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Brodeur OTT: Wisdom & Psalms/THE 413A (3:45PM)
November 30, 2010
Exegetical Paper: Psalm 55: Complaint about a Friend’s Treachery
I. Introduction The Psalter is a fascinating work. Its influence runs deep, penetrating and sustaining the very foundations of Judeo-Christian life and practice. While some Psalms are more predominantly used in liturgy and private prayer, no one psalm is without importance, especially because of the Psalter‟s unity as a whole, its typological implications, and the way each Psalm uniquely captures the human experience. One such lesser-known psalm, Psalm 55, concerns the betrayal of a friend, an engaging and all-together relatable human experience. Thus, the Psalmist‟s response to the situation is very important. What exactly is the Psalmist‟s reaction to his betrayal? Why does he complain to God in the way that he does? Is the Psalmist altogether similar to us or mystically set apart as a type of Christ? What are the qualifications for identifying with him? How can his Invective in verse 15 be justified; how can his words of condemnation be reconciled with the Christian directive: love thy neighbor as thyself? All these questions, and more, arise in a formal exegesis of Psalm 55. Answering them is a thrilling journey into the mind of David and into the heart of the Church as its motherly wisdom guides us with both patristic insights and contemporary biblical scholarship into a fuller understanding of what it means to trust in God during the hardest of trials. In its profound Christological meaning, a faithful reader can rediscover the challenge of covenantal fidelity and uncover the sublime beauty of a life modeled after David‟s own method of prayer.
II. Historical Analysis Among contemporary scholarship, it is mostly agreed that the subject matter of Psalm 55 involves the rebellion of Absolom and the treachery of Ahithophel in David‟s later days as King of Israel.1 The entire drama is recorded in 2 Samuel 13-16. Amon, David‟s oldest son and heir to the throne, the half-brother of Absalom and David‟s son by another woman, defiled Absalom‟s beautiful sister Tamar. Out of vengeance and thirst for power, knowing that he would become heir to the throne, Absalom took revenge by murdering Amon. He then fled into Gentile territory to hide away with the relatives of his mother‟s side of the family. Joab interceded to David on Absalom‟s behalf and tricked the king into bringing his wayward son back home. Without wasting any time, Absalom began the project of acquiring a loyal group of followers and began openly criticizing David‟s administration. He eventually succeeded in stealing the hearts of the people and decided that he was ready to make a move. Ahithophel, David‟s counselor and friend, ended up siding with Absalom since it was his granddaughter, Bathsheba, whom David had committed adultery with and then taken as his wife. After David fled Jerusalem, Ahithophel counseled Absalom to take David‟s concubines for himself and thus openly break with his father. The circumstances present at the time of the Psalm are depicted in 2 Samuel 16:30-31: “But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered; and all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up weeping as they went. And it was told David, „Ahithopel is among the
Charles H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalms 55:1, “C.H. Spurgeons‟s The Treasury of David”, 18651885, available from http://studylight.org/com/tod/view.cgi?book=ps&chapter=055&verse=001; Internet; accessed October 2010, verse 1.
conspirators with Absalom.‟ And David said, „O Lord, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithopel into foolishness.‟” Thomas Aquinas held that rather than Absalom and Ahithopel, Saul was the antagonist spoken of in the psalm,2 but modern biblical scholarship has shown that to be much more unlikely. Other historical considerations include the psalm‟s original intention to be performed as a song accompanied by stringed instruments.3 This meant that the mood would be solemn and not jubilant. Verse 1 also suggests that it required the utmost care and delicacy of expression since it was entrusted to the Chief Musician of Negioth.4 Also of notable importance, the Psalm makes reference to the custom of pious Jews who pray in the evening (the beginning of the day), in the morning and at the noon hour of every day (Daniel 6:10).5 The rabbis said men ought to pray three times a day because the day changed three times, and this practice was observable in the primitive church.6 Psalm 55 became a part of the Semitic tradition in two ways. First, it was given mention in a work known as the Pirkei Avot or “Verses of the Fathers,” a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic Period, and the only tractate dealing solely
Thomas Aquinas, Psalm 54, The Aquinas Translation Project, available from http://dhspriory.org/Thomas/PsalmsAquinas/ThoPs54H55.htm; Internet, accessed October 2010.
Spurgeon, verse 1. Ibid.
A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, New Century Bible (Greenwood: Attic Press, Inc., 1972), p. 417; Patrick Boylan, The Psalms: A Study of the Vulgate Psalter in the Light of the Hebrew Text, Volume I (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1920), p. 200; James Gavigan, The Psalms, The Navarre Bible (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2003), p. 197; A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: University Press, 1906), p. 312; Spurgeon, verse 17.
