Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.” One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.
Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections: Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).
The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.
The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”
The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished. The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.
Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).
We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.” The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.
The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'” Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”
This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.
Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.
Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act. We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.
If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: 
It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.
Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: 
In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”
The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.
Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).
Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.
When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.
Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.
James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.
Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.
Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.
Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-08/npnf1-08-65.htm#P1565_1174137.
Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1982/v38-4-article3.htm
See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/conferences/2003/psalmsermon.htm.
Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.
Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.
John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.
John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=3913 and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=11789.
Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58. 20 Psalm 58