“While this psalm carries deep philosophical import, answering the question of evil in the presence of a good God, it very simply shares with us the benefits of placing one’s complete trust in the God of Love. Those who do evil will be punished and brought low; the righteous will be rewarded with the mercy of God.”
Psalm 59 contains two major applications: one general and one specific. The premise of the general application was stated in the last verse of the prior psalm.
Psalm 58:11 LXE And a man shall say, Verily then there is a reward for the righteous: verily there is a God that judges them in the earth.
ESV Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
The specific application applies to the speaker himself, identified previously as the Son of God on earth during the days of his tribulation and Passion. The following verses further identify him as the Spotless Lamb:
2 Deliver me from the workers of iniquity, and save me from bloody men.
3 For, behold, they have hunted after my soul; violent men have set upon me: neither is it my iniquity, nor my sin, O Lord.
4 Without iniquity I ran and directed my course aright: awake to help me, and behold. (Psalm 59:2-4 LXE)
1Peter 1:19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (ESV)
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)
If there is a God in heaven–so the argument goes–and if he is a good God, how can he permit such evil on earth? The answer given in Psalm 59 is that he does not. There will be a judgment: the righteous will be rewarded, and the wicked will be punished. The blood of the innocent by the hands of the wicked will be avenged.
Psalm 59 is divided neatly into sections.
1) In the first section, verses 1-5, the speaker (who is Messiah) lays out his condition and his petition. Bloody and violent men pursue the speaker with intent to kill. After his proclamation of innocence, the speaker petitions God in prayer to visit all the heathen and to pity no one who does iniquity. Then there is a “pause.”
An interesting petition
2) In the second section, verses 6-13, the speaker details God’s future actions against his enemies and contrasts these with his own trust in God and God’s mercy on him. Before a second “pause” which closes verse 13, the speaker makes an interesting petition in verses 11-13.
11 Slay them not, lest they forget thy <1> law; scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord, my defender.
12 For the sin of their mouth, and the word of their lips, let them be even taken in their pride.
13 And for their cursing and falsehood shall utter destruction be denounced: they shall fall by the wrath of utter destruction, and shall not be; so shall they know that the God of Jacob is Lord of the ends of the earth. Pause. (LXE)
He asks in verse 11 that God not “kill” his enemies but “scatter” them and bring them “down,” in the sense of higher to lower. This seems rather an apt request, considering that Jesus’s enemies were religious leaders who thought themselves to be above the people.
Luke 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. (NET)
Some textual variations
Throughout the entire psalm the speaker in the Greek Septuagint of Brenton’s translation always refers to himself in singular. There are no plurals, such as “we,” “us,” or “our,” not even in verse 11. The supplicant represents himself throughout the psalm; he is not praying on behalf of a “people.” Therefore, God is always referred to with the descriptor, “my,” rather than “our.” Although the Septuagint does reference God as the “God of Israel” (verse 5) and “God of Jacob” (verse 13), the speaker gives no indication that he is praying on behalf of a “people.” This is important in helping to determine the subject of verse 11. Verse 11 differs in Brenton’s Septuagint from translations based upon the Masoretic.
First, however, all versions agree that the request is for a scattering rather than an annihilation. The example below is one of the more graphic:
11 Use your power to make them homeless vagabonds and then bring them down, O Lord who shields us! (NET)
All versions further agree that the reason for the request is to prevent someone forgetting something. Who the someone is and what is not to be forgotten is hard to decipher. The Masoretic translations ask God to scatter rather than kill “lest my people forget,” (ESV) leaving the “what” unmentioned. The Greek Septuagint, which follows a different textual tradition, doesn’t specify who “they” is and places a text note at the object of the verb “forget.” According to Rahlfs, there are three Septuagint families of readings for the genitive object of “forget” (1). The Greek text that accompanies Brenton’s translation uses “thy law,” (τοῦ νόμου σου) “Slay them not, lest they forget thy law; scatter them by thy power.” A second reading is “people,” as in the Masoretic; however, people is objective rather than subjective, “lest they forget thy people,” not, “lest my people forget,” as in the ESV. The third reading is “your name,” “Slay them not lest they forget your name.” (2)
Finally, all versions agree that the powerful enemies, as an effect of their scattering, will be brought completely down, or low.
So, which one?