Spurgeon, verse 17.
with ethical and moral principles.7 References can be found in chapter 5 which consists of anonymous sayings structured around numerical lists; and in chapter 6, the Kinyan Torah (“Acquisition of Torah”) which is exclusively for liturgical use.8 The second and more predominant use of Psalm 55 was in the Motzei Shabbat Maariv, the Jewish prayer service held in the evening on Saturday Night, immediately following the Sabbath.9 The word Maariv is the first significant word in the opening of the blessing of the evening service. It derives from the Hebrew word erev which translates to evening. The verbal form of erev is maariv which means “bringing on night.” The practice was instituted by Jacob while he was fleeing from his homeland. The service is therefore closely associated with trust in God.10
Wikipedia Contributors, “Psalm 55”, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2010, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Psalm_55&oldid=358318584; Internet; accessed October 2010. Wikipedia Contributors, “Pirkei Avot”, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2010, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pirkei_Avot&oldid=398761732; Internet; accessed October 2010.
Wikipedia, Psalm 55.
Wikipedia Contributors, “Maariv”, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2010, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maariv&oldid=398363653; Internet; accessed October 2010.
III. Grammatical Analysis
A. Lexical Issues “Maschil” means that it is not a mere personal hymn, but that there is something in it for all the faithful, since the Lord shines through David as his personal type. This often prefixes Psalms in which David speaks of himself as being chastened by God, inasmuch as chastisement culminates in instruction. This is significant since David clearly asserts he is in the right way.11 In verse 1: “ytlkt” is employed in the first clause indicating that the Psalmist seeks justice from God as a judge, but in the second clause, he implores the favor of God.12 “I mourn in my complaint” is literally translated “I will suffer to wander in my thinking;” more generally, “I will let my mind wander.”13 It is also translated as “I am overcome” or more literally “I am restless.” The LXX reads “elupēthēn” – “I am grieved.” Jerome has “humiliates sum.”14 “And make a noise” – the Psalmist‟s expression is likened to incomprehensible noise rather than language. Again, in verse 17b, he speaks of a crying or moaning which is essentially wordless. It properly means to murmur, to make a humming sound, to sigh, to growl, to groan. Deep feelings are given voice in appropriate tones unrestricted by comprehensible language.15 “Complaint” itself has the connotation of discourse and meditation, and it is the language of a troubled, uninjured spirit.
Spurgeon, verse 1. Ibid. Ibid., verse 2. Anderson, p. 413. Spurgeon, verse 17.
“Oppression” in verse 3 may have the connotation of “casting iniquity upon,” especially out of moral vindictiveness, and it could appropriately be translated “shouts” in order to parallel verse 3a. “Trouble” in verse 3 could have an allusion to the magic power of the curse.16 The phrase “Fallen upon me” in verse 4 suggests that the terror has somehow come from above, perhaps even from God himself. “Is sore pained” in verse 4 is typically used to describe the pains of a woman during her travail; one of the more painful human experiences.17 “Fear” in verse 5 is specifically a fright or state of anxiety which has not an awareness of the holy God. “Horror overwhelms me” implies the physical effects of fear such as shuddering.18 In the Vulgate “Tenebrae” or “darkness” symbolizes grief and misfortune.19 “The wilderness” or “midbar” in verse 7 can either be rendered as a barren uncultivated region, a “land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2), “in which there is no man” (Job 38:26) or a place of pastures which is well covered with grass and flowers during the rainy season.20 “Selah” is a pause or instrumental interlude between thoughts, or in the case of Psalm 55, more specifically moments of emotional turmoil which require pause.21 “Destroy,” in verse 9, can also mean “confuse.”22 The request to “Divide” in verse 9 is a request to provide a way of escape (like the parting of the Red Sea). In this instance, it is the
Anderson, p. 413. Spurgeon, verse 4. Anderson, p. 413. Boylan, p. 199. Anderson, p. 414. Spurgeon, verse 7. Anderson, p. 414-5.
division of error which gives truth hope. “I see” in verse 9 may likely mean “I have experienced.”23 “Trouble” in verse 10 is most basically physical toil and labor but can denote suffering.24 “Market place” in verse 11 is probably the meeting place of the legal assembly.25 “Enemy” and “adversary” in verse 12 refer to an open foe.26 “A man mine equal” in verse 13 derives from the LXX “isoquce” meaning literally “of equal soul” or “a man according to my valuation.”27 Jerome has “unanimous mens” – “of one mind.”28 In this way we see the grievousness of the treachery, because the traitor knows all the Psalmist‟s movements. He has nowhere to hide. “Sweet” in verse 14 comes from qtx and “counsel” comes from dws, which means more literally “secret.” Thus, the phrase dws qytmg is literally, “we made our secret sweet;” and moving description of an intimate friendship.29 Instead of “fellowship” in verse 14, the M.T. has “we used to walk with the throng,” namely the throng which attended the Temple during the pilgrimage festivals. The LXX reads “en homonia” or “in harmony.”30
Ibid., p.415. Ibid. Ibid. Spurgeon, verse 12. Anderson, p. 410. Spurgeon, verse 13. Ibid., verse 14. Anderson, p. 416.
