Psalm 53

A Contemplation of David.

The word the New King James Version has translated “Contemplation” is the Hebrew maskiyl, which The Companion Bible suggests means “Instruction.” This psalm is for public instruction regarding the wicked, for the people of Israel to learn of them and to learn to avoid their ways.

This psalm is very similar to Psalm 14. Why this near repetition, we might ask? First of all, note the superscription and the subscription. Psalm 14 has only a superscription, proclaiming it a “Psalm of David.” Psalm 53 is called “Instruction,” and is dedicated in the subscription “To the Chief Musician.” These two facts mark this psalm out for public performance and instruction. Psalm 14, however, appears to be David’s own private version of the psalm, intended more for David’s own private use rather than for public performance.

Another obvious difference is that, where Psalm 14 uses the name “the LORD,” in Hebrew Jehovah or Yahweh, Psalm 53 often uses the name “God” or the Hebrew Elohim in its place. Jehovah is the name of the Personal God, God in relationship to His people. Therefore, David writes for himself of Jehovah, the God with whom David had such a close relationship. When writing for public use and instruction, however, he writes of Elohim, because he is writing to instruct all, even those who have no relationship with God and who may be some of the wicked ones he is speaking against. Therefore, he uses the name of God, the Creator and Judge, the One Who has a creature/Creator relationship with all men, even those who are wicked and who ignore and despise him.

Other than these differences, there are a few minor differences in wording. Then, the latter half of verse 5 is different in the two psalms, and verse 6 in Psalm 14 is not contained in Psalm 53. Verse 6 in Psalm 53 and verse 7 in Psalm 14 are more or less the same, again.

Thus, just like in the gospels when we see two stories closely repeated in multiple places, we have two psalms closely repeated here. In this case, Psalm 53 clearly fits with the topic of the psalms of this section, which regards wicked men and their ultimate defeat by God and shame before the righteous.

1. The fool has said in his heart,

Here we learn what the fool speaks in his heart. The word “fool” here is the Hebrew nabal. This word can mean stupid or foolish, but it also carries the idea of impious or wicked. It is not just stupidity that is meant when it is said that the fool says this in his heart, but also moral corruption. It is a corrupt man who says this.

The word “heart” in English idiom means the seat of emotions, but the Hebrews used it as the figure for the inner person. Your “heart” was more similar to what we might call “the real ‘you’ deep down inside.’” It involved the innermost emotions and thoughts, desires and beliefs. It was basically the core of your being, and this is where the fool speaks these things. Whether or not he says them with his mouth we cannot tell.

The Companion Bible points out the fact that there was a man named “Nabal” in David’s life, a foolish and wicked man who insulted David in I Samuel 25:10-11, and whom the LORD struck dead in I Samuel 25:38. Since the Hebrew reads “Nabal has said in his heart,” The Companion Bible wonders if it might not actually be the man Nabal whom David has in mind? This is an interesting thought, and may well be true. Yet of course there have been many foolish and stupid men, both mentally and morally deficient ones, who have said this same thing in their inner beings.

“There is no God.”

This is what the fool, the nabal, says in his inner being. We can see that many people have such a thought by the way they live. If they really believed that there is a God Who would call them into account someday, they could not live selfishly and wickedly as they do.

As Otis Q. Sellers says, this is what people say who believe their own intellect to be the highest intellect there is. Those who acknowledge a supreme Intellect above themselves, however, cannot say this in their hearts. If such a man as this describes believes in a “god,” it must be one lower than himself, one whom he can outwit, bamboozle, and deceive. He cannot truly believe in a superior Being, a supreme Intellect, in his inner being.

Rotherham in his Studies in the Psalms renders this “No God here!” He believes that the picture is of a wicked man who has come to a Sodom-like place, a den of utter wickedness and depravity and looks around himself in satisfaction, saying, “There is no God here!” This is an interesting idea, but of course most translators do not agree with him in this.

They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity;

Such men are corrupt, and they have done abominable iniquity. This speaks of abhorrent injustice or unrighteousness. When people give up on believing in God, many abhorrent acts are likely to follow. Though many complain about the unjust acts that so-called “Christian” governments have committed, they pale in comparison with the mass murder and abhorrent injustice of atheistic governments like that of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Communist China. There can be no doubt but that once one frees himself from thought of God and answering to Him someday, abominable iniquity becomes a short step away.

