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Psalms 55 Summary - The 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 Psa 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’ (2Sa 15:37; 2Sa 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 (2Sa 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 (2Sa 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 Psa 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. Jer 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 (Psa 55:1-3 a); he describes its nature, and its effect upon him (Psa 55:3 b Psa 55:5); and in language of pathetic beauty, expresses his longing to escape to some quiet refuge (Psa 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 (Psa 55:12-14). May they meet the fate they deserve (Psa 55:15)!

iii. In a calmer tone he expresses his confidence that God will deliver him (Psa 55:16-18), and judge his arrogant and godless foes (Psa 55:19); and as he mentions them, his mind naturally reverts to the base hypocrisy of the arch-traitor (Psa 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 (Psa 55:22-23).

Consult other comments:

Psalms 55:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 55:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 55:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 55:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 55:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 55:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 55:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 55:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 55:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges