Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha


"1. Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge people fairly?
2. No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.

3. The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
4. They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
5. so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.

6. O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
7. Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
8. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
9. Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

10. The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11. People will say, 'Surely there is a reward for the
surely there is a God who judges on earth'."

When we read this psalm our first thoughts may be that it is very bloodthirsty and full of thoughts of vengeance. There are some things, however, that we should appreciate as we study it. Its language is often the exaggerated picture language of poetry, and we are not expected to take literally bathing in the blood of the wicked (verse 10), or breaking the teeth of the ungodly who are like lions that kill and tear up animals that they have taken as prey (verse 6). It is a prayer for God's justice to be seen by his acting in judgment. We need to see that the prayer comes from those who have been oppressed by powerful and evil rulers, enemies of God and of justice. These oppressed people have suffered at the hands of those who have ruled over them, and they have found no justice in the courts of the land. Such statements aptly describe conditions that people experience in many countries of the world today. There is no human hand to help, no one to defend them or to seek justice for them so as to prevent their sufferings. It is from such people that the prayer of this psalm comes.

It should encourage us to pray and work passionately for justice and fairness in God's world. We need also to take note of the psalm's underlying note of selflessness shown in the desire for God's glory. In our prayer and work for social justice, we must not become selfish, vindictive or unjust ourselves. This is the difference Christ makes in the lives of those who believe and trust in him. He prevents oppressed people when freed from injustice becoming oppressors themselves.

When injustice and corruption flourish

In our translation those who are addressed in verse 1 are "you gods". The term "gods" in this context signifies an ancient Hebrew usage that refers to rulers. Often people believed that their rulers, especially kings and queens, were given divine powers or divine authority. As a result such rulers often felt that they had a right to act despotically, acting as if they had divine powers to do as they wished (see Psalm 82:1, 6-7). The New International Version, like some other translations, has, "do you rulers indeed speak justly?" Whether we translate verse 1 with the word "gods" or "rulers", it is certainly clear that the psalmist was concerned with the unjust and oppressive actions of those in power among the people. "In your hearts you devise wrongs", he said to them. Instead of providing justice for all people, their hands were dealing out violence. In fact they appeared to be totally evil, going astray more and more from the time they were born (verse 3). They were like poisonous snakes, dealing out death to those whom they attacked. Speaking of snakes led the psalmist to speak of snake-charmers, well-known by Hebrew people in those days (see Jeremiah 8:17), as in many parts of Africa and Asia and elsewhere today. As a snake might appear deaf to the charmer, so these wicked rulers were deaf to any words of truth that called them to change their ways. So Jeremiah (6:10, 7:13 and 11:7-8) in his time spoke of the refusal of the leaders of Israel to hear the word of the Lord. How does this compare with politicians - especially military dictators - in our own day?

Injustice and oppression judged

Because these people, like poisonous snakes, dealt death to others, and because they refused to listen to any voice that cautioned them, the psalmist prayed for God to act. They were like lions on the attack, and so the psalmist prayed that their teeth might be broken so that they would not be able to tear into their victims any more. He prayed that they might disappear as when a scrubland stream that flourishes in the time of rains completely vanishes in the dry season. He asked that they might be trodden down and wither like grass in the heat. He thought of the snail or slug that leaves a trail of slime but which soon seems to dissolve away. So he hoped that such evil people would come to an end. He thought too of the sad circumstances of a baby born too soon to be able to survive and enjoy the light of day, and he wished that fate on the oppressors. The last picture in verse 9, a verse very difficult to translate, may be of people having gathered thorns or weeds for a fire under their cooking pot and then a storm comes and sweeps them all away. So may these unjust rulers be swept away.

The attitude of those who fear God

Verse 10 says,"The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done", that is, when justice is upheld. Can Christians rejoice in God's judgment or the downfall of those who have opposed the purposes of God and caused great suffering to many people? In one way the answer is 'No', because, like our Lord Jesus Christ himself, we should always seek that sinners should repent, turn to God for forgiveness, and come to live a new life. In that sense our prayer and expectation should be that their repentance will show itself in a new life in the fear of God and gracious concern for the welfare of others, letting the oppressed go free (Isaiah 58:6). In another way, however, we can rejoice that a day is coming when wrongs will be righted, justice will be upheld, and the reign of terror and persecution will be at an end. But that rejoicing is not personal or vindictive. It is the desire to see an end to evil, and especially that God will be glorified as human dictators are brought to an end, and God is given his rightful place as almighty and sovereign Lord. Then, as verse 11 puts it, people will be able to say, "Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth". Such judgments are in fact seen in the world from time to time when God surprises powerful oppressors, and brings their splendour to an end. Above all there is a final judgment, and the message of the last Book of the New Testament, addressed to a persecuted church, is that persecutors who seem all powerful do not have the last word. They will have to give account to God as their Judge. The words of Revelation 19:1-2 are a jubilant psalm: "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just". This is the final triumph of good over evil and the ultimate reign of God for which we eagerly work and pray and wait.

Meditation: "Tell the innocent how fortunate they are, for they shall eat the fruit of their labours. Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them" (Isaiah 3:10-11). God will not forget the humble who meekly bear injustice and oppression in his name. God's justice will ultimately triumph (see Luke 18:1-8).

For further thought and study

a. Compare the message of warning in the prophets with the warning of judgment in this Psalm. See especially Isaiah 1:21-28 and 10:1-4, Jeremiah 5:20-29, Amos 5:6-12 and Micah 3:9-12. How should we understand such warnings today?

b. Contrast the way that verses 4-5 speak (through the picture of the snake) of those deaf to the appeal of peace and justice with passages that speak of those whose ears are open to God's word. See 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 40:6-8, Isaiah 50:4-5 and Matthew 7:24-25, and consider other passages in the Bible that have a similar emphasis.


  1. The heading of this Psalm has details that we have had also in the heading of Psalm 57 and in other Psalms as well.
  2. Justice is often spoken of as being "weighed out" as in a just balance (see Job 31:6). In verse 2 the Hebrew word speaks of that 'weighing out', but it is "violence" rather than justice that is weighed out.
  3. We have commented on the difficulty of translating the Hebrew of verse 9. Verses 7 and 8 are also difficult, and that accounts for different translations of them. In verse 8 the New International Version is closer to the Hebrew when, instead of speaking of grass trodden down and withered, it says, "when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted". In verse 8 the New English Bible speaks in both parts of the verse of an untimely birth or stillborn child (and does not take the Hebrew to refer to a "snail").