They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Psalm 73:9 ESV
Struts – Yes, we know it’s poetry, but does that explain why it sounds so odd? Do we just dismiss the improper grammar and the misplaced imagery simply because we give Asaph poetic license? And how would you describe the wicked? Do they strut? Does their tongue strut?
First let’s deal with the oddities here. The pronoun is plural but the noun is singular. Their tongue, as if all of the wicked have only one voice. Why doesn’t Asaph correctly write, “their tongues”? Perhaps the answer is that ultimately the communication of the wicked is one voice, one cry, one complaint. It is the sound of arrogance; the claim that “I am god in my own world.” That’s why the Hebrew word halak, a word ordinarily used to describe the path of one’s life, is once again twisted so that it changes its sense from following the instructions of the Lord to setting my own course. Just as Asaph shifts the meaning of helev (fat) and reorients hamas (violence), now he stretches the imagery of “walking.” What is supposed to be consistent application of Torah becomes the proclamation of self-divinity. The same word – just a bit off center.
Does this help us understand the rest of this odd verse? Robert Alter points out that the Hebrew preposition be can mean “against” (as translated in the ESV) but it also means “up to.” Alter argues that the sense of this verse is the arrogant claims of the wicked who distribute their perversion of God’s instructions both high and low in the world. They speak as if they were gods, proclaiming their “truths” without the foundation of divine authority. They are the false prophets of a man-made heaven. Purporting to be wise, they are fools. Claiming to communicate wisdom, they do nothing more than show their ignorance of the Holy One. It is this sense that compels Asaph to treat the entire corpus of their claims as if it were the result of one tongue. When you analyze the bloated pronouncements of the wicked, they really amount to a single thought. Proverbs echoes the same idea. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The fool doesn’t say that God doesn’t exist. His claim is not an ontological one. It is a moral one. “There is no God who will stop me from doing whatever I wish to do.” God is absent from the world and men may do as they please. The fool is the man who discounts God’s wrath.
Perhaps Asaph has one other thing in mind with his twisting of words. The singular tongue (lashon) is Lamed-Shin-Nun. The pictograph of Lamed is the tongue – a sign of authority or a picture of something that controls. It’s not too much of a stretch to see that in Hebrew thought real power resides in words (think of the way God creates, for example). The pictograph of the word for “tongue” (lashon) could be “the authority of consuming/destroying life.” Every human being has God-granted authority. But unless that authority reflects its author, it becomes a power of its own. A hook. An addiction. Isn’t that an apt depiction of the arrogantly wicked? They are addicted to consuming. In the process, they destroy. And not just the things of this world. They consume whatever feeds their desires. They consume relationships as easily as they consume food. When they are done, all that is left is waste. Their approach to life is “What’s in it for me?” This is exactly the opposite of the child of God. “How may I serve you?” opposes every movement of the tongue of life’s gluttons. Perhaps Asaph’s unusual grammar is an accurate picture of the world we know too.
Topical Index: lashon, tongue, struts, halak, walk, Psalm 73:9