Literary Analysis of Psalm 10

That Song 10 is a continuation of, rather than separate from, Song 9 is clear from its first verse. It mentions neither the composer nor the instrument, setting it apart from Songs 3 to 9.*

But, although Song 9 does not end with a chord of resolution, still the abrupt beginning of Song 10, with its question  — more an anguished rebuke than an actual question —  is scarcely expected by the reader of or listener to Song 10 as it follows upon Song 9.  For Song 9 ends with the singer’s calling upon God to “Arise” and judge the nations. And yet the first half of Song 10 could have been composed by the very nations that have been judged unheeding, even wicked, by King David in Song 9. Thus v.1 describes God as “aloof”, “turning away” from those who seek Him, a vivid contrast to the judge and benefactor of Song 9 whom the singer envisions as drawing closer and closer to humankind. And though v. 2 asks that the wicked be caught in their own schemes and plottings, it is with the implication that they have not yet been defeated, in contrast to v. 16 of Song 9 which describes them as trapped like wild beasts. Verses 3 to 11 are the most troubling, for they give voice to the wicked, articulating their arrogance (v. 7), their certainty that they are mightier than God (v. 11), their belief that they can obey their instincts alone (v. 5); indeed, their very blasphemy itself (v. 4).

Song 9, v.18, declares, “Let the wicked turn back to Sheol”. It would seem as though the singer in Song 10 is himself turning his ear to Sheol, catching the echo of the words of the wicked and repeating back their thought and arguments.

Verses 12 and 13 mark a change in viewpoint. The singer calls upon God to judge the wicked and be merciful to their victims. But though he begins, “Arise, Adonai”, his cry is not the jubilant one ending Song 9. Rather it is a plea, a hope, a sob rather than a call of elation. He asks why the wicked scorn God, his question a censure not demanding an answer. Thus his question to the wicked is very different from  –the opposite of, in fact–  his  question to God in v.1. Indeed, verses 14 to 18 are his own answer to v.1:

The closing verses of the song transform it from a troubled pleading and questioning to a praisesong: v.14 voices his certainty that God heeds the innocent and the victimized; v.16 declares his belief that “Adonai is king forever and eternally”; verses 17 and 18 close the song with a request that is, at the same time, both a hope and a belief, that God will strengthen the hapless and take power from their oppressors.

V. 15 adds complexity to the fate the singer envisions for the wicked. It is composed of mercy rather than vengeance. In v. 6 the wicked one announces that he will never be called upon to account for his deeds or thoughts, that he will “never face evil” [accountability]. V. 15 makes clear that the wicked one is correct –he will not face retribution. But the powerful irony is in the reason for God’s leniency:

15. Break the arm [power] of the wicked one and the evil man, until You seek out his wickedness and find none.

It may be that the addition of the phrase “the evil man” to that of “the wicked one”  –for surely the one phrase, “the wicked one”, would suffice —  emphasizes the singer’s clear prophecy: God will bring about a purification within the wicked one, so that he will come to repudiate the evil in his nature. Only then will God “seek out his wickedness and find none”. The “until” is telling. This transformation will take place only when the wicked come to judge and transform themselves. Not until then can God ensure that “men who are of the earth might tyrannize no more” (v. 18).

The repetition of words referring to the wicked, throughout the song, gives a sense of the intensity of their passions, the power of their arrogant beliefs: “ambush” (v. 8, v. 9 twice); “schemes” (v. 2, v. 4); “seize” (v. 9 twice); “taunt” (v. 3, v. 13); “wicked” (v. 2, v. 3, v. 4. v. 13, v. 15).

In contrast, their victims are described with only two repeated nouns: “the hapless” (v. 8, v.10, v. 14) and “the orphan” (v. 14, v. 18).

But it is in the contrast of the word “cravings” as it refers to the desires of the wicked (v. 3) and to those yearnings of the lowly (v. 17), that the singer’s indictment of the wicked is declared. The repetition of the verb “seek” has an even more inclusive effect: the wicked refuse to seek God (v. 4), and believe their actions will incur no punishment (v. 13); indeed, God will break their power only when they themselves have relinquished it (v. 15).

The two verbs, “arise” and “seek”, dominate the song, acting as the singer’s summons to both God and humankind.



*Songs 1 and 2, together a unit, do not identify David as their composer. For one possible explanation, see analysis of Song 1 on this website.