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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 55

 

 

Verses 1-23

Psalms 55:1-23

THE situation of the psalmist has a general correspondence with that of David in the period of Absalom’s rebellion, and the identification of the traitorous friend with Ahithophel is naturally suggested. But there are considerable difficulties in the way of taking that view. The psalmist is evidently in the city, from which he longs to escape; but Ahithophel’s treachery was not known to David till after his flight. Would a king have described his counsellor, however trusted, as "a man my equal"? The doubt respecting the identity of the traitor, however, does not seriously militate against the ordinary view of the date and occasion of the psalm, if we suppose that it belongs to the period immediately before the outburst of the conspiracy, when David was still in Jerusalem, but seeing the treason growing daily bolder, and already beginning to contemplate flight. The singularly passive attitude which he maintained during the years of Absalom’s plotting was due to his consciousness of guilt and his submission to punishment. Hitzig ascribes the psalm to Jeremiah, principally on the ground of the resemblance of the prophet’s wish for a lodge in the wilderness [Jeremiah 9:2] to the psalmist’s yearning in Psalms 55:6-8. Cheyne brings it down to the Persian period; Olshausen, to the Maccabean. The Davidic authorship has at least as much to say for itself as any of these conjectures.

The psalm may be regarded as divided into three parts, in each of which a different phase of agitated feeling predominates, but not exclusively. Strong excitement does not marshal emotions or their expression according to artistic proprieties of sequence, and this psalm is all ablaze with it. That vehemence of emotion sufficiently accounts for both the occasional obscurities and the manifest want of strict accuracy in the flow of thought, without the assumption of dislocation of parts or piecing it with a fragment of another psalm. When the heart is writhing within, and tumultuous feelings are knocking at the door of the lips, the words will be troubled and heaped together, and dominant thoughts will repeat themselves in defiance of logical continuity. But, still, complaint and longing sound through the wailing, yearning notes of Psalms 55:1-8; hot indignation and terrible imprecations in the stormy central portion (Psalms 55:9-15); and a calmer note of confidence and hope, through which, however, the former indignation surges up again, is audible in the closing verses (Psalms 55:16-23).

The psalmist pictures his emotions in the first part, with but one reference to their cause, and but one verse of petition. He begins, indeed, with asking that his prayer may be heard; and it is well when a troubled heart can raise itself above the sea of troubles to stretch a hand towards God. Such an effort of faith already prophesies firm footing on the safe shore. But very pathetic and true to the experience of many a sorrowing heart is the psalmist’s immediately subsequent dilating on his griefs. There is a dumb sorrow, and there is one which unpacks its heart in many words and knows not when to stop. The psalmist is distracted in his bitter brooding on his troubles. The word means to move restlessly, and may either apply to body or mind, perhaps to both; for Eastern demonstrativeness is not paralysed, but stimulated to bodily tokens, by sorrow. He can do nothing but groan or moan. His heart "writhes" in him. Like an avalanche, deadly terrors have fallen on him and crushed him. Fear and trembling have pierced into his inner being, and "horror" (a rare word, which the LXX here renders darkness) wraps him round or covers him, as a cloak does. It is not so much the pressure of present evil, as the shuddering anticipation of a heavier storm about to burst, which is indicated by these pathetic expressions. The cause of them is stated in a single verse (Psalms 55:3). "The voice of the enemy" rather than his hand is mentioned first, since threats and reproaches precede assaults; and it is budding, not full-blown, enmity which is in view. In Psalms 55:3 b "oppression" is an imperfect parallelism with "voice," and the conjectural emendation (which only requires the prefixing of a letter) of "cries," adopted by Cheyne, after Olshausen and others, is tempting. They "fling down iniquity" on him as rocks are hurled or rolled from a height on invaders-a phrase which recalls David’s words to his servants, urging flight before Absalom, "lest he bring down evil upon us."

Then, from out of all this plaintive description of the psalmist’s agitation and its causes, starts up that immortal strain which answers to the deepest longings of the soul, and has touched responsive chords in all whose lives are not hopelessly outward and superficial-the yearning for repose. It may be ignoble, or lofty and pure; it may mean only cowardice or indolence; but it is deepest in those who stand most unflinchingly at their posts, and crush it down at the command of duty. Unless a soul knows that yearning for a home in stillness, "afar from the sphere of our sorrow," it will remain a stranger to many high and noble things. The psalmist was moved to utter this longing by his painful consciousness of encompassing evils; but the longing is more than a desire for exemption from these. It is the cry of the homeless soul, which, like the dove from the ark, finds no resting place in a world full of carrion, and would fain return whence it came. "O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we are unquiet till we find rest in Thee." No obligation of duty keeps migratory birds in a land where winter is near. But men are better than birds, because they have other things to think of than repose, and must face, not flee, storms and hurricanes. It is better to have wings "like birds of tempest-loving kind," and to beat up against the wind, than to outfly it in retreat. So the psalmist’s wish was but a wish; and he, like the rest of us, had to stand to his post, or be tied to his stake, and let enemies and storms do their worst. The LXX has a striking reading of Psalms 55:8, which Cheyne has partially adopted. It reads for Psalms 55:8 a "waiting for Him who saves me"; but beautiful as this is, as giving the picture of the restful fugitive in patient expectation, it brings an entirely new idea into the picture, and blends metaphor and fact confusedly. The Selah at the close of Psalms 55:7 deepens the sense of still repose by a prolonged instrumental interlude.

