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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Psalms 55

 

 

Verse 1

Heading (Psalms 55:1 a).

‘For the Chief Musician; on stringed instruments. Maschil of David.’

As with Psalms 54 we have a Psalm dedicated to the Choirmaster, or chief musician, which was to be played on stringed instruments, and was a Maschil of David. No indication is given of the specific ‘situation in life’ of the Psalm. It does, however, describe the bitter attacks in some way of the Psalmist’s enemies and his betrayal by a close and formerly trusted friend who has become a bitter enemy (compare Psalms 41:5). It would fit well into the time when David, having been one of Saul’s leading commanders, had to flee from him for his life, and would suggest that at that time, not only did those who were jealous of him seek to undermine him, but one of his trusted companions turned against him. We have no indication in the Book of Samuel of any such person, but it is a very likely scenario, and it may have in mind a situation like that in 1 Samuel 19:11-17. He was probably well admired, and it is quite possible that one who professed to be his loyal friend was sent by Saul to kill him. A similar kind of rejection would also happen to great David’s greater son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

(Some connect it with Absalom and the treacherous Ahithophel, but the language is hardly suitable. Absalom was not David’s equal, he was his son, nor would David as king have spoken of Ahithophel in such terms. Indeed, it is difficult to see how David could have spoken of his son whom he loved so dearly without making that fact clear. As suggested it could rather possibly have in mind the incident in 1 Samuel 19:11-17).

A strange thing about the Psalm is that the use of Selah is unusual in that it does not, as in most cases, bring about a pause at a place which indicates an immediate change of emphasis in the Psalm. On the other hand, in each case good reason can be seen for the pause.


Verses 1-3

A Desperate Plea For God To Hear Him In The Light Of The Terrible Oppression And Persecution That He Is Facing (Psalms 55:1-3).

David calls on God to hear his cries for help as he faces the threatenings of his enemies who are persecuting him.

Psalms 55:1-3

‘Give ear to my prayer, O God,

And do not hide yourself from my supplication.

Listen carefully to me, and answer me,

I am restless in my complaint, and moan agitatedly,

Because of the voice of the enemy,

Because of the oppression of the wicked,

For they roll iniquity on me,

And in anger they persecute me.’

Using three different methods of expression (‘give ear to -- do not hide yourself from my supplication -- listen carefully’), an indication of the completeness of his intercession, he calls on God to hear what he has to say. He is desperate for an answer. He is restless (roams around and therefore cannot sit still) as he considers what he has to complain about, and moans agitatedly, because of what his enemy is saying about him, and because of the oppression of unrighteous men. He is being verbally attacked on every side, and having his reputation ruined. For they are accusing him of all kinds of things (rolling iniquity on him as stones are rolled on an enemy) and in their rage against him are persecuting him. The darling of Israel’s womenfolk has become the butt of men’s jealous hatred. They are out to get him.


Verse 4-5

He Describes His Inner Condition (Psalms 55:4-5).

He points out to God his deep distress of heart. The situation has become too much for him. Living under the constant threat of execution by a jealous Saul could not get rid of him because of his popularity, and yet saw him as a threat to the crown, must have been very difficult for someone not brought up at court, who was not used to political intrigues and infighting. When we find ourselves out of our depth it is to God that we can turn.

Psalms 55:4-5

‘My heart is sore pained within me,

And the terrors of death are fallen on me.

Fearfulness and trembling are come on me,

And horror has overwhelmed me.’

He declares how he was hurt, humiliated, and afraid at his undeserved treatment, and in a man of David’s calibre, who had no fear of the lion and the bear and Goliath, this really meant something. As a righteous man whose only aim was to be loyal and to do good, he found their attitude difficult to comprehend. His heart was well nigh broken at the treatment that he was quite unjustifiably receiving, and he was aware that at any moment he could be in danger of an ignominious death. For he was, or would soon be, a proscribed outlaw, being sought by those who would kill him on sight. It was not that he was afraid to die, but that he feared the kind of death that he would have to face, a death of ignominy and shame like that of a hunted animal. The thought appalled him, and made him shudder. He was overwhelmed with horror at the thought.


Verses 6-8

He Longs To Escape Into A Safe Place Where He Would Find Rest And No Longer be Subjected To His Trials (Psalms 55:6-8).