J.B. Rotherham in his Studies in the Psalms suggests that these are still the fool’s words. He again imagines him looking around in satisfaction at an iniquitous place he has found.

There is none who does good.

George McDonald in his fictional book The Lady’s Confession considers the issue of whether or not there truly is a good atheist, and comes to the conclusion (or at least suggests it) that the atheist is only good in his own eyes. The reality is that those who have given up on the idea of God, though they still might desire to be good, have cut themselves off from the only One Who can truly make anyone good. The result of doing this is not going to be goodness. This conclusion sweeps over all those who turn away from God and comes to the ultimate conclusion: there is none of them who does good.

2. God looks down from heaven upon the children of men,

Now we are presented with the picture of God looking down from heaven upon the children of men. In Hebrew this reads, “the sons of Adam.” Though modern science might try to deny it, the Biblical reality is that all people who are today alive are descended from one man, Adam.

The Hebrew idea of the word “sons” is of representatives. This came from the fact that the system the Hebrews lived under was largely a family system wherein the family was both a family and a business. The head of the family business was the patriarch or “father,” and his firstborn son was the one who would take over the business from him someday. The son, then, became the one who could take the place of and stand in for the father. From this idea, the word “son” took on the meaning of anyone who represented anything. One could even speak of a person’s character, such as if he was lazy, and call him a “son of laziness.”

Therefore, this is speaking of the representatives of Adam. Of course, Adam is no longer alive, nor are many of his descendants. Yet some of these are currently alive, and so the descendants of Adam alive at any given time are the current representatives of Adam. This is true whether they are men or women. In this sense, male or female makes no difference: all are the sons of Adam. Thus this could mean that God is looking upon all the descendants of Adam who are alive at a certain time. Yet such people are also represented by their governmental leaders or rulers as well, so this also could be whom God was looking upon: the rulers of Adam’s race.

To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.

God’s purpose in looking upon the sons of Adam is to see if there are any who understand what He would have them to be doing; that is, if there are any who are seeking Him. This is what God desires the sons of Adam to do, as Paul declared by the Spirit while speaking to the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17:26-27.

26. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27. so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

Paul declares that the Lord made us to seek Him, in the hope that we might grope for Him and find Him. God desires this, and He looks for it in the sons of Adam. Sadly, it seems that many who do grope for God are quickly waylaid from this quest by any number of cults, religions, and religious groups. Yet God is pleased at least by the seeking. Surely He knows how dark the world is and how hard the search! I do not believe we should count Him out from being gracious to those who have at least made the effort, and have made it in sincerity. Still there can be no doubt that many have gotten off on the wrong road entirely when it comes to knowing God! Yet God here is not looking for those who have succeeded in the quest. No, He is simply looking for those who have been prudent enough to make the attempt.

3. Every one of them has turned aside;

Sadly, as God looks in this case, what He finds is that there are none who are making the attempt. Every one of them has turned aside! This is a sad discovery indeed.

Rotherham suggests that only in a certain place is this true. Certainly, we must use caution before applying this universally. Even in corrupt Sodom, there was still righteous Lot, as II Peter 2:7 declares. Even in the corrupt world before the Flood, there was still righteous Noah, pure in his generations. Therefore the Bible’s own testimony would argue against the idea that this might be universally applied. What, then, is the truth that the Holy Spirit is here conveying to us?

It is possible that the truth here is considering mankind without the gracious intervention of God. In other words, the Psalmist is speaking theoretically, that this is the way it would be if God did not intervene to save some of the sons of Adam and turn them back towards Himself. This might certainly be true, and I John 4:19 seems to back it up when it says, “We love Him because He first loved us.” If God had not made the first move, it is certain we would not have made it. We are like Ruth, only seeking God and calling on Him to be our Redeemer once He has first shown us His love and care, as Ruth sought Boaz only after he showed love and grace to her. Yet this sort of “theoretical case” smacks much of the western way of thinking, and it seems quite unlikely that the Psalmist would be writing here of the way things might be if God would never lower Himself to intervene. The reality is that He has lowered Himself to intervene, and so what would happen if He did not is a possibility we will thankfully never have to personally discover.

