Psalm 55
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Despair, sorrow, indignation, faith, find expression by turns in this pathetic record of persecution embittered by the treachery of an intimate friend, which is a companion to Psalms 41, and should be carefully compared with it. The title ascribes it to David, and its occasion has generally been supposed to be the rebellion of Absalom and the treachery of Ahithophel, whose name the Targum introduces in Psalm 55:16 (A.V. 15). Much of the Psalm is sufficiently appropriate to David’s circumstances to account for its having been regarded as an expression of his feelings at that bitter crisis: but a closer examination makes it difficult, if not impossible, to suppose that it was actually written by him.

There is no hint that the writer is a king whose authority is threatened by a formidable insurrection. Would David have called Ahithophel “a man mine equal”, even though the king’s confidential adviser was styled his ‘friend’ (2 Samuel 15:37; 2 Samuel 16:17)? The Psalmist appears to be still in the city and unable to escape from it, living in the very midst of his enemies, whose hostility is open and unconcealed: but it was not until after he had fled from the city that David was informed of Ahithophel’s treachery (2 Samuel 15:31); it was at Hebron, not in Jerusalem, that Absalom’s conspiracy made head and broke out; David’s adherents in Jerusalem were sufficiently strong to prevent any rising until Absalom’s arrival, and whatever preparations for rebellion may have been made there were carefully concealed; when David resolved to flee, he had no difficulty in effecting his escape. Moreover although David’s administration of justice seems to have been lax or inadequate (2 Samuel 15:2 ff), it is difficult to believe that Jerusalem can have been such a hotbed of discord and disorder and iniquity as the Psalm describes; and still more difficult to imagine that David should use the language of this Psalm in regard to a state of things for which he was largely responsible.

With this negative conclusion we must remain content. It is impossible to determine with certainty by whom or even at what period the Psalm was written. It has been suggested that Jeremiah was the author, and that the treacherous friend of Psalm 55:13 was Pashhur, by whom Jeremiah was scourged for predicting the destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 20). The circumstances which seem to form the historical background of the Psalm resemble those described in the Book of Jeremiah (cp. e.g. Jeremiah 5, 6); similarities of language appear to connect the Psalm with Jeremiah’s prophecies (cp. Jeremiah 9:2 ff, and references in the notes); Pashhur, as a priest, was Jeremiah’s ‘equal.’ There is however not the slightest indication in the Book of Jeremiah that Pashhur had ever been the prophet’s intimate friend; the similarities of thought and language fall far short of proving identity of authorship; and all that can really be said is that the circumstances of the Psalmist receive valuable illustration from the prophecies of Jeremiah. The Psalmist may have been a contemporary of Jeremiah; but he may have lived in the reign of Ahaz or Manasseh, or in some other period when a weak government allowed Jerusalem to become the prey of faction, and in the ambitions of party moral obligations were contemptuously disregarded and old ties of friendship ruthlessly ignored, while the dominant party for the time being heaped insult and injury upon their defeated rivals, and even their lives were not secure. Readers of Thucydides will recall his reflections upon the Corcyræan massacre (Hist. iii. 82 ff), and the history of the French Revolution will supply modern illustrations.

In a MS. of Jerome’s Latin Version the Psalm bears the title, Vox Christi adversus magnatos Judaeorum et Judam traditorem, ‘The voice of Christ against the chiefs of the Jews and the traitor Judas.’ It is not indeed, any more than Psalms 41, a prediction of the treachery of Judas; but every such experience of the faithlessness of trusted friends was a foreshadowing of the experience of the Son of Man. He fathomed the depths of human baseness and cruelty and ingratitude. The experience of the righteous in former generations was ‘fulfilled’ in His.

