Saturday, December 17, 2011

Psalms 55

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 55 and its interpreters. In Psalm 55, the Psalmist wishes that he could flee to the wilderness as a dove, for the city where he apparently dwells is full of violence, strife, mischief, sorrow, and deceit (to draw from the KJV's language). The Psalmist also laments that a close friend, one with whom he has even worshiped God, has sought his harm. The Psalmist prays that God might confound the tongues of the wicked and bring his enemies promptly into Sheol, the realm of the dead. I have two items:

1. Different ideas have been proposed for the setting of the Psalm. The most prominent idea within the history of biblical interpretation is that Psalm 55 concerns the events narrated in II Samuel 15-17, where David's son Absalom leads a mass Israelite revolt against David, and David's wise adviser, Ahithophel, betrays David by joining Absalom's side. In the process, David and his loyalists have to flee to the wilderness. But Marvin Tate does not believe that this setting works well for Psalm 55 because, in Psalm 55, the Psalmist is in the city when he is aware that his close friend has betrayed him, whereas (according to Tate's reading of II Samuel 15:30-31) David first learns of Ahithophel's betrayal after he has fled Jerusalem to go to the wilderness.

Some have suggested that Psalm 55 is by or based on the experience of Jeremiah, who complains about the wickedness of the city (Jeremiah 29:5-6) and wishes to dwell in the wilderness, where he would be away from the wicked (Jeremiah 9:2). But, as far as I know, Jeremiah was not betrayed by a close friend, as the speaker in Psalm 55 was. But Psalm 55 could be drawing on the Book of Jeremiah and other prophetic themes (i.e., the wickedness of the city), or vice versa.

The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia believes that Psalm 55 is about Onias III, the second century B.C.E. righteous high priest who lost his priesthood due to his brother's scheming with Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid empire. According to Theodore, David in Psalm 55 is prophetically speaking from the perspective of Onias III, who is upset at the greed and abandonment of God's law (due to Hellenization) in the city.

Some contend that Psalm 55 is pre-exilic and reflects the lament of a Davidic king that a foreign ally has betrayed him. Others maintain that Psalm 55 concerns the exiled Jews' sadness at being in a corrupt foreign city, away from their homeland. Marvin Tate speculates that the Psalm is about the vulnerable resident alien in Israel, who desires God's vindication of him against the corrupt.

2. Interpreters, both ancient and modern, believe that Psalm 55 is alluding to biblical stories within the Pentateuch. When the Psalmist asks God to divide the tongues of the wicked in v 9, interpreters affirm that he is alluding to God's division of the people into different languages in the Tower of Babel story, in Genesis 11, as if the Psalmist wants God to thwart evil as God did right after the Flood, when people were uniting to perform a misdeed. When the Psalmist in v 15 asks God to let the wicked go quickly into Sheol, interpreters maintain that he is alluding to the story of Korah in Numbers 16, where the earth swallowed up the rebellious (and some others). In my opinion, these are possible allusions, but they are not iron-clad, for there is no explicit reference in Psalm 55 to Babel and Korah.

I appreciated a teaching in the Midrash on the Psalms on Psalm 55:17, where the Psalmist says that he has prayed to God at evening, at morning, and at noon. According to Rabbi Simeon, this confirms the Jewish requirement for Jews to pray three times a day. And Rabbi Simeon believes that this practice originated with the patriarchs. Rabbi Simeon says that Abraham instituted the morning prayer, for Genesis 19:27 says that "Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord" (Braude's translation), and Rabbi Simeon claims that "stood" here means prayer, since Psalm 106:30 affirms that Phinehas stood and prayed, connecting standing with prayer. For the noon prayer, Genesis 24:63 states that "Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide", and Rabbi Simeon believes that "meditate" here means prayer because Psalm 102:1 connects meditation with prayer when it says "A prayer of the afflicted, when he fainteth and poureth out his meditation before the Lord." And Rabbi Simeon contends that Jacob instituted the evening prayer, for Genesis 28:11 states that "Jacob...made intercession at the place, and tarried there all night", and Rabbi Simeon thinks that making intercession here is the same as prayer on the basis of Jeremiah 7:16: "Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to Me." Ancient and modern interpreters maintain that Psalm 55 is drawing from the Torah (in some form), and Rabbi Simeon similarly holds that Psalm 55 reflects a practice that the Torah attributes to the patriarchs.

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