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Psalm 58:1-3

(1) For the director of music. To the tune of "Do Not Destroy." Of David. A miktam. Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? (NIVUK)

(2) No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. (NIVUK)

(3) These wicked people are born sinners; even from birth they have lied and gone their own way. (NLT)

If a reality : Because those rulers (the author speak about in verse 1) are born sinners, then no wonder they are wicked.

But how a babies lied and gone their own way ?

If a metaphor : Because of the wickedness of those rulers (known by the author), then the author "picture" them in a way as in verse 3. It reminds me a lyric in one song : Mother says I was a dancer before I could walk. She says I began to sing long before I could talk :).

So, it's a reality ? or a metaphor ?

Thank you.

  • The concept of original sin is viewed upon differently for Christians/Jews/Muslims. – Gigi Sanchez Mar 4 '17 at 3:48
  • So, in Christian view about Psalms 58:3 how is it Gigi Sanchez ? – karma Mar 4 '17 at 5:18
  • You're studying Christianity and haven't heard about original sin? – Gigi Sanchez Mar 4 '17 at 7:07
  • Have heard original sin but only a little. I will look into it. Thank you Gigi Sanchez. – karma Mar 4 '17 at 11:28
  • Just browsing the internet for original sin. Some articles in the internet say it's unbiblical ? (I haven't study about OS thoroughly yet) – karma Mar 4 '17 at 11:47
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My view is that the question sets up a false contrast.

To contrast reality and metaphor is to imply that a metaphor is unreal. But that's not how metaphor works. A metaphor is not a statement about no reality; it's a statement about a different kind of reality. Consider these two sentences:

  1. "He has a heart that pumps blood around his body." Here the heart is an actual physical object. It's an organ in the body that will be found in an x-ray or autopsy.

  2. "He has a cold heart." Here the heart is not to be found physically in his body. It is instead used to refer to his emotions. The sentence means that he has no feelings for other people. But although it is metaphor, it is not for that reason unreal. Feelings are real, but we can only talk about them by taking words from the physical world and using them as analogies for other kinds of reality.

(If you doubt this, it's worth noting that the word "feeling" itself as used in this paragraph is a metaphor. To feel the grass or a door handle is the physical level of the word. To say that I feel angry is to draw on that physical meaning of the word to describe by analogy a non physical, but no less real, emotion.)

So either way Psalm 58.3 is a statement about reality. The better question is what kind of statement is being made, and what kind of reality. Does "birth" mean the literal day when the mother went into labour? or does it have some other analogous meaning?

My view is that there is a hint of both literal and metaphorical in these sentences. And ultimately it doesn't make much difference. We see that more clearly when we compare this use of the sentence with similar texts. Consider Psalm 51.5-6.

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Psalm 51 is traditionally attributed to David; it's his prayer of confession after his adultery with Bathsheba. And in that context it has a perfectly natural literal meaning. This is shown by the parallelism of the psalm. birth is matched by conception, and God is shown to require faithfulness and wisdom even in the womb. And yet it's also possible to read this as a poetic way of saying that David has always been sinful. His sin has been "from the beginning" in a general sense. David might be saying, "If I'm honest, it's true that ever since I can remember I've been doing bad things."

So, two different ways of reading the text, but is there really any meaningful difference between them?

A text showing the opposite end of the spectrum is Isaiah 48.8.

You have neither heard nor understood;
from of old your ears have not been open.
Well do I know how treacherous you are;
you were called a rebel from birth.

Here God through Isaiah is judging the nation of Israel for its sin. Because this is a country, not a person, birth is obviously metaphorical. This is not a baby coming out of the womb. Nevertheless, we have an analogous meaning. Isaiah is saying that from the beginning of its existence it showed rebellious tendencies against God.

These two texts are a good picture of the range of meaning this birth image can have. Where does Psalm 58.3 fit? Probably somewhere in the middle. The group referred to are the wicked leaders of Israel. This is not as personal and singular as David's prayer of confession. On the other hand it is not as corporate and national as Isaiah's judgment of the whole nation. There is both an individual and group focus here.

These passages also show that this is not an isolated theme. The overall testimony of the OT seems to be that people are sinful throughout the whole of their life. Like a bowl on a bowls green, they are in some way biased or weighted to go off course from the beginning. Whether we agree with that view is another matter, but there's no doubt that this is what the text says.

  • I'm sorry I don't quite understand, Peter. Do you mean the author is a sinful person wicked from birth is pointing someone else who also the same sinful persons wicked from birth - rather than pointing to himself just like David ? – karma Mar 4 '17 at 11:22
  • It depends which verse you're looking at. If it's Psalm 58 then the author is not talking about himself. The "wicked" in verse 3 could generally refer to all people, but I think it probably refers back to the unjust rulers of verse 1. – Peter Kirkpatrick Mar 4 '17 at 11:43
  • I thought the author is speaking about the rulers (these wicked people). But after I read other versions in biblehub, some versions used "the wicked" ---> The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies. So the author is telling that he himself is also the wicked who estranged from his mother's womb ? – karma Mar 4 '17 at 11:57
  • The author may also consider himself as a wicked person. But there is nothing in the psalm itself to answer that question one way or the other. (Compare with Isaiah 53.6, where Isaiah says, "All we like sheep have gone astray." In that case, the wording shows us that Isaiah has identified himself as one of those who have gone astray.) – Peter Kirkpatrick Mar 4 '17 at 12:06
  • Even if the author is not talking about the rulers in verse 3, I still don't understand because it seems to me the wicked is about wicked grown up persons. But from your explanation leads me to conclude that the wicked is also about babies / toddlers ? In other words, all babies are wicked. Please CMIIW. – karma Mar 4 '17 at 12:14
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To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy. A Miktam of David. Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? [בְּנֵי אָדָֽם] Do you judge the children of man uprightly? 2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth. 3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. (Psalm 58:1-3 ESV)

