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.
“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.)
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.
Psalm 55:4My 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 death—i.e., terrors caused by death, a horror of death.
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.
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 tongues—i.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.
Luctus, ubique Pavor, et plurima mortis imago.”
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.
Then I could . . .—Better, then (or else) I might bear it.
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.
Quick—i.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.
(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,
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 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.
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.