all struggling with David’s occasional apparent crappy attitude in the Psalms, there are a number of answers theologians have put forward, but I find C.S. Lewis’ in Reflections on the Psalms to make the most sense to me overall.

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    1. Thanks, Cody. Your explanation makes sense, and is similar to what my friend Sam posited on Facebook. David seems to be laying down a chronology of how he hopes God will deal with his enemies: rout ’em, catch them in their evil for everyone to see, and then take their lives.” It occurred to me that verse 11’s “Scatter them by Your power, and bring them down” is almost word-for-word asking God to divide and conquer.

      I’m honestly not sure if I’m struggling with David’s attitude; in some respects I may be struggling with the crappiness of my own attitude! When David gets mad, he at least tends to get mad at the people who are trying to kill him. I, on the other hand, tend to get mad at God for just about no reason at all. ;) It’s hard to keep perspective sometimes. Thanks for the recommendation of C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms; I’ve added it to my to-read list on Goodreads, and it sounds useful for shedding further light on this stuff.

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  2. I didn’t think I’d have an answer. I really didn’t! But then I did, because Jesus.

    But before I can answer you, I have to confuse you! Because I love you. :] <3

    Just today, I was randomly (yes, randomly; I don't know why it came to mind) led to read one of my favorite passages: Psalm 145:13-19. In there, we find the following verse:

    "You open your hand;
    you satisfy the desire of every living thing."
    – Psalm 145:16

    Wait. What!? "You satisfy the desire of every living thing" … no You don't! Papa, You don't satisfy the desire of the wicked! And then I noticed: "living" thing. Oh. That's a distinction to be made. And I was reminded that Jesus has made us alive. Before we are found in Him, we are dead. Oh. Okay.

    At the same time, I was also in Ephesians 1:7-10.

    "… as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth."
    – Ephesians 1:10

    `unite all things`

    `all things`

    `all`

    BUT JUDE 13!!

    "… for whom the gloom of utter darkness was reserved forever."

    UTTER DARKNESS!! FOREVER!!

    DAAADDYYYY!! #SoConfuse

    My point being is that God says ALL THINGS will be united with Him, and He ALSO tells us that there are people who will NEVER be united with Him (see also: Mark 9:48; 2 Peter 2:17). So then, we are forced to question, "What does `all` mean?" The clue to the answer is in Psalm 145:16 — where God says "living things" — and in Jude 13 (also 2 Peter 2:17) — where God says "darkness".

    First: What is darkness?

    Well, darkness is defined in the lack of light. Though we may talk about it as if it has substance, it does not have substance — it is a `not-thing`. Physics agrees. Furthermore, and in the same way, evil is defined in the lack of good. Wickedness is defined in the lack of worth (no, seriously, the Hebrew word for wicked also means worthless; they are arguably the same concept). And these are all ways that we are described when we don't have Christ. Does that mean that we, too, are `not things` without Jesus? Literally nothing (a not-thing) without Christ …?

    And that's what hit me. Those who do not have Christ, who are not wrapped up in Jesus, are becoming not-things. We, who have Jesus, are being made into the fullness of perfection in Him. We, like Him, are light. As it is written, "As He is in heaven, so also are we on this earth" (1 John 4:17). When we take on Christ, we are being made more like Him.

    But what of those who don't have Him? They remain in the state of death, from which we have been saved. Without being in Jesus, they will be judged and be completed (finished? accomplished?), being made fully one with the darkness which they so loved, and will abide in forever. In other words, on the day of Judgment, God will "destroy them so that they may be no more".

    In summary: On the final day, those who do are not in Jesus will become not-things. They will be only evil, darkness, wickedness. There will be nothing good left, no substance, just … nothingness … "[destroyed] so that they may be no more".

    So there you have the answer which came to my mind. And all because of spending some time with Jesus in His Word just a couple hours ago. :D Praise Jesus! He is good, and the Best Teacher 11ever (it's, like, 7 more than 4ever!).


    Fun facts:

    1. In the field of social psychology, it is understood that what a person takes as their identity influences who they become. This is one explanation behind the whole "just believe in yourself" type philosophy being thrown around today — not because doing so can ACTUALLY change you, but because it DOES influence you.

    Well, we who are in Jesus are being made like Him. Again, as it is written, "As He is in heaven, so also are we on this earth." (1 John 4:17) Since we are like Jesus, then when we take Jesus as our identity (everything He is; i.e. the fruits of the Spirit, perfection, light, etc.), we actually become more like Him. No wonder we see all the exhortation in scripture to pursue holiness (e.g. Philippians 3 and 4; 2 Peter 1; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 1:22). This is sanctification.

    In the same way, the wicked take not-Jesus (i.e. darkness and death) as their identity, thus becoming more fully who they already are: darkness and not-things.

