The psalmist describes two sides of the character of the wicked in Psalm 10:2–11. Structurally each description is five verses long and ends with the inner thoughts of the unjust oppressor, “He says in his heart” (10:6, 11). Two words summarize these wicked oppressors: arrogant and aggressive. Their pride and violence spell disaster for anyone who stands in their way.
First, the wicked oppressors are arrogant. The trouble they cause flows out of self-importance.
In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised. (10:2)
Where does this abusive pride come from? For one thing they forget that the rich and poor were both created by God. We did not make ourselves. We did not choose which family we were born into and the opportunities we were given. We did not decide how intelligent we would be, how wise we would be, how self-motivated we would be. All this is from God’s hand. The writer of Proverbs says, “The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2). The wicked forget this. They like to view themselves as self-made men, like sharks made to swim at the top of the food chain. This pride is Darwinian at its core—a survival of the fittest that grinds the poor into the dirt. And in their arrogance they think God will never do anything. They have nothing but contempt for God and laugh at any idea of judgment.
In fact, they do not worship God. They worship themselves.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” (10:3, 4)
The word “for” (v. 3) tells us why the wicked pursue the poor. They turn on the poor and the helpless because they first turned against God.
What does it mean to boast in your desires? That is an unusual phrase. The wicked are proud of their desires. Their cravings are a virtue. After all, didn’t they succeed because of their will to win? Their greed got them where they are.
One of the most powerful illustrations of this came from the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. The main character, Gordon Gekko, was modeled after high-powered traders who ran the financial markets like masters of the universe. In one famous scene Gekko delivers a speech to the nervous shareholders of Teldar Paper Corporation.
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.
This quote struck a chord because it hit so close to home. The spirit of American materialism declares that greed is a virtue, that in fact greed is the foundation of success. This is the mind-set of the man or woman who boasts of the desires of his or her soul. They boast because they believe it is a good thing never to be content, never to be satisfied, always to want more. And in their greed they grind the poor into the ground to get what they want.
It is sobering to notice that these wicked men and women renounce God by his personal name, Yahweh (“the Lord,” v. 3). This implies that these oppressors are not foreigners; they are Israelites who knowingly reject the God of Israel. In their greed they loved money and possessions more than God. In their pride they did not look for him. Finally they denied that God even exists.
Greed and pride can turn your heart away from God today too. You may have grown up knowing the Bible, but you are living for yourself. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). The wicked boast in their desires, but the Scriptures say, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
You might assume that someone who openly rejects God would be struck down by lightning. But atheists often prosper. People who give themselves to gathering money often get rich. And because they have laughed at God and have still been successful, their arrogance grows. They assume that they must be invincible.
His ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them. (10:5)
Because he is affluent, he is convinced that nothing can touch him. He has the latest tech gadgets; he drives a new Aston Martin; he goes on the best vacations; he wears new clothes. Success has blinded his eyes to God’s judgment—it is too high for him.
Here is what he thinks in his heart of hearts:
He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.” (10:6)
The wicked man is thoroughly deceived. He thinks that the blessings God reserves for the godly belong to him! It is the blameless man who shall not be moved (Psalm 15:5; 16:8), but the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:4). The wicked think they can set up their children to prosper after them. They can put them in the right schools and introduce them to the right people and leave a trust that will provide for them. But the Scriptures say that “the generation of the upright will be blessed” (Psalm 112:2). In his pride the wicked man has believed a lie.
The wicked man is not only arrogant and proud, he is aggressive and violent. This is the second part of the psalmist’s description.
First, his words are violent.
His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity. (10:7)
In the summer of 2012, northeastern Oklahoma was a tinderbox after weeks of drought and triple digit temperatures. On August 2 a devastating wildfire in Creek County burned 58,500 acres, destroyed 376 homes, and left hundreds of people homeless. As it turned out, the fire was started by a single cigarette. A wicked man’s words are like a spark that ignites violence.
In fact, sins of the tongue are the most common kind of violence in the Psalms. C. S. Lewis notes,
I think that when I began to read it these surprised me a little; I had half expected that in a simpler and more violent age when more evil was done with the knife, the big stick, and the firebrand, less would be done by talk. But in reality the Psalmists mention hardly any kind of evil more often than this one, which the most civilised societies share.... It is all over the Psalter. One almost hears the incessant whispering, tattling, lying, scolding, flattery, and circulation of rumours. No historical readjustments are here required, we are in the world we know.
And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:6)
And from a violent heart come violent actions.
He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might. (10:8–10)
The wicked man is treacherous. He ambushes the unsuspecting. He doesn’t do his work in cities where he might get caught but rather hunts in the villages where people trust each other and don’t lock their doors at night. His eyes shift around stealthily, watching for his victims. He lurks. He hides his net. God help the man he catches because not only is he treacherous, he is also merciless. He cares nothing about the people he attacks, whether they are good or bad or whether they have families depending on them.
Why does he attack the poor? For one thing, his heart is bad. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). His words are full of “cursing and... oppression” (10:7) because his heart is full of cursing and oppression. His very nature is to use whatever power he has to use and exploit others.
The poor are also easy victims. A poor man doesn’t have connections; who will go to bat for him? A poor man may not know his rights. If he is an immigrant, he might be ashamed that he can’t speak English well, and he might not have the confidence to stand up for himself. A poor woman can probably be frightened and silenced. If she gets pregnant, you might be able to intimidate her into having an abortion. The poor can’t hire a lawyer, especially not one who can fight the legal department of a large company. A poor man doesn’t have the clout at City Hall that comes from owning a business and providing jobs in the community. The poor are easy prey for the wicked. This is why the Scriptures command us to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).
Ultimately he oppresses the poor because he thinks no one will call him to account. Verse 11 tells us his thoughts.
He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
“The arrogance of the wicked expresses itself in injustice, but their root problem is their utter disregard for the Lord.” They no longer sense any accountability to God. They decide that God has not stepped in to stop them because he doesn’t know or he doesn’t care. So the wicked give free rein to the violence in their heart.
In fact, they have badly mistaken God’s silence. God is not forgetful, and he is not negligent. Instead God is patient and kind with sinners, giving them every opportunity to turn away from their sin and repent. The Scriptures warn us not to draw the wrong conclusion when God is patient with our sin.
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:4, 5)
If God doesn’t stop you or strike you down when you sin, don’t think this means he doesn’t know or doesn’t care. God is kind and patient, and he offers you every opportunity to turn away from your sin. The wicked mistake God’s patience for negligence. The godly recognize God’s kindness and run to him.
The Psalms are treasured poetry that reflect the prayer and praise of ancient Israel. Every generation opens the Psalms for inspiration, comfort, hope, and encouragement. They’re also are a rich source of truth about God, humanity, and salvation. The authors of the New Testament understood this, quoting the Psalms more than any other Old Testament book to establish key doctrines. The Psalms tell the story of God’s anointed king, his kingdom, and his people. They point forward to the Messiah—David’s Greater Son who reigns forever and ever.
In the first volume of a three-volume commentary on the Psalms, pastor James Johnston walks readers through Psalms 1 to 41, offering exegetical and pastoral insights along the way. Accessible and engaging, this resource will help anyone interested in studying, teaching, or preaching the Bible read the Psalms in a deliberately canonical and Christ-centered way.