Psalm 55
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This is one of the most passionate odes of the whole collection—bursts of fiery invective alternating with the most plaintive and melancholy reflections: it has supplied to Christianity and the world at least two expressions of intense religious feeling, the one (Psalm 55:6-7) breathing despair, the other (Psalm 55:22) the most restful hope.

Its date and authorship must be left in the region of mere conjecture. The traditional ascription to David cannot on any ground be maintained. That Ahitophel is the subject of Psalm 55:12-14; Psalm 55:20-21, is contrary to all we know of the history of the rebellion of Absalom, for the poet describes himself as obliged to support the outrages of his quondam friend in the same city with him, when he would gladly fly if he could. Such a situation could not have been David’s; for if he had had such full knowledge of the plots preparing against him he would, as he easily might, have crushed it in its early stages. And it must be noticed that the Psalm does not represent the author as the victim of a revolution, but of oppression (Psalm 55:3-4). The frightful picture of disorder arising from disorganisation of the government, given in Psalm 55:9-11, is most inapplicable to the state of Jerusalem in David’s reign.

In the absence of any definite historic indication, it is better to give up all attempts to recover the individual singled out for everlasting infamy in Psalm 55:12-14; Psalm 55:20-21. The rest of the poem speaks of enemies in the plural, and the individual on whom the poet especially turns may only be the representative of a class—the class of perfidious Israelites who, forsaking national and religious traditions, sided with the foreign oppressors, and, as usual in such cases, carried their animosity to the party they had betrayed to the bitterest end. The rhythmical structure is not fairly marked, but the epithetic parallelism predominates.

Title.—See title, Psalms 4.

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.
Attend unto me, and hear me: I mourn in my complaint, and make a noise;
(2) I mourn.—A verb found in this form only in three other passages, always with the idea of restlessnesse.g., Genesis 27:40, of the roving life of a Bedouin; Jeremiah 2:31, of moral restlessness; Hosea 12:1, of political instability. Here it may either indicate that bodily restlessness which often serves as an outlet of grief:

“Hard mechanic exercise,

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain,”

or the distracted state of the mind itself.

And make a noise.—Better, and must roar, the form of the verb expressing the compulsion which the sufferer feels to give vent to his feelings in groans and murmurs. (See Note on Psalm 42:5.)

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) Oppressor.—This meaning of a rare word is secured from Amos 2:13.

Cast iniquity.—Better, roll mischief. The figure seems to be drawn from the practice of rolling stones down on an enemy from a height. In Psalm 140:10 the same verb is used of rolling burning coals on a foe.

Hate me.—Better, persecute me.

My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me.
(4) Is sore pained.—Better, writhes with pain.

Terrors of deathi.e., terrors caused by death, a horror of death.

And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.
(6) Oh that I had.—Literally, who will give me?—The bird that was in the psalmist’s thought was doubtless the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), which selects for its nesting the lofty cliffs and deep ravines far from the neighbourhood of man. (Comp. Song of Solomon 2:14, Note.)

Be at rest.—So the LXX. and Vulg., and the reading is consecrated by long use; but the parallelism seems to require the more literal dwell or abide.

Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. Selah.
(7) Remain.—Better, lodge.

Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues: for I have seen violence and strife in the city.
(9) Destroy.—Literally, swallow up. So the LXX., forcibly, “drown in the sea.” The object them must be supplied.

This sudden change from plaintive sadness to violent invective is one of the marked features of this poem. Some think there has been a transposition of verses, but in lyric poetry these abrupt transitions of tone are not uncommon nor unpleasing.

Divide their tonguesi.e., cause division in their councils. “Divide their voices” would be almost English, being exactly the opposite of Shakespeare’s “a joint and corporate voice.”

For I have seen.—With the sense, and see still.

Day and night they go about it upon the walls thereof: mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it.
(10) They go.—It is quite in keeping with the Hebrew style to suppose mischief and strife personified here as the ancient versions do, and not only occupying the city as inhabitants, but prowling about its walls. So in the next verse corruption (see Psalm 5:9, Note), deceit, and guile are personified. Comp. Virgil’s


Luctus, ubique Pavor, et plurima mortis imago.”