The second part turns from subjective feelings to objective facts. A cry for help and a yearning for a safe solitude were natural results of the former; but when the psalmist’s eye turns to his enemies, a flash of anger lights it, and, instead of the meek longings of the earlier verses, prayers for their destruction are vehemently poured out. The state of things in the city corresponds to what must have been the condition of Jerusalem during the incubation of Absalom’s conspiracy, but is sufficiently general to fit any time of strained party feeling. The caldron simmers, ready to boil over. The familiar evils, of which so many psalms complain, are in full vigour. The psalmist enumerates them with a wealth of words which indicates their abundance. Violence, strife, iniquity, mischief, oppression, and deceit-a goodly company to patrol the streets and fill the open places of the city! Psalms 55:10 a-is sometimes taken as carrying on the personification of Violence and Strife in Psalms 55:9, by painting these as going their rounds on the walls like sentries; but it is better to suppose that the actual foes are meant, and that they are keeping up a strict watch to prevent the psalmist’s escape.

Several commentators consider that the burst of indignation against the psalmist’s traitorous friend in Psalms 55:12-14 interrupts the sequence, and propose rearrangements by which Psalms 55:20-21, will be united with Psalms 55:12-14, and placed either before Psalms 55:6 or after Psalms 55:15. But the very abruptness with which the thought of the traitor is interjected here, and in the subsequent reference to him, indicates how the singer’s heart was oppressed by the treason; and the return to the subject in Psalms 55:20 is equally significant of his absorbed and pained brooding on the bitter fact. That is a slight pain which is removed by one cry. Rooted griefs, overwhelming sorrows, demand many repetitions. Trouble finds ease in tautology. It is absurd to look for cool, logical sequence in such a heart’s cry as this psalm. Smooth continuity would be most unnatural. The psalmist feels that the defection of his false friend is the worst blow of all. He could have braced himself to bear an enemy’s reviling; he could have found weapons to repel, or a shelter in which to escape from, open foes; but the baseness which forgets all former sweet companionship in secret, and all association in public and in worship, is more than he can bear up against. The voice of wounded love is too plain in the words for the hypothesis that the singer is the personified nation. Traitors are too common to allow of a very confident affirmation that the psalm must point to Ahithophel, and the description of the perfidious friend as the equal of the psalmist does not quite fit that case.

As he thinks of all the sweetness of past intimacy, turned to gall by such dastardly treachery, his anger rises. The description of the city and of the one enemy in whom all its wickedness is, as it were, concentrated, is framed in a terrible circlet of prayers for the destruction of the foes. Psalms 55:9 a begins and Psalms 55:15 ends this part with petitions which do not breathe the spirit of "Father, forgive them." There may be a reference to the confusion of tongues at Babel in the prayer of Psalms 55:9. As then the impious work was stopped by mutual unintelligibility, so the psalmist desires that his enemies machinations may be paralysed in like manner. In Psalms 55:15 the translation "desolations" follows the Hebrew text, while the alternative and in some respects preferable reading "May death come suddenly" follows the Hebrew marginal correction. There are difficulties in both, and the correction does not so much smooth the language as to be obviously an improvement. The general sense is clear, whichever reading is preferred. The psalmist is calling down destruction on his enemies; and while the fact that he is in some manner an organ of the Divine purpose invests hostility to him with the darker character of rebellion against God, and therefore modifies the personal element in the prayer, it still remains a plain instance of the lower level on which the Old Testament saints and singers stood, when compared with the "least in the kingdom of heaven."

The third part of the psalm returns to gentler tones of devotion and trust. The great name of Jehovah appears here significantly. To that ever-living One, the Covenant God, will the psalmist cry, in assurance of answer. "Evening, and morning, and noon" designate the whole day by its three principal divisions, and mean, in effect, continually. Happy are they who are impelled to unintermitting prayer by the sight of unslumbering enmity! Enemies may go their rounds "day and night," but they will do little harm, if the poor, hunted man, whom they watch so closely, lifts his cries to Heaven "evening, and morning, and noon." The psalmist goes back to his first words. He had begun by saying that he was distracted as he mused, and could do nothing but groan, and in Psalms 55:17 he repeats that he will still do so. Has he, then, won nothing by his prayer but the prolongation of his first dreary tone of feeling? He has won this-that his musing is not accompanied by distraction, and that his groaning is not involuntary expression of pain, but articulate prayer, and therefore accompanied by the confidence of being heard. Communion with God and prayerful trust in his help do not at once end sadness and sobbing, but do change their character and lighten the blackness of grief. This psalmist, like so many of his fellows, realises deliverance before he experiences it, and can sing "He has redeemed my soul" even while the calamity lasts. "They come not near me," says he. A soul hidden in God has an invisible defence which repels assaults. As with a man in a diving bell, the sea may press on the crystal walls, but cannot crush them in or enter, and there is safe, dry lodging inside, while sea billows and monsters are without, close to the diver and yet far from him.

