3 The wicked are estranged from the womb;
they go astray from birth, speaking lies.
4 They are like a deaf viper
that has clogged its ears,
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;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
Holy Scripture everywhere displays great courage with respect to God’s holiness. God himself dares to speak out against proud and important people in an effort to humble or break them so they fall on their faces. He neither spares them nor is intimidated by their position in life.
Thus, also here in Psalm 58, God addresses the sinner and says: “Actually, seen for what you are, you are no more than a deaf viper.”
It’s a nasty, repulsive animal that automatically causes revulsion. People avoid it. They warn their children about it, telling them: “Don’t touch it!” “A brood of vipers” is the harsh, sharp, cutting expression that Jesus used in striking back at the Pharisees and unmasking them. “The human heart is cunning and deadly; who can know it?” exclaims the prophet.
And here in this context the psalmist says that the ungodly person is “a viper” that spews out their poison. Behind their fangs is a venom that wounds and kills when they strike. Note well that this viper is not limited to an intentional deceiver, a thoroughly evil person, or a perverse corruptor of other souls. Not at all! It is saying that every person, every sinner, whether they do so willingly or unwillingly, can do nothing except corrupt the hearts of others. They incite those around them. They become a source of moral and spiritual death to them.
To do so, you don’t only have to talk about or do wicked things. But your mere presence, your personality, and your unwitting way of living have a polluting effect. They have an evil effect and nurture evil in others.
Just as a viper can poison you regardless of whether it does so intentionally in order to protect itself or whether it does so merely instinctively, the result is the same. It doesn’t think about whether the poison it spews lands on the grass and ground or is injected into your hand or arm. The same is true of what emanates from the sinner, whether it’s their breath, their language, the fire in their eyes, their example, or their influence. So much of what comes from the poisonous glands of their own hearts never has a cleansing effect but has damaging results. When it goes to work, it produces death.
Now, it’s the case that God has medicine, an antidote, for that poison that you spew on other people. It’s comparable to the pharmaceutical measures that our medical doctors have at their disposal. They take poisonous materials, including snake venom, and have the knowledge of how to use these with certain diseases and under specific circumstances to counteract illness with a healing rather than destructive effect. Naturally, this doesn’t change in the least the deadly nature of the venom itself. Nor does this detract at all from the evil nature of what is generated spiritually by you.
For you, the concern is not what God may do with the poison you generate. Rather, it should be what effect you have on others. Is it a healthy or destructive influence?
The Holy Spirit confronts that very question here through the mouth of David. He applies it to the ungodly person who is unregenerate. But he applies it as well to the regenerate individual to the extent that they often fall out of fellowship with their Savior and then generate from the cells and glands of their soul only what is impure, sensuous, and poisonous.
It’s very obvious that the evil is worse and that they are more accountable for it when people express it by choice, like the viper does in striking intentionally either by defending itself or by attacking. Then people exhibit a lust for evil. They behave with such premeditated counsel that evil bursts out of their souls’ glands and splatters over others, infecting their lifeblood.
Now we’re dealing with full-blown wickedness! Now an unholy force has power over our souls! Now we are not merely unwitting instruments but fully aware servants of unrighteousness. And that’s much worse!
Even then, the fullest measure of corruption has not yet been reached. The worst is what is unique to us as sinners, and this goes far beyond what is found in an angry viper. Isaiah says emphatically that a person is not only like a viper, but that “your work is still worse than that of the viper” (41:24).1 And the most revolting thing about what is worst is stated here in what the psalmist says in the verse I have quoted, namely, that people are not just vipers but especially that they are often like “deaf vipers”!
The animal that we identify as a viper can be charmed. There is a power in the human voice that, well developed for that purpose, has power over wild, poisonous animals. Particularly in the Orient in former times, the human voice was well developed, and people mastered the art of mesmerizing, so-called charming, and controlling snakes and other poisonous creatures.
Applying this to people, a person could say that a certain power exists in God’s voice that has the capability of subduing the viper in our soul. It can render it so powerless that it becomes incapable of spewing out poison. It is disarmed, and its capacity to inflict damage disappears. God’s Word can be seen as a charm that casts a spell over the inner threats of the human soul.
While a viper or a snake is never deaf and is incapable of clogging its ears and is always definitely rendered powerless when it hears the soothing voice of its charmer, that’s not true of people. Sinners, you and I and everyone else born by and in sin, frequently know how to play the part of a deaf viper. We know how to close our ears to the Word of God! And in speaking to our souls here, this is precisely what the Holy Spirit addresses and reproves in the remarkable image of the deaf viper. He’s not just addressing a viper who is capable of spewing poisonous venom but especially one that is deaf to its divine charmer! He desires to disarm the viper within us by his amazingly miraculous Word.
That’s why we can do no better than to understand how to expunge the poisonous fluids from our corrupt hearts. Nothing helps do this better in this regard than our full, totally enthusiastic confession of faith in Christ. And things will not be as they should be with us until we willingly draw every drop of life-giving fluid that nourishes us and those around us from him who is the Spring and Fountain of Living Waters.
Abraham Kuyper, Ever in Thy Sight: 31 Devotions on the Psalms