The meaning of miktam is uncertain. [H4387-mitkam] and is only used in the introduction of Psalms 16, 56, 57, 58, 59, and 60. The meaning of בְּנֵי אָדָֽם literally "sons of man" is also uncertain 1 and connecting it to verse 3 may not be appropriate, as the ESV and other translations reflect.

In verse 3 the writer chose two different words which can mean womb or birth:

The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. (ESV)
זֹרוּ רְשָׁעִים מֵרָחֶם תָּעוּ מִבֶּטֶן דֹּבְרֵי כָזָֽב׃

מֵרָחֶם is always translated as womb or matrix [H7358-rechem]. However, מִבֶּטֶן can mean either birth or the internal state (body/belly) of a person [H990-beten] and its use is almost equally split between these two meanings.

For example, מִבֶּטֶן is used 8 times in Proverbs and 7 of the 8 clearly do not mean womb/birth (13:25, 18:8, 18:20, 20:27, 20:30, 22:18, 26:22). 2 It's use in Jonah and Habakkuk is similar to Psalm 58:3 and clearly does not mean birth or womb:

saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. (Jonah 2:2 ESV)

I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. (Habakkuk 3:16 ESV)

Therefore the literal translation of בֶּטֶן in the Psalm is:

The wicked have been estranged from the womb, They have erred from the belly, speaking lies. (YLT)

The factual situation of a newborn’s dependence on the parents eliminates the literal meaning of birth or womb which means understanding the sense of the word בֶּטֶן as birth, must metaphoric since newborns neither speak nor go their own way.

In addition, the use of two different words indicates the writer intends to convey two different conditions, רֶחֶם and בֶּטֶן. In other words, since the writer failed to repeat the first word, the second word (בֶּטֶן) should be taken to have the same literal meaning as the first. Thus the meaning is either the literal body/belly or is a metaphor. If a metaphor, the meaning would be the child was raised from birth to go astray speaking lies.

Conclusion

The context supports either the literal meaning of belly/body or as the metaphor, birth. As a metaphor it would mean being raised or taught those ways since birth. Finally it cannot be taken literally as being born to go astray speaking lies.

Interestingly, the literal meaning which describes the internal state of a person would result from being raised from birth to go astray speaking lies. Therefore the metaphor and the literal meaning work together. The Psalmist recognizes these rulers are the way they are because they were brought up that way from birth.


1. Note from Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures. The Jewish Publication Society. 1985 p. 1173.
2. 31:2 is the only exception. Even here the meaning could be taken differently. It is considered as womb since the mother is speaking yet the context would support the other meaning.

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According to one Jewish source, the meaning of the Masoretic Text in verses 1 and 3 is "uncertain"1. (This was also noted in another answer). One commentary explains:

The language of the psalm is very difficult, and it is likely that it has been imperfectly preserved. Though it does not begin with an address to God, and initially looks like a psalm of instruction (see Ps. 14), the second half of the psalm, including the long curse of the wicked (vv. 7– 10), makes it clear that it is a petition, although it does not follow the typical form of that genre— indeed, the problems of the petitioner are never noted, keeping with the general instructional nature of the psalm.2

The Septuagint reading of this Psalm (Psalm 57 LXX) seems much less opaque and somewhat in line with what Profs. Berlin and Brettler suggest - that the Psalm is somewhat instructional in nature, cautioning against the hypocrisy of speaking of righteousness but not practicing it:

1 For the End; corrupt not; by David, for a pillar inscription.

2 If, then, you truly speak of righteousness,
Do you judge rightly, O you sons of men?

3 For in your heart you work lawlessness in the earth;
Your hands weave unrighteousness.3

(I'm not sure if one could consider an instruction to be "metaphor" or "reality", but perhaps the above might explain what the Psalm intends).


1 Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, in The Oxford Jewish Study Bible (1st ed.), p.1345
2 Ibid.
3 Orthodox Study Bible Septuagint translation

  • Thank you for your explanation, user33515. I wonder during that times (the time the author wrote that Psalm) they have a custom or an idiom to say about something AFTER they knew what's going on. Something like when someone say "like father like son" ---> if this saying does not survive in the next thousand years (say, in the year 3000) but the written text of this saying is found later on (year 4000) and is read, maybe the reader can not grasp what does it mean. :) – karma Apr 7 '17 at 16:21
  • It's a good question. I don't know exactly what the nature is of the uncertainty in the Masoretic Text - whether the words or the saying literally doesn't make any sense. It is possible that someone with a better knowledge of Hebrew will contribute an answer. – user33515 Apr 7 '17 at 17:02

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