The Psalm falls into three nearly equal divisions. In the first of these, despair, in the second, indignation, in the third, trust, is the dominant note. Shorter stanzas of six lines may be traced in the greater part of the Psalm, but either this scheme was not completely carried out, or it has been broken by corruption of the text.

i. The Psalmist begins with an urgent prayer that God will hear him in his distress (Psalm 55:1-3 a); he describes its nature, and its effect upon him (Psalm 55:3 b Psalm 55:5); and in language of pathetic beauty, expresses his longing to escape to some quiet refuge (Psalm 51:6-8).

ii. Suddenly his tone changes. In vehement indignation he invokes confusion upon the counsels of his enemies, and describes the tyranny of iniquity which is supreme in the city (9–11). What makes their hostility most intolerable is that the leader of the faction was once his intimate friend (Psalm 55:12-14). May they meet the fate they deserve (Psalm 55:15)!

iii. In a calmer tone he expresses his confidence that God will deliver him (Psalm 55:16-18), and judge his arrogant and godless foes (Psalm 55:19); and as he mentions them, his mind naturally reverts to the base hypocrisy of the arch-traitor (Psalm 55:20-21). In conclusion he reassures himself by contemplating the contrast between Jehovah’s care of the righteous and His judgement of the wicked (Psalm 55:22-23).

To the chief Musician on Neginoth, Maschil, A Psalm of David. Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication.
1–3 a. The Psalmist’s passionate appeal to God for a hearing in his distress.

1. Give ear &c.] Cp. Psalm 54:2.

hide not thyself] As the unmerciful man turns away from misfortune and suffering which he does not want to relieve (Deuteronomy 22:1; Deuteronomy 22:3-4; Isaiah 58:7); or as though my prayer were the prayer of a hypocrite (Isaiah 1:15). Cp. Psalm 10:1; Lamentations 3:56.

Attend unto me, and hear me: I mourn in my complaint, and make a noise;
2. hear me] Answer me.

I mourn &c.] Render, I am restless in my complaint, and am distracted (R.V. moan). A word used in Genesis 27:40 of a roving life, in Jeremiah 2:31 of impatience of restraint (R.V. break loose), is here applied to the restlessness of a distracted mind.

Because of the voice of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked: for they cast iniquity upon me, and in wrath they hate me.
3. the voice of the enemy] Insulting, calumniating, threatening.

oppression] A peculiar word, found here only, meaning that his enemies hem him in or crush him down. Cp. the cognate verb in Amos 2:13.

3 b–5. He describes the nature of the persecution from which he is suffering, and its effect upon his spirits.

3 b. they cast iniquity upon me] Not, they charge me with crimes of which I am innocent: but, they hurl or roll mischief down upon me, a metaphor from the practice of rolling stones down upon an enemy. Cp. Psalm 140:10 (of hot coals), and similar phrases in Psalm 21:11; 2 Samuel 15:14.

and in wrath &c.] And in anger are they hostile unto me: (R.V. persecute me).

My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me.
4. terrors of death] Such terrors as the presence of Death, “the king of terrors,” inspires.

Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me.
5. horror hath overwhelmed me] The same phrase as in Ezekiel 7:18, “horror shall cover them.” The word occurs besides only in Job 21:6; Isaiah 21:4.

And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.
6. Weary of his life in the cruel city, he wishes he could be like the dove which he watches winging its flight swiftly to its nest in the clefts of some inaccessible precipice, far from the haunts of men (Song of Solomon 2:14). The dove may be meant too as an emblem of his own timidity and innocence.

6–8. He would fain escape to some solitary refuge. Cp. Jeremiah 9:2.

Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. Selah.
7. and remain &c.] R.V., I would lodge in the wilderness. Selah seems to be misplaced here, and also in Psalm 55:19.

I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest.
8. Or as R.V.,

I would haste me to a shelter

From the stormy wind and tempest,

the storms of faction and party spirit raging in the city.

Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues: for I have seen violence and strife in the city.
9. Destroy] Lit., swallow up these malicious plotters, as the earth swallowed up Korah and his crew (Numbers 16:32). From several passages however it has been inferred that this verb also means to confound; and if so, their tongue may be the object of both verbs, and there may be a reminiscence of two passages in Genesis:—“The Lord did there confound the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9): and “In his days was the earth divided” (Genesis 10:25). May confusion and division such as overtook the builders of Babel overtake them, and break up their confederacy!

