Psalm 55

A Contemplation of David.

This is another psalm of David, Israel’s great songwriter, shepherd, and king. This is not a “Contemplation,” but the Hebrew word Maschil refers to “Instruction.” The occasion of the Psalm seems to be the great treachery and rebellion of David’s respected counselor and friend Ahithophel and his own son Absalom. We can read of this sad event in II Samuel 15.

1. After this it happened that Absalom provided himself with chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him. 2. Now Absalom would rise early and stand beside the way to the gate. So it was, whenever anyone who had a lawsuit came to the king for a decision, that Absalom would call to him and say, “What city are you from?” And he would say, “Your servant is from such and such a tribe of Israel.” 3. Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your case is good and right; but there is no deputy of the king to hear you.” 4. Moreover Absalom would say, “Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice.” 5. And so it was, whenever anyone came near to bow down to him, that he would put out his hand and take him and kiss him. 6. In this manner Absalom acted toward all Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.

7. Now it came to pass after forty years that Absalom said to the king, “Please, let me go to Hebron and pay the vow which I made to the LORD. 8. For your servant took a vow while I dwelt at Geshur in Syria, saying, ‘If the LORD indeed brings me back to Jerusalem, then I will serve the LORD.’”

9. And the king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he arose and went to Hebron.

10. Then Absalom sent spies throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then you shall say, ‘Absalom reigns in Hebron!’” 11. And with Absalom went two hundred men invited from Jerusalem, and they went along innocently and did not know anything. 12. Then Absalom sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city—from Giloh—while he offered sacrifices. And the conspiracy grew strong, for the people with Absalom continually increased in number.

So these are the sad events that probably form the background to this psalm of David. It was doubtless a private psalm at the time he wrote it, but now it is given into public use for the “instruction” of God’s people regarding rebellion, treachery, and trust in God in the midst of such trying and terrible circumstances.

1. Give ear to my prayer, O God,

David calls on God to give ear to his prayer. Of course, he means by this that he desires that God would listen to it and respond to help and sustain him.

And do not hide Yourself from my supplication.

This line is what David does not want God to do. He does not want Him to disregard what he is praying, hiding Himself from his supplication and refusing to do anything to help or aid him.

2. Attend to me, and hear me;

A third and fourth time David repeats his desire for God’s attendance to his prayer. He desperately desires God to hear and answer him.

I am restless in my complaint, and moan noisily,

David’s troubles are so bothering him that he can hardly sit still, it seems. He is restless, and he moans noisily. This gives us a picture of the great distress and mental anguish from which he was suffering.

3. Because of the voice of the enemy,

What is troubling David is the voice of the enemy, whose words are turned against him and whose actions are all put to the task of destroying him and his government.

Because of the oppression of the wicked;

This is another case of poetic repetition of what was stated in the previous line. David is troubled because wicked people are oppressing him.

For they bring down trouble upon me,

These wicked enemies bring down trouble on David. Yet the word is not “trouble” in the Hebrew, but is the word ‘aven, which has to do with iniquity, idolatry, or vanity. In this case, the reference is probably to the iniquitous words or works they bring down upon David.

And in wrath they hate me.

These men in their wrath hate David. Assuming that the trouble here is that of Absalom’s revolt, we know that Absalom was made angry by the rape of his sister Tamar by his half-brother Amnon, then by David’s failure to do anything about it, and then by his own exile after he took matters into his own hands and assassinated Amnon. These things made Absalom angry, and so he came to hate his father. Absalom’s confidant in the revolt was Ahithophel, who was the uncle of Bathsheba. No doubt David’s treatment of Bathsheba and the dishonor he felt it brought on his family had much to do with his wrath and hatred of David. These enemies hated David, and yet in this case, unlike in other psalms wherein he spoke of enemies who hated him, he cannot say that they did so without a cause.

4. My heart is severely pained within me,

David’s heart, his inner being, is severely pained within him at this hatred, wrath, and oppression. As we will read later in the psalm, this was partially because of the position in which these enemies had formerly stood to David. One was his son, and the other his former friend. There can be no doubt but that this caused grief to David to consider that it was these who were bringing such trouble on him.

And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

The terrors of death have fallen on David. Bullinger in The Companion Bible invites us to compare this with the terrors of David’s great Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He too faced the terrors of death.

5. Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,

David was certainly not a man without courage, and yet the grim situation he now faces causes fearfulness and trembling to come upon him. Perhaps some of his fear was due to the fact that he realized, unlike when Saul and his men were his enemies, this time he was at least partially morally culpable for the hatred of these men. The LORD had promised to bring punishment on him from his own house for his crimes, and now he sees the grim punishment of the LORD taking shape against him. No wonder that, unlike when he faced oppression in his earlier years, this current trouble caused him to fear and tremble.

