Psalm 55

Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am restless in my complaint and I moan,
because of the noise of the enemy,
because of the oppression of the wicked.
For they drop trouble upon me,
and in anger they bear a grudge against me.

–Psalm 55:1-3 (ESV)

Throughout Psalm 55, David expresses his grief at the wickedness surrounding him.  “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.  Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me”…“Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues; for I see violence and strife in the city.  Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.”

In spite of his sharp dismay, again and again the psalmist returns to seek his refuge in the LORD.  “Give ear to my prayer, O God”…“But I call to God, and the LORD will save me”…“Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you”…“But you, O God, will cast them down to destruction”…“But I will trust in you.”

These conflicting thoughts, so common to every believer’s heart, form the basic structure of Psalm 55.  To some extent this song is a three-way conversation, with exchanges between the psalmist and himself, as well as between the psalmist and God.  Providing an honest treatment of the problem of evil in the world, Psalm 55 paints a beautiful picture of God’s constant faithfulness and imminent triumph over the wicked.  But there’s an even deeper layer of meaning in Psalm 55.  As you read, imagine Christ himself as the singer (as James recently suggested), and note the prophetic links to the events of Jesus’s suffering and death.

100, “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear”

It takes an adventurous singer to tackle number 100 for the first time.  An unusual accompaniment figure in the first line, coupled with a daunting key change midway through each stanza, seems to present the average organist and congregation with quite a challenge.

This is especially unfortunate because the text of “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear” is particularly well-written.  Although composed in the days of the archaic American Standard Version, the verbiage so closely matches the ESV text that they even share many individual words (“prayer,” “complaint,” “moan,” “enemies,” and “oppress,” in stz. 1 alone).  This similarity makes number 100 a particularly good selection for memorization.

I can point out only one flaw with “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear,” but sadly, it’s a major one.  One of the most heart-rending passages in Psalm 55 is in vv. 12-14:

For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng.

This description of a close friend’s treachery echoes the experience of many children of God over the centuries, and, more importantly, points forward to the betrayal of Jesus himself.  Yet the creators of this setting crushed this pathetically beautiful passage into a meager couple of lines: “No foreign foe provokes alarm,/But enemies within.”  Clearly, the versification must be broadened here to take into account the full meaning of the psalm.

The most difficult aspect of number 100 is its tune, but even this isn’t unconquerable.  Surprisingly, this peculiar tune format (first half in a minor key, second half in major) isn’t uncommon in the Psalter Hymnal; some similar selections include numbers 161 and 464.  Ideally, the best way to address VOX DILECTI would be to offer a pastoral explanation on how the two musical moods represent the conflicting emotions of the psalmist.  When that’s not possible, simply noting the key change from the pulpit and requesting the accompanist to play through a single stanza beforehand should be sufficient.

101, “On God Alone My Soul Relies”

Number 101 is the complement to its prequel, “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear.”  For the most part, the text is just as solid as number 100, with two notable exceptions.  One is the entirety of the fourth stanza, which is so tongue-twistingly complicated that it defies all but the most persistent attempts at interpretation.

All treacherous friends who overreach
And break their plighted troth,
Who hide their hate with honeyed speech,
With such the Lord is wroth.

It’s my humble opinion that a smidgen of updated language here would do a world of good.

The second questionable spot occurs in the very last stanza, which somewhat softens the impact of Psalm 55:23.  Whether or not the text should be changed to more completely reflect the original is up for discussion.

102, “O God, Give Thou Ear to My Plea”

Number 102 is merely an excerpt of Psalm 55, but it’s even more textually solid than numbers 100 and 101.  My only suggested change would be to the first line of stanza 3: that “Nay, soul, call on God…” be replaced with “But I call on God…”—simply for clarity.

Personally, I’d like to have a word with composers that choose to give their tunes wretched names like ASSIUT, but besides this awkward flaw (have you tried to pronounce it?), George Stebbins’s composition is a beautiful and solid tune.  Its undulating melody line perfectly bears the plaintive cry of the psalmist to the listeners’ ears, yet the very same melody also carries the calm triumph of the last two stanzas.

Of the three settings of Psalm 55 in the Psalter Hymnal, number 102 is best suited for a summary treatment of the psalm, whereas numbers 100 and 101 delve into the text more thoroughly.  While Psalm 55 would be particularly well-suited for a time of personal need (or a commemoration of the Lord’s suffering and death), its recurring theme is an essential element in every believer’s life.

Thy burden now cast on the Lord,
And He shall thy weakness sustain;
The righteous who trust in His word
Unmoved shall forever remain.


2 Responses to “Psalm 55”

  1. 1 Reita Julien July 16, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Just have to say about #100 that I have sung that song in church since I was a small child and as far as I know, the churchs that I have been in, have never had a problem singing it. When I started playing in church, never even thought about the problems that you suggested. I love the way it goes from the minor mood to the major mood and the congregations always sing it that way as well. Personally, I love to sing that song. By the way, the other organists do fine with it as well. Just FYI Reita Julien

    • 2 Michael Kearney July 16, 2012 at 9:57 am

      That’s great! The minor and major moods of the tune really complement the text well. I’m glad to hear that it’s a familiar song in your church…if only that were the case here in West Sayville as well.

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