9–11. He prays for the confusion of his enemies’ counsels, and describes the miserable condition of the city.

9–15. The plaintive pleading of the opening verses suddenly gives way to a fierce outburst of indignation.

Day and night they go about it upon the walls thereof: mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it.
10. they go about it upon the walls thereof] A metaphor from watchmen going their rounds on the city walls. But who are meant by they? Perhaps the party hostile to the Psalmist, who are ever patrolling the city, on the alert for mischief. Cp. Isaiah 29:20. But perhaps rather Violence and Strife personified. These he implies with a bitter irony are the watchmen who are now in charge of order and safety in the city. This explanation agrees well with the following lines:

Iniquity also and Mischief are in the midst of it,

Destruction is in the midst thereof:

Oppression and Deceit depart not from her streets.

Wickedness is in the midst thereof: deceit and guile depart not from her streets.
11. Wickedness] The same word as in Psalm 52:2; very wickedness or destruction. deceit] R.V. oppression, or, marg., fraud.

her streets] Lit., broad place: the open space inside the gates, where justice was administered and business transacted. Everywhere throughout the city, in the most public places of concourse, every form of evil and injustice is rampant, without check or intermission. The whole city lies at their mercy. Cp. the catalogue of vices in Psalm 10:7 : “His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue is mischief and iniquity.”

For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him:
12. Render:

For it is not an enemy that reproacheth me, then I could bear it:

Neither is it one that hated me that hath magnified himself against me, then I would hide myself from him:

But it is thou, a man mine equal,

Mine associate and my familiar friend.

For connects this stanza somewhat loosely with what precedes, giving an additional reason for the prayer of Psalm 55:9 in the false-hearted treachery of one who is conspicuous among them,—apparently the leader of the faction. If an open and acknowledged enemy had flung scorn at him (Psalm 42:10; Psalm 44:16; Psalm 57:3) in the hour of defeat and humiliation, he could bear it as one of the common ills of life (cp. 2 Samuel 16:10 ff): if an old hatred had animated the man who took the lead in procuring his disgrace and degradation, then he might retire into obscurity without repining. But thou! Et tu, Brute! For magnified himself cp. Psalm 35:26, or Psalm 41:9 (see note).

12–14. Foremost among the Psalmist’s enemies is one who had formerly been one of his most intimate and trusted friends. He interrupts the denunciation, which he resumes at Psalm 55:15, to relate what is the bitterest ingredient in his cup of suffering. The burning indignation of the preceding and following verses gives way for a moment to a pathetic tone of sorrowful reproach. There is no need to suppose, with some critics, that these verses are misplaced, and ought to follow or precede Psalm 55:6-8. The sudden transition is most true to nature: Psalm 55:9-11 describe the general situation; then for the moment the thought of the personal injury which constitutes its most poignant bitterness eclipses every other thought; and in Psalm 55:15 indignation against the whole mass of his enemies breaks out again.

But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance.
13. Mine equal in rank and position; my associate or companion (as in Proverbs 16:28, chief friends; Micah 7:5, where R.V. marg. familiar friend is right); my close acquaintance or familiar friend (Psalm 31:11). Cp. Jeremiah 9:4 f.

We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
14. We were wont to take sweet counsel together,

To walk in the house of God with the throng.

Ours was an habitual intimacy of the closest and most sacred kind, in confidential intercourse in private, in companionship in the worship of God in public. The throng is the festal procession or assembly of worshippers; the “multitude keeping holyday” of Psalm 42:4 (where however the word for throng is different). The P.B.V. as friends follows the LXX ἐν ὁμονοίᾳ, ‘in concord,’ Vulg. cum consensu.

Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.
15. The mournful recollections of past friendships so cruelly outraged give way to a fierce invocation of vengeance, and the individual disappears behind the whole body of the Psalmist’s enemies. It will be noted that he avoids any personal execration of his old friend.

