a broken tooth frowning

Psalm 3 – Biblical Poetic Justice

 February 17, 2021

The writer of Psalm 3 is on the run from his enemies who have been tormenting him and spreading lies. In response he prays that God break the teeth of his enemies, thereby leaving them powerless and unable to spread further lies – a form of Biblical poetic justice.

Psalm 3 – Lament in Three Parts

Psalm 3 is a lament in three parts. It begins with the plight of the writer. “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of me, there is no help for him in God.” (1-2) Even God can’t help him, his enemies claim.

In the second section, the writer expresses his trust in God, based on past experiences. “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me.” (3a, for more on God as a shield, see, What Does it Mean to Say God is our Shield?) “I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.” (4)

The writer is so confident about God’s protection that he is able to sleep the night through. “I lie down and sleep; I wake again for the Lord sustains me.” (5) How many times have we allowed our worries to rob us of sleep?? Not the writer of Psalm 3.

He is even ready to take on thousands. “I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me round about.” (6)

Psalm 3 – Part Three

In the closing section, the writer cries to God for help, confident that God will respond. “For you smite all my enemies on the cheek, you break the teeth of the wicked.” (7) His enemies are doomed. Like ravenous beasts waiting for their prey, they sought him. Now, like lions whose teeth have been crushed, they are powerless, as one commentator suggests.

Another commentator states, “The Psalm (3) prays for an end to the enemies power to speak maliciously.” (New American Bible) Either way, the enemy has been defanged and overcome, a powerful metaphor.

The Role of Teeth in Biblical Times

There are numerous references to teeth in the Bible. During Biblical times, the loss of a tooth was considered as bad as losing an eye. Perfect teeth are seen as a sign of beauty in Song of Songs (“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone.” 4:2; 6:6)

Lacking our modern dentistry, I imagine many cases of broken and decayed teeth caused extreme pain and hindered the early Hebrews ability to enjoy food. In Proverbs 25:19, teeth represented pain (“Like a broken tooth or a lame foot is reliance on the unfaithful in a time of trouble.” 25:19) and distaste (“As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so are sluggards to those who send them.” 10:26). Jeremiah (31:29) and Ezekiel (18:2) refer to teeth being set on edge. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” If you’ve eaten a sour grape, you know how it can irritate your teeth. In this reference, the children are suffering for what their parents did.

Job claims that. “I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.” (29:17) Also from Job is the phrase, skin of teeth, “I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth. (19:20) Though it is unclear what it meant at that time; the phrase has come to be associated with narrow escapes.

Gnashing Teeth to Show Anger and Despair

In Acts 7:58, the people ground their teeth to show their anger (“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.”) This is also found in Psalm 35:16. The enemy is often described as a gnashing animal, usually a lion. (Psalms 37:12; 57:4; 58:6; Proverbs 30:14; Lam. 2:16; Joel l:6)

In Matthew 8:12, 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30 and Luke 15:28, those excluded from the kingdom will wail and gnash their teeth, a sign of despair, rage and remorse.

Biblical Poetic Justice

I love the richness of the imagery found in the Psalms. The writers know how to call down curses. It’s not enough that God rescue them from their enemies, they ask God to inflict them with humiliation, barrenness, and sickness such as boils, hemorrhoids and broken teeth. The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured. The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.” (Dt. 28:27-29)

Poetic Justice is a fitting or deserved retribution for one’s action. The passage in Psalm 3 about those who have been maligning others having their teeth broken is a form of Biblical poetic justice. Those who tell lies will lose their teeth thereby robbing them of the ability of telling further lies. If only life were that simple. That would be one way to put an end to all of the lies in our society and media.

But life isn’t that simple, which is perhaps good. In the meantime, we can pray in confidence to our God, using Psalm 3

How Do You Deal with People Who Lie about You?

Have others maligned you? How did you deal with it? Did your enemies get their just reward? I would love to hear from you.

This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of  Still Dancing the second book in my Dancing through Life Series.      click here to sign up

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