“Evening, and morning, and at noon” in verse 17 ought to be understood as a poetic expression for the “whole day” and be interpreted as the Psalmist‟s commitment to pray always and unceasingly.31 “They have no changes” in verse 19 refers to the uninterrupted prosperity which causes the wicked to live in neglect of God‟s law. The same word used here, “twkylx,” is the one used in Job 10:17 to refer to a change in temporal estates and welfare. Just as stagnant water becomes putrid and summer breeds insects, so often times is the untroubled man without God. To “fear God” as in verse 19 is to adhere to him.32 In verse 20, “Against his friends” is more literally “against such as were at peace with him” – particularly at peace by means of a covenant (s-l-m). “Covenant” in verse 20 could rightly be understood as a religious covenant in which God is the giver of the Covenant, but even if it is secular, God is still the witness to the Covenant and its guardian.33 “Butter” as referenced in verse 21 more closely resembles cream; it is liquid and flowing as appears particularly in Job 20:17.34 “Burden” in verse 22 can also more literally be translated “what he has given you” and later Greek translations suggest “Cast you care upon Yahweh for he loves you.”35 “Shalt bring them down” in verse 23 indicates a violent death, and more specifically the ignominious condition of the corpse when it is cast forth.36 “Half their days” literally means to die before thirty years old.37
Spurgeon, verse 17. Ibid., verse 19. Anderson, p. 418. Spurgeon, verse 21. Anderson, p. 419.
B. Syntactical Issues In verse 6, “Quis dabit” in the Vulgate is a familiar Hebrew idiom meaning, “O that I had!” and it is joined together with a second idiom: “Elongavi fugiens” meaning “fly far away.”38 “Walked unto the house of God in company” in verse 14 is a euphemism for common worship, by which religion had rendered their intercourse sacred. This gross impiety stands in the starkest relief to what a true friend is. The image of the very altar of God being defiled with hypocrisy leads the Psalmist to cry out in a pronouncement of eternal justice, “Let death come upon them!” in the very next verse.39 In verse 18, while still in a state of oppression, the Psalmist writes that his deliverance has come (perfect tense). This is because faith sees as well as foresees, and on account of faith, foresight is sight.40 The best way to render the Septuagint “wqlx diemerisyhsan” in verse 21 is to somehow indicate the distance one from the other: “wyk tamxm” from “wklkrqw;” their mouth is butter and war their heart. This illustrates all the more the sense of duality, how wide the heart and lips differ.41
Ibid. Spurgeon, verse 23. Boylan, p. 199. Spurgeon, verse 14. Ibid., verse 18. Ibid., verse 21.
IV. Rhetorical Analysis
A. Genre The genre of Psalm 55 is, like all the psalms, a work of poetry. It is furthermore a Lamentation of the Individual and not a National Lament because of its particular subject matter and the personal material involved. Despite theories to the contrary, it is generally accepted that the Psalm is, in fact, a literary whole and that the changes in mood are accounted for by the emotional anxiety of the Sacred Author. B. Structure 1. The Psalmist spreads his case in general before God (1-8) a. The Appeal to God (1-2) b. The Description of the Affliction (3-5) c. The Psalmist‟s Day-Dreams (6-7) Selah The Psalmist‟s Day-Dreams (8) 2. The Psalmist declares the wickedness of his enemies (9-15) a. The Further Complaint (9-11) b. The Treachery of a Friend (12-14) c. The Invective (15) 3. The Psalmist commemorates God‟s aid by an act of faith (16-23) a. An Expression of Trust in God (16-19) Selah b. Further Description of the Unfaithful Friend (20-21) c. The Trust and Confidence in God (22-23)
C. Literary Devices Allusion: Verse 1: “Hide not thyself” is an allusion to an occasion when a man sees his neighbor in distress and deliberately passes him by or the conduct of a king who refuses an offender the sight of his face. The same is used in Deuteronomy 22:4.42 Metaphor: Dove imagery invokes the dove of old which found no rest until she returned to the ark (Genesis 8:6-12) and foreshadows the Holy Ghost which descended in the shape of a dove – a metaphor which stands for swiftness, purity, and gentleness; a creature which can never be tamed and was not meant to live in a cage (Psalm 11:1). The dove is also used to describe Israel in Psalm 74:19, and Jeremiah provides them as a fitting symbol of safety and remoteness. 43 “Tempestas” or “storm” in verse 8 is most certainly a metaphor for turbulence of the mind, and the Hebrew “ruah so‟ah” can be understood either as storm-wind or a spirit depressed. It‟s a play on words to produce a metaphor.44 Parallelism: The intelligible “Voice of the enemy” in Verse 3 is juxtaposed with the “noise” of the Psalmist in Verse 2.45 In verse 12, the author makes the same statement twice in exactly the same way, almost as if to suggest a sense of disbelief.
