Saturday, June 1, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 55

Psalm 55 is the pain-filled lament of someone who, facing numerous enemies, has been betrayed by a close friend. Horrified by this turn of events, the psalmist, identified as King David, expresses his hurt and confusion in an extended and somewhat rambling prayer. That’s our first lesson. We can and should bring our troubles and pain to God. God wants to hear what’s going on with us, even when we’re so upset we can hardly speak coherently. 

David begins with a plea for God to hear him. Listen God, he begs. Hear me. Pay attention. Don’t hide Yourself from me. Don’t shut the door. Answer me. Let me know that You are here and that You care. David uses several strong Hebrew words to express this appeal: 'âzan (listen, pay attention, hear favorably), ‛âlam (disregard, conceal, hide, pay no attention, shut the door), qâshab (pay attention, heed, regard, mark well), and ‛ânâh (answer, respond, shout, announce). The psalmist is in earnest; he is urgent; he needs help now.

Why? David explains: “I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me.” David is restless (rûd - the Hebrew word translated here as troubled). Enemies are coming at him from all sides, pressuring him, distressing him, bringing evil. They are relentless and angry, stubbornly bearing a grudge against him. The world is closing in upon him, and he feels trapped. His “heart is in anguish,” he explains. “Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” This is torture (the Hebrew word chûl, here translated as anguish can also suggest writhing in pain, extreme fear and anxiety, and great grief). Horror surges around him on all sides. He wants to escape, to fly away like a dove and take rest in some far away wilderness where he can find shelter from “the raging wind and tempest.” He longs for peace, but all he sees and feels is war. 

David prays that this confusion might be turned back upon his enemies, that God might swallow them up, might engulf them, might confound them, might turn them against each other. As he looks at the city, probably Jerusalem, that is under their control, all he sees is trouble and wickedness, oppression and deceit. The city is falling into ruin and misery through the misdeeds of his enemies. 

Here we might pause to discuss the context of this psalm. If the city described here is indeed Jerusalem, then this psalm could very well refer to the horrible time in David’s life when his son Absalom turned against him, drawing supporters through his honied words and lavish promises and eventually driving his father from the city in disgrace. David lived in exile until his son was defeated and killed.

The next few verses seem to support this interpretation. David says that if it were only his enemies who were taunting him, he could bear it. He could hide from them physically and perhaps also emotionally. He could conceal his weakness, steel himself, and lock out the hurt. But that is not the case. The one tormenting him is a close companion, a “familiar friend,” someone with whom David has walked in “pleasant company,” someone with whom he has worshiped side by side in God’s house, someone like his son. David addresses this person directly in verses 13 and 14, almost pleading, reminding him of their former intimacy 

In verse 15, David’s hurt suddenly boils over into anger. “Let death come upon them;” he rails, “let them go down alive into Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” Of whom is he speaking here? He is now using the third person plural rather than the second person singular. David certainly didn’t want Absalom to perish; in fact, he gave his men specific instructions to spare his son, and he grieved when he heard of Absalom’s death. Could he perhaps be referring to those he suspects of corrupting Absalom or those who followed and encouraged his fallen son? The curse is a strong one: death, desolation, destruction. He even wishes that the earth would open up and swallow them whole. 

David quickly collects himself and turns his attention back to prayer. He calls on God. He takes his complaint to Him, moaning day and night. In doing so, he trusts that God will hear and save him. “He will redeem me unharmed from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me...” The picture looks bleak at the moment, but God can overcome David’s enemies, for God is powerful. He sits on the throne as Ruler of heaven and earth. He will hear David and humble those who are stubborn and do not fear Him. 

Even with this assurance, David cannot get his betrayer off his mind. He returns to him in verse 20, almost incredulous that this one who had been his companion has driven him away and violated the covenant that they had made. If he is referring to Absalom, the idea of covenant is crucial. They are family, after all, father and son, and that bond of self-giving love should be strong between them. The betrayer led David to think it was. His speech was “smoother than butter,” David remembers. His words were “softer than oil.” But appearances didn’t match reality. The betrayer’s heart was “set on war,” and his words were “drawn swords” ready to destroy David. David’s pain is evident. How could someone so close to him have stooped so low as to deceive him, to lie to him, to flatter him, and then to stab him in the back? 

In his pain, David reminds himself of what he must do. “Cast your burden on the Lord,” he commands himself and us, “and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Let God take the burden before it squashes you, David seems to say. Let God handle this, for He can do it better than anyone else. He will hold you up, David assures himself. He will provide. He will not let you fall and be shattered. God does that for those who are righteous, for those who place Him first, for those who trust and obey Him. 

For the wicked, another fate awaits. God will cast them down. He will throw them into the “lowest pit,” into hell. Their lives will be cut short by their treachery and guilt. They cannot survive. David is right. His son Absalom died young, killed by David’s defenders. Many of those who followed Absalom died with him. 

David ends with a firm proclamation to God: “But I will trust in You.” No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen, David will look toward God for support, help, and protection. God will come through for him, for He has a plan that is perfectly designed for his life. The same is true for all of us. No matter what hardships we experience, no matter who betrays us, God is there, and He is in control. We must only trust.

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