And horror has overwhelmed me.

This is again a poetic repetition of the idea of the previous line. Horror has overwhelmed David due to the great wrath and trouble he is facing.

6. So I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

Perhaps as David is considering his troubles and feeling himself hemmed in and trapped by the trouble he is facing and the enemies who are surrounding him, he looks from his palace window and sees a dove in flight. For a moment his heart goes out to the dove, and he wishes that he, too, had wings as she did, and could likewise take flight, flee to fly where he wished and to speed through the air away from all his troubles!

I would fly away and be at rest.

If he did have such wings, he imagines he would fly away and find some quiet and trouble-free place to rest. Of course, this was simply an idle wish. David well knew his God-given responsibilities. He had his family and his entire nation, given him by God, to care for. He could not just fly away from all that. Yet how many of us have not at times, in spite of knowing our responsibilities and in spite of the fact that we would not abandon them, yet wished for a fleeting moment when we are particularly feeling the pressure and weight of our troubles that we could in the same way fly away as care-free as a bird and leave all our difficulties behind us! That is just how David is feeling at this moment.

7. Indeed, I would wander far off,

David continues fantasizing about what he would do if he could fly as the dove. He imagines himself wandering far off from his current dwelling in Jerusalem and all the troubles that came with his position as king there.

And remain in the wilderness. Selah

He imagines himself then dwelling in the wilderness, free from his current cares and worries. Perhaps in imagining this his mind went back to his days dwelling in the wilderness when on the run from King Saul. Though he had been a fugitive then, his life must have seemed much more free than it did now in Jerusalem, weighed down by neglected responsibilities and surrounded by the hatred and deceit of his enemies. Yet it is questionable that David thought too much about this: his main focus was just on wishing that he could fly away free as the dove.

This line ends with Selah, which we have discussed is a connecting word. In this case, it connects David’s desire to fly away with the reason for it: he wishes to escape from the snare his enemies are laying for him. It is not for nothing that David longs to go away and leave his place in Jerusalem and all that it entailed. He was not an irresponsible person. It was just that he was in a trap, and wished to escape it.

8. I would hasten my escape

Here is where David tells us why he wishes to fly away like a bird. It is that he seeks to hurriedly escape the trap his enemies are seeking to snare him in. We know that he did eventually escape from Absalom and Ahithophel, as we read of his flight in II Samuel 15-17. Of course, he fled from Jerusalem on foot with all his followers, and did not fly like a bird. Still, God did deliver him from the power of his enemies.

Otis Q.Sellers in his audio on Psalm 55, TL252, points out that there was one to whom God actually gave the ability to fly away from his troubles: the apostle Paul. He speaks of this in Philippians 1:23-25 (in The Resultant Version).

23. For I am being pressed out of the two, having the desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better; 24. Yet to be remaining in the flesh is more necessary on account of you. 25. And having this confidence, I am aware that I shall be remaining and shall be abiding with you all for your progress and joy of faith,

God gave Paul the option that, at any time he wishes, he could ask “to depart and to be with Christ,” and God would have granted his request. This would have allowed Paul to fly like a bird away from all his troubles, and to rest secure in the presence of Christ in heaven, even as Enoch and Elijah did in times past. Yes, he had this ability, yet he decided to remain in the flesh (this worldly scene) for the benefit of the Philippians and the other people of God whom he served. As beneficial as it might have been personally for Paul to depart and be with Christ, he could not forget his responsibilities. If David had flown away from Jerusalem as he desired, what would have happened to his loyal men, who would have faced the revolt without a leader? In the same way, Paul would not abandon those he served. His desire was, as he said to the Corinthians “to die together and to live together” with God’s people, II Corinthians 7:3.

From the windy storm and tempest.”

David by flying away would escape from “the windy storm and tempest.” This would be what a bird might fly away from. Of course, David is speaking poetically of the oppression and trouble that were being caused him by his enemies. That is what he wished to fly away from and escape.

9. Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues,

David now calls on the LORD to destroy and divide the tongues of those who are the enemies who are casting their slanderous words against him.

The one David calls on here is the LORD Jehovah. Modern Hebrew manuscripts read “Adonai,” but this is one of the emendations of the Sopherim, the self-proclaimed editors of the Bible, who changed the divine name of Jehovah to Adonai in places where they thought God did not respect Himself enough, and so they would teach Him how to be respectful to Himself. Yet the ancient text read Jehovah, not Adonai, and it is He David is calling on here.