Let death &c.] The consonants of the written text must be rendered, Desolations be upon them! but the word for desolations is one which only occurs in the name of a place (Beth-jeshimoth) and is not a natural word to apply to persons; and the marginal reading, with which all the Ancient Versions agree, should certainly be followed in its division of the consonants into two words. Render, Let death come upon them unawares. In this and in the next line, Let them go down alive into Sheol, there may be an allusion to the fate of Korah and his company of rebels (Numbers 16:30; Numbers 16:33). Let them be overtaken in the midst of their villany by a sudden and premature death, which will be a visible judgement on their crimes. Cp. Psalm 35:8; and Psalm 124:3; Proverbs 1:12. Quick in A.V. regularly retains its old meaning alive. Sheol (A.V. hell) is not the place of torment, but the abode of the departed, the O.T. equivalent of Hades, by which it is rendered in the LXX. See note on Psalm 6:5.

for wickedness &c.] For wickedness (lit. evils) is in their dwelling, in the midst of them (lit. in their inward part). Evil of every kind finds a home, not only in their dwellings, but in their hearts.

As for me, I will call upon God; and the LORD shall save me.
16. the Lord] Here and in Psalm 55:22 the name Jehovah is significant. It is the covenant-God of revelation to Whom he can appeal, and under Whose protection he can rest.

16–18. The Psalmist’s assurance that his prayer will be answered.

16–23. In this division of the Psalm the storm of indignation dies away, and the Psalmist’s trustful confidence revives.

Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.
17. Evening, and morning, and at noon] Evening stands first because the day began at sunset. A reference to stated hours of prayer (cp. Daniel 6:10; Acts 10:9; Acts 10:30) is hardly to be found in so natural an expression for “continuing stedfastly in prayer.”

will I pray, and cry aloud] R.V., will I complain and moan. Cp. Psalm 55:2.

and he shall hear] By an idiom which cannot be translated, the Psalmist speaks of this hearing as a present fact. So in Psalm 55:18 he uses the ‘perfect of certainty,’ He hath redeemed, for the context makes it clear that deliverance has not actually reached him. In peace denotes the result: delivered me and placed me in safety.

from the battle that was against me] Better, with the Ancient Versions, that they should not come nigh me.

for there were many with me] According to this rendering the words may refer to the hosts of angels sent for his succour (2 Kings 6:16; Psalm 34:7); but the R.V. is doubtless right in rendering, for they were many (that strove) with me.

He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me.
God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old. Selah. Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.
19. The judgement of his enemies.

God shall hear, and afflict them] Or, humble them. This, which is the rendering of the Ancient Versions, is probably right. But it requires a change of the vocalisation. The text as it stands must be rendered with R.V., God shall hear, and answer them, meaning apparently, that God will hear their raging and answer them with judgement. But this is an unnatural form of expression. The object to the verbs ‘hear’ and ‘answer’ could hardly be other than the Psalmist or his prayer.

even he that abideth of old] Render, He that sitteth enthroned eternally, as Judge of the world. (Cp. “Thou most worthy Judge Eternal.”) Cp. Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 9:7-8; Psalm 29:10; Psalm 74:12; Habakkuk 1:12.

Because they have no changes] This is best taken as a relative clause, dependent on the preceding sentence. Render with R.V. (placing a comma only after of old),

(The men) who have no changes,

And who fear not God.

‘Changes’ will mean vicissitudes of fortune. God will humble these men, who, because their prosperity is unbroken, fear Him not. Cp. Psalm 10:4-6; Psalm 73:4 ff. The truth is a general one, but the Psalmist is thinking particularly of his own enemies. The P.B.V., for they will not turn, nor fear God, takes changes in the sense of change of mind, repentance, an interpretation adopted by some critics, but not justified by usage. The text is not free from difficulty, but the explanation given above is sufficiently probable to make it unnecessary to assume a further corruption or displacement of the text.

Selah in the middle of a sentence is quite inexplicable, and must be misplaced, as it seems to be in Psalm 55:7.

