Psalm 58

The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads victori (“to the victor”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of natsách.

Possibly this psalm was sung to a melody known as “Do Not Destroy.” As there is uncertainty about this, a number of translations have chosen to transliterate the Hebrew expression—“al tashheth” (Tanakh) and “Al-tashheth” (Margolis).

The Hebrew term commonly transliterated Miktam is rendered stelographía (inscription) in the Septuagint. This meaning of the Greek, however, is not necessarily the significance of the Hebrew word.

Psalm 58 is ascribed to David. The time for the composition cannot be easily determined from the contents.

The first Hebrew word of verse 1(2), ’umnám, means “really?” or “indeed?” There is uncertainty about the significance of the next term (’élem, which could denote “in silence.” Many translators, however, have rendered the term according to the significance of ’elím, “mighty ones” (Tanakh), “gods” (NAB, NRSV), or “rulers” (NIV). If the meaning is “in silence,” the question would be, “Do you, in silence, really speak righteousness?” For judges to remain silent, failing to speak out against wrong, they would not be speaking what is just. The answer to the question therefore would be, “No.” If the judges are being addressed as “mighty ones” or “gods,” the answer would be the same. They would not be speaking what is right. The Septuagint reads, “If indeed you really speak righteousness, judge aright, sons of men.”

In their hearts, their deep inner selves, the corrupt judges were practicing injustices. On “earth” or in the land, their hands “weighed out violence” or rendered decisions that furthered base objectives. There is a possibility that “on earth” is to be linked to the preceding phrase, indicating that the corrupt judges practiced injustices in the land. The Septuagint says, “For also in your heart, you work iniquities in the earth [land]; your hands plot injustice.”

From the womb, the wicked have “turned aside” to the wrong course. “They have strayed from birth, speaking lies.” These expressions indicate that, from childhood onward, corrupt persons yielded to their evil inclinations. Instead of truth, they spoke falsehoods to attain unworthy ends.

Likely the words coming out of their mouths are referred to as being venom, like the venom of a serpent, which has a deadly effect. They stop up their ear to any correction and thus act like a venomous serpent, possibly a cobra, that appears to stop up its ear, not responding to the voice of charmers or to a skillful enchanter.

David petitioned God to break the teeth in the mouth of these wicked ones and to tear out the jawbones of the young lions (apparently these corrupt ones who are being designated as beasts of prey). This constituted a petition for YHWH to destroy their power to inflict harm.

The water of a torrent, especially when swollen during the rainy season, flows rapidly. As such water runs away, the godless were to disappear. The treading may refer to treading a bow in order to string it. Translations vary in identifying the one taking action with the bow. Some make the application to God explicit and others to the wicked. “Let Him aim His arrows that they be cut down.” (Tanakh) “When they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted.” (NIV) “Make their arrows miss.” (CEV) The Septuagint rendering represents God as bending the bow. “He will bend his bow until whenever they shall fall.”

The melting of the wicked like a snail could refer to the slimy trail it leaves behind, as if it were melting. Another possibility is the manner in which a snail dries up within its shell when exposed too long to the sun. In either event, the prayerful desire is that the wicked perish. For them to be like a miscarriage or untimely birth that never sees the sun because of not entering the world alive would mean that they would cease to exist.

In the Septuagint, no mention is made of a snail, but it refers to the melting of wax. It says, “Like the melting of wax, they will be destroyed. Fire has fallen, and they have not seen the sun.”

Perhaps verse 9(10) is to be understood as meaning that the wicked might have an experience comparable to what happens to fuel under pots when a strong wind is blowing. Before the pots are even warmed by the ignited bramble that serves as fuel, a strong gust of wind blows the prickly plant away. Another possibility is that the wicked be swept away as quickly as in the short interval between the igniting of the fuel and its initial warming effect on the pots. The obscurity of the Hebrew text is reflected in the various interpretive renderings found in translations. “Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may He whirl them away alive in fury.” (Tanakh) “Suddenly, like brambles or thistles, have the whirlwind snatch them away.” (NAB) “Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!” (NRSV) “Wipe them out quicker than a pot can be heated by setting thorns on fire.” (CEV) “Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.” (NIV) The Septuagint includes no reference to pots but reads, “Before your thorns become aware of the bramble, as living, so in wrath he will swallow you down.”

The upright one, upon seeing divine vengeance executed against the wicked would rejoice. At that time, the wicked would be as persons slain in battle. Thus, as if marching through the field of battle, the feet of the upright one would be bathed in blood. The Septuagint says that the righteous one would “wash his hands in the blood of the sinner.”

Witnessing the execution of divine justice, a man, an observer, would say, “For the upright one, [there] certainly [is] fruit [a reward]. Certainly [there] exists a God who judges on earth.”

Note: Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.