For I have seen violence and strife in the city.

David testifies that he has seen violence and strife in the city. This is one passage from which some argue that this psalm could not have been written by David. They point out that he was a righteous king with a Godly reign. How could the situation in his own city of Jerusalem have gotten to such a state as this while he was on the throne? Since David himself was the king, would it not have been his own fault if things were like this? Would he then have publicly admitted this sad condition of things in a psalm he later opened for public use?

To this latter argument we need only point out the reality of the Scriptures themselves. God does not hide the faults of His servants, nor does He teach them to hide them. If David is open and honest about the condition of things in his capital city at this time, this is nothing but what we would expect from one of God’s prophets speaking by His inspiring Spirit.

Moreover, the very time to which this psalm is no doubt attached would provide ample reason, if not excuse, for violence and strife to have become common, even in David’s capital city. We know that the trouble started with David’s great sin with Bathsheba, which he then covered by murdering her husband. We have seen evidence in the Psalms that one punishment God brought on David for this thing was that He allowed David to contract some horrible disease, as is described in Psalm 38. This disease may even have been what we would call a sexually transmitted one. It is also possible that it was even the terrible plague of leprosy, so severely is it described by David in the psalms. At any rate, since he says it affected his “loins” (Psalm 38:7), it was a fitting punishment for David’s grievous sin. It was so severe that some of David’s enemies believed that he would never recover, nor ever leave his sick bed (Psalm 41:8).

For these causes: first his consumption with guilt, then his suffering and illness that were caused by it, David was for some time distracted, and so it seems that he was not watching over his realm or carrying out his duties as king as he ought to have done. This situation was taken full advantage of by his enemies, as we read in II Samuel 15:1-4.

1. After this it happened that Absalom provided himself with chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him. 2. Now Absalom would rise early and stand beside the way to the gate. So it was, whenever anyone who had a lawsuit came to the king for a decision, that Absalom would call to him and say, “What city are you from?” And he would say, “Your servant is from such and such a tribe of Israel.” 3. Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your case is good and right; but there is no deputy of the king to hear you.” 4. Moreover Absalom would say, “Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice.”

This situation appears to have gone on for a time of some years. The neglect of duty by David here described by Absalom in verse 3 might be hard to explain if not for the distraction and illness he must have been going through at this time. Certainly the situation, though it was as Absalom described, was exactly as Absalom wished it to be. It could be that Absalom and his confederate Ahithophel had seen to it somehow themselves that there would be no official in the gate. Perhaps Absalom was even supposed to be the official. At any rate, David’s only fault was likely inattention, but his enemies took full advantage of this to slander his name and work to turn the hearts of the Israelites away from their king.

Now what would be the result of such an extended period wherein no cases were tried nor justice meted out? Would it not be to embolden the wicked in their wickedness? Once the lawless realized they could get away with it and there was no court of justice to stop them, they would have become more and more brazen in their crimes, and the city would have suffered from a great increase of violence and strife. Once David was actually freed from his illness and able to pay attention again, the situation may well have deteriorated to the point where there was little he could actually do about it, especially with a strong conspiracy formed against him among his own officials. Thus the situation described here wherein David’s enemies had caused violence and strife even in his own capital city of Jerusalem.

10. Day and night they go around it on its walls;

Day and night these wicked ones go around the city on its walls. It could well be that this “crime wave” was purposefully instigated by David’s enemies to make his government look that much worse. It would not be the first time politicians purposefully increased crime to make their opponents look bad.

Iniquity and trouble are also in the midst of it.

Iniquity and trouble are also in the midst of Jerusalem. The machinations of David’s foes have resulted in a most regrettable condition of things in the city where God chose to place His name.

11. Destruction is in its midst;

Destruction is in the midst of the city. Again, this unchecked condition of things has been caused by David’s enemies while he was incapacitated. David now looks with alarm at the sad condition of things that has come about due to the treachery of those he had trusted to run his government during his own illness.

Oppression and deceit do not depart from its streets.

Oppression and deceit are happening constantly. Again, these are the sorts of things about which people would have come to the king to obtain justice. He should have acted to save those who were oppressed and to punish deceivers. Yet during his illness he has been unable to do so, and so these things have gone from bad to worse.

In our own society, we often have reason to complain that the courts do not always hand out what we would call justice, and that sometimes courts are taken advantage of for people’s personal gain rather than for what is right and fair. Yet we should still be thankful for the courts, for as we can see here, we can only imagine how quickly things would deteriorate if there were no courts at all.

Nathan C. Johnson