Friday, 22 April 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
22 April 2022 (Psalm 58)

‘The wicked go astray from the womb … they have venom like the venom of a serpent’ (Psalm 58: 3-4) … a sculpture overlooking Howth Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this season of Easter, I have returned to my morning reflections on the Psalms, and in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 58:

Psalm 58 is the third in a series of five psalms in this section of the Psalms that are referred to as Miktams. Miktam or Michtam (מִכְתָּם) is a Hebrew word of unknown meaning in the headings of Psalms 16 and 56-60 in the Hebrew Bible. These six psalms, and many others, are associated with King David, but this tradition is more likely to be sentimental than historical. They may have formed one of several smaller collections of psalms which preceded the present psalter and on which it was based.

Miktam corresponds to the Babylonian nakamu, lid, a metal cover for a vessel, but efforts to derive a meaning for the term in the psalms have not been convincing. In modern Hebrew, the word has come to mean epigram, and numerous collections of Hebrew epigrams have used that word in their titles.

In the slightly different numbering found in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Latin Vulgate, Psalm 58 is counted as Psalm 57. In Latin, it is known as In finem ne disperdas David.

Psalm 58 is a companion piece to Psalm 57, which also describes David’s difficult relationship with Saul, and both psalms in their headings declare, ‘Do Not Destroy,’ possibly an ancient song whose tune was to be used in singing the psalms.

The Midrash Tehillim connects the words al taschet (אַל-תַּשְׁחֵת, ‘do not destroy’) in the Hebrew verse 1 to the episode when David took Abishai into Saul#s camp and had the opportunity to kill Saul as he slept. David said, ‘Al tashhitahu’ (אַל-תַּשְׁחִיתֵהוּ) or ‘do not destroy him’ (I Samuel 26: 9), which echoes these words, setting Saul’s animosity toward David as the theme of this psalm.

The psalm also alludes to Abner, the chief of Saul’s army, who would not admit to David’s righteousness when David refrained from killing Saul in the cave. Perhaps that David composed Psalm 58 after Saul used the force of law to brand David as a traitor to the crown.

David speaks out at length against either wicked people or wicked judges, the latter possibly referring to those who sided with Saul. David uses highly descriptive language comparing the wicked to snakes, serpents, cobras, and lions, and implores God to ‘break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions’ (verse 6).

In an early example of antisemitism among Patristic writers, Jerome claimed that the depiction of the wicked judges refers ‘to the proceedings of the Jews against Christ,’ and argued that the psalm condemns ‘hypocrites’ and ‘detractors.’

Because this is an imprecatory Psalm, the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer omits Psalm 58, as well as Psalm 137. A number of other imprecatory Psalms are omitted from a number of lectionaries, or redact Psalm 58. However, Evangelicals tend to disagree and see a value in these passages.

In traditional Judaism, this psalm is often recited as protection from an aggressive dog.

‘Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither’ (Psalm 58: 7) … today is International Earth Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 58 (NRSVA):

To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam.

1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge people fairly?
2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.

3 The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.

6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
7 Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.’

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘From Death to Resurrection,’ and was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Rachel Mash, Coordinator of the Environmental Network of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (22 April 2022, International Earth Day) invites us to pray:

Today we pray for the Earth. May we work together to protect and sustain creation, rather than damage and destroy it.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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