He longs to be able to escape from his present situation into a place where he can be safe from threats, and where he can leave his problems behind him. But life is not like that, and he realises that it cannot be, which is why he restricts the thought to words, and does not carry it into effect. If you have been anointed by God for some responsibility, you cannot just walk away from it.

Psalms 55:6-8

‘And I said, Oh 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.’

He thinks enviously of how the dove can fly away to inaccessible crags where it is safe, and wishes that he had wings so that he could fly away to a place of refuge in a similar way and be at rest in his soul. He longs to be able to wander far off and find shelter and security in the wilderness, where he might be alone and secure. (Moses actually did this, but his position had become extreme - Exodus 2:15-22). If only the opportunity was there he would hastily seek a shelter from the stormy winds and tempests of life. The impression that we have is that he was hanging on precariously. Later, of course, this wish would be partially fulfilled. He would flee into the wilderness with his men. But it was only because he had no alternative.

We note that both here and in Psalms 55:19 ‘selah’ interrupts the flow of his words. This is probably in order to confirm his agitation, and to make the listeners concentrate on what has just been said. To lodge in the wilderness was no light matter, for it indicated being apart from men like a fugitive.


Verses 9-11

He Describes The City From Which He Has Escaped As, For Him At Least, A Place Of Violence, Strife And Wickedness (Psalms 55:9-11).

He describes the city in which he has been dwelling as a place of continual threat and intrigue, and he calls on God to cause confusion among them and render them harmless.

Psalms 55:9-11

‘Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongue,

For I have seen violence and strife in the city.

Day and night they go about it on its walls,

Iniquity also and mischief are in the midst of it.

Wickedness is in the midst of it,

Oppression and guile do not depart from its streets.’

Probably having in mind the situation in Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 where God stepped in and divided the language of the people so as to render them relatively harmless, he calls on his ‘Sovereign Lord’ to do the same with his enemies in the city. ‘Divide their tongue’ meant ‘cause confusion among them and render them harmless’. ‘Destroy’ is literally ‘swallow them up’. He wants God to deal with his enemies in the city. This was probably the city in which Saul had his headquarters, although we are never given its name (1 Samuel 18-19). To David it was a very dangerous place to be, as he had already discovered. But being a barrack town, probably including foreign mercenaries, there would certainly be a lot of nasty goings on, with quarrels, drunkenness, partisanship, lost tempers and violence.

Thus he describes it as a place of violence and strife, of men wandering around on the watch for what trouble they could cause, a place of iniquity, wickedness and mischief. Saul’s standing army were probably very rough types who knew how to ‘enjoy themselves’ and gave short shrift to the weak. There were no police. Thus the streets were full of oppression and guile. Whilst there would be some discipline, at least while they were sober, it was not the safest of places to live. It may be that David was still stationed there, and having to watch his back all the time, (his life there was very precarious due to Saul’s suspicions about him) whilst wishing he was elsewhere (Psalms 55:6-8), or it may be that he had just left it and was now a fugitive.


Verses 12-14

He Bewails The Fact That He Has Been Betrayed By A Comrade-In-Arms (Psalms 55:12-14).

The description of the city has prepared the way for the story of his own betrayal. What hurt him most was that he had been betrayed by a close comrade-in-arms who had responded to his love by seeking his death. We do not know who it was but it would have been surprising if a man like David had not had a few close friends as well as Jonathan. And clearly one of these close friends had turned against him and betrayed him.

Psalms 55:12-14

‘For it was not an enemy who reproached me,

Then I could have borne it,

Nor was it he who hated me who magnified himself against me,

Then I would have hid myself from him,

But it was you, a man my equal,

My companion, and my familiar friend.

We took sweet counsel together,

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

He addresses the close friend who has betrayed him. This was either because his friend wanted to keep on the right side of Saul, or because he was jealous, either of David’s growing reputation, or his friendship with Jonathan. The fact that the man had reproached him may suggest that he had been persuaded by Saul that David was encroaching and a chancer. The fact that he magnified himself against him might suggest that he had ‘pulled rank’ or that he had heavily contributed towards David’s disgrace. Either way, to see his bosom friend treating him like this had hit David hard. He points out that he could have borne it from a man who was his enemy, and if it had been a man who hated him he would just have avoided him. But to be treated in this way by a man whom he saw as his equal, a constant companion and a close friend, had hurt him really deeply. He describes him as a friend with whom he had had many close personal conversations, and with whom he had walked side by side in festal processions. Indeed they had entered together into a covenant of friendship (Psalms 55:20). But now his friend had, as it were, stabbed him in the back. And it had hit him hard.


