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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Psalms 55

Verse 1

PSALM 55

PRAYER IN THE FACE OF A WICKED CONSPIRACY INVOLVING

A FORMERLY TRUSTED FRIEND

This is another psalm accredited to David; and as Maclaren stated it, "Davidic authorship has at least as much to say for itself as any of the other conjectures that have been offered."[1] The title we have selected is from Leupold.

Spurgeon declared that, "It would be idle to fix a time and occasion for this Psalm with any dogmatism; but it reads like a song of the times of Absalom and Ahithophel."[2]

"It could also be the prophetic prayer of Christ in his humiliation, despised and rejected of men, when he was made sin for his people that they might be made the righteousness of God `in Him,' when He was about to suffer their punishments, pay their debts, and discharge their sins, by giving His body upon the Cross as a ransom for the sins of the whole world."[3]

There is nothing whatever to prevent the psalm's being both a song of the times of Ahithophel, and a prophetic forerunner of the prayers of Jesus Christ. Also, Ahithophel in the story of David occupies a position very closely akin to that of Judas Iscariot, of whom he seems to have been a type.

We like the way Anthony Ash broke the psalm down into small units (seven in all); and shall follow the same pattern here.[4]

DAVID'S CRY TO GOD

Psalms 55:1-2

"Give ear to my prayer, O God;

And hide not thyself from my supplication.

Attend unto me, and answer me:

I am restless in my complaint, and moan."

"Give ear to my prayer, O God" (Psalms 55:1). These words teach us that God Himself hears and attends the prayers of his people, that he is accessible to hear their petitions, and that he will not hide his face from praying saints.

"I am restless ... and moan" (Psalms 55:2). Clarke translated a part of this verse as, "I am strongly agitated."[5] If our ascription of this psalm to David during the rebellion of Absalom is correct, then there can be no wonder at all of David's agitation and concern.

Verse 3

THE SHAMEFUL SITUATION DESCRIBED

"Because of the voice of the enemy,

Because of the oppression of the wicked;

For they cast iniquity upon me,

And in anger they persecute me.

My heart is sore pained within me:

And the terrors of death are fallen upon me.

Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me,

And horror hath overwhelmed me."

"The voice of the enemy ... they cast iniquity upon me" (Psalms 55:3). In the psalm, the enemy is mentioned with both singular and plural words. This is appropriate because there were many enemies, led by "an enemy," perhaps either Ahithophel or Absalom.

"Because of the oppression of the wicked" (Psalms 55:3). The Jerusalem Bible renders this, "They bring misery crashing down upon me."

"And in anger they persecute me" (Psalms 55:3). A number of scholars render this, "In wrath they hate me."[6]

"The terrors of death are fallen upon me" (Psalms 55:4). "There could be no greater consternation than fear of death, even if this is a figure."[7] We cannot think of "death" mentioned here as anything other than the real thing. If Absalom had been successful in his rebellion, David would have been the first of many executions; such is the nature of the type of revolution Absalom was attempting.

"Fearfulness ... trembling ... horror" (Psalms 55:5). These are eloquent words indeed, describing the heart-grief of King David. As Adam Clarke said, "Nobody ever described a wounded heart like David."[8]

Verse 6

DAVID'S YEARNING TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL

"And I said, O that I had wings like a dove!

Then would I fly away and be at rest.

Lo, then would I wander far off,

I would lodge in the wilderness. (Selah)

I would haste me to a shelter

From the stormy wind and tempest."

Who is there who never experienced such a yearning as this? Just to say "good-bye" to all the problems, just to walk out of the mess and never return - attractive as such thoughts may seem to be, God's servants must stand up to life like it is. David's Great Son, the Saviour, knelt in blood and tears in Gethsemane; and here the Old Testament type of our Lord could find no other honorable course of action except that outlined in this Psalm; but it definitely did not include anything like his "disappearance into some shelter in the wilderness." Oh no, tens of thousands would be slain, and there would be an agony that no tears could assuage.

"From the stormy wind and tempest" (Psalms 55:8). It was not a thunderstorm that threatened David, it was a rebellion! These words are a, "Poetic description of violence and strife, mentioned in the next verse."[9]

Verse 9

PLEA FOR GOD TO DESTROY THE PLANS OF THE WICKED

"Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongue;

For I have seen violence and strife in the city.

Day and night they go about it upon the walls thereof:

Iniquity also and mischief are in the midst of it.