Ibid., verse 1. Anderson, p. 414; Spurgeon, verse 6. Boylan, p. 199. Spurgeon, verse 3.
The prayer of the Psalmist “Evening, morning, and night” in verse 17 is contrasted with the action of his enemies “Day and Night” in verse 10.46 Just as the Lord will hear the voice of the Psalmist (verse 17), so will he give ear to the voices of the wicked (verse 19). He will hear them both and deal out justice.47 In verse 21, “smoother than butter” is kindly parallel to “softer than oil.” Personification: “Mischief and sorrow” in verse 10 are personifications of both the wicked (mischief) and the righteous (sorrow, a just response). There is also here a sense of cause and effect.48 Repetitions: “Give ear… hide not yourself… attend to me.” Three times the psalmist prays the same prayer, indicating that he is in the most dire straits; a kind of “superlative plea.”49 “You” in verse 13 is followed by three similar designations: “my equal, my companion, my familiar friend;” this is reminiscent of the superlative in verses 1 and 2, as if to say that this betrayal, in particular, is exceptionally unbearable. The thrice acclaimed friend is thrice condemned as one of the wicked in verse 15, immediately after the Psalmist accuses him of breaking his covenant of friendship. The prayer is prophetic because it is strikingly impersonal; it does not address the traitor individually. Instead, the Psalmist pronounces a sentence preordained in the Divine wisdom from all eternity for those who oppose or rebel against the Lord‟s Messiah.50
Ibid., verse 17. Ibid., verse 19. Anderson, p. 419. Spurgeon, verse 2. Ibid., verse 15.
V. Canonical Analysis
A. The Immediate Context Psalm 55 can be found wedged between two similar psalms, and within each of them, the Psalmist pledges a Todah Sacrifice (Ps. 54:6 & Ps. 56:12) in thanksgiving for what the Lord has accomplished over his difficulties. It is also surrounded by very similarly characterized psalms in which David beseeches heaven while being persecuted by his enemies. B. The Section of the Book Psalm 55 is located in the middle of Book II of the Psalter which places it in a collection of relative stability for David, which will culminate in the golden age of Psalm 72. While clearly not in chronological order, it does seem significant that it should appear a mere 4 psalms after David‟s Miserere. If it is true that the incident in Psalm 55 revolves around the treachery of Ahithopel, it seems appropriate that his repentance occur prior and not without some sort of association. That both Psalm 51 and Psalm 55 are in the second Book of Psalms seems significant. Even at the height of his glory, David still experiences sin and depravity both from within himself and from without, and it remains very bitter indeed. C. The Context of the Whole Book Psalm 55 is an Individual Lament. It has explicit cross-references to many Psalms petitioning Deliverance and Protection, many of which begin with almost the same words. Book I contains most of these. Psalms 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 25, 35, and 41 are all Individual Laments written by David which bear striking similarities to Psalm 55. Book II also contains many similar Davidic psalms: Psalms 54, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, and 69. Of note is the dense collection of these types of psalms at the beginning of Book II and their gradual displacement toward the end of the book when David‟s reign is most established in the context of the entire Psalter. In Book III,
Psalm 86 is the only occasion of a Davidic psalm petitioning help against enemies; and in Book V, there are only two consecutive instances early in the Songs of Ascent: namely Psalms 142 and 143. Book IV has none. There are also many correlative references in Psalms expressing trust and confidence. Again, Book I has the greatest numerical quantity of these – cross-references appearing in Psalms 4, 5, 11, 27, 28, 37, and 41. The only other parallels appear in the same cluster of Book II, namely Psalms 56, 57, and 61. Psalms 18, 57, 59, and 142, which all contain significant parallels to Psalm 55, were written of David‟s early conflict with Saul, so that the Fathers‟ conclusion that Saul is the traitor of Psalm 55 was not without good reason. His thanksgiving for deliverance from Saul in Psalm 18 foreshadows David‟s deliverance after the conclusion of Psalm 55, manifested in a particular way in Psalm 66:19: “But truly God has listened; / he has given heed to the voice of my prayer.” The exhortations of Psalm 37 (particularly verses 5 and 24) are tested and proven in the anguish of Psalm 55, and Psalm 38 draws out an interesting parallel to a penitent sufferer‟s plea for healing in verse 8 which correlates specifically to Psalm 55:4. This helps shed light on the powerful connection between external evils and sin, both of which cause David to cry out to God for aid. God‟s covenant with David, as expressed particularly in 89:7 and 89:34 and in psalm 89 at large greatly enrich the reading of Psalm 55 as a trial of David‟s covenantal relationship with God, by which he claims his righteousness after repenting of his sins in Psalm 51. Psalm 119, often read side by side with Psalm 55 in the Liturgy of the Hours, directly parallels the sweetness of God‟s law (verse 103) with the sweet converse the psalmist held with his friend in the temple. More than any other psalm, however, Psalm 41 bears deep resemblance to Psalm 55, in its literal sense, but even more so in its allegorical sense: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, / who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9).
