19 April 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
19 April 2022 (Psalm 55)

‘My heart is in anguish within me’ (Psalm 55: 4) … street art in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I was reflecting each morning on the Psalms. Then, during the two weeks of Passion Week and Holy Week, my morning reflections drew on the Stations of the Cross in the Church of the Annunciation, Clonard, Wexford, and the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes.

Yesterday, I returned to my morning reflections on the Psalms, and in the coming weeks, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 55:

Psalm 55 is often known in English for its opening words in the King James Version, ‘Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not thyself from my supplication.’ In the slightly different numbering in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is Psalm 54. In Latin, it is known as Exaudi Deus orationem meam.

This psalm is a lament in which the author grieves because he is surrounded by enemies, and one of his closest friends has betrayed him.

Psalm 55 is similar to Psalm 41, especially 41: 9:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

The introduction to this psalm identifies it as a ‘Maskil’ (instructional piece) and associates it with King David. The anonymous author may have been an Israelite living in a foreign city, and the false friend could be another Israelite living there.

This interpretation may be considered especially plausible if the second part of verse 23 is translated ‘men of idols and figurines,’ as used in some translations, rather than ‘bloodthirsty and treacherous’ or ‘men of blood and treachery.’

The psalm can be divided into three sections:

1, Verses 1-8: this section begins with a desperate appeal to God for deliverance (verses 1-3) and then describes the psalmist’s anguish and his desire for peace.

2, Verses 9-15: here we hear a strident denunciation of the author’s enemies, especially an individual described as ‘my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,’ who has turned against the psalmist (verses 12-14). This second section closes with a wish that the speaker’s enemies be swallowed alive in Sheol, a possible allusion to the fate of Korah.

3, Verses 16-23: The final section is a confident meditation on God’s justice. The psalmist is sure that God will save him and destroy the wicked.

It is unclear whether the psalm was written by a single author or not. Some scholars suggest that verses 12-14, 20-21, and 22 are fragments by a different author that were inserted into the text of the original psalm.

In an early example of antisemitism among the Patristic writers, Jerome, in the Vulgate, entitled this psalm Vox Christi adversus magnatos Judaeorum et Judam traditorem, meaning The voice of Christ against the chiefs of the Jews and the traitor Judas.

Ulrike Bail used intertextual interpretive methods in 1999 to read the psalm as a reference to the rape of Tamar.

The text was set to music as Hear My Prayer by Felix Mendelssohn in 1844. The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák set verses 1-8 to music in his Biblical Songs (1894). The Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály set Psalm 55 in 1923 with interpolations and extensions of grief and lamentation full of historic associations for the Hungarian people to the paraphrase by 16th-century poet Mihály Vég.

‘The terrors of death have fallen upon me’ (Psalm 55: 4) … graves in the grounds of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 55 (NRSVA):

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.

1 Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught 3 by the noise of the enemy,
because of the clamour of the wicked.
For they bring trouble upon me,
and in anger they cherish enmity against me.

4 My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
5 Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
6 And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
7 truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.’

9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11 ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its market-place.

12 It is not enemies who taunt me—
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
15 Let death come upon them;
let them go down alive to Sheol;
for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.

16 But I call upon God,
and the Lord will save me.
17 Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he will hear my voice.
18 He will redeem me unharmed
from the battle that I wage,
for many are arrayed against me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
will hear, and will humble them—
because they do not change,
and do not fear God.

20 My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
21 with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.

22 Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.

23 But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘From Death to Resurrection,’ and was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Rachel Mash, Coordinator of the Environmental Network of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (19 April 2022) continues the Easter theme and invites us to pray:

Let us pray for our brothers and sisters across the Anglican Communion as they celebrate Easter in their provinces, dioceses and churches.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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