Wickedness is in the midst thereof:

Oppression and guile depart not from its streets"

"Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongue" (Psalms 55:9).

"David wanted his enemies destroyed by `dividing their tongues' (confusing their counsel); and this prayer was fully and effectively answered. Hushai and Ahithophel gave opposite counsel to Absalom; and Absalom followed the advice of Hushai. Ahithophel, knowing that such advice would destroy Absalom, went out and hanged himself (2 Samuel 15-17)."[10]

Both King David of Israel and the Son of David, the Christ, were betrayed by a close friend, who as a consequence of his deeds went out and hanged himself. It is difficult not to see a type of Judas Iscariot in this.

In this paragraph, notice the seven words which describe conditions in Jerusalem: violence, strife, iniquity, mischief, wickedness, oppression, and guile. The Jerusalem Bible personifies these,[11] but we cannot find any good reason for such a personification, Taken in the aggregate, they describe the frightful condition of a sorely troubled city. This writer once heard Mayor Bob Wagner of New York City describing a similar condition there, saying that, "The spirit of the jungle has invaded the heart of the great city."

Spurgeon's description of Jerusalem's sufferings under those conditions is a classic.

Alas, poor Jerusalem, to be thus the victim of sin and shame! Virtue reviled and vice regnant! Her solemn assemblies were broken up, her priests fled, her king a fugitive, and troops of reckless villains, parading her streets and sunning themselves on her walls, and vomiting their blasphemies in her sacred shrines. Here was cause enough for the sorrow which so plaintively utters itself in these verses.[12]

Verse 12

PARENTHETICAL MENTION OF A TREACHEROUS FRIEND

"For it was not an enemy which reproached me;

Then I could have borne it:

Neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me;

Then would I have hid myself from him:

But it was thou, a man mine equal, my companion, and my familiar friend,

We took sweet counsel together;

We walked in the house of God with the throng."

Leupold referred to this paragraph as "a parenthesis,"[13] inserted here for the purpose of explaining that among the enemies was a very important personal friend, comrade, fellow-worshipper, and mutual counselor. There are many Bible scholars who point to Ahithophel as such a person in the life of David.

Some have attempted to avoid the personal nature of this psalm by applying it to some abstract situation, or to the nation of Israel, or nearly anything else; but as Delitzsch wrote: "How could the faithless bosom friend, mentioned here with special sadness, be a mere abstract person; since it has in the person of Judas Iscariot its historical living antitype in the life and Passion of the Second David?"[14] Halley's Bible Handbook states that, "Psalms 55:12-14 refer specifically to Ahithophel, a foregleam of Judas."[15]

Opposed to this view one may find all kinds of `information' about what men do not know and may only guess at. Since all alike, the learned and the unlearned as well, are reduced to `guessing' in this matter, we unhesitatingly choose the guesses we have adopted here. When a better one comes along, we shall be happy to take it!

Verse 15

THE PRAYER RESUMED

"Let death come suddenly upon them,

Let them go down alive into Sheol;

For wickedness is in their dwelling, in the midst of them."

The very first part of the resumed prayer petitions God to bring the enemies down into Sheol alive, to their "sudden death." One may well ignore all of the "too bad, too bad" comments on verses like this, which speak of personal vindictiveness and horrible private vengeance upon enemies.

David's situation here was exactly that of Moses the great lawgiver of Israel, whose leadership of Israel was challenged by Korah; here David's leadership of Israel was challenged by Absalom. In both instances, there was no middle ground; one only could be the Theocratic Leader; and like Moses of old, David pleaded with God to decide it by the death of the challengers, just as God decided in favor of Moses by the miraculous death of Korah and his group who were swallowed up alive by the earth itself (Numbers 16:30). As Kidner said, "`Let them go down alive into Sheol' is a clear echo of Numbers 16:30, where Moses had called for proof that the people who were resisting him were in fact rebels against God."[16] David was calling for exactly the same kind of decision here.

David was conscious that his earthly kingdom was a type of the Kingdom of Heaven, hence the utmost necessity of God's favorable answer of David's heart-felt prayer. His beloved son Absalom and his best friend Ahithophel were the challengers. Note the prayer for their sudden death was answered at once. Ahithophel committed suicide, and Joab thrust a dart through the heart of Absalom. Sad? Certainly! But the alternative would have frustrated forever the purpose of God in human redemption.

Verse 16

THE PRAYER CONTINUES

"As for me, I will call upon God; And Jehovah will save me.

