Week of 9 November 2017 – Psalm 55

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Chapter 55: Psalm 55 is attributed to the Maskhil of David. It continues the recent pattern of lamentation due-to-betrayal since Psalm 52 and resembles the sentiment in Psalm 41. It can be divided into 3 main sections; despair, indignation and trust.

David is initially distraught by the oppression of his enemies (v. 1-8). His tone shifts to righteous anger (v 9-15) and concludes with the familiar refrain of Faith in the justice of the Almighty who will exact Divine revenge upon those deserving it (16-24).

מִקּוֹל אוֹיֵב–מִפְּנֵי, עָקַת רָשָׁע: כִּי-יָמִיטוּ עָלַי אָוֶן, וּבְאַף יִשְׂטְמוּנִי. Because of the enemy’s voice, because of the oppression of the wicked; for they cast mischief upon me, and in anger persecute me. (Psalms 55:4)

לִבִּי, יָחִיל בְּקִרְבִּי; וְאֵימוֹת מָוֶת, נָפְלוּ עָלָי. My heart writhes within me; and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. (Psalms 55:5)

וָאֹמַר–מִי-יִתֶּן-לִי אֵבֶר, כַּיּוֹנָה: אָעוּפָה וְאֶשְׁכֹּנָה. And I said: ‘Oh that I had wings like a dove! Would I fly away, and be at rest. (Psalms 55:7)

‘If I had wings’ echoes a beautiful Ladino phrase poignantly referenced in this Holocaust story by Hannah Pressman about her grandmother’s last years on the Isle of Rhodes, before the deportation.

בַּלַּע אֲ-דֹנָי, פַּלַּג לְשׁוֹנָם: כִּי-רָאִיתִי חָמָס וְרִיב בָּעִיר. Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongue; for I’ve seen violence and strife in the city. (Psalms 55:10)

כִּי לֹא-אוֹיֵב יְחָרְפֵנִי, וְאֶשָּׂא: לֹא-מְשַׂנְאִי, עָלַי הִגְדִּיל; וְאֶסָּתֵר מִמֶּנּוּ. For it wasn’t an enemy taunting me, that I could have borne; neither was it an adversary magnifying himself against me, that I would have hid from. (Psalms 55:13)

וְאַתָּה אֱנוֹשׁ כְּעֶרְכִּי; אַלּוּפִי, וּמְיֻדָּעִי. But it was you, a man my equal; my companion, and my familiar friend. (Psalms 55:14)

Commentators suggest this Psalm refers to the revolt of Absalom, who usurped his father’s throne, and specifically to the betrayal of David by his closest advisor, Ahitophel who joined Absalom’s side. But when his military advice to Absalom was ignored, Ahitophel realised defeat would soon follow. Quietly, he returned home, settled his affairs – and most likely to avoid David’s wrath – hung himself. (See II Samuel Chaps 15-17)

אֲנִי, אֶל-אֱ-לֹהִים אֶקְרָא; וַי-הוָה, יוֹשִׁיעֵנִי. As for me, I will call upon G-d; and the LORD will save me. (Psalms 55:17)

פָּדָה בְשָׁלוֹם נַפְשִׁי, מִקְּרָב-לִי: כִּי-בְרַבִּים, הָיוּ עִמָּדִי. He redeemed my soul in peace so none came near me; for many strove with me. (Psalms 55:19)

הַשְׁלֵךְ עַל-יְ-הוָה, יְהָבְךָ– וְהוּא יְכַלְכְּלֶךָ: לֹא-יִתֵּן לְעוֹלָם מוֹט– לַצַּדִּיק. Cast your burden upon the LORD, who will sustain you; never suffering the righteous to be moved. (Psalms 55:23)

Psalm 55 is often recited by those feeling indignation and anger toward their persecutors, reminding themselves that Divine salvation and joy are yet ahead. Perhaps for that reason this Psalm has been put to music by the likes of Felix Mendelssohn in 1844, Anton Dvorak in 1894 and the Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly in 1923 (click to listen).