Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 2)

Psalm 55, continued

Here is a reminder of the three-part structure of this Psalm:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in the previous study (Part 1); here we turn to the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf.

There is an interesting dramatic structure to this section. The prayer takes the form of an imprecation, in which the Psalmist would bring a curse down on his enemies. The imprecation frames the section in vv. 10-12, 16; however, in vv. 13-15 the protagonist focuses on a specific enemy, addressing him directly, as a supposed friend who has betrayed him.

VERSES 10-16 [9-15]

Verse 10 [9]

“Confuse (them), my Lord,
bring division to their tongue;
for I have seen (much) violence
and strife in the (great) city.”

The Masoretic text as it stands suggests a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line of the first couplet begins with an imperative, by which the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act. In the second line it is gL^P^, from the root glp (“split, divide”); in which case, the matching imperative uL^B^ in the first line would have to derive from a second root ulb II, meaning “confuse, confound,” rather than ulb I (“swallow”). This second root is similar in meaning to llb, which which it would be related. If the MT is correct, then we would seem to have here a poetic allusion to the Tower of Babel tradition; and the Psalmist’s prayer-curse calls upon YHWH to repeat his action in the Babel episode (Gen 11:7ff).

Dahood (II, p. 33) takes a different approach, reading glp as the noun gl#P# (“split, division”), and as the object of the line (reading the first two lines of the verse as a single 4-beat line):

“Swallow [i.e. destroy], O Lord, (the) split of their tongue [i.e. their forked tongue]”

Kraus (p. 519) finds an even more serious problem with the MT and adopts a more radical emendation of the text. The city motif that is developed in vv. 11-12 tends to support the MT, with its apparent allusion to the Babel scene—Babel (= Babylon) being symbolic of the wicked city, as we see elsewhere in Old Testament tradition (and cf. Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Day and night they go around her,
upon her walls (are) both trouble and toil;
in (the) midst of her (evil)s befall,
in (the) midst of her it never departs,
in her wide street, oppression and deceit!”

A 3-beat (3+3) couplet is followed by a slightly irregular 2-beat tricolon. These lines pick up from verse 10, and presumably the subject of the first line (“they go around her”) is the pair of “violence [sm*j*] and strife [byr!]” from v. 10. They “go around” (vb bb^s*) the city, functioning as watchmen; and they are joined by the pair of “trouble [/w#a*] and toil [lm*u*]” who stand guard on the walls. Thus the wicked city is governed and patrolled by wickedness.

Adding to this image of the wicked city is the double emphasis that great evils are in the midst of her, and that they never depart (vb vWm). The plural noun toWh^ is derived from the verb hw`h* I, and refers to some evil or calamity that falls upon (befalls) a person; I have translated the plural noun here with intensive verbal force. The expression “her wide/broad (street)” is generally synonymous with “in the midst of her” —we should understand a central square or main street. Both oppression (implying violence) and deceit—two fundamental characteristics of the wicked—are present, and especially active, in the heart of the wicked city.

Verse 13 [12]

“For (it was) not a hostile (one)
(who) brought on me (the) scorn that I bear,
nor (was it one) hating me
(who) brought great (slander) on me,
that I should hide myself from him.”

Both the meter and structure of this verse are difficult and problematic. However, the first four lines clearly form a pair of parallel couplets (with loose/uneven 2-beat meter). This specific opponent of the Psalmist is identified as neither a “hostile (one)” (vb by~a*) nor “(one) hating” (vb an@v*) him—that is to say, he was not obviously or openly an enemy.

The second line of each couplet is rather difficult. In the first couplet, the difficulty is syntactical, with the MT reading “he reproached me and I bore (it)”. However, the relationship with the first line indicates that the phrase should be translated as a relative clause: “…who reproached me and I bore (it)”. The poetic sense of this line is improved if we treat the w-conjunction on the second verb like a relative particle (cf. Dahood, II, p. 34): “…who brought the scorn on me that I bear”.

In the second line of the second couplet, the difficulty lies in the specific meaning of the verb ld^G` (Hiphil stem, “make grow, make great”) in context. Literally, the phrase would be “he made great over me” (or possibly, “he grew over me”). However, as in the first couplet, this second line also should be read as a relative clause, with a wicked act implied (such as slandering someone), i.e. “…who brought great (slander) over me”.

The final line (“that I should hide myself from him”), as a coda to the two couplets, relates to the idea that this person was not an obvious enemy (at first) to the Psalmist, implying that we was a friend of sorts, so that the Psalmist would not have felt the need to protect himself from this person.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But (it was) you, a man of my (own) order,
my companion and (one) being known by me,
(so) that as one we had sweet intimacy,
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
we walked in (the) surging (crowd).”

Verses 14-15 make clear what was implied in v. 13—viz., that this enemy was a man previously considered by the Psalmist to be a friend. He was of the same social rank (lit. “order,” Er#u@) as the Psalmist, both a companion ([WLa^) and someone well-known to him.

The second couplet, expanded into a tricolon, indicates that the Psalmist and this man had some measure of intimacy in their friendship. The noun dos connotes intimate conversation, and the verb qt^m* refers to the fact that the two men had a number of “sweet” moments together. These moments are specifically located in the “house of God”, which suggests the occasion of religious festivals. If the Psalm preserves a royal background, they it could also refer to the king and his court (with his loyal vassals) attending religious festivities in the Temple. The motif in the final line, of walking together in a crowd, certainly suggests a festival and/or ritual occasion.

Verse 16 [15]

“May death take over them,
may they go down (to) Sheol living!
For evils (are) in their dwelling-places.”

Having addressed the friend who betrayed him, the Psalmist returns to the imprecation, asking God to bring a curse (of death) down upon his enemies. This imprecatory language naturally makes Christians and modern readers uncomfortable, but it was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern tradition, and many examples can be found in the Old Testament. This section allows Psalm 55 to be counted among the imprecatory Psalms.

Most commentators (correctly) follow the Qere, parsing the first word of the MT (Kethib) as two words: tw#m* yV!y~. Dahood (II, p. 34) would derive the verb form yV!y~ from the rare root hvy, otherwise attested (only) in the noun hY`v!WT (Job 12:16, etc); the basic denotation would seem to something like “advance, succeed”. The verb used together with the preposition lu^ could fairly be rendered “take over” (overtake): “May death [tw#m*] take over them”. Parallel with death is loav= (Sheol), the realm of the dead. To be taken alive into Sheol would be an especially stunning and miraculous form of death, only to be achieved through the power of God. Here, however, it is probably simply an exaggeration, as befits the curse-formula.

The final line hearkens back to the “wicked city” motif in vv. 10-12 (cf. above). Great evils (plur. tour*), passing through the wicked city, find lodgings in it. They are temporary lodgings—indicated by the noun rWgm*, derived from the root rWg, typically denoting a stranger who comes to live/reside within a population. Evil will only dwell in the city for a short time, since the wicked population will soon face death (viz., the Psalmist’s curse). That the wicked of the city would give lodgings to Evil is altogether proof of their wickedness.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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