Evening, and morning, and at noonday, will I complain and moan;

And he will hear my voice.

He hath redeemed my soul in peace from the battle that was against me;

For they were many that strove with me.

God will hear and answer them, even he that abideth of old. (Selah)

The men who have no changes,

And who fear not God."

The outstanding thing here is the confidence that David had of God's deliverance from the awful circumstances of the rampant rebellion.

"Jehovah will save me" (Psalms 55:16). Why was David so confident? The answer is simple enough: God specifically said to David, "Thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure forever before thee; thy throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). These words of God to David through the prophet Nathan were known throughout Israel, to Ahithophel and to Absalom particularly; and their conspiracy to dethrone David was an action directed squarely against the will of God. No wonder David expressed confidence of victory. As The Jewish Targum translated this place, "The word of the Lord shall redeem me."[17]

"Evening, and at morning, and at noonday" (Psalms 55:17). Every human being is obligated to honor God with his prayers at least three times a day, a custom which was scrupulously followed by Daniel (Daniel 6:10,13). Here is evidence that David also observed the same obligation. Christians also by offering prayers and thanksgiving at mealtimes three times a day have perpetuated the custom.

"They were many that strove with me" (Psalms 55:18). The rebellion was no small affair, as indicated in 2 Samuel 15:12; 17:11, and 18:7. "The conspiracy was strong; for the people increased continually with Absalom." Hushai even spoke of arousing the whole nation "From Dan to Beersheba" to fight against David; and in the final battle between David's army and that of Absalom, "The people of Israel were smitten before the servants of David; and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty thousand men ... and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured" (2 Samuel 18:6-8). Thus there were over forty thousand casualties, indicating that those enemies of David were indeed very numerous.

"Men who have no changes ... and who fear not God" (Psalms 55:19). Some have been critical of David for not praying for the conversion of his enemies instead of for their death (as in Psalms 55:15); and the answer is right here. There was no use to pray for their conversion. They were men who would not change (or repent); they were men who had no fear whatever of God, and who were willing to oppose themselves violently against God's will regarding the Davidic kingdom.

We find little sympathy for the `holier than thou' attitude of certain commentators who prattle endlessly about "forgiving ones enemies and praying for them"; but who seem not to be outraged at all by the violent behavior of wicked men. We should say this on behalf of David's prayer in Psalms 55:6, where he prayed, "Oh that I had the wings of a dove." He did not pray for the wings of an eagle so that he could fall upon his enemies from above, but for the wings of a dove that he might get away from it all.

Verse 20

A FINAL PARENTHESIS REGARDING THE TRAITOR

"He hath put his hands against such as were at peace with him:

He hath profaned his covenant.

His mouth was smooth as butter,

But his heart was war:

His words were softer than oil,

Yet were they drawn swords."

"He hath profaned his covenant" (Psalms 55:20). Ahithophel was a counselor of the King; he knew the will of God regarding the perpetual nature of the Davidic kingdom; yet he consciously violated what he knew to be the will of God by his participation in Absalom's futile rebellion.

The enemy in these two verses is addressed in the singular "enemy," but in Psalms 55:19,23, they are addressed in the plural "they." "However, this is no insuperable barrier to regarding the Psalm as a unity. One enemy stands out above all the others."[18]

"These two verses reveal another painful facet of the betrayal of friendship; he practiced hypocritical and deceitful flattery, described here with marvelous imagery. Perhaps the sting of the author's pain was intensified by its being such a long time before he found out the truth."[19]

Verse 22

THE CONCLUSION

"Cast thy burden upon Jehovah, and he will sustain thee:

He will never suffer the righteous to be moved.

But thou O God wilt bring them down into the pit of destruction:

Bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days;

But I will trust in thee."

"Cast thy burden, etc." (Psalms 55:22). This verse has been singled out as a memory verse by countless people and is well worthy of such attention. There is an exuberant joy in every word of it. "The `burden' here is a reference to the cares which are our portion in life."[20]

"Down into the pit of destruction" (Psalms 55:23). This is merely a statement of the fact that wicked men, especially covenant breakers, shall finally suffer eternal condemnation, as Christ made abundantly clear in Matthew 25. Unfortunately, the RSV blundered in their translation here, making it read, "into the lowest pit of destruction." However, as Baigent pointed out, "The passage does not necessarily mean that there are divisions in Sheol."[21]

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 55". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-55.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.