Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 3)

Psalm 55, continued

We conclude our study of this Psalm with an examination of the third and final section:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in Part 1, the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf, was studied last week in Part 2; now we proceed to the final section, in which YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer is anticipated, with the expectation of deliverance.

VERSES 17-24 [16-23]

Verse 17 [16]

“(And) I, to (the) Mightiest I called,
and YHWH saved me.”

This initial couplet has a 3+2 meter, generally returning to the metrical pattern of the first (lament) section. The answer to the Psalmist’s prayer in this section, balances the opening lament. Though Ps 55 is categorized as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) is used in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), here both of the ‘names’ are used. The imperfect verb forms are used to express past action, as is often the case in Hebrew poetry.

Verse 18 [17]

“(At) sunset and daybreak and mid-day,
I muttered and I moaned,
and He heard my voice.”

The 3+2 meter continues here in v. 18, though, apparently, the couplet has been expanded into a tricolon (3+2+2) with the inclusion of an extra line. The extended rhythm heightens the tension and provides a dramatic effect.

The extent of the Psalmist’s suffering is summarized by the three periods of the day: the setting of the sun (br#u#, i.e., evening), the breaking through of daylight (rq#b), daybreak, i.e., morning), and a point between the two (halves) of day (dual <y]r^h(x*, i.e., mid-day, noon). All this time (i.e., all day long), he makes his lament and prayer to God. This activity is summarized by the two verbs in line 2, which I translate concisely as “I muttered and I moaned,” in order to capture the rhythm of the line. Both verbs, however, have a relatively wide semantic range and can be difficult to translate. The verb j^yc! generally refers to the act of going over a matter (repeatedly), either in one’s mind or in speech; often an agitated state of mind is implied, and it can specifically connote the act of complaining or even repenting. The second verb (hm*h*) is more intensive, denoting the primal act of moaning, roaring, howling, etc, like an animal.

Verses 19 [18]

“He ransomed my soul in fullness from (the) approach against me,
for with many they were standing (against) me.”

The MT as it stands appears to be an elongated 4+3 couplet. However, some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 519) view the text of vv. 19-20 as corrupt and requiring some measure of emendation. Essentially the verse describes the nature of how YHWH answered (or is expected to answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. God rescues the soul of the Psalmist from his enemies.

This rescue is described using the verb hd*P*, which refers to the making of a payment to achieve the transfer of ownership; it can be used in a more general or figurative sense for the deliverance of someone out of bondage or oppression, etc, and the English “ransom” captures this all fairly well. Based on this ransom/payment idea, there likely are three aspects of meaning for the noun <olv* that are involved here: (1) the soul has been rescued in its fullness (i.e., completely safe/intact), (2) the ransom was paid in full, and (3) the soul is allowed to go free/safe in peace.

There is indeed a military context to the imagery. The Psalmist’s soul is rescued “from (the) approach” (br*Q&m!) of his enemies, and the noun br*q= can specifically refer to a hostile encounter or battle. Moreover, the crowd of “many” (<yB!r^) enemies suggests the image of an attacking army.

Verse 20 [19]

“(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them,
even (He the) Ancient (One) sitting, [Selah]
in that there is no changing for them,
and they do not fear (the) Mightiest.”

The lines of verse 20 are admittedly difficult, and may be corrupt; the situation is complicated by the odd placement of the hl*s# (Selah) marker apparently in the middle of the verse. If the Masoretic text and verse division is correct, then we have a quatrain—a pair of irregular, but conceptually (and syntactically) related, couplets. This may explain the curious placement of the Selah-marker—i.e., the pause is intended to make clear the shift in subject/person between the second and third lines. This, if correct, strongly increases the likelihood that the second line does not refer to the enemies of the Psalmist, but to YHWH.

The meaning of the second line is thoroughly obscure and ambiguous (at least to us). The noun <d#q# could have several different meanings in context here:

    • It could refer to a confrontation, either from the enemies of the Psalmist set against him, or by YHWH against his enemies.
    • It could refer to sitting in the front/first position
    • It could indicate a geographic location, in the east (sitting/dwelling in the east)
    • It could be a temporal designation, i.e., times long before, in old/ancient times.

In my view, the latter is correct, and <d#q# should be read as a divine epithet of El-YHWH, meaning something like “the Ancient (One)”, as in Deut 33:27. Probably the participle bv@y) (“sitting”) should be understood literally, in reference to God sitting in judgment.

If the word-division of the MT in the first line is correct, and if the suffix <– on the second verb is an object suffix (3rd person plural), then this may explain the placement of the Selah-marker. The first line would read “(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them“. After the second line, which further describes God sitting in judgment (by which he ‘answers’ the wicked), the final two lines refer back to “them” (i.e., the wicked). The Psalmist (or a later editor) may have wished to avoid any possible (grammatical) misunderstanding, which could happen if these four lines were read/recited together quickly; the pause helps to clarify the situation being described.

The wicked will not repent or change their ways (“there is no changing for them”), primarily because they have “no fear of God”. They are thus deserving of the severe punishment they face from YHWH in the judgment.

Verse 21 [20]

“He sent out his hands on (the) bonds of peace,
he broke his binding (agreement).”

