Theme: When Friends Betray
In this week’s lessons we learn how David moves from great anguish and pain over his betrayal, to a settled confidence in God’s care.
Scripture: Psalm 55:1-23
In Psalm 52 David’s presence in Nob had been disclosed to Saul by Doeg the Edomite. It concerns David’s betrayal by a foreigner. In Psalm 54 David has been betrayed by the people of Ziph, that is, by his own countrymen. This short series of betrayal psalms reaches a strong climax in Psalm 55 with its description of David’s betrayal by an intimate friend.
Who was this friend? The best guess is Ahithophel, David’s most trusted counselor, who sided with Absalom at the time of Absalom’s rebellion. But this is a “best guess” only because we have no other story from David’s life to link it to. Ahithophel’s story is told in 2 Samuel 15-17. It tells us that he was close to David and that he did betray him in order to side with Absalom, later hanging himself when Absalom rejected his advice in favor of another counselor. But there are problems with this view. The writer of Psalm 55 is presumably in Jerusalem. But in the account of Absalom’s rebellion given in 2 Samuel, David learned of Ahithophel’s defection only after he had left the city. Again, although David valued the advice of Ahithophel and trusted him, it would be hard to say that he was as close to David as Psalm 55 describes the betrayer having been: “my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship” (vv. 13, 14).
These difficulties have caused some commentators to ascribe the psalm to another writer entirely, to Jeremiah or to someone writing in a later declining period of the monarchy. But the title says the psalm is by David, and we should probably assume that it is merely about an incident that is not recounted in the historical books. At best those books give a summary of what was obviously a long and very complex career.
What about an outline for the psalm? Many commentators offer a three-part outline, the most striking form of it being by G. Campbell Morgan: 1.) fear (vv. 1-8); 2.) fury (vv. 9-15); and 3.) faith (vv. 16-23).1 Marvin E. Tate, one of the more modern commentators, finds ten parts.2
In my judgment, the best way of getting into the psalm is to focus on its alternating pattern of six or seven parts. We have seen something like this before, in Psalms 5, 18 and 42-43, for example. In the case of Psalm 55, the stanzas alternate between disclosures of the psalmist’s own state of mind and his descriptions of the wicked who are causing him problems. As is usual with such psalms, the descriptions of the psalmist’s state show improvement as David moves from great anguish of mind and pain to quiet confidence in God. I outline the psalm like this:
the first disclosure of the psalmist’s anguish (vv. 1-8)
the first description of the wicked (vv. 9-11)
the second disclosure of the psalmist’s anguish (vv. 12-14)
the second description of the wicked (v. 15)
the psalmist’s faith in God (vv. 16-19)
the third description of the wicked (vv. 20, 21)
the psalmist’s final conclusion and advice (vv. 22, 23).3
As far as genres go, the psalm is a combination of a lament, a prayer, and a wisdom poem.
Who is thought to be the most likely friend to have betrayed David, and why?
What are some problems with this identification?
Reflection: Why might it be better that we do not know the person and the situation that is the cause of this psalm of David?
For Further Study: To learn more about true friendship from the book of James, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “My Friends Are Special.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)
1G. Campbell Morgan, Notes on the Psalms (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1947), pp. 101-102. But see also J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 436; H.C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), pp. 420-425; and Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 39-89 in “The Expositor’s Bible” series (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), pp. 159-170.2Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), p. 56.3Spurgeon is the only major commentator who has an outline similar to this. See C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 445.