D. The Context of the Whole Canon Just as with all the psalms, Psalm 55 is filled with cross references and similar themes which run through other books in the Canon. Starting in Genesis, the Fathers clearly saw an allusion to the Noahic dove in 8:6-12. Additionally, David‟s request that the Lord “divide their tongues” is overwhelmingly understood as an allusion to the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:4-9. The Invective of Psalm 55:15 is also widely understood as an allusion to the punishment of the Sons of Korah in Numbers 16:30-33 in which they “go down alive into Sheol” after “the ground opens its mouth, and swallows them up.” Numbers 30:2 accounts for the exact wrongdoing of the companion (as referenced in Psalm 55:20-12): “When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Daniel 6:10 provides the scriptural context of praying three times a day: evening, noon, and night. David pledges to follow Daniel‟s own example, despite persecution. Although the historical context of this psalm is most specifically 2 Samuel 15-16 (with its resolution in the following two chapters), David‟s hiding from Saul in the wilderness of Ziph does have very interesting parallels especially as expressed in 1 Samuel 23:14. The book of Job is filled with cross-references to Psalm 55. Most significantly, in chapter 19, he expresses similarly failed friendships, and in chapter 21 – especially verses 4-15 – he expresses many of the complaints David himself does, and in some cases, nearly verbatim. Even his physical reaction is very similar: “When I think of it I am dismayed, / and shuddering seizes my flesh” (Job 21:6). These parallels are especially helpful for understanding David as a similarly righteous sufferer undergoing a test. Proverbs 5:3-4 recounts the lips and speech of a loose woman which strikingly resembles the description of the treacherous friend in Psalm 55:21. Isaiah, like Job, is also filled with cross-references. Isaiah 4:6 and 25:4 give further insight into
God as a shelter in Psalm 55:8. Isaiah 38:14 and 59:11 both reference the moaning of doves which look “for salvation, but it is far from us.” Isaiah 40:31 is the promise that the Psalmist‟s wish in Psalm 55:6 will be fulfilled if he continues to wait on the Lord. Isaiah 21:4 describes a horror similar to David‟s and 47:11 describes the same fate of the wicked which David declares in the Invective of verse 15. Jeremiah 13:23 is helpful for interpreting and expanding the idea present in verse 19, and Jeremiah 48:28 is a parallel exhortation to be like a dove and to leave the cities, which provides a curiously mystical insight that David‟s desire to “fly away and be at rest” is welcomed by God. Ezekiel 7:16 is another cross-reference to the same verse which describes doves moaning over their iniquity, providing yet another insight into the moaning of David, who most certainly recalled the influence of his sin with Bathsheba upon his current situation. The final significant Old Testament cross-references are found in Hosea chapter 2 which speak of the Lord drawing Israel into the wilderness like a lover in order to speak tenderly to her. These parallels to the wilderness in Psalm 55:7 draw out a profound mystical sense. Through the allusion to Hosea 2, David becomes a type of the Church, the bride of Christ, who ultimately fulfills his longing to “wander afar” and “lodge in the wilderness” which is characterized both by past offences (Hosea 2:3) and rapturous mercy (Hosea 2:14), thus calling to mind the contemporary proverb which describes how the Church is not a country club for saints but a hospital for sinners. The harsh desert is at once physically painful, and spiritually delightful. In the New Testament, Christ fulfills the type of David most particularly in the garden of the Synoptic Gospels. Thus, Mark 14:34: “And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch,” Luke 22:42: “Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done,” (similarly, Matthew 26:39-42
and Mark 14:36), Luke 22:48: “Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” and Matthew 26:50: “Jesus said to him, „Friend, why are you here?‟” There are two other places in the Gospel of Matthew which bear striking resemblance to Psalm 55. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus sends the twelve as doves among wolves, and in Matthew 14:30, Peter begins sinking after becoming overwhelmed by the “raging wind and tempest,” and himself cries out, “Lord, save me!” The Book of Acts makes numerous references to the continued tradition of praying evening, morning, and noontime, especially in 3:1, 10:3, 10:9, and 10:30. The final significant cross-reference is 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you” – almost a verbatim imperative form of Psalm 55:22a which is given specific attention in the Catechism, paragraph 322.
