In “Psalm 58” Jefferson Vann shares his translation and analysis of that Psalm – an example of conditionalist exegesis.
Psalm 58:1-2 (JDV)
Psalm 58:11 Are you really saying the right things, you gods? Do you judge people fairly?
Psalm 58:2 No, you practice injustice in your hearts; with your hands you weigh out violence in the land.
The first question that must be answered in order to faithfully exegete Psalm 58 is who are the ‘elem (אֵ֣לֶם) in verse 1. These are the persons being condemned by the psalmist. These are the persons being compared to God – Elohim (אֱלֹהִים) in verse 11. They are the referent, and it is impossible to understand what is being declared in this psalm unless one understands who is being referred to. How the translations render this word will influence how the interpreters exegete the entire psalm.
Here is a sample of the rendering by popular versions:
- “silent ones” (WEB, NKJV)
- “in silence” (ASV)
- “gods” (ESV, NASB)
- “rulers” (GW, NET)
- “mighty ones” (CSB)
- “congregation” (KJV)
The theory that this word refers to something silent is based on the conjecture that it is related to the ‘elem in the phrase Jonath elem rechokim which is part of the superscription of psalm 56. A Jonath elem is thought to be a silent dove.
There are no other biblical texts which contain the word, and it is not clear that the ‘elem in the text of psalm 58 is in any way related to the ‘elem (אֵ֣לֶם) of a title supplied later to psalm 56.
Most modern interpreters tend to see the term as a shortened version of ‘elohim. These either render the term literally as “gods” or they try to render it dynamically as something like “rulers” or “mighty ones.”
The KJV rendering “congregation” has no precedent. It appears the KJV authors wanted to convey their own ambiguity in the use of a word that basically stays away from the issue of who made up the congregation.
No matter which particular version they read, exegetes are still left with the question of who the referent is. That is the most important question. There appear to be two traditions competing as the answer to that question.
One tradition takes these persons as human judges within Israel. In that tradition, these human judges lead their people astray and cause them to rebel against God and his king. The psalm is a plea for God to condemn these judges and prove his righteousness and quell their rebellion.
I have chosen not to go in that direction for the following reasons. First, if human judgment were meant, the term shafat (שׁפט) is common enough in the Old Testament – even in the Psalms.2 It does not make sense to introduce a less concrete term for one already understood.
Secondly, the Israelite culture would have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from any suggestion of polytheism. To refer to one’s human rulers as “gods” would be considered highly inappropriate in that context. Indeed, Judaism throughout the centuries has characterized itself as profoundly monotheistic.
Thirdly, if the psalm is a comparison between God (אֱלֹהִים) and the gods (אֵ֣לֶם) there is another group of beings who sought to influence humanity as a whole in opposition to God. That group was not human judges, but the spirit beings who pretended to be gods – the demons who inhabited the idols of wood and stone.
Fourthly, if the term אֵ֣לֶם really is a reference to “silent ones” what better description of the idols who are inhabited by these gods? They are specifically referred to in both Testaments as “dumb idols.”3
injustice as a bi-product
These demons are condemned by the psalmist because they lead the people away from justice and fairness. When someone is involved in animism the last thing they want is to be fair to their neighbours. The reason they are consulting the mediums and spiritual specialists is that they want power over their neighbours. They don’t want a fair distribution of wealth. They want more wealth, more rain for their crops, larger families, and more servants – for themselves.
violence as a bi-product
Another bi-product of this involvement in animism is violence. The psalmist describes this outcome with anthropomorphic terms. He says that the gods weigh out violence in the land with their hands. This is marketing imagery. The vendor in the market places the items requested on the scales to weigh them out before exchanging them for money. The idol worshipper seeks special favour from his god by performing the ritual, or avoiding the taboo, of giving the sacrifice.
What he actually gets is violence. If he has placed a curse on his neighbour, his neighbour returns the favour with a retaliatory curse. If he prays for more rain for his crops, the neighbour steals his harvest. The resulting us-versus-them conflict just continues to escalate.
the deaf cobra syndrome
Psalm 58:3-5 (JDV)
Psalm 58:3 The wicked go astray from the womb; liars wander about from birth.
Psalm 58:4 They have venom like the venom of a snake, like the deaf cobra who stops up his ears,
Psalm 58:5 who does not listen to the sound of the charmers who skilfully weave spells.
Those who practice the magic arts think that they have special insight into how the world works because of their association with the demons. But the psalmist portrays them as deaf cobras. The deaf cobra is impervious to the spells, and only live to inflict pain and death. Their objectives are to pass on wickedness and falsehood.
Psalm 58:6-8 (JDV)
Psalm 58:6 God, knock the teeth out of their mouths; Yahveh, tear out the young lions’ fangs.
Psalm 58:7 May they disappear like water that flows by; may they aim their blunted arrows.
Psalm 58:8 Like a slug that moves along in slime, like a woman’s miscarried child, may they not see the sun.
The psalmist prays for the real God to intervene and render null and void the influence of the false gods. He wants God to de-fang the lions, to make them disappear like water flowing by. He wants God to slow down their deadly arrows, so that they pass through the air like a slug passes along in its own slime, harmless to anyone. He wants God to turn all those attacks into temporary attempts – like miscarried children.
result of the retribution
Psalm 58:9-11 (JDV)
Psalm 58:9 Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns – whether green or burning – he will sweep them away.
Psalm 58:10 The righteous one will rejoice when he sees the retribution; he will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Psalm 58:11 Then people will say, “Yes, there is a reward for the righteous! There is a God who judges in the land!”
The psalmist wants God to intervene and sweep away all of these thorns before they have the chance to hurt anyone else. He knows that the result of this divine retribution will be joy. Those rescued from the clutches of these false gods will know the power of the one true God. They will praise him, because they will not need any demon to judge their land. There is a God to do that.
a conditionalist approach
This conditionalist approach to Psalm 58 has the advantage of speaking to the real issue being addressed by the ancient psalmist. Westerners may not be aware of the dangers of animism and its affects upon society. The ancient writers of the Bible lived in animistic cultures and were well aware of those dangers.
This approach also lays bare the ridiculous notion that some have, that the demons are an exception to the biblical maxim that God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). You see, Psalm 82 speaks to this same issue. It also addresses these “gods” and promises that because they rebelled against their maker, they will “die like men.”
Only God is immortal, and only those who put their faith in God will be rescued from his coming wrath, and live forever. The gods of the nations do not stand a chance.
1 Superscription: For the choir director: “Do Not Destroy.” A Miktam of David.
2 Psalm 2:10; 7:8, 11; 9:4, 8, 19; 10:18; 26:1; 35:24; 37:33; 43:1; 50:6; 51:4; 58:1, 11; 67:4; 72:4; 75:2, 7; 82:1-3, 8; 94:2; 96:13; 98:9; 109:7, 31; 141:6; 148:11.
3 Habakkuk 2:18; 1 Corinthians 12:2.