It is far more likely that what is meant here is a certain time when God looked down, such as before the Flood, or as in the case of Sodom. Perhaps there have been such cities as Sodom only without a Lot within them. Certainly Lot might never have moved to Sodom, and if he had not it would have been just as is described here. Yet while this could happen, we cannot deny the reality that God has acted towards the world to call men to Him, and there are many who have responded, and who still do respond even today. We cannot pretend as if this is not the case.

They have together become corrupt;

All the people whom God looks upon have together become corrupt. The Hebrew indicates that they have done this in unity. It is not alone that the sons of Adam have corrupted themselves, but rather they have done so as a group.

There is none who does good,

There is none of these sons of Adam upon whom God looks who does good. No one does “the right thing.” No one does what is good and pleasing in God’s sight.

No, not one.

This is the sad and final conclusion God comes to: no, not one. In Romans 3:10-12, this verse is put together with several others from the Psalms to prove the universal need for God’s salvation, and that there is no one who is not under sin and so who does not need God’s deliverance. This is certainly true, and is a great truth that we all must accept. As Christ taught, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who submits than over ninety-nine just persons who have no need of submission (Luke 15:7). Christ’s words there are ironic, for the only real difference is that the ninety-nine “just” persons are just too ignorant to realize their need for submission. Yet it still remains true that David, the man who wrote this Psalm, was one who sought after God, and so we must use caution in how we apply these words, for they must be understood in the light of all Scripture.

4. Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge,

David wonders at these workers of iniquity. Have they no knowledge? They seem to not have, for their actions display no understanding of the consequences of the calamity they are working.

Who eat up my people as they eat bread,

These workers of iniquity show their lack of knowledge by the fact that they eat up David’s people, the people who belong to God, the Israelites, as they might eat up food. Of course, this is a poetic figure for the fact that they destroy them. David looks upon these iniquitous workers around the land of Israel and wonders at their ignorance. It is one thing for a nation to attack another nation to pillage and plunder for themselves. Yet these were doing this to the people of God, the nation He calls His Own. How lacking in understanding this was! Did they really suppose they would get away with such actions in the face of God?

And do not call upon God?

These workers of iniquity also show their lack of knowledge by the fact that they do not call upon God. As human beings, we seem to little realize our frailty and neediness. Everything we have comes from God, including the very breath we breathe. We are under the penalty of the wages of sin, and death hangs over us every minute. None of us knows when death will fall. Yet we imagine ourselves like gods, able to take care of ourselves and not needing to call upon God for help and assistance! This shows how much we truly lack knowledge. David marvels at this attitude, yet it is all too common.

5. There they are in great fear

Now David describes these oppressive nations in far different circumstances. Instead of cocky in their defiance of God and His people, they are now filled with great fear.

Where no fear was,

They are fearful where no fear was before. Where they were sure and confident, now suddenly fear has come upon them.

For God has scattered the bones of him who encamps against you;

Here we learn why the attitude of these workers of iniquity who devoured God’s people has changed. This difference is that God has acted against them. He has moved to destroy and scatter the bones of the one who encamps against His people. He is the victory of His people, and He is the defeat of their enemies.

Rotherham doubts the title of the Psalm claiming Davidic authorship here, since this sounds to him like a description of the Assyrian army of Sennacherib, and what happened to them when the LORD delivered Jerusalem under Hezekiah. Yet Rotherham has perhaps the days of Hezekiah too much on his mind when he examines the Psalms. We do not doubt the inspired titles of these psalms when they tell us who are their authors. While the word “encamps” can refer to a siege and does at times refer to Jerusalem under siege, it also many times simply refers to pitching a camp, which is what any enemy of Israel would do when they came to attack the land. How many times did David go to war with the nations around Israel, such as the Philistines, during the early days of his reign? How many times must these enemies have come into Israel with great confidence in their ability to devour God’s people, only to be thrown into fear and confusion by the actions of the God Who was with David? Consider for example the two mighty victories over the Philistines describe in II Samuel 5:17-25.

