Psalm 58 – Prayers of Judgment
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then men will say, ‘Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth’.Psalm 58:10, 11
We often overlook the amount of judgment in the Psalms. We know Psalm 137 blesses those who dash Babylon’s little ones against the rocks and Psalm 58 calls for God’s people to rejoice when they wash their feet in the blood of the wicked, but the whole Psalter is full of God’s judgment. Everybody’s favourite, Psalm 23, speaks of God preparing a table for David in the presence of his enemies. This means that David’s enemies will sit in chains while David is enthroned and passes judgment on them. As a result, C. S. Lewis concluded that Psalm 23 was “sub-Christian.” However, you cannot avoid God’s judgment against the wicked and the prayers of the righteous for judgment without eviscerating the Psalms.
Yet we have been able to do some eviscerating. Some metrical settings of the Psalms either tone down or simply remove these judgments. Even with a full metrical setting of all the Psalms, we can avoid these passages on judgment by the Psalms and stanzas we choose to sing. When was the last time you sang all of Psalm 137, or any of Psalm 58? We pick and choose our favourite Psalms to read and reflect on.
We even have theological evasions. The judgments, we tell ourselves, look to the final judgment, which is safely in the future. Or, as in the case of Psalm 137, the judgments are safely past; Babylon has already received its due. No wonder many people prefer hymns to Psalms. There are very few imprecatory hymns; that is almost a contradiction in terms.
This is understandable. How can man deal with the judgment of God? The answer is: we can’t. Judgment is too hot for us to handle. We know our desire for vindication is often sinful, as we easily give in to the desire for revenge. Prayers for judgment may also give us an uneasy conscience: “Am I praying rightly?” But more than that, judgment reveals a side of our Lord we are uncomfortable with. It just isn’t nice to bless those who smash babies against rocks.
The problem is that we are reading the Psalms in a subjective way. We assume that the Psalms are all about us. They aren’t. The Psalms are all about the Messiah. We are not adequate to speak of the judgment of God, but He is. It takes God to write about his judgments. It requires the Holy Spirit, who inspired Scripture, to handle, to speak, and to sing properly of the judgments of God’s Son. Our God did not leave us to our own desires, either for getting revenge, or for downplaying judgment, but He gave us his song to sing. For He made his Messiah to be judge of all the earth.
When the church sings lustily the words of Psalm 55, or Psalm 69, or Psalm 137, she isn’t venting her spleen. She is confessing that the Father has committed all judgment to the Messiah. He judges those who live as fools, saying in their hearts that there is no God. Already his judgment falls on individuals, on nations, and on kings because of their denials of Him, because of their lives apart from Him. No, when the church prays for judgment, she is saying that vengeance belongs to the Lord and that He will repay. We are to praise the Lord for his awesome work of judgment. Can we do any less?
To pray “Thy kingdom come” is to pray these Psalms: “Destroy the works of the devil, every power that raises itself against Thee, and every conspiracy against Thy holy Word” (HC, Q&A 123). That may not be as graphic as “O God, shatter the teeth in their mouth” (Psalm 58:6), or “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow” (Psalm 109:9), but it is the same thing. You cannot sing of God’s salvation and love without singing of his judgment of the wicked. There is no salvation of Noah without the destruction of the world with the flood. There is no salvation of Israel without the death of the firstborn of Egypt, without the destruction of Pharaoh and his host at the Red Sea. If Samson hadn’t killed the Philistines, he would not have delivered Israel. The work of Jesus Christ is of a piece with this. In his death and resurrection, He conquered sin and death and the kingdom of Satan. He judges the earth now and He will render his final verdict when He returns.
God’s judgment is a sober matter, but we may not avoid it. We must take up the words of all the Psalms as our words in Jesus Christ. We must see the crushing reality of his judgment and praise our Lord and King for its glory, by which we are saved.