He hath put forth his hands against such as be at peace with him: he hath broken his covenant.
20. He hath put forth his hands] The arch-traitor is certainly meant, not (though the Heb. idiom would allow of this explanation) each of the evildoers mentioned in Psalm 55:19. For the phrase cp. 1 Samuel 26:9, R.V.

against such as be at peace with him] R.V., against such as were at peace with him. Cp. Psalm 7:4; Psalm 41:9 (familiar friend, lit. man of my peace); Jeremiah 20:10; Jeremiah 38:22. The plural may merely generalise, but seems rather to indicate that the Psalmist is the representative of a party.

he hath broken his covenant] R.V., he hath profaned his covenant: desecrated the sacred obligations of friendship (1 Samuel 18:3).

20, 21. Once more the Psalmist reverts to the treachery of his former friend. It is quite natural that he should do so again, abrupt as is the transition from the great mass of his enemies to the one individual who to his mind stands in the forefront of them as the typical traitor. It is unnecessary to transpose these verses to follow Psalm 55:12-14, or to assume that they are a misplaced fragment of another Psalm.

The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.
21. The words of his mouth were smoother than butter] This rendering, though supported by some of the Ancient Versions and commended by the parallelism (smoother than buttersofter than oil), cannot be got out of the text as it stands. This means literally,

Smooth were the buttery words of his mouth.

But an easy emendation gives the sense, His mouth [LXX, face] was smoother than butter. Smoothness is the Heb. term for false and hypocritical flattery, as we speak of a ‘smooth-faced’ or ‘smooth-tongued’ rogue. Cp. Psalm 5:9; Psalm 12:2-3.

but war was in his heart] R.V., but his heart was war.

softer than oil] Cp. “smoother than oil” (Proverbs 5:3), of flattering and delusive speeches.

drawn swords] Ready to stab their victim to the heart. Cp. Psalm 52:2, note.

Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.
22. Cast thy burden] The word rendered burden is of uncertain meaning. The LXX, from which St Peter borrows (1 Peter 5:7), renders thy care. But for this explanation there is no philological ground, and the word seems rather to mean that which he hath given thee, the burden of care or suffering which He hath laid upon thee to bear. He shall sustain thee, not necessarily removing the burden, but giving strength to bear it, upholding thee lest thou shouldest fall under its weight. Cp. Psalm 22:8, Psalm 37:5, and notes.

The later Greek Versions and Jerome presume a reading which differs very slightly so far as the appearance of the consonants is concerned: Cast [thy burden, or, thy cause] upon Jehovah, who loveth thee. The form of the sentence would then resemble Psalm 22:8. But the reading is scarcely probable.

He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved] We must either understand moved of final and fatal disaster, or else render, He will not suffer the righteous to be moved for ever: though they may be in distress for awhile, there will be an end to their suffering. For the phrase cp. Psalm 10:6; Psalm 13:4; Psalm 30:6.

22, 23. Conclusion. The Psalmist’s exhortation to himself and everyone in like case, assuring himself and them that God will uphold the righteous and judge the wicked. It has been suggested that in the liturgical use of the Psalm these verses may have been sung by a different voice, as an answer of encouragement to the Psalmist.

But thou, O God, shalt bring them down into the pit of destruction: bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in thee.
23. shalt bring them down] Namely, the foes, who are still in the Psalmist’s mind: their end is the pit of the grave: a premature death awaits bloodthirsty and deceitful men, whom God abhors (Psalm 5:6). Cp. Psalm 37:35 f; Psalm 109:8, and many passages which speak of the penal death of the wicked.

But I &c.] But as for me, I will trust in thee. The same God who destroys the wicked is the object of the Psalmist’s trust: and in truth the extermination of the wicked is but the converse of the reward and exaltation of the righteous: the one is the necessary preliminary to the other: and the earth, be it remembered, is the stage upon which the Psalmist expects to see the dénouement of the drama of life, the vindication of God’s moral government of the world. See Introd. p. xci ff.

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