17. Now when the Philistines heard that they had anointed David king over Israel, all the Philistines went up to search for David. And David heard of it and went down to the stronghold. 18. The Philistines also went and deployed themselves in the Valley of Rephaim. 19. So David inquired of the LORD, saying, “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will You deliver them into my hand?”
And the LORD said to David, “Go up, for I will doubtless deliver the Philistines into your hand.”
20. So David went to Baal Perazim, and David defeated them there; and he said, “The LORD has broken through my enemies before me, like a breakthrough of water.” Therefore he called the name of that place Baal Perazim. 21. And they left their images there, and David and his men carried them away.
22. Then the Philistines went up once again and deployed themselves in the Valley of Rephaim. 23. Therefore David inquired of the LORD, and He said, “You shall not go up; circle around behind them, and come upon them in front of the mulberry trees. 24. And it shall be, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, then you shall advance quickly. For then the LORD will go out before you to strike the camp of the Philistines.” 25. And David did so, as the LORD commanded him; and he drove back the Philistines from Geba as far as Gezer.

In this passage, we see two cases when enemies of the LORD, confident in their ability to devour His people, were suddenly put to fear, scattered, and defeated by the actions of God. Surely such events must have made their impression on David, and would have elicited from him such thoughts as these, marveling that the enemies of the LORD, after one such stirring defeat by Him, could confidently return to be beaten again! Had they no knowledge? How could they fail to learn with Whom they were dealing?

You have put them to shame,

David knows that it is God, not his own efforts, his own power, or his own army, that has put these enemies to shame.

Because God has despised them.

God Himself has despised these wicked men. That is why He has brought about their defeat. How could God help but despise those little men and little nations who thought to match their might against Him?

6. Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion!

David, having seen the deliverance of God in such situations, longs for the final salvation of Israel to come out of Zion! The word “salvation” is plural in Hebrew, “salvations,” and Bullinger in The Companion Bible suggests that this is the plural of majesty, meaning the great salvation. The great salvation he refers to is that which will finally come to Israel in God’s kingdom. Then, “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Isaiah 2:3b. This will bring salvation not only to Israel, but also to the whole world as God’s government arrives to rule the world at last.

When God brings back the captivity of His people,

David now anticipates God bringing back the captivity of His people. Really they have never all returned to Israel ever since they were first scattered into captivity. The final return of His people, every last one of them, to their land will only take place in the future Kingdom of God.

Again J.B. Rotherham cannot imagine David knowing anything about the captivity of Israel, since there was no captivity in his day, and so he wants to move this psalm forward at least to the time of Hezekiah. Yet he forgets that in Acts 2:29-31, Peter speaks of “the patriarch David…being a prophet…foreseeing this, spoke.” David was a prophet, and as such he foresaw things that had not happened yet. Moreover, David could have read of the captivity of Israel even in the books of Moses, for in Deuteronomy 28:64 it is declared, “64 “Then the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known—wood and stone.” This chapter of Deuteronomy predicted the scattering into captivity of Israel in the future because they disobeyed their God. Of course, this causes many scoffers to insist that Deuteronomy was not a book of Moses at all, but was written after the captivity! Yet the true believer scoffs himself at such unbelieving doubts, and knows that God is able to reveal the future, and His prophets to foresee it. Therefore, there is nothing in this psalm speaking in advance of the return of the captivity to indicate that David could not have written it. If the psalmist could not have foreseen the captivity before it happened, then he could not have foreseen that that captivity would someday be brought back, either!

Let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad.

When this great bringing back of the captivity of Israel takes place, the time will never be better for Jacob to rejoice and Israel to be glad. No doubt they will rejoice and be glad at that time, not just that they have been brought back, but also when they see the glories of God’s kingdom that has come to earth at last.

To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments.

As we discussed at the beginning of this Psalm, it was submitted by David for public use, unlike his more private version of the Psalm recorded in Psalm 14. Thus it was given to one of the three Chief Musicians so that it could be performed publicly.

As The Companion Bible points out, this word Neginoth has nothing to do with so unimportant a thing as playing this Psalm with stringed instruments. Instead, it is a Psalm “on smitings,” “referring to God’s smitings with words and acts. See v. 5, which differs from 14:5,6.” The error comes in when such subscripts are erroneously connected with the following Psalm, which may have nothing to do with smitings, rather than the preceding Psalm, as we have connected it here. In this case, the following Psalm is on smitings as well, but this is not always the case, and so the translators cannot find this meaning in the Neginoth psalms, as they should be able to do, and therefore pass this word off as just a meaningless musical notation. Yet the truth here remains: God will smite the wicked, even as He declares in this Psalm.