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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Psalms 53

Verses 1-6


According to the superscription this Psalm was composed by David and dedicated “To the Chief Musician;” to be used in public worship under his direction. The term “upon Mahalath” is variously interpreted. In the Geneva version it is rendered, “To him that excelleth on Mahalath;” which is explained in the margin to be “an instrument or kind of note.” “This expresses the opinions of most commentators. Aben Ezra understands by it the name of a melody to which the Psalm was sung. Calvin and J. H. Michaelis, among others, regarded it as an instrument of music, or the commencement of a melody. Fuerst explains Mahalath as the name of a musical corps dwelling at Abel-Meholah, just as by Gittith he understands the band of Levite minstrels at Gath Rimmon. On the other hand, the opinion that Mahalath contains an enigmatical indication of the subject of the Psalm is adopted by Hengstenberg to the exclusion of every other. He translates ‘on Mahalath’ by ‘on sickness, referring to the spiritual malady of the sons of men. A third theory is that of Delitzsch, who considers Mahalath as indicating to the choir the manner in which the Psalm was to be sung, and compares the modern terms mesto, andante mesto” (Smith’s Dict. of the Bible). The term “Maschil” shows that the Psalm was designed to afford instruction.

This Psalm is almost exactly similar to Psalms 14:0. The only difference which requires notice here is between Psalms 53:5-6 of Psalms 14:0. and Psalms 53:5 of this one.

“There were they in great fear; for God is in the generation of the righteous. Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge” (Psalms 14:5-6.)

“There were they in great fear, where no fear was; for God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee: thou hast put them to shame, because God hath despised them.”
For the chief exposition we refer the reader to “The Hom. Com.on Psalms 14:0. We add, as supplementary to that, a few Homiletic suggestions.


(Psalms 53:2.)

“The original word here—שָׁקַף,” says Barnes, “conveys the idea of bending forward, and hence of an intense and anxious looking, as we bend forward when we wish to examine anything with attention, or when we look out for one who is expected to come. The idea is, that God looked intently, or so as to secure a close examination, upon the children of men, for the express purpose of ascertaining whether there were any that were good. He looked at all men; He examined all their pretensions to goodness, and He saw none who could be regarded as exempt from the charge of depravity.” The text suggests—

I. God’s profound interest in humanity. He bows Himself forward, and, with zeal and concern, examines man’s moral state. Such is the form in which important truths are represented—this amongst others, that the Most High is deeply interested in man’s moral condition? Why is He so?

1. Because of the dignity of man’s nature. To God nothing is unimportant—nothing mean. But man is the noblest of His creations in this world. “God created man in His own image.”

2. Because of the peculiarity of man’s moral condition. By disobedience man entered into the dread knowledge of evil. Unfallen angels are entirely holy. Fallen angels are utterly depraved. In human nature the battle between good and evil is being waged.

3. Because of the capabilities of man’s nature. Man is capable of rising to the highest or sinking to the lowest position in the universe of God. It would be passing strange if God were not deeply interested in man. Nothing that concerns thee, my brother, is unimportant in the Divine estimation.

II. God’s searching scrutiny of humanity. The poet represents him as earnestly examining “the children of men.” His is the scrutiny of—

1. An all-seeing Being. Nothing can be hidden from His all-searching eye (Psalms 139:11-16; Ezekiel 11:5; Hebrews 4:13).

2. An infinitely holy Being. He hates sin with awful and unappeasable hatred. His dwelling, His ways, His works, His essential nature, are all holy (Isaiah 57:15; Habakkuk 1:12-13; 1 John 1:5; Revelation 4:8).

3. An infinitely merciful Being. “A God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” If there be in us any sincere efforts after truth and righteousness, He sees and approves them. In His judgment of His creatures He makes allowance for their weakness, for the force of temptation, &c. He is not harsh, &c. His holiness which leads Him to hate sin leads Him also to seek the salvation of the sinner. Such is the Being who is ever earnestly observing man, examining man. How solemn and sacred should our life be, since it is ever under His inspection! What an inspiration and encouragement does this inspection afford to the godly! What a restraint it should prove to the workers of iniquity! “For His eyes are upon the ways of man, and He seeth all his goings. There is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves.”

III. The supreme concern of humanity. Why does God so earnestly examine man? “To see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.” As these are the things which God desires to discover in man, man’s great concern should be to have and to exercise them