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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Psalms 55





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 (Psalms 55:6-7) breathing despair, the other (Psalms 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 Psalms 55:12-14; Psalms 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 (Psalms 55:3-4). The frightful picture of disorder arising from disorganisation of the government, given in Psalms 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 Psalms 55:12-14; Psalms 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.

Verse 2

(2) I mourn.—A verb found in this form only in three other passages, always with the idea of restlessness—e.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 Psalms 42:5.)

Verse 3

(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 Psalms 140:10 the same verb is used of rolling burning coals on a foe.

Hate me.—Better, persecute me.

Verse 4

(4) Is sore pained.—Better, writhes with pain.

Terrors of death—i.e., terrors caused by death, a horror of death.

Verse 6

(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.

Verse 7

(7) Remain.—Better, lodge.

Verse 9

(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 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.

Verse 10

(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 Psalms 5:9, Note), deceit, and guile are personified. Comp. Virgil’s


Luctus, ubique Pavor, et plurima mortis imago.”

Verse 11

Verse 12

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

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

Verse 13

(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; 2 Kings 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.

Verse 14

(14) And walked . . .—i.e., joined the great public processions to the temple. (Comp. Psalms 44:4.) The word rendered “company” occurs again (Psalms 64:2. Authorised Version, “insurrection.” Comp. the same root, Psalms 2:1.) The intimacy of these former friends was public as well as private.

Verse 15

(15) Let death.—According to the written text we should render desolations upon them. Here we have another sudden outburst of overmastering feeling.

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

Hell.—Sheôl. (See Note Psalms 6:5.)

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

Verse 18

(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.

Verse 19

Verse 20

(20) He hath.—As in Psalms 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.

Verse 21

(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.

Verse 22

(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 1 Peter 5:7.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 55:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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