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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 53

Verses 1-3

Heading (Psalms 53:1 a).

Psalms 53:1

‘For the Chief Musician; set to Mahalath. Maschil of David.’

The Psalm is once again dedicated to the Choirmaster or Chief Musician, and is set to the tune of Mahalath (which possibly means ‘sickness’, and may be the opening word of another Psalm for which this tune was first composed. Or it may be a mournful tune bewailing the sickness of mankind in his sins). It is again a Maschil of David. This last may refer to the original Psalm and not to the adaptation.

The World’s Verdict On The Living God And God’s Verdict On Them (Psalms 53:1-3 ).

The man who is corrupt and sins in a way which is an abomination to God (a concept regularly found in Proverbs) is here described as ‘a fool. By his actions he has foolishly treated God as though He does not exist.

Psalms 53:1

‘The fool has said in his heart,

“There is no God.”

Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity,

There is none who does good.’

In these words a general verdict is passed by God on mankind. None are good. All are in one way or another corrupt. They behave like fools because they reject the idea of Him as the One Who is, and the One to Whom they are accountable. They may do this by having many gods, and worshipping idols who but represent aspects of creation (compare Romans 1:18-23), or simply by gross disobedience to the covenant with God (the Law of Moses), but the underlying fact is that in their hearts they reject the living God who speaks to them through the wonder of creation and through their consciences. They say that there is no such God. It is expressive of those who do outwardly worship YHWH, but who in their hearts ignore Him. They worship Him outwardly in the Temple area, but in their lives they live as though He does not exist.

‘The fool.’ This is describing the morally perverse person who rejects the idea of living a godly life. ‘Folly’ in the Old Testament is a term used to describe the person who behaves foolishly in that he forgets or misrepresents God or refuses to do His will (Deuteronomy 32:6; Deuteronomy 32:21; Job 42:8; Psalms 74:18; Psalms 74:22), he commits gross offences against morality (2 Samuel 13:12-13) or sacrilege (Joshua 7:15), or he behaves churlishly and unwisely (1 Samuel 25:25). See also Isaiah 32:5-6. Under other Hebrew words for ‘fool’ he is prominent in Proverbs. Inevitably he always sees himself as wise.

‘In his heart.’ It is not his intellect that rejects the idea of God, but his mind, will and emotions. He may ‘believe in God’, but he does not want to have to face up to God because of what it might involve in a transformed life. He likes living as he is. See Psalms 73:11; Jeremiah 5:12; Zephaniah 1:12.

‘They are corrupt, they have done abominable iniquity.’ Compare Genesis 6:11. They are corrupt within and their lives reveal what they really are, sinful, violent, idolatrous, and/or sexually perverted. See Romans 1:18-32.

‘There is none who does good.’ This is the final verdict on the world. They are cited in Romans 3:10 in order to demonstrate that all men are sinners. All mankind are fools in this sense, for sin is folly. The difference is that some have found forgiveness, and have begun to live in a new way. God is declaring that there is no true, positive, untainted goodness in the world. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All are likewise guilty.

Psalms 53:2

God looked down from heaven on the children of men,

To see if there were any who understood, Who sought after God.’

But God would not judge men without a fair examination, and so He looked down to see if there were any who understood and who sought after Him. (In Jeremiah 5:1 ff. he challenges Jeremiah to do the same). The vivid anthropomorphism brings out the truth of God’s constant examination and assessment of the human race (compare Genesis 11:5), and His call to accountability. He examines men in depth testing out, not what they say to Him, but their true understanding, and response

Psalms 53:3

‘Every one of them is gone back, they are together become filthy,

There is no one who does good, no, not one.’

He declares that all have turned aside, even the best; all have walked in ways that are sinful, all have become morally tainted (compare Job 15:16). There was not one man on earth who continually did good and did not sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20). (For the thought of the one man Who would come Who would not sin see Isaiah 50:2 with Isaiah 50:4-9; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12).

Verse 4

God Expresses His Surprise At The Inability Of The Nations To Recognise That Israel/Judah Are His People (Psalms 53:4 )

Psalms 53:4

‘Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge,

Who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call on God?’

God is perplexed at the folly of men. He cannot believe that they are so lacking in wisdom and common sense. Do they have no knowledge and understanding? Do they not recognise that those who are in covenant with Him are His people? They neither call on God nor treat well those who do truly call on Him.