    2. With this understanding, 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4 make a lot more sense. "All people" WILL be saved, because the wicked cease to be people — they have become not-things, and a person is a thing made in God's image: a human. (And, arguably, no one is fully human until we're perfected with Jesus. Evolution seems to make a lot of sense because we are less-than-human, at least without Jesus. See also: 2 Peter 2:12.)

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    1. Wow, that’s a lot to digest. I’m glad you took a step back to look at verses 11 and 13 in the context not just of Psalm 59, but of the Bible in general–and that you read the passage in view of who Jesus is and how he relates to it. A week or two ago, I started approaching the passage of the day with the question “How does this relate to love?”, given that God is love and love is one of the central topics of the Bible. But reading your comment, I’m reminded of 1 Peter 2:4-8. If Christ is the cornerstone, then it seems it would be an equally worthwhile exercise to read each passage explicitly in the light of him.

      Your answer reminds me of Augustine, who argued that evil is the absence of good in much the same way that shadow is the absence of light or cold is the absence of heat. But Augustine’s example of choice was a face without a nose: the face is imperfect because of what it’s lacking. I’m not sure how far I’d buy into Augustine’s idea of evil as privation, but I’d certainly agree with him that evil isn’t a substance, that it’s not a thing the way that a brick is a thing, or a soul is a thing.

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time to confuse us and thereby share your answer with us! ;) In all seriousness, I wish more people were willing to show love by taking people with questions through their confusion and showing where they’ve ended up. I think that’s one of the ways God shows his own love for us–by walking with us through our confusion, even with the things that take months or years to get.

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      1. Thanks for responding. :] And I especially appreciate your encouragement in your last paragraph.

        With what you have brought up about Augustine’s arguments, I am inclined to agree with you. I’ve actually never read any theology (except a bit of C.S. Lewis, and listening to the apologetic rhetoric of Ravi Zacharias), so I can’t discuss what Augustine believes — I can only talk about what you and I bring up and share together.

        That being said, what came to my mind was the idea of a counterfeit.

        Other ideologies (e.g. Islam, eastern mysticism, secular humanism, etc.) are excellent examples of what I’m referring to. They are all less than the whole truth — or, in Augustine’s analogy, faces without noses. But let me alter Augustine’s analogy:

        – What if there is an ideology that is the whole face, but the nose is on the forehead, the mouth has taken the place of the ear, and the two ears are spooning each other underneath the chin?

        – Or what if there an ideology that is missing the nose, but has replaced it with a rhinoceros horn?

        So while I would still hold to evil being only ever ‘less than’ the whole truth, that does not always look like a face without a nose. It is easy to spot a false face, when that face is missing a nose (Voldemort) or an eye (a cyclops). And perhaps it is also easy enough to spot a false face when it looks like a Picasso paining. But the hardest false face to spot is the one that looks most like the truth: such as a human face, but with a monkey’s nose or ears, or a wolf’s eyes. And these lies are arguably the most dangerous — because when they are mostly truth, then even when you do just a little research, it still appears true enough.

        But even then, it’s never the whole truth. It may have the right number of features, but the features are all wrong.

        What are your thoughts?

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      2. Augustine is good. I think you would find his Confessions to be right up your alley.

        I also think your additions to Augustine’s face analogy help improve it. I’ve had similar thoughts about it, and I think they illustrate that evil is more broadly a distortion or a disordering of something good, not merely the absence of good. And it’s certainly easy for subtle lies to go undetected, insinuating themselves into our thinking, or for small misdeeds to pass under the radar and compound until they create a Big Pile o’ Sin.

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  3. I don’t think the ‘destroy’ part is complete:
    “13 Destroy them in wrath, [t]destroy them that they may be no more;
    That men may know that God [u]rules in Jacob
    To the ends of the earth. Selah.
    14 They return at evening, they howl like a dog,
    And go around the city.
    15 They wander about [v]for food
    And [w]growl if they are not satisfied.”

    If they’ve returned in the evening like dogs, then they’ve been ‘destroyed’ culturally, or socially. They no longer are a coherent tribe capable of threatening us, but they are still around to remind us of God’s wrath and His protection of us and His expectations of us (it could be us next if we fall away). If it were utter destruction, there would be no one left to return and wander about.
    *Utter* destruction would keep Israel from remembering:
    “Do not slay them, or my people will forget”

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    1. That’s a good point, Randy. If you take vv.11-13 as a chronology, you have to ask whether it goes on into vv.14-15, and why. The most extreme intervention possible would be for God to erase the enemies from all of spacetime so that they never even existed, and David clearly isn’t advocating that. The scenario in which they survive their destruction to root around for food like dogs in the streets is a viable one.

      On the other hand, given the context of David knowing that Saul’s men are waiting outside his house to kill him in the morning, I took the dog simile to mean that the enemies are already on the prowl, like dogs on the hunt, eager to devour David specifically. I’m not certain which interpretation makes the most sense in light of the whole passage, but thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. It’s good to look at the passage from multiple angles.

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