Psalm 55: A Poem of Betrayal

The scriptures in general often emphasize facets of the story outside our attention, drawing theological pictures that don’t immediately appear to us when we come to them with a different set of theological questions. The phenomenon occurs in the gospels as well as the other parts of scripture, and perhaps it’s particularly poignant in the story of Jesus’s death. Our approach to the story has been so thoroughly conditioned that it’s too easy for us to enter the passion narratives with heavy expectations of the kind of things we’ll find there, and thus miss points that the story itself is giving us.

One such undervalued facet of the story is Jesus’s experience of betrayal and abandonment. The gospel narratives explore the theme thoroughly—I worked on Mark’s depiction in the sermon on the video below, but the theme exists in the other three gospels as well.

The custom in our church is to open each week’s worship with a Psalm, and for me the choice for this week was simple: Psalm 55. The Psalms capture human experiences and emotions, and demonstrate what it means to lay those experiences before God. Psalm 55 captures beautifully the anguish of betrayal, which is a profoundly common (universal?) human experience.

The poem opens with a cry to God, expressing the poet’s distress over “the noise of the enemy”, and the “clamor of the wicked”, and then elaborates:

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.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV)

Having described the anguish in terms many other Psalms might use, this Psalm then plays its twist: the enemies are actually the poet’s friends.

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.
But it is you, my equal,
    my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
    we walked in the house of God with the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14, NRSV)

The psalmist begins to call for God’s response before further describing the experience of betrayal:

My companion laid hands on a friend
    and violated a covenant with me
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.
(Psalm 55:20-21, NRSV)

The cries for help and the poet’s statements of trusting the Lord in the face of distress are similar to what we find in other laments throughout the Psalms. However, this one’s way of evoking empathy from the reader (or worshipper) is by the dramatic unfolding of a painful reality—it is indeed our friends who can hurt us in the deepest way possible. This psalm hold that card and then slaps it down on the table with the authority of experience, and all those who hear it can only wince and grieve alongside of the one who has tasted bitter betrayal.

How might we respond to such a psalm? With empathy for the betrayed for sure, but also I think a deeper commitment to be faithful friends who avoid dealing out this kind of bitterness to others. There is, after all a beautiful reality on display even in the bitter sadness—we experience betrayal only because friendship and faithfulness really do matter to us. The depth of our anguish and sorrow reveals our capacity to love and the role of companionship and community in a full human life. It is the shadow side of something we deeply value—even if we don’t know how to do it right. So in its own way, a Psalm like this with its tragic experience of betrayal is leading us to a more careful, vibrant experience of community, full of the sort of friendship that marks a flourishing humanity.

The Psalm also provides its own way forward, the laying of such a naked human experience before God. It is a raw prayer of pain, but also holding a latent hope that such wrongs will be made right. If the psalmist’s prayers are a bit too vindictive for us, we can at least laud the poet’s trust in the Lord to avenge the harm rather than taking vengeance personally.