Understanding Psalm 58
To the Choirmaster: According to Do Not Destroy. A Miktam of David.
This song of David begins with instructions to the Chief Musician and a declaration that this specific Psalm is a Miktam.
The phrase “Do Not Destroy” is likely a reference to a specific melody for which these words were to accompany. Some scholars believe that “Do Not Destroy” refers to the righteous who petition God for deliverance and judgment of the wicked, or David asking God to spare him from his enemies.
While either of these may be the case, given that this is a Miktam of David, it is also likely this particular Psalm also carries a very personal meaning. Many suspect this passage to be a reminder of David’s promise not to kill Saul and his offspring and a call to not return evil for evil but to operate justly even with those who seek your harm.
In 1 Samuel 24 we find David being pursued by King Saul and three thousand of his men. David and those with him took shelter deep within a cave, the same cave where Saul would come to enter and rest.
Seeing an opportunity to destroy the man who sought to kill them, David’s men tell him that God has delivered Saul into his hand. However, as David approached Saul unaware, he only cut off a piece of his robe.
Upon exiting the cave Saul hears David yell out behind him “My lord the king!” Saul turned to see David dropped to the ground, bowing before him.
“And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed.’ See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.” 1 Samuel 24:9-15
These words of David pierced the heart of Saul who confessed his failings and the mistreatment he had committed against David. Moreover, Saul declared that he knew David would surely be king of Israel. He then petitions David to spare his offspring and not destroy Saul’s name from his father’s house… and here David swore to not destroy Saul’s offspring.
Decree of the gods
“Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge the children of man uprightly? No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.” Psalm 58:1-2
Some translations of Psalm 58 as we see above will make a reference to “gods” – a lowercase “G”, not to signify a pantheon of deities but rather as a means of addressing those who rule over their fellow men; a substitute term for kings. The actual Hebrew term being translated is אֵלֶם, and in other translations is found as “silent ones” or “congregation”. This term comes from the Hebrew אָלַם which describes those who have become silent but means to tie or bind.
In context we see David is addressing those in power who have become bound up in wickedness and are silent for the cause of righteousness.
This is how David begins Psalm 58, by rebuking those who rule over men and devise wrongs in their hearts and whose hands are swift to violence.
זֹרוּ רְשָׁעִים מֵרָחֶם תָּעוּ מִבֶּטֶן דֹּבְרֵי כָזָֽב׃
“The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” Psalm 58:3
This verse is often cited as supporting the doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity, both of which teach mankind is born is a fallen state, stained by Adam’s sin and thus condemned. However, if one considers the context of the passage, the words and grammar being employed we will find this passage actually serves to undermine those claims.
This verse exclusively addresses the wicked – not all mankind. If David had intended to say that all men are born spiritually dead, possessing Adam’s guilt and sin nature he would have said so. Rather, he says the wicked, specifically addressing those in power as we see in verses 1 & 2.
The term זֹ֣רוּ translated as “estranged” means in this context to turn aside, to veer off the path and to decline. However, it also means to lose a close relationship. This word explicitly articulates a change in their state as they move from innocence to wickedness in rebellion to God.
Translated as “go astray” תָּע֥וּ means to err, to be deceived and lead astray. Here we see David speak of the deception which overtakes the wicked and leads them into a life of wickedness – not that God created them wicked.
Those who assert this passage teaches children are created full of sin as a result of Adam's transgression often accuse babies of lying, based on their interpretation of this passage. This has led to some horrific parenting advice and techniques. Please understand that when a baby cries it does so, not speaking lies, but as a result of not being able to speak. It cannot cry out "Mommy, I'm scared!" or "Daddy, I'm hungry!". Instead it is entirely helpless and dependant on its parents, so its only means of communicating is to cry out.
The lies spoken by the wicked have come well after they learned to speak. They are the result of going astray from the state they were created in and forsaking relationship with the Father.
Snakes, Lions & Snails
David certainly knew how to use hyperbole, but there meaning intended within the imagery he employed. He refers to the wicked as having poison like a serpent and becoming deaf as a result of having stopped listening to the charmer. We see again a process at work, not that they were born deaf, but that they just stopped listening.
In reference to the charmer, David calls him מְחֻכָּֽם׃ meaning a teacher of wisdom. So we see the wicked stop listening to God, and in doing so they abandon wisdom. This is why we see him refer to them as fools in Psalm 14, as to abandon God is to abandon wisdom.
He goes on to implore God to break the teeth of the wicked, as he did in Psalm 3:7. One should note that people are not born possessing teeth, but grow them after leaving the womb and transitioning from infant to child. He calls them young lions כְּ֝פִירִ֗ים which is possibly a reference to Job 4, where Eliphaz contrasts the righteous with the wicked and argues that good men are never thoroughly ruined.
“Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion, the teeth of the young lions are broken. The strong lion perishes for lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.” Job 4:7-11
Then in a rather gruesome and grotesque use of imagery, David compares the wicked to melting snails and pleads with God to let them die in childbirth that they may never see the sun.
Judgment & Victory for the Righteous
Continuing on, David declares the wicked will be like thorny twigs used to light a fire to heat a cooking pot. He states it makes little difference if the thorns are green or dead, they will be consumed in God’s wrath.
“The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.” Psalm 58:10-11
Here in Psalm 58, we see a reminder from David to spare the offspring of Saul as well as a warning to himself and all rulers who may cease listening to God and harm the righteous. Although this Psalm contains a verse often cited by Roman Catholics and Protestants as teaching all men are born spiritually dead, stained by sin, guilty and possessing Adam’s sin nature - the truth is it does just the opposite. Instead, we see a clear contrast being drawn between the wicked (a subset of humanity who have gone astray from the state of their birth, ceasing to listen to God) and the righteous, those who wait on the judgment of the Lord.