Psalms 55:19 is full of difficulty, and most probably has suffered some textual corruption. To "hear and answer" is uniformly an expression for gracious hearing and beneficent answering. Here it can only mean the opposite, or must be used ironically. God will hear the enemies’ threats, and will requite them. Various expedients have been suggested for removing the difficulty. It has been proposed to read "me" for "them" which would bring everything into order-only that, then, the last clauses of the verse, which begin with a relative ("who have no changes," etc.), would want an antecedent. It has been proposed to read "will humble them" for "will answer them," which, is the LXX translation. That requires a change in the vowels of the verb, and "answer" is more probable than "humble" after "hear." Cheyne follows Olshausen in supposing that "the cry of the afflicted" has dropped out after "hear." The construction of Psalms 55:19 b is anomalous, as the clause is introduced by a superfluous "and," which may be a copyist’s error. The Selah attached is no less anomalous. It is especially difficult to explain, in view of the relative which begins the third clause, and which would otherwise be naturally brought into close connection with the "them," the objects of the verbs in a. These considerations lead Hupfeld to regard Psalms 55:19 as properly ending with Selah, and the remaining clauses as out of place, and properly belonging to Psalms 55:15 or Psalms 55:18; while Cheyne regards the alternative supposition that they are a fragment of another psalm as possible. There is probably some considerable corruption of the text, not now to be remedied; but the existing reading is at least capable of explanation and defence. The principal difficulty in the latter part of Psalms 55:19 is the meaning of the word rendered "changes." The persons spoken of are those whom God will hear and answer in His judicial character, in which He has been throned from of old. Their not having "changes" is closely connected with their not fearing God. The word is elsewhere used for changes of raiment, or for the relief of military guards. Calvin and others take the changes intended to be vicissitudes of fortune, and hence draw the true thought that unbroken prosperity tends to forgetfulness of God. Others take the changes to be those of mind or conduct from evil to good, while others fall back upon the metaphor of relieving guard, which they connect with the picture in Psalms 55:10 of the patrols on the walls, so getting the meaning "they have no cessation in their wicked watchfulness." It must be acknowledged that none of these meanings is quite satisfactory; but probably the first, which expresses the familiar thought of the godlessness attendant on uninterrupted prosperity, is best.

Then follows another reference to the traitorous friend, which, by its very abruptness, declares how deep is the wound he has inflicted. The psalmist does not stand alone. He classes with himself those who remained faithful to him. The traitor has not yet thrown off his mask. though the psalmist has penetrated his still retained disguise. He comes with smooth words; but, in the vigorous language of Psalms 55:21, "his heart is war." The fawning softness of words known to be false cuts into the heart, which had trusted and knows itself betrayed, more sharply than keen steel.

Psalms 55:22 has been singularly taken as the smooth words which cut so deep; but surely that is a very strained interpretation. Much rather does the psalmist exhort himself and all who have the same bitterness to taste, to commit themselves to Jehovah. What is it which he exhorts us to cast on Him? The word employed is used here only, and its meaning is therefore questionable. The LXX and others translate "care." Others, relying on Talmudical usage, prefer "burden," which is appropriate to the following promise of being held erect. Others (Hupfeld, etc.) would read "that which He has given thee." The general sense is clear, and the faith expressed in both exhortation and appended promise has been won by the singer through his prayer. He is counselling and encouraging himself. The spirit has to spur the "soul" to heroisms of faith and patience. He is declaring a universal truth. However crushing our loads of duty or of sorrow, we receive strength to carry them with straight backs, if we cast them on Jehovah. The promise is not that He will take away the pressure, but that He will hold us up under it; and, similarly, the last clause declares that the righteous will not be allowed to stumble. Faith is mentioned before righteousness. The two must go together; for trust which is not accompanied and manifested by righteousness is no true trust, and righteousness which is not grounded in trust is no stable or real righteousness.

The last verse sums up the diverse fates of the "men of blood and deceit" and of the psalmist. The terrible prayers of the middle portion of the psalm have wrought the assurance of their fulfilment, just as the cries of faith have brought the certainty of theirs. So the two closing verses of the psalm turn both parts of the earlier petitions into prophecies; and over against the trustful, righteous psalmist, standing erect and unmoved, there is set the picture of the "man of blood and deceit," chased down the black slopes to the depths of destruction by the same God whose hand holds up the man that trusts in Him. It is a dreadful contrast, and the spirit of the whole psalm is gathered into it. The last clause of all makes "I" emphatic. It expresses the final resolution which springs in the singer’s heart in view of that dread picture of destruction and those assurances of support. He recoils from the edge of the pit, and eagerly opens his bosom for the promised blessing. Well for us if the upshot of all our meditations on the painful riddle of this unintelligible world, and of all our burdens and of all our experiences and of our observation of other men’s careers, is the absolute determination, "As for me, I will trust in Jehovah!"

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 55:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-55.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 21st, 2017
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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