Hollywood has nothing on the images conjured by Psalm 58. When I first read this passage, I was very unsettled and disturbed by the vivid, lurid images of the price paid in the name of righteousness and justice. Who gets to decide?
The theme of justice and those who are being wronged beseeching a force greater than them to wreak vengeance upon the wicked is well-worn. Many examples come to mind, but the one that springs forward is a very recent one. I just watched Liam Neeson in Taken, a brutal depiction of one man exacting justice. The most compelling lines for me were ones spoken to his daughter’s kidnappers: I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. … But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
And he did.
I’ve always been terrified of evil, yet found it showing up regularly, even in my very young life. My sister loved Shock Theatre and Dark Shadows, horror shows that she (and I with hands covering my eyes most of the time; shrieking the rest of the time) watched every Saturday. I still remember, though I couldn’t have been more than seven, the thriller, House of Wax, with Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, and being so relieved when the bad guy perished. (Question to self: Where were my parents as wise, discerning censors, gently steering me away from these searing images? Sleeping in, I seem to recall.)
When I was 14, I remember being terrified yet unable to put down Stephen King’s thriller, Salem’s Lot. After reading late into the night, I was afraid to walk up to my bed after turning out the light, so I would get a running start and leap into the bed from several feet away, creating a loud ruckus just as the house was settling down. My dad asked what happened the first two nights, and on the third night, came into my room to see for himself what had caused the noise. When I confessed that I was too scared to get into bed, he said I was never to read scary books again. Even if I never cracked the spine of another thriller, I remained terrorized by knowing that not all of the evil-doers were killed.
I was always terrified of getting in trouble, even when I knew what I was doing was wrong. The part of me that could lie, steal, say unkind things, scared me, too, maybe even more than anything I saw on TV or read in books.
I had a boyfriend who was unkind, manipulative, a truly destructive force in my young life. My Dad, angry beyond words at his daughter’s heart shattered and feeling impotent to help her, said, I’m going to kill him. My dad was a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, and I knew this was his version of, Go ahead, make my day, but it still made me feel better. That my dad was going to protect me, to prevail over evil in my world. His promise of justice was somewhat like having a big (and strong) brother to sic on schoolyard bullies, ending the reigning tyranny of wickedness.
The Psalm transforms large-scale evil into small and insignificant and easily dispensed-with elements. We move from a pervasive wickedness, even from the womb, as deadly as serpents, to a plea to disarm the wicked, leaving them broken and powerless (Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth; break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord). Then, the wicked can melt as water, their bows disarmed, dissolve into slug slime, be scattered even before the pot begins to cook a meal. God can even render wickedness stillborn, a timely miscarriage of injustice, who never sees the light of day.
Could I pray this prayer in the face of evil, in others, and in myself?
Despite all of the disturbing images— blood and guts, and teeth gone missing, and venomous snakes, and a slimy snail trail, and a celebration dance in the blood of the wicked—it resonates with the part of me that is a fierce advocate for justice. This Psalm offers an odd sort of comfort that God’s justice will ultimately prevail over every form of wickedness and injustice in the world. And that promise is one that offers hope and strength, and around which I can wrap my mind and heart.
So, who does get to decide? According to this Psalm, thankfully, God does.
Robbin Whittington is Director of the Center for Spiritual Resources, a joint initiative of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, NC, and the Dicocese of WNC.