Wickedness is in the midst thereof: deceit and guile depart not from her streets.
(11) Deceit.—Rather, oppression, or violence.

Streets.—Rather, squares, the open space at the

gate of an Oriental city where public business was conducted. It is a miserable picture of mis-government; in the very seat of justice is nothing but oppression and guile.

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) For.—The ellipse must be supplied from Psalm 55:9, I invoke destruction for, &c

Then I could . . .—Better, then (or else) I might bear it.

But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance.
(13) But it was . . .—Better, But thou art a man of my own standing. The word erek is used (Exodus 40:23) of the row of loaves constituting the shewbread, and the cognate verb means “to arrange.” Here it may denote rank, but more probably the expression is man of my assessment, and so of the same importance in society. (Comp. Leviticus 5:15; 2Kings 12:4.) The LXX. and Vulgate have “of one soul with me.” Symmachus, “of like disposition.” This sense may be implied, though not expressed in the Hebrew.

Guide.—So the old versions: the Hebrew word does denote the head of a tribe or family (Genesis 36:15, &c, “duke”), but that meaning seems excluded here by the previous description. Render, companion.

We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
(14) And walked . . .i.e., joined the great public processions to the temple. (Comp. Psalm 44:4.) The word rendered “company” occurs again (Psalm 64:2. Authorised Version, “insurrection.” Comp. the same root, Psalm 2:1.) The intimacy of these former friends was public as well as private.

Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.
(15) Let death.—According to the written text we should render desolations upon them. Here we have another sudden outburst of overmastering feeling.

Quicki.e., alive, perhaps with reminiscence of the fate of Korah. (Comp. Proverbs 1:12.)

Hell.Sheôl. (See Note Psalm 6:5.)

And among them.—The conjunction is unnecessary. Render, in their dwellings, in their very midst.

He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me.
(18) He hath delivered.—The Targum rightly makes this the petition just mentioned, “Deliver,” &c

(18) From the battle.—The reading of the LXX. is preferable, “from these drawing near to me.”

For there were many with me.—This is only intelligible if we insert the word fighting. “For there were many fighting with me,” i.e., “against me.” But the text seems corrupt.

God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old. Selah. Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.
(19) God shall hear.—Render this verse,

God shall hear and afflict them,

He abideth of old;

One in whom are no changes,

And yet they fear not God.

(Comp. James 1:17, “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”) As the text stands, for afflict we should have answer; but the LXX. and Vulg. have the true reading. The Selah must be removed as plainly out of place. The plural pronoun is used poetically for the singular. The word changes, chalîpôth, is used of troops relieving guard (Job 14:14), of servants taking their turn of work, of a change of clothing, &c. Here generally variableness. The rendering of the Authorised Version does not suit the context. The reason of the assertion that, in spite of his in variableness, the wicked do not fear God, appears in the next verse. Instead of respecting those in covenant with one who does not change, they have not feared to attack and oppress them.

He hath put forth his hands against such as be at peace with him: he hath broken his covenant.
(20) He hath.—As in Psalm 55:12, the individual specially prominent in the traitorous crew is here singled out, and his treachery exposed.

He hath broken . . .—Literally, he perforated. In a note in his work on the Creed, referring to Colossians 2:14, Bishop Pearson says one mode of cancelling a bond was to drive a nail through it.

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.—The ancient versions and the grammatical anomalies point to a corruption of the text. Read, Smoother than butter is his face. The reading face for mouth is suggested by the LXX., though their version has wandered far from the text even thus amended.

Drawn swords.—The comparison of the tongue to a sword is frequent; that of the words themselves not so usual, but apt. We may compare Shakespeare’s

“I will speak daggers to her, but use none.”—Hamlet.

Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.
(22) Burden.—A word peculiar to this passage, probably meaning “gift,” hence “lot” or “condition.” The Talmud, however, uses the word as meaning “burden” and the LXX. by rendering “care” have prepared the way for the Christian consolation in 1Peter 5:7.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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