The shift in subject from YHWH (“He”) to the friend (“he”) who betrayed the Psalmist can be confusing at first glance, and raises the possibility that the the Selah-pause marker was intended to be placed at the end of verse 20 (rather than in the middle, cf. above). A pause at that point would help to clarify the shift in subject. This friend-turned-betrayer was introduced in vv. 13-15 [12-14] (cf. the discussion in Part 2).

The word wym*l)v=B! is almost impossible to translate with precision in English and still preserve any sense of the poetry. As discussed above, the noun <olv* has a wide range of meaning. Fundamentally, it means “fullness, completion”, but it is often used specifically in the context of a covenant bond, and that is certainly the case here, where <olv* is parallel with tyr!B= (“binding [agreement]”, i.e., covenant). Here <lv denotes one who is obligated to fulfill the terms of the agreement, establishing a bond of unity, welfare, and peace between those bound by the same agreement. For lack of a better alternative, I have translated the plural above as “bonds of peace”. By betraying the Psalmist, this person broke the binding agreement between them and violated the ‘bond of peace’.

Metrically, this verse returns to the 3+2 couplet pattern of the section.

Verse 22 [21]

“Smooth from cream were (the words of) his mouth,
but a (hostile) encounter (was in) his heart;
soft (indeed) were his words from oil,
but they (were) open (sword)s.”

My translation distorts somewhat the meter of these lines, which in the Hebrew are a pair of metrically similar 3+2 couplets (following the pattern of this section). The two couplets also exhibit similar antithetical parallelism, contrasting the smooth words (i.e., friendly and alluring) of this person with the hostile and wicked intention of his heart.

Grammatically, the preposition /m! (“from”) is used, in the first line of each couplet, in a comparative sense; in English idiom, the lines would properly read:

“Smoother than cream were (the words of) his mouth

(indeed) softer than oil were his words…”

The same sort of military imagery is used here (including the noun br*q=, “approach, encounter”), as in v. 19 [18] (cf. above). Probably this imagery is figurative, used in a general sense for the ‘attacks’ of the wicked; however, the royal background of many Psalms also allows for the possibility that an actual political-military rebellion is involved (i.e., against the king).

Verse 23 [22]

“Throw upon YHWH that given (to) you,
and He will hold you (up);
He will not give, (even) into (the) distant (future),
(any) shaking for the righteous.”

The sudden inclusion of a proverbial exhortation here in v. 23 may seem peculiar, but it is important to remember that the Psalms have been influenced considerably by Wisdom traditions. Besides this, in a good many Psalms, the closing verses show signs of adaptation to a communal worship setting, a likely indication that an original composition has been adapted for use in public worship.

The two couplets are parallel, with the first line of each playing on the concept of giving—using the different (but conceptually related) roots bhy and /tn. The noun bh*y+ literally means “something given”, but here the implication is that it refers to something placed upon a person as a burden. The exhortation is to “throw” this burden onto YHWH, and he will hold it for you (meaning also that he will hold you up, i.e., sustain/support you, in the process).

This idea of firm support is expressed in the second couplet in a negative sense, as a lack of any shaking (fom, i.e., slipping, faltering). Not only does YHWH support the righteous, but He also will not do (lit. will not give [vb /t^n`]) anything that will cause the righteous to slip and fall.

For a different way of reading these lines in detail, cf. the discussion in Dahood, II, pp. 37-8.

Verse 24 [23]

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
to (the) Pit of destruction,
(these) men of blood and deceit!
They will not reach half their days,
while I find protection in you!”

Verse 23 [22] is best viewed as an parenthetical aside, if not an editorial insertion (cf. above); verse 24 [23] properly continues the thought from v. 22 [21]. The Psalmist expects that, in answering his prayer, YHWH will bring judgment upon his enemies (the wicked), including the friend who betrayed him. This judgment entails an untimely death, as is clear from the directional verb dr^y` (in the Hiphil, “bring down“) and the expression “pit of destruction” (tj^v^ ra@B=, cf. Psalm 7:16; 9:16; 16:10; 30:10; 35:7; 49:10).

This verse has a complex (and dramatic) poetic structure. It begins with a triad (3+2+3 meter), perhaps best viewed as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet expanded with an intervening 2-beat line (for dramatic effect). The intervening line consists of the terse expression “pit of destruction”, qualifying what it means for YHWH to “bring down” the wicked (i.e., where it is that He brings them). The syntax is clear from the surrounding couplet:

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
(these) men of blood and deceit!”

The pairing of blood (i.e., violence) and deceit is a typical characterization of the wicked, and provides a neat summary of their wicked behavior. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) is used for acts of violence, even when there is no actual shedding of blood. For the interpretation of <ym!d* here as a reference to images (idols), derived from the root hm*D* I (“be like”), cf. Dahood, II, p. 39 (and I, pp. 31f).

The Psalm concludes with a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet, contrasting the fate of the wicked and the righteous. The wicked will meet with an untimely death, expressed by the idea of reaching only half (vb hx*j*) of their days. This should not be read in an overly concrete sense, as if it were limited to a shortened life-span here on earth; it can also be understood in terms of missing out on a blessed afterlife (with God), doomed simply to dwell in the realm of the dead. By contrast, the righteous finds protection (vb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms) in YHWH, and so has his/her life preserved and kept safe, even into the Age to Come (i.e. the blessed afterlife).

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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