Verse 15

He Prays That God Will Deal With His Treacherous Friend, Along With His Associates, By Death (Psalms 55:15).

He prays for sudden death to come on these men. The fact that David prayed like this indicates that the man’s betrayal had been so serious that it had endangered his life. He had been so treacherous that he had sought David’s death whilst David still trusted him as a friend. And thus David prays that God will cause the behaviour of his treacherous friend and of his friend’s associates, to rebound on them. He is basically praying that, in the same way as they have tried to sow death for him, they themselves will reap death. Let them receive what they deserve.

Psalms 55:15

‘Let death come suddenly on them,

Let them go down alive into Sheol,

For wickedness is in their dwelling,

In the midst of them.’

He prays that just as these men have sought his life, death may come suddenly on them. The violence of his expression confirms that he saw what they had done as unforgivable. He sees them as having been acting vindictively. So he prays that they may go down alive into the grave world, Sheol.

The prayer that they might go down alive into Sheol, the grave world, possibly has in mind the fate of Korah and his company in Numbers 16:30-33. They too had been treacherous, and had acted against God’s chosen ones (the Aaronide priests), and they were described as being swallowed up alive by the ground and as going down into the Pit. This confirms that David saw these men, led by his one time friend, as treacherous in the extreme, and therefore deserving of the worst of fates. It is quite possible that not many had been willing to act against a respected commander like David, and that Saul had therefore had to seek out such as would betray him. And all this is confirmed by his reference to wickedness as something that was in their dwelling, and even in their inmost hearts. He saw them as enveloped in wickedness. Their behaviour had appalled him, and cut him to the heart.


Verse 16-17

But He Is Not Afraid For He Expresses His Confidence That YHWH Will Save Him And Will Hear His Voice When He Calls On Him (Psalms 55:16-17).

But David knew where to turn in such situations. He knew that he was blameless of what was being suggested against him (as Jonathan, the king’s son, had also recognised). Thus in the face of his continuing problems, which would never cease until Saul died, he continually called on God to preserve him. As the record of his life at this time shows, he was constantly in need of that protection.

Psalms 55:16-17

‘As for me, I will call on God,

And YHWH will save me.’

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

And he will hear my voice.’

David stresses that he will not himself directly reciprocate evil for evil. He will rather call continually on God morning noon and night for His deliverance. He was confident that YHWH would hear his voice (the change in name indicates his confidence in YHWH as the God of the covenant). It is significant that David never faced up to Saul in battle even when he grew much stronger. He was able to defeat a Philistine expedition against Keilah, but he clearly felt that it would not be right to fight against ‘YHWH’s anointed’, nor would he want to set the people against him. Thus he always avoided conflict. It is an interesting question whether, if he had been backed into a corner, his 6 units of men (600), with which he later captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, would have been able to defeat Saul’s 3 larger units (3000). They would certainly enable him to defeat the Philistines once and for all later. But it would not have been good for Israel if David had seriously damaged Israel’s fighting potential


Verse 18-19

He Stresses That God Has Already Redeemed Him Once (Psalms 55:18-19).

It would appear from this that an attempt had already been made to get rid of him by an armed assault. As one of Saul’s commanders he would, of course, have had men who were loyal to him, thus the attempt would have had to be made by a good number of men. It was possibly this large contingent, which he had either driven off or defeated, which had been led by his one-time friend. If the situation in life was of the time when David was under threat from Saul, while still acting as one of his commanders, it was clearly at a stage when Saul did not feel that he could act openly against one of the people’s favourites, with the consequence that his attempts had to be made surreptitiously. It could be that his erstwhile friend, with a group of willing soldiers, had tried to enter his house at night, or that they had tried to catch him unawares by subtlety in some lonely place when he was away from the city on a military mission. Indeed his ‘friend’ might have used his friendship in order to lure him into danger. One possible instance of this was 1 Samuel 19:11-17.

