Psalm 55: Ancient Judgments and Future Mercies

Read Psalm 55.

If you were to catalog the judgments of God into a greatest hits collection, you’d have to include the incident at Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) and Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16). In both cases, God directly intervened to stop the spread of sin in a spectacular way.

In Psalm 55, David appeals to both of these events in His prayer to God. His enemies (again unnamed) are the source of tremendous heartache for the king. He says, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me” (vv. 4–5). David then asks for God to intercede as only He can.

“Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words,” he says (v. 9). This was the judgment on Babel thousands of years earlier. God had told humanity to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1), but when the people stumbled upon the plain of Shinar, they decided to settle down and stop filling the earth. Not only that—they decided to build a structure that would reach “to the heavens” (11:4).

The tower was to be a ziggurat, a temple designed to be a meeting place between heaven and earth. That’s why it needed to be so tall. It would be like an artificial mountain, where human beings could ascend to the place where God dwells. Eden had been such a place. God had lived there with human beings prior to the fall. At its most basic, the sin of Babel was pride. They built in order to make a name for themselves—to lift themselves up rather than God.

Instead of obeying their Creator by filling the earth and subduing it as commanded, the people wanted to return to Eden on their own terms. So God put a stop to their plans by confusing their language. The people could no longer work together to build their grand tower and were forced to spread out. The proud were humbled, and instead of ascending to heaven, they were “scattered… over the face of the whole earth,” just as God intended.

Evil is compounded when sinful people gather, and David’s enemies were turning the city (likely Jerusalem) into a place of wickedness: “Malice and abuse are within it. Destructive forces are at work in the city; threats and lies never leave its streets” (Psalm 55:10–11). So David asks the Lord to given them the Babel treatment: scatter them so that their evil can be diffused.

David also invokes on his enemies the punishment received by Korah in the days of Moses: “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead, for evil finds lodging among them” (Psalm 55:15).

In the wilderness, Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, God’s chosen vehicles to lead the people of Israel. God’s response?

Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.”

As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. (Numbers 16:28–33)

Again, the sin of Korah and his conspirators was pride. Just listen to how they confronted Moses and Aaron: “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (v. 3). They thought they knew better than God, and they were jealous that God chose Moses and his brother instead of them.

David is also God’s chosen instrument, and his enemies, by their words and actions, show themselves to be no better than Korah and his ilk. David understands that history repeats itself and that there are no new tricks in the human heart.

We live in an age where God’s judgment on Babel and on Korah seem fantastical—the stuff of legends and fairy tales—but there is coming a day when all sins will be laid bare. On that day, these ancient punishments will seem like a slap on the wrist. I say this not to emphasize the judgment of God, but to highlight the mercy of the cross. God’s judgment is severe, but His mercy is more so.

In something of a reversal of Korah’s punishment, the Bible says the earth will open again—the graves will release the dead from their grip, and those who know Jesus will live forever with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:16; Daniel 12:2). And all those nations formed by the language confusion at Babel? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

David didn’t know all this with any degree of clarity, but He knew enough of God’s character to be able to say, “But as for me, I trust in you” (Psalm 55:23).

God’s mercy is richer, deeper, and wider than our pride and rebellion.


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