VI. Liturgical Analysis A. The Lectionary for the Liturgy of the Word Psalm 55 is used once in the liturgy of the Word: Year II, Tuesday of the 7th Week in Ordinary Time as a Responsorial Psalm (23a: “Throw your cares on the Lord, and he will support you.” Psalm 55: 7-8, 9-10a, 10b-11a, 23). It is preceded by James 4:1-10 (the 1st Reading), “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exult you.” It is immediately followed by Galatians 6:14 (the Alleluia Verse), “May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus…” and then followed by Mark 9:30-37 (the Gospel), “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all…” Thus, the Psalm seems appropriate to everyday life, and yet is peculiarly surrounded by a call to humility within the Liturgy of the Word. The weighty importance of this may not be immediately evident, but it is profoundly significant. Humility is in fact a major key to understanding the Psalm: Humility is essentially the submission of one‟s will to God‟s will. It is that by which the Psalmist is able to bear the oppression and weight of his friend‟s offense as a trial given him by God; it is that by which he recognizes his own past mistakes as factors of the current derision; and it is that by which he casts his cares back on the Lord instead of keeping them to himself. Trust in God, the entire purpose of the psalm is absolutely dependent upon the virtue of humility. And so David chooses to be last, takes up the cross with his God, and is eventually restored to power and exulted in Jerusalem. B. The Liturgy of the Hours There are two occasions of Psalm 55 in the Liturgy of the Hours: The first is Week II, Wednesday Daytime Prayer (2nd Psalm, Psalm 55:2-15, 16, 17-24). It is preceded by Psalm 119:57-64. The second occasion is Week IV, Friday Office of Readings (1st Psalm, Psalm 55:215, 16, 17-24). Mark 14:33 is glossed as a typological fulfillment: “Jesus was seized with fear
and distress.” The Psalm-prayer is also immensely helpful: “Lord Jesus, you were rejected by your people, betrayed by the kiss of a friend, and deserted by your disciples. Give us the confidence that you had in the Father, and our salvation will be assured.” Here, particularly, on the day of Christ‟s death, the truest Messianic parallels are drawn, a typology which has been consistently referred to since the very beginnings of Christianity. The type of the betrayer is fulfilled in Judas, and Christ tastes the bitterness of betrayal in place of David. Indeed, how bitter it must have been! And if it can be said that David‟s pain was like that of a woman‟s travail, what must it have been like for Love himself to be torn asunder by one closest to him. And as if to ally himself with David, the Christian declares in Psalm 119 on Wednesday, “I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts” (Psalm 119:63). Also of note is the use of Psalm 55 in the Book of Blessings for the solemn blessing of a cross erected in a public place, separate from a church; and the blessing of the principal cross that occupies a central place in the body of the church where the worshipping community assembles. It follows any of the following options: Philippians 2:5-11, He humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross; Numbers 21:4-9, Whoever looks at the fiery serpent shall live; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, I have told you of the witness of the crucified Christ; Hebrews 4:12-16, Let us be confident in approaching the throne of grace; John 3:13-17, The Son of man must be lifted up; Or John 19:25-27, Near the cross of Jesus there stood his Mother. The strong theme of the cross enlivens Psalm 55 with rich meaning regarding the oracular declaration: “Cast your burden on the Lord” (verse 23) and becomes the undoing of the companion “who stretched out his hand against his friends” (verse 20).