Psalms 55:18

‘He has redeemed my life in peace from the battle which was against me,

For they were many (who strove) with me.’

David confidently asserts how God had ‘redeemed his life in peace’ (delivered him safely), when a goodly number of men had come to do battle against him. We can understand why, if the group was led by his supposed friend, he had received such a shock. There is no verb in the second clause and one thus has to be read in. But the point is that with God’s help he had survived the attack on his life.

‘For there were many with me’ might indicate that the attempt had failed because he himself at the time was able to call on his men, but it more probably signifies men who were ‘battling with me’.

Psalms 55:19

‘God will hear, and answer them,

Even he who abides of old, [Selah

Those who have no changes,

And who do not fear God.’

‘God will hear’ probably refers to David’s prayers (alternately it could mean that He would hear their false calumnies and their plots against David). But the ones who will be answered are his enemies. God will provide a full answer to their accusations and attempts on David’s life, by saving David and bringing judgment on them. For He is the One Who is from of old, and has always in the past proved faithful to His own. Note the emphasis on God as continually active in the past, something which is drawn to men’s attention by a pause in the music (selah).

The ones who will be answered are those who ‘have no changes and who do not fear God’. The word for ‘changes’ usually refers to changes of clothing, but in Job 10:17 it seemingly refers to changes of circumstances or changing troops (‘changes and a host’). It probably here signifies ‘no changes of mind and attitude’ (they are obstinate in the performance of their evil task). But it could mean that it was always the same men who made attempts on his life. That they do not fear God (among other things they ignore the fact that David is God’s anointed) indicates that they are unscrupulous and ready to do anything that is required of them without a twinge of conscience.

The purpose of the musical pause may well be in order that the hearers might for a brief moment concentrate their thoughts on the permanence of God.


Verse 20-21

David Draws Out The Evil And Hypocrisy Of His Enemy (Psalms 55:20-21).

David here defines what type of enemy he is up against. This may refer to Saul, but more probably it refers to his treacherous one time friend who has already been mentioned (Psalms 55:13-14).

Psalms 55:20-21

‘He has put forth his hands against such as were at peace with him,

He has 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.’

We have described here his friend’s (or Saul’s) treachery. He and David had been on the best of terms (at peace), as had their men, but without warning he had put forth his hands against both David and his bodyguard. They had had a covenant of friendship, but he had ignored it and dealt treacherously with David. He had, pretending continuing friendship, spoken soft, smooth words, possibly in order to get him on his own, but in his heart he had been plotting violence and death. He is treacherous in every way.


Verse 22-23

David Now Exhorts All Who Hear These Words To Do What He Does, By Casting Their Burden On YHWH, With The Assurance That He Can Be Trusted And Will Certainly Sustain The Righteous (Psalms 55:22-23)

As so often happens in the Psalms, there is a change of theme at the end of the Psalm which has the worshippers who are using the Psalm primarily in view.

Psalms 55:22

‘Cast your burden on YHWH,

And he will sustain you,

He will never allow the righteous to be moved.’

He calls on all who are righteous (those who seek genuinely to walk in accordance the covenant) to learn from his experience and to cast any burden that they have on YHWH (note again the use of the covenant Name), with the assurance that if they do so He will sustain them as He has the Psalmist. He assures them that YHWH will never allow the righteous to be moved. Once again we note the emphasis on ‘the righteous’, the remnant of Israel. The assurance is to those who truly follow YHWH, not to the whole of Israel. And God will not be deceived by someone giving the title of ‘the righteous’ to the whole of Israel. Man looks at the outwards appearance, but God looks at the heart. It is only true for the truly righteous. which is the continual emphasis of Scripture.

Psalms 55:23

‘But you, O God, will bring them down into the pit of destruction,

Bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days,

But I will trust in you.’

In contrast to the truly righteous, he assures God that he knows that He will bring the violent and deceitful down into the pit of destruction. Rather than having a full length of life they will die younger. They will not be sustained. They will not remain ‘unmoved’. And he completes the Psalm on a positive note when he says, ‘But as for me, I will trust in you.’ Whatever happens this is his one mainstay. As one of the righteous he knows that God will sustain him to the end with the consequence that he knows that he can trust Him under all circumstances, even of his friends betray him.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 55:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/psalms-55.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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