The fact that they do not call on God, that is on YHWH (Psalms 14:5), would appear to point to foreign nations. They ‘eat up My people as they eat bread’. ‘My people’ must refer here to Israel/Judah, but especially to those who truly call on Him, the faithful in Israel (Micah 2:9; Micah 3:5). For while ‘my people’ is used of Israel as a whole it is always with the understanding that they are potentially responding to the covenant. Those who fail to do so in the end cease to be ‘His people’. They are then seen as combined with the enemy (this is made clear in the Book of Ezra). Devouring or eating up His people refers both to depriving them of their possessions, devouring their wealth, and to oppressing them, giving them a hard time and even doing violence to them (compare Micah 3:1-3; Isaiah 3:14-15; Ezra 4-5). So the world is seen as in deliberate antagonism against God, and against true righteousness as personified in His true people.

‘The workers of iniquity’ are thus those who deliberately continue in the way of sin having refused to become one of His people. They have turned away from the covenant. They are not necessarily great sinners as the world would view it, but they are from God’s viewpoint, because they fail to truly respond to Him.

Verse 5

In Their Folly The Nations Have Invaded Israel/Judah And, Being Rejected By God, Have Been Utterly Defeated (Psalms 53:5 ).

Psalms 53:5

‘There were they in great fear, where no fear was,

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

You have put them to shame, because God has rejected them.’

Apart from the first clause this verse is totally different in meaning from Psalms 14:5-6. Clearly it has been adapted to a new situation, an invasion that failed, even though the consonantal text is similar. It is clear that the adapter realised that he was dealing with a sacred text, and changed it as little as possible. In Psalms 14:5 the great fear was that of Israel’s enemies. Here it is Israel’s fear because of their enemies. But the Psalmist points out that there was no need for that fear, because God was with them. And as a consequence He had scattered the bones of their enemies who had encamped against them.

Because He had rejected them Israel was able to put them to shame, presumably by defeating them in some way. This could refer to Judah’s ‘victory’ over Sennacherib as described in Isaiah 36-37, with the idea that there had really been nothing to fear because God was with them, although it had certainly seemed at the time that there was something to fear. But the addition of ‘you have put them to shame’ militates against this, unless we see it as meaning that they put them to shame by their prayers. For the people had nothing to do, apart from prayer, with the defeat of the Assyrians. It could thus refer to some similar invasion that was thwarted, where there was no real danger because God was with the forces of Israel/Judah. Psalms 53:1-4 are here given as an explanation of why God had rejected their enemies.

Verse 6

A Final Cry That Israel/Judah Might Be Freed From The Yoke That is Upon Them (Psalms 53:6 ).

Psalms 53:6

‘Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion!

When God brings back the captivity of (or ‘restores the fortunes of’) his people,

Then will Jacob rejoice,

Israel will be glad.’

These words bring the Psalm back on track as parallel with Psalms 14:0, being almost word for word the same. The psalmist finishes on a note of longing for Israel’s final deliverance when their king will rule to the ends of the earth (Psalms 2:8) and they will thus experience such invasions no more. ‘O that Israel’s deliverance had come’. This confirms that they are here seen as having been under some kind of misfortune. In Job 42:10 the verb is translated ‘restores the fortunes’ and clearly signifies a restoring of fortunes to Job. He is only a captive to his misery. And this fits all the other places where the verb is used. Thus it is possibly the best translation here. It could therefore refer to a period of subjection under the Philistines, or some other enemy of Israel, and a prayer for deliverance from it. But the prayer is finally not just for deliverance but for final deliverance when God’s final purpose of deliverance for His people comes about through the establishing of God’s everlasting rule Psa 2:8-9 ; 2 Samuel 7:13; 2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-4. And as a consequence of the restoring of their fortunes Jacob (Israel) will rejoice, and Israel will be glad.

But even if we translate as being in ‘captivity’, it would not necessarily mean exile. It could equally signify being in subjection in the land. So we are possibly to see them here as being under the iron rule of some foreign monarch, subject to tribute and in a period when they were being treated badly. ‘From Zion’ probably has in mind Mount Zion from which, speaking in an earthly way, God will act. Or the thought may be that the psalmist was looking to Zion’s king, the anointed of YHWH, to bring about the deliverance. Either way the deliverance will be of God. And that is the final certainty, that God will restore His people. And then they will be glad and rejoice.

‘Brings back the captivity’, or ‘restores the fortunes’, of His people.’ See for the use of the phrase Job 42:10; Hosea 6:11; Amos 9:14; Ezekiel 16:53; Zephaniah 2:7.

So the message of the Psalm is of God’s calling to account the folly of the nations, both as regards Himself, and especially as revealed in their attitude towards His people, having very much in mind here His true people. The thought is that His being and nature are so obvious in the light of creation and conscience, and His people so precious, that humanly speaking, from the psalmist’s point of view, God could only question the behaviour of the world in its treatment of Him and His people and see it as folly. And it ends on the positive note that salvation is yet coming for His people.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 53". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.