VII. Magisterial Analysis Gregory’s Seventh Epistle to Peter, Domitian, and Elpidius In this epistle, Gregory charges the bishops with immoderate praise of the priest Cyriacus. He says, “How can he shine forth as the sun while still present in this life?” As if with an answer, he quotes Psalm 55:5: “Fear and trembling are canto upon me, and darkness hath covered me.” The main point of discussion is the matter of concupiscence: being faithful requires constant perseverance in well-doing until death, because only then is man unable to change his ways. While alive, even a righteous man can turn from his path or suffer misfortune. Thus, the psalm becomes both a grim reminder of the misery we will endure in this world, and a challenge to remain faithful as David did. Aquinas’ Commentary on Psalm 55 (54) Aquinas‟ commentary has very many insights to offer; especially by means of spiritualized lessons which he systematically draws from the text. One of the most notable lessons he draws concerns the act of contemplation. For Aquinas, the affliction of David‟s heart is remedied particularly by the earnest care of contemplation. He interprets the Psalmist as speaking particularly about the contemplative life in verses 6-8: In verse 6a: David sets forth a desire for contemplation. Three things are thus necessary for contemplation: the capacity for it, the act, and the effect. The capacity for it is granted by the wings, which are the moral virtues, charity, and wisdom. These wings are not like those of a raven (which symbolizes the arrogance of philosophers), who do not think of anything but themselves, but rather like those of a dove who both contemplates and turns back towards its neighbors, devoting itself to them and sharing the fruits of its contemplation (which the Psalmist
does as gently as a dove might coo; and with the purity and cleanliness which the dove symbolizes). In verse 6b, the act of contemplating is signified by flight. Walking is similarly analogous to moral virtue, and running analogous to charity, but contemplation, the highest of these, is analogous to flight. The effect of contemplation is rest which is to be had in this life. (Wisdom 816, Psalm 4:8) And in verse 7, the Psalmist has avoided the stumbling blocks to contemplation, namely occupation with earthly things and sin, and he has avoided them quickly (Sirach 21:2) and efficaciously by avoiding the occasion of sin (Genesis 19:17). This kind of systematic pedagogy based entirely upon a scriptural text is both impressive on the part of Aquinas and much less useful in understanding the true meaning of the text. It is useful, however, to gain insight as to how the image of flight became closely associated with the contemplative act. Augustine’s 150th Sermon on the New Testament (Luke 14:20) Here in this 150th sermon, Augustine asserts that the pleasure of the flesh is a hindrance to many. He makes an important distinction, however. In 1 John 2:15 …He did not say “Have not [the things of this world];” but “Love not.” He also describes how “The love of things is the bird-lime of the spirit‟s wings,” and he ends by asserting, “Whosoever loveth the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the ambition of life.” Augustine, like Aquinas, finds the metaphor of the dove to be very important for the spiritual lives of those for whom he writes, and both, as Fathers of the Church, grasp an importance in the desire to ascend; a healthy frustration with being on the earth, a life full of pains and heartache. Thus the reader is reminded that neither his “rest” nor his “end” or “happiness” is to be found here.
Augustine’s Exposition on Psalm 55 In his exposition on Psalm 55, Augustine reads the psalm in a “spiritualized” Christian context, true to his Platonic influences. Beginning at the invective in verse 15, Augustine tries to give reason for the psalmist‟s harsh words by asserting that the Sacred Author‟s treacherous friend is a heretic: “Because they themselves have the Scriptures in their hands, and know well by daily reading how the Church Catholic through the whole world is so spread, that in a word all contradiction is void; and that there cannot be found any support for their schism they know well: therefore unto the lower places living they go down, because the evil which they do, they know evil to be…. Baptism we had both of us, in that they were with me: the Gospel we both read, they were in that with me: the festivals of martyrs we celebrated, they were there with me: Easter's solemnity we attended, they were there with me. But not entirely with me: in schism not with me, in heresy not with me. In many things with me, in few things not with me. But in these few things wherein not with me, there is no profit to them of the many things wherein they were with me.” He draws upon the metaphor of wheat and chaff, calling to mind how they spring from the same seed, grow in the same field, are both nourished by the same rain, and are both cut down, although only one enters the barn (Is. 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13; Matt. 3:1-12). In the same way, the heretic, so near and dear to the believer in practice will ultimately lose his salvation if his heart remains hardened against the truths of the faith. In Verse 22, Augustine interprets the Psalmist as the subject rather than the enemy (as it is almost unanimously understood). Thus, it bespeaks the task of evangelization: “by those words, as though by arrows, hearts of men unto the love of peace are smitten. Hard they were, and soft they have been made.” Thus, Augustine interprets the bloodshed in verse 23 as something spiritual directly related to re-baptism, the kind of heresy which he specifically has in mind. For Augustine, ultimately, trust in God is juxtaposed with heresy; a curious and insightful paradigm which guides the modern Church through times of relativism and complacency in matters of faith, calling modern man on to give up self-will and to embrace God‟s will as revealed by his Church.
