Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another prayer-Psalm that includes a lament in the face of suffering and opposition from wicked adversaries, continuing a genre of which we have seen numerous examples among the Psalms studied thus far. Psalm 55 is a particularly complex example of the genre—a relatively long composition, divided into three sections:

The two hl*s# (Selah) markers are curiously placed in the text as it has come down to us (cf. below), and cannot be used as an indication of the structure of the composition.

The Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) meter, varying with the ‘limping’ 3+2 meter that is often used in lament-poems; however, there other irregularities as well.

The superscription indicates that this is another lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), attributed to David (“belonging to David”, dw]d*l=), to be performed on stringed instruments (toyg]n+B!).

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Give ear, O Mightiest, to my petition,
and do not hide from my request for favor;
be attentive to me and answer me,
come down in (response to) my prayer.”

These first two couplets establish the Psalmist’s plea, in relation to the lament that follows in vv. 4ff; the meter is 3+2, which often is used in poems of lament. There is a synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism in each couplet, but the four lines also form a chiasm from a conceptual standpoint:

    • Give ear to (i.e., hear) my petition
      • do not hide (i.e., giving no response)…
      • be attentive and answer/respond
    • Come down in response to my prayer

The noun in line 1 is hl*p!T=, while in the line 4 it is j^yc!. Both are terms denoting prayer; the main significance of hl*p!T= refers to a petition/plea that is made to God, while j^yc! implies a burden that is on a person’s heart, about which one speaks to God, going over the matter (repeatedly) in a fervent way. With the inner lines (2 and 3), the Psalmist’s prayer is framed, regarding God’s response, in both negative and positive terms:

    • Negative: “do not hide yourself from my request for favor”
    • Positive: “be attentive to me and answer me”

The verb <l^u* (“hide [away], conceal”) in the reflexive Hithpael stem (“hide oneself”) should perhaps be understood in the sense of ‘pretending not to see/hear’ (cf. Dahood, II, 31). The noun hN`j!T=, formally parallel to hl*p!T= (cf. above), is derived from the root /nj (“show favor”), and so I have translated the noun literally as “request for favor” in order to preserve this etymology.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 31) in reading the verb form dyr!a* as an Aphel (imperative) from the root dry (“go down”); this explanation provides a rather elegant solution that fits the context of these lines.

It should be noted in passing that Psalm 55 is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the Divine name YHWH (hwhy) is typically replaced by the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One],” i.e., ‘God’).

Verse 4 [3]

“I am disturbed from (the) voice of (the one) hating (me),
from (the) faces of oppression (of the) wicked;
for they make trouble to fall upon me,
and with anger show hatred to me.”

These next two couplets give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, and begin the lament proper in this section. As is often the case in the Psalms, the protagonist speaks of suffering and oppression he faces from wicked adversaries (enemies). In most instances, it would be futile to attempt to identify these enemies with any specific persons; rather, these nameless and faceless opponents represent the wicked, who oppose and attack the righteous.

The final word of verse 3 [2] in the MT (hm*yh!a*w+, “I have been disturbed”), according to the standard verse-division, properly belongs at the beginning of verse 4; the initial conjunction (-w+) can be retained from a stylistic standpoint, but typically has no real force when beginning a couplet.

The Psalmist is disturbed by both the “voice” and the “face” (lit. plural, “faces”, i.e. presence) of his wicked enemies. They are enemies in the sense that they hate him (participle by@oa), a point emphasized again in the fourth line, with the use of the verb <f^c* (“show hatred/animosity” toward someone). They give both distress (lit. “pressure,” hq*u*, i.e., oppression) and trouble (/w#a*) to the righteous. This is expressed violently and with vicious intent, done both with anger and by the act causing trouble to fall/slide down (like an avalanche) on the Psalmist.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“My heart is twisting around within me,
and (the) terrors of death
have fallen upon me;
fear and trembling has come (to be) in me,
and shuddering has covered over me!”

The Psalmist’s lament continues here with a pair of 3+2 couplets, the first of which has been expanded with an additional 2-beat line (forming a 3+2+2 tricolon); this irregular meter in verse 5 would seem to be intentional, creating a tension that is appropriate to the context of  the fear of death. In each couplet, the first line refers to what the Psalmist feels inside himself in the face of threatening attacks by the wicked:

    • “My heart is twisting around [vb lWj] within [br#q#B=] me”
    • “Fearful trembling [lit. fear and trembling] has come to be within [B=] me”

The following line(s) of each verse refer to the external threat that faces the Psalmist, and which is the source of his fear:

    • “Terrors of death have fallen [vb lp^n`] upon me”
    • “(Great) shuddering has covered over [vb hs*K*] me”

The idea that the wicked ultimately threatens the righteous with death is expressed frequently in the Psalms.

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

The opening plea (and lament) of this section concludes with a short poem, which may have existed independently of our Psalm (cp. Jeremiah 9:1 [2]).

“And I said:
Who would give to me wing[s] like a dove,
(so) I might take wing and dwell (in safety)?
See, I would go far off, (my wings) flapping,
and would find lodging in the outback. Selah
(That) I might make quick (the) escape for me
from (the) rushing wind (and) wind-storm!”

This wonderful little poem, so vivid and evocative, hardly requires any comment. The Hebrew idiom “Who will give to me…?” is a colorful way of expressing an urgent wish or request—in English idiom, we would probably say, “Oh, if I only had…!” Here, however, the literally rendering of the idiom is especially important, in light of the prayer-context of these lines. The implicit answer to the question “Who will give…?” is that YHWH will give to him the means for escape.

The image is of a bird that could take flight from trouble (down below, on earth), and go far away to find a safe dwelling-place (vb /k^v*); it would be in the outback (or ‘desert,’ rB^d=m!), far away from other people. The wings of the bird, which enables it to fly off, are especially emphasized: the protagonist desires a pair of wings (sing. rb#a@), so that he can “take wing” (take flight, vb [Wu), his wings constantly flapping (dd)n+) as he makes his escape.

Even as he flies, danger would follow, and thus there is a second part to the Psalmist’s wish: that his wings would enable him also to escape from the onrushing wind of the storm (windstorm) that threatens behind him.

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).