Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; LORD, tear out the fangs of those lions!
In Psalm 58:6, the psalmist prays in reference to unjust leaders, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; LORD, tear out the fangs of those lions!” Should we pray like this when we face perpetrators of injustice? Should we ask God to break the teeth of unjust leaders?
Before we answer this question, we must first pay close attention to the Scripture text before us. Scholars identify Psalm 58 as an imprecatory psalm. Literally, this means it includes cursing of one’s enemies. In the case of Psalm 58, the curses are directed at wicked leaders who “devise injustice” and “mete out violence on the earth” (58:1-2). Moreover, “Their venom is like the venom of a snake” (58:4). With this simile in mind, the psalm writer asks the Lord, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God” (58:6). A venomous snake with broken teeth won’t be able to injure or kill.
Does this psalm give us license to punch unjust leaders in the mouth so as to knock out their teeth? No, it does not. For one thing, breaking teeth fits the simile of evil rulers being like deadly snakes (58:4). To break their teeth, therefore, shatters their power to harm. When our prayers are shaped by the imagery of Psalm 58, then we might very well ask the Lord to break the teeth of evil leaders, not in a literal sense, but in the sense of removing their power.
Moreover, we should note that this psalm does not give victims of injustice permission to seek revenge. Rather, it entrusts vengeance to the Lord, asking him to break fangs and tear out fangs. By asking God to do these things, we relinquish our right to do them for ourselves.
Yet, the vivid rhetoric of Psalm 58 reminds us just how much God values justice and hates injustice. Thus, though the language is quite distinct, the basic theme of Psalm 58 is consistent with the consistent biblical concern for justice for the powerless. As the final line of Psalm 58 celebrates, “[S]urely there is a God who judges the earth” (58:11). This is consistent with the divine confession of Isaiah 61:8: “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”
Thus, we who belong to the Lord will share his disdain for injustice and will join his efforts to seek justice for all people, especially for those who lack the power to ensure justice for themselves. Yet we who read the Psalms through the lens of Christian faith must not forget what Jesus said about turning the other cheek and walking the second mile. According to Jesus, we are to be people who love our enemies as ourselves. There may be times when our love for our neighbors and our commitment to justice call for vigorous action, but we must not allow our hearts to be filled with hatred and vengeance.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How do you respond when you experience gross injustice (either in person, or through friends, or through the media)?
Is it possible for us to be haters of injustice and lovers of our enemies?
How does the work of Jesus affect our reading of Psalm 58?
In what ways are you joining the Lord in his justice-seeking ministry?
Dear Lord, as I sit here in comfort and safety, living in a country where I am free to pursue my own happiness, it’s hard for me to enter the experience of David as he wrote Psalm 58. Even when my leaders are unjust, they are still limited by a constitutional government and a democratic society. It’s too easy for me to hurry through Psalm 58 and move on.
Yet, I am aware of violence and injustice throughout our world, even in my own community. Help me, Lord, not to harden my heart against those who suffer. May I be passionate for their rescue and freedom! May I yearn for your justice to cover the earth!
With the psalmist, I ask you to “break the teeth” of those who perpetrate injustice. Take away their power, Lord! Hold them accountable for their evil actions! And, as strange as may sound, I would ask you to transform their hearts, so that they might seek you and your ways.
Help me, Lord, to balance a passion for justice with your call to love my enemies. Give me your compassion for all of this world’s broken people. May I be an agent of your healing, peace, and justice in this world. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: Work’s Ultimate Meaning (Isaiah 60ff.)