A. The Literal Sense David, King of Israel, was driven out of his kingdom by his own son, Absalom. The Lord‟s anointed had his very throne ripped away from him. In this moment of great vulnerability and weakness, he witnessed the betrayal of his most trusted advisor, Ahithophel, who sided with Absalom by inciting him to take David‟s concubines for himself. In that moment of grief, David recalled his adultery with Bathsheba and the Miserere with which he had cried out to God soon afterward. As a repentant righteous man he made his complaint – as King of Israel and son of the Most High God, he cried out for justice amidst circumstances he knew had been aggravated by his own past sins. Ultimately, his righteousness was proven by the trust he had in the Lord‟s covenant despite the severity of his emotional distress. He trusted, and that faith gave him assurance of the kingdom well before he returned to the throne. B. The Allegorical Sense Jesus Christ, the anointed Son of God and Son of David, is betrayed in the very same garden in which David made his complaint. His distress is overwhelming and his sweat becomes like drops of blood falling to the ground. His reaction to the betrayal is an intense agony. Like David‟s own expressed desire to fly away from the troubles surrounding him, so Jesus earnestly beseeches the Father that this cup passes him by, but Jesus ultimately expresses trust in the Father‟s will, just as David does at the end of his prayer. At the kiss of Judas, Jesus witnesses one of his closest companions, who knows and has shared the most intimate moments of Christ‟s life, suddenly ally with his enemies. On the cross, a sign hangs above him which reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” explicitly calling him a king whom the people have rebelled against – just like David.
C. The Moral Sense Like David, the faithful Christian is to turn to God even in times of the most intensified adversity, and despite the influence of past failings upon his present affliction, a repentant sinner is to cry out to God with confidence that he is justified in his complaint. God sees the heart of a man, and to commend oneself to Him in adversity with complete abandonment and trust betrays a pure heart with right intention. To remain faithful, he must continually renew his act of faith; he must continually remind himself of the Lord‟s faithfulness and not succumb to his trembling or despair. He must truly acknowledge his plight and call upon the Lord with honesty and desperation, acknowledging his own frailty and need for God‟s help. It is right for him to invoke the Lord‟s justice and to remind himself of the wicked man‟s fate, mostly for his own sake, lest he be tempted to abandon his covenant with the Lord for a seemingly easier way. D. The Anagogical Sense The Church, as the bride of Christ, awaits him in the wilderness of this world. With the wings of a dove, she has given the children of God a resting place even amidst the hardships and difficulties of this present life; a foretaste of the life to come; the indwelling life of the Trinity. Most especially in the act of contemplation, a Christian finds “him who saves me / from the raging wind and tempest.” Truly, the Church shall outlive the world which is passing away, and those who externally practice their faith without the interior life of Christ – or who participate in its sacraments while being faithless with their lips – shall not enter into eternal life with the wheat, but shall be thrown into the fire with the chaff. David‟s invective will resound in the just sentence of the Most High, and at the end of time, He will restore the faithful to their inheritance as kings and heirs to his eternal throne.
Bibliography Aquinas, Thomas. Psalm 54. The Aquinas Translation Project. <http://dhspriory.org/Thomas/PsalmsAquinas/ThoPs54H55.htm>. Augustine. “Augustine on NT 150”. Biblia Clerus. <http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerusonline/en/b1y.htm#fo>. Augustine. 1888. Exposition on Psalm 55. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801055.htm>. Anderson, A. A. 1972. The Book of Psalms. New Century Bible. Greenwood: Attic Press, Inc. Boylan, Patrick. 1920. The Psalms: A Study of the Vulgate Psalter in the Light of the Hebrew Text. Volume I. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company. Callan, Charles J. 1944. The Psalms. New York: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc. DeLaney, Joseph P. 2000. Book of Blessings. Abridged edition. Collegeville: Liturgical Press. Gavigan, James. 2003. The Psalms. The Navarre Bible. New York: Scepter Publishers. Gregory the Great. “Epistle VII. To Peter, Domitian, and Elpidius”. Biblia Clerus. <http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerusonline/en/daj.htm#zm>. Kirkpatrick, A. F. 1906. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge: University Press. Knight, Kevin. “Psalm 55”. New Advent. <http://www.newadvent.org/bible/psa054.htm>. Liturgy of the Hours. 4-Volume Set. Catholic Book Publishing Company. Spurgeon, Charles H. 1865-1885. “Commentary on Psalms 55”. C.H. Spurgeons‟s The Treasury of David. <http://studylight.org/com/tod/view.cgi?book=ps&chapter=055>. St. Joseph Weekday Missal. Complete Edition. Catholic Book Publishing Company. Wikipedia contributors. 2010. “Maariv”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maariv&oldid=398363653>. __________. 2010. “Pirkei Avot”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pirkei_Avot&oldid=398761732>. __________. 2010. “Psalm 55”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Psalm_55&oldid=358318584> .
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