A plea for God to destroy the wicked
A psalm about the frustration of the righteous with the wicked,
and the desire for God to take vengeance.
Do you# really speak in the silence of righteousness?1
Do you# decide what is upright, sons of Adam?2
Surely in your heart you# do injustice in the land;
You# make a way for the violence of your# hands.
The wicked# are estranged, from the womb they go astray3;
From birth those who speak a lie.
Their venom is like the venom of a serpent—
Like a deaf cobra it shuts its ear
So that it does not hear the sound of charmers—4
A cunning enchanter5 of enchantments.
God! Break their teeth in their mouth;
They will flow away as water,8 they will wander away by themselves;
He aims9 his arrows as they are cut off.
As a melting snail10 he goes away;
As a woman’s miscarriage, they have not seen the sun.
Before your# pots can feel the burning of a thornbush,11
He will sweep it away, the living as the burning.12
The righteous*13 will be glad for he has seen vengeance;
He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked*.
And a man will say, “There is surely fruit14 for the righteous;
There is surely a God who judges# on the earth.”
1 This opening phrase is difficult. It literally says,
Do you really speak the silence of righteousness? Instead, some read the word
gods, which has the same consonants in Hebrew. But nothing else in the psalm points to gods as the subject. So it’s best to understand this as a rebuke either of man’s false claim to godlike abilities or his failure to speak righteously. (The # indicates a second person plural.) ⏎
2 This is an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Rather than accepting God’s decisions about what is right and what is wrong, they decided to disobey God, setting themselves up as an authority in his place. ⏎
3 This is the doctrine of original sin: the inherited tendency of mankind to sin since the fall of Adam, even in the earliest moments of our existence. ⏎
4 Snake charmers prevent the animal from striking by hypnotizing it with sound and movement. A cobra that cannot hear its charmers is one that is ready to strike. ⏎
Enchanter refers back to
serpent (nahash in Hebrew). Nahash is the noun form of a verb that means
to practice divination. So the snake, even by the meaning of its name, is associated with forbidden occult practices, an association that the psalmist makes use of here. This, too, is an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve and the deception of the serpent. ⏎
6 The word translated
young lions here (kephirim in Hebrew) may in fact have originally referred to another, now extinct predator. It is on occasion translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as drakontes, in other words, dragons (Job 4:10, 38:39). See our detailed examination of words referring to dinosaurs and other extinct species in the Bible. ⏎
7 The personal name of God. Its pronunciation is uncertain, replaced with Adonai (Lord) when read by the Jewish people. This is one of several possible reconstructions. For more on God’s Name, see the index category Yahweh. ⏎
8 Once God breaks their power, they will be as harmless as water and will flow away. ⏎
he treads. The weight of the body was used in bending the bow, so
treading was used to describe stringing the bow, or as here, stringing arrows. The one stringing his arrows here is sometimes interpreted as God, but the poetic structure indicates that this is the enemy (in parallel with
he goes away in the next line; the strophe has an A, B, B', A' structure). While the wicked is still aiming his arrows, he and those like him are suddenly cut off. ⏎
10 The slimy trail left behind by snails makes it look like they are melting. ⏎
11 Thornbushes, the natural ground cover of the land (see headline image above), were used as kindling to start fires because they caught fire easily. Here the thornbush is used as an image of the wicked. ⏎
12 God will sweep away both the burned and unburned (still
living) parts of the thornbush. Since thorns burn quickly, this means that he will sweep away the wicked very quickly. This is a prophetic allusion to the day of the Lord, in which the wicked will be destroyed by fire (2 Thess. 1:7). ⏎
13 A * indicates the second person singular. ⏎
14 Benefit, reward. ⏎
POETIC STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Like many songs today, the Psalms were poetry put to music. But unlike Western poetry, Hebrew poetry is based not on rhyme and meter, but on parallel thoughts set beside one another. These parallels can be a restatement of the same idea (synonymous parallelism), present opposing ideas (antithetical parallelism), or be in some other relationship, such as chiasm (A, B, B', A'). These parallels are then grouped into sections (strophes) that are arranged to give structure and meaning to the poem.
This psalm breaks logically into nine strophes. They are arranged in a symmetrical structure. It starts with three parallel strophes (A, A'), then a chiasm (A, B, B', A'), another parallel strophe in the middle (A, A'), then back to a chiasm (A, B, B', A'), and finishes with three parallel strophes (A, A').
The first four strophes describe the wicked. The fifth calls for God’s help (with a mini-chiasm: name of God [Elohim], request; request, name of God [Yhwh]). Then the last four strophes describe what will happen when God acts. This structure gives added emphasis to the psalmist’s cry for God’s help in the middle of the psalm.