The biblical plot line, the plot line of the Psalter, the plot line of the Gospels, and the plot line of the New Testament letters require that the “enemies” are among God’s own people and among the Gentiles. (That pretty much includes everyone.) God’s own people were distinctively given the commandment to guard God’s Law, the Ten Commandments delivered through the hand of Moses the great prophet. Based upon the entire sense of the psalm, I conclude that the speaker’s request in verse 11 of the Septuagint is lest “they,” the enemies, “forget thy law.” The enemies are the prideful religious leaders, caretakers of God’s Law, and the speaker is God’s Son. The speaker wants these enemies brought low, but not destroyed, because he wants them to remember God’s Law. Clearly, the speaker’s enemies broke the first commandment in its entirety, “Deuteronomy 6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
The predicament of modern unbelievers as they stumble upon Psalm 59 is this. While the mind agrees that righteousness needs to be vindicated and that the travesty of disrespect and murder against God’s own Son is unfathomable in its magnitude, our culture teaches prejudice against the biblical God. If the speaker were anyone other than God’s own Son, our own natural sense of justice would demand that the death of a completely innocent person by the hands of a ruthless enemy be avenged. And yet, because God is so authoritatively powerful, we deny the justice given to every common creature to his Son, who in his flesh was every bit as common as each one of us. And, on the other hand, for believers there is no cause for rejoicing in this psalm. How can any tender-hearted person rejoice in destruction?
The Good News, however, is that the enemies were not killed, but scattered. The outcome of A.D. 70 was that the temple and its sacrifices ceased, the power of the religious leaders was completely broken, and the people were indeed scattered. However, God’s Law continued to be guarded and protected.
Paul best explains this plot twist:
Romans 11:11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (ESV)
More cannot be said now without entering into Psalm 60, the last psalm of this packet.
As concerns Psalm 59, it helps this author to bear in mind constantly that the Psalter is prophetic and that a large purpose of Psalm 59 is to prophesy in order to verify the credentials of Messiah. Prophecy is a testimony that leads to faith.
Consider Psalm 59 in the context of these biblical statements.
Psalm 17:8 Keep me as the apple of your eye. (See also all of Psalms 16 and 17, which match closely Psalm 59.)
Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
5 “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
6 “And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart;
7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NAS)
(See also all of Psalm 119.)
Ezekiel 19:10 ‘Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard, Planted by the waters; It was fruitful and full of branches Because of abundant waters.
11 ‘And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers, And its height was raised above the clouds So that it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches.
12 ‘But it was plucked up in fury; It was cast down to the ground; And the east wind dried up its fruit. Its strong branch was torn off So that it withered; The fire consumed it.
13 ‘And now it is planted in the wilderness, In a dry and thirsty land.
14 ‘And fire has gone out from its branch; It has consumed its shoots and fruit, So that there is not in it a strong branch, A scepter to rule.'” This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation. (NAS)
Matthew 21:33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey.
34 “And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce.
35 “And the vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third.
36 “Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them.
37 “But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
38 “But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.’
39 “And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 “Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?”
41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, This became the chief corner stone; This came about from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes’? (NAS)
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
38 See, your house is left to you desolate.
39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (ESV)
Luke 23:28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. (ESV)
Luke 19:41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it,
42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side
44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold,
46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, (ESV)
Luke 21: 5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said,
6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (ESV)
And finally, the Scripture all but quoted in Psalm 59:8:
Psalm 2:4 He that dwells in the heavens shall laugh them to scorn, and the Lord shall mock them. (LXE)
Compare the previous verse with Psalm 59:8.
But thou, Lord, wilt laugh them to scorn; thou wilt utterly set at nought all the heathen. (LXE)
The prophecies of Psalm 59 were indeed fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple and its religious hierarchy in 70 A.D.
3) The third and final section of Psalm 59 consists of the last two verses, 16-17.
16 But I will sing to thy strength, and in the morning will I exult in thy mercy; for thou hast been my supporter, and my refuge in the day of mine affliction.
17 Thou art my helper; to thee, my God, will I sing; thou art my supporter, O my God, and my mercy. (LXE)
The sorely pressed-upon speaker of this prayer displays a beautiful faith. The phrase, “But I will sing to they strength, and in the morning will I exult in they mercy,” looks forward to resurrection morning, bright and early, as the stone that entombs the undefeated Son of God is rolled away. The incarnated Jesus was a human, just as you and I, and he shares our frame and makeup in every aspect. He sweat as it were blood in his awful contemplation of being crucified and enduring the wrath of God as a sacrifice, a piece of meat, on behalf of sinners. God includes Psalm 59 in the Bible to show us that God has “prevented” us (to use the old King James way of saying it). That means, God has gone before us (Psalm 21:3) to prepare a way and to lead us in it. The Son of God is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
While this psalm carries deep philosophical import, answering the question of evil in the presence of a good God, it very simply shares with us the benefits of placing one’s complete trust in the God of Love. Those who do evil will be punished and brought low; the righteous will be rewarded with the mercy of God.
1 Rahlfs-Hanhart. Septuaginta: Editio altera. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.
2 NETS uses the “people” textual tradition, “or they may forget my people.” The Orthodox Study Bible also uses “my people.” Brenton stands alone in the textual tradition he chose to follow.