Why do the unprincipled scoundrels in power act as they do? That is the question Psalm 94 tries to answer.

One of the characteristic literary features of the psalm is its threefold use of anadiplosis, the rhetorical repetition of selected words or phrases. These are: the opening divine epithet, “God of retribution”; the agonizing, searching question “how long?”; and the final, confident, unwavering declaration of faith that God “will annihilate” the evildoers. In each case, the reiteration gives prominence to a key element of the psalm: the nature of God, the intolerable suffering of human beings, and the certainty of the ultimate downfall of evil.

At the outset, the psalmist affirms his concept of an active God. This is necessary because, as he states later on, the wicked believe in an essentially inactive deity. The specific epithet used here, “God of retribution,” is paralleled in verse 2 by “Judge of the earth.” The understanding of “retribution” is thus clarified: It is not an arbitrary or vindictive act, but a judicial intervention against the guilty.

The Hebrew term here translated “retribution” is often misleadingly rendered “vengeance” in many English versions. But that word conveys a negative, primitive conception of religion. Vengeance is usually taken to be synonymous with revenge and implies action prompted by base emotions. The Hebrew root, however, means nothing of the kind, for in most instances it signifies an action worthily motivated, purposeful, intended to serve the ends of justice.

Our psalmist calls upon the “God of retribution” to “appear,” employing a Hebrew verb that means “to shine,” “to be radiant,” with the extended meaning of “be manifest.” Moreover, it is reinforced here by the addition of the parallel words “rise up,” meaning a call for imminent action. What the supplicant is asking for here is decisive, overwhelming, timely action in a situation in which the ordinary resources available to decent people are inadequate to the task of restoring the balance of justice.

The wording in verses 3 and 4 shows that the psalmist is looking for action in the here and now, not in some vague eschatological future. The questions go to the very heart of the problem of evil in a world that is under divine governance. The issue hinges upon the nature of God as described in the Hebrew Bible. When, in Exodus 33:13, Moses asks to “know” God’s ways, God’s responsive self-disclosure is a recital of His own attributes, that is, of His moral qualities, which are the essence of His character:

“compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children upon the third and fourth generations (Exodus 34:6–7).”

From the numerous citations of this listing in the Bible in one form or another—clearly an institutionalized liturgical formula—it is apparent that the emphases are on the magnanimous and benevolent divine qualities, rather than on the judgmental and punitive aspects of God’s morality. But these benevolent characteristics raise the serious problem of divine tolerance of evil, which is essentially what is behind the vexatious question, “How long, O Lord?”

Implicit here is the subtle and perplexing paradox that it is precisely these benign divine qualities that fortify the conviction of unaccountability, embolden the wicked, and aggravate the problem of evil. So, to ask of God, “How long?” is to view His quality of forbearance from the perspective of the victim of humanly wrought evil, and to demand reduction in the duration of God’s tolerance.

Verses 5, 6 and 7 grimly detail the evils that arouse the psalmist. Who are the wicked who perpetrate such heinous crimes? A superficial reading would take them to be foreign, national enemies, because they afflict “Your people.” However, closer scrutiny shows that those described as God’s people are the disadvantaged and most vulnerable segments of society. An invading enemy would hardly regard those elements as posing a great threat to his security. God’s people are the ordinary common folk, and the evil oppressors and exploiters are the corrupt, privileged upper classes in Israel, those whom the prophets denounced repeatedly from the eighth century B.C.E. on.

Of course, a major and pervasive theme of biblical literature is that God is the redeemer from injustice and oppression, and that God’s redemptive acts for Israel demand an imitative human response. Numerous biblical texts insist that the experience of the liberation from Egypt must be a motive force for social ethics and the wellspring of moral action. This concept is enshrined in law as a positive prohibition in Exodus 22:21–23:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their out-cry as soon as they cry out to me …”

In light of this fundamental conception of a compassionate God who displays intense concern for the unfortunates of society, and considering the covenantal, humanitarian imperatives of the religion of Israel that flow from such an understanding, it is not surprising that judicial corruption, as in Psalm 82, and the cruel and oppressive excesses of tyrannical rulers, as here, would be the subject of prayer and entreaty to God.

The precise historical circumstances that called forth the psalmist’s accusations can no longer be determined with certainty, but they are consistent with the references in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to bloodshed in the land on a large scale. These would seem to point to the region of King Manasseh (687/6–642 B.C.E.), whom 2 Kings 24:4 blames for the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., “because of the blood of the innocent that he [Manasseh] had shed. For he filled Jerusalem with the blood of the innocent, and the Lord would not forgive him.”

