One day during the COVID restrictions, Palak told me she was really frustrated with a friend in India. The friend had sent her a couple of messages asking if she had time to talk. At the time, Palak had online schoolwork she was trying to complete and the friend didn’t seem to understand there was an 11 hour time difference between them. If her friend had lots of time at the moment, why couldn’t Palak take at least a few minutes to talk? After several messages, Palak finally texted the person and asked, “Why are you so mad?” Boy, did that question really set her friend off! In India, you only use the term mad for “crazy,” but Palak said it in the American sense of “angry.” Even when the friend responded with more anger than before, Palak couldn’t figure out why. It was only when the friend spelled it out for her, “Why are you calling me crazy?” that Palak realized she was now bi-cultural! Though she tried to explain, “Oh no! I’m just asking why you are so angry,” it took her friend a while to get over this “insult!”
Psalm 58 is a Psalm about anger, about getting so mad that you could spit. (An idiom some might not know, but it means you are REALLY mad!) The psalmist sure is. He is mad. He is angry. First , he notes that injustice often surrounds us. The psalmist looked around him and saw injustice, just as many of us see injustice in our world around it makes us upset. Belarus has seen three months of protests against its Russian-backed president. Hundreds of thousands of angry protesters around the country, convinced the president rigged the election to retain his decades-long power, and thousands have been detained. Lebanon‘s people are frustrated and upset, struggling with economic devastation from its port explosion, political turmoil due to decades of government corruption, and a humanitarian crisis with 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in a nation of 6 million. The new Chinese security law has many Hong Kong citizens angry at the choice of serving prison sentences or fleeing their homeland. And China continues to mistreat its minority communities of Uighurs, Mongols, and Tibetans through “re-education,” even as it heightens tensions with India and Taiwan. In the U.S., protests have been ongoing for months. During the spring and summer, the deaths of several black Americans led to protests and marches against injustice, which devolved at times into riots and looting. Now, there is anger and concern about possible election fraud. among Trump supporters.
Injustice can be found throughout the world and the Psalmist is upset about it. In verses 1-2, he says the rulers claim to be impartial judges, that they are doing what’s right. But in reality, they devise injustice and bring violence. Unfortunately, when a man in Rochester, New York called 911 because his brother needed mental health assistance, the police placed a bag over his head and the man ultimately died. If mental health professional had been dispatched instead, the man may well be alive today. In both Belarus and Portland, authorities wearing masks were throwing protesters into unmarked vehicles. And in China, officials “re-educate” minorities to standarize them to the dominant Han Chinese culture–Uighur, Mongol, Tibetan . . . and sometimes Christian and other religious groups.
Verses 3-5 indicate these leaders are living a lie. They’re saying they are just when really they’re unjust. When it says they are wayward from birth and the womb, it is a poetic way of saying that injustice is second nature to them. It is routine. They are like a cobra who refuse to respond to the snake charmer, regardless of his skill. They are out of control; they don’t listen to counsel. They’re just angry and spitting their venom. Usually, the unjust are focused on their own desires and retention of power, not on the greater needs of the community.
Second, injustice frequently angers the righteous. They see what’s happening and they get upset about it. Often, they get angry. The psalmist cries out in verse 6, break their teeth out, tear out their fangs! That is pretty violent language. The Psalmist, however, is not calling on people to rise up and attack the unjust, to break some people’s teeth. No, the Psalmist is praying to God, expressing his frustration and anger to the Maker of the universe.
His prayer continues in verses 7-9, where he uses some imagery that probably seems strange to you–frankly because the Hebrew is rather difficult to understand, so we try to interpret it. What does seem clear is that these are curses on the unjust. He’s calling on God, asking him to curse these people, because he is upset. These curses, in some way or other, use the imagery of things that are disappearing, going away, or fading out. So his hope is that God will remove these injustices from around him, that the unjust would fade away. Water that flows away from you and vanishes is useless. It is no good. So he is saying, God make them useless. He speaks of arrows missing their mark. God, don’t let these people achieve their goals. Don’t let what they’re plotting come to be. When he says they are like slugs that seem to melt away, he seems to be referring to the slime trails that snails and slugs leave behind that eventually fade away. God, make their plans fade away or fall apart like those trails. The most disturbing of the images to modern readers is that of the stillborn child. The psalmist is asking God to not allow their plots to come to fruition. May their plots fail like the hopes of a parent are dashed with the death of a child still in the womb. Instead of joy, it brings sorrow. Finally, make the unjust like plants that are blown away by a violent wind before their thorns can wreak havoc, before they can destroy anything.
The psalmist records the prayers and thought of those who are dispossessed, those disenfranchised, those who are not in power. Today, there are minorities who are upset after years of being profiled, of being targeted. You can see statistics that show how they are pulled over far more frequently than a white person, and they’re just tired of it–especially when it results in an unnecessary death. Then there are the women both in Portland and Belarus who are out protesting. There is the wall of moms in Portland, women upset at the severity of police response to protesters who literally formed a wall between the protesters and the police. In Belarus, most of the protests and marches have been led by women, including a 73 year old great-grandmother who made international headlines because she’s out there every week, going up to the masked police who are arresting people and talking to them, asking them what their mother thinks of what they are doing. Even she has been detained at times by the unmarked vans. And there are the Lebanese people who rose up in protest, demanding the government step down because of the corruption resulting finally in the massive port explosion. These injustices frequently anger people and cause them to be upset.
Finally, while you may get angry about the injustice around you, the psalmist emphasizes that justice always belongs to the Lord. The psalm begins with a question, are you rulers really righteous? Are you really just? Are you doing what is right? It starts with a question, but it ends with a confession of faith. Surely there is a God who judges the Earth. You may look around and see injustice everywhere, but you can live by faith. There is hope that there is a God and that this God is a just God. He is a God who will not allow the plans of the wicked to always go on. The psalmist says in verse 11, because there is a God, the righteous are rewarded. He tells us in verse 10 that, because there is a God, the righteous rejoice when God avenges them. The gory imagery may upset you, but only because most moderns don’t live in a warrior culture. When it says the righteous dip their feet or wash their feet in the blood of the wicked, it is a victory image. It was a victory boast that to wash your feet in the blood of your enemy. If you could do so, it meant you had won the battle and survived. The image is that God will be victorious in the end. Those who are righteous will be on the side of God and so will be victorious with God.
The psalmist is describing a great upending of the world one day, just as in many of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom, there is an unexpected reversal of fortunes. The unjust rulers think they are powerful, that they are in the right with their use of power. But one day, the psalmist warns, the reign of the righteous God will burst in. God is going to bring justice. People who are oppressed will find liberation. Finally, the people who are mistreated will know for certain that God is a just God. But in the psalm, it is God who gets vengeance–not humans, not even the psalmist. This is what frustrates a lot of people watching the news. Sometimes peaceful protest turn violent when some individuals decide to take matters into their own hands. The psalm does not encourage this. It doesn’t encourage a protester to start burning buildings. It also doesn’t encourage someone against the protest to step on their accelerator and run people over. ‘That is, it is not telling you to take justice into your own hands because it makes us just as injust as those we seek to “right.”
What we’re called to is to pray to God and to trust that God will avenge. This is one of the songs that says it is written by David or that its “of” David. When you look at David’s life, he was chased by Saul, who was trying to be put to death. David had two opportunities where he could have killed Saul. David’s men said, God has given your enemy over to you! David, however, said, God is my Avenger. God will take care of this man. I’m not going to put him to death. So we are not called to take matters into our own hands. We are called to pray and trust in God. But this doesn’t mean you ignore injustice. It doesn’t mean you might not protest it or talk about it, but it does mean you don’t take matters into your own hands. You need to follow the way of Gandhi or follow the way of Martin Luther King Jr. You need to find ways to speak out against injustice. But you are not called to take up a sword to “create” justice (like many of the Charlie Hebdo incidents recently in Paris). James talked about this idea. He says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (1:19-20). It is okay sometimes to get angry. James never says don’t get angry, he just says to be careful how you deal with that anger. When you have anger, take it to God and pray about it, like the psalmist does. But don’t hop on social media and start blasting your thoughts to the world. God can handle it, your friends–not so much. (At the least, write it out and sit on it a bit before you post.) And as the situation requires, act for justice in non-violent ways.
Paul tells the Ephesians it is ok to be angry, but do not sin in your anger. Then he says a very wise thing, “Do not let the sun go down while you’re still angry, do not give the devil a foothold” (4:26-27). For a great number of things, the sun’s gone down; it is in the past. We need to quit worrying about it. If you hold onto it, if you don’t just put it away and get rid of it or take it to God, that’s when evil can arise, when the devil gets a foothold.
So give your anger to God and let him transform that anger into hope. That’s what happens in Psalm 58. The psalm starts with complaint, but it is to God. By the end, he’s talking to God and finding hope in God. He wrestles through that anger and gets through to the other side.
Subscribe to receive email notifications of new posts.
“So Mad You Could Spit!” Psalm 58
Watch the sermon or download the audio.