The psalmist tells us that the horrible crimes perpetrated by the wicked oppressors are grounded in the conviction that there is no accountability. The wicked conceive of an otiose deity, an absentee God, one who, having created the world, thereafter withdrew from it, and remained remote and aloof from the affairs of humankind. The conviction of the psalmist is that people act wickedly because they do not believe in divine supervision over human society. This is practical, not philosophical, atheism. Sordid self-interest becomes the sole motivating force in human behavior; restraint is dispelled, inhibition discarded, and evil given free reign.

The psalmist, however, is convinced that God will exact retribution from the wicked, and he reiterates this belief repeatedly. The ultimate downfall of the wicked is inevitable. In the meantime, however, their powerless victims continue to suffer, and their undeserved ordeal raises profound philosophical questions. The psalmist, who is himself among the victims, addresses these ever-pressing concerns. His answers, contained in verses 12 through 15, are intended to give meaning to the painful experiences and to offer a measure of consolation.

It is at once apparent that the poet, like the author of Job, does not subscribe to the doctrine that there is a necessary correlation between suffering and sin; the former by no means presupposes the latter. He does, however, hold to the view that the travail of the innocent is divinely wrought and is not mere happenstance. This being so, there must be meaning to the suffering. Here, he falls back on the explanation given in Deuteronomy 8:5: “Bear in mind that the Lord your god disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.”

The Hebrew root that underlies the word rendered as “discipline” refers primarily to religious and moral instruction, rarely to the development of the intellectual faculties. Suffering, says the psalmist, rather than being a penalty for sin, may be an expression of God’s fatherly love. It may serve an educational function as a test of character. When accompanied by instruction in God’s teaching (Torah), it molds and elevates one’s personality, providing the moral fiber that enables one to bear adversity with endurance and serenity, secure in the conviction that the wicked will receive their just desserts and tyranny will be over-thrown.

Most interesting is the faith expressed in verse 15 that judgment will once again be united with justice. The wicked have severed the one from the other. The decisions and deliberations of the courts no longer are informed by the ends of justice, for the judicial institutions have become mere instruments of the wicked who control the levers of power. Yet, this terrifying situation does not cause the psalmist to lose faith in divine governance of the world. Unable to obtain redress in law, he asks, “Who will take my part against evil men?”

It seems that the psalmist himself is the victim of some fabricated charge; the judges are corrupt, and would-be witnesses to his innocence are too intimidated by the reign of terror to testify in this terrible predicament, only unshakable faith in God saves him from complete collapse.

In his desperation, our psalmist turns directly to God in verses 20 through 23, asking in a different form the same basic question with which he began: How is it that God tolerates the evil? By so doing, He allows an impression of acquiescence to be conveyed.

“Shall the seat of injustice be Your partner, that frames mischief by statute?

They band together to do away with the righteous; they condemn the innocent to death.

But the Lord is my heaven;

my God is my sheltering rock.

He will make their evil recoil upon them, annihilate them through their own wickedness; the Lord our God will annihilate them.”

In the face of a seemingly hopeless situation, when monstrous evil appears to be all powerful and hideous brutalities are the order of the day, our psalmist continues to place his faith in God and affirms again and again his abiding optimism that the moral order that has been disturbed will be set right, and the wicked be destroyed.

A longer version of this analysis, complete with endnotes, can be found in chapter 9 of Nahum Sarna’s Songs of the Heart.

Psalm 94

1God of retribution, Lord,

God of retribution, appear!

2Rise up, judge of the earth,

give the arrogant their deserts!

3How long shall the wicked, O Lord,

how long shall the wicked exult,

4shall they utter insolent speech,

shall all evildoers vaunt themselves?

5They crush Your people, O Lord,

they afflict Your very own;

6they kill the widow and the stranger;

they murder the fatherless,

7thinking, “The Lord does not see it,

the God of Jacob does not pay heed.”

8Take heed, you most brutish people;

fools, when will you get wisdom?

9Shall He who implants the ear not hear,

He who forms the eye not see?

10Shall he who disciplines nations not


He who instructs men in knowledge?

11The Lord knows the designs of men to be futile.

12Happy is the man whom You discipline,

O Lord,

the man You instruct in Your teaching,

13to give him tranquillity in times of misfortune,

until the pit be dug for the wicked.

14For the Lord will not forsake His people;

He will not abandon His very own.

15Judgment shall again accord with justice

and all the upright shall rally to it.

16Who will take my part against evil men?

Who will stand up for me against wrongdoers?

17Where not the Lord my help,

I should soon dwell in silence.

18When I think my foot has given way,

Your faithfulness, O Lord, supports me.

19When I am filled with cares,

Your assurance soothes my soul.

20Shall the seat of injustice be Your partner,

that frames mischief by statute?

21They band together to do away with the


they condemn the innocent to death.

22But the Lord is my haven;

my God is my sheltering rock.

23He will make their evil recoil upon them,

annihilate them through their own wickedness;

the Lord our God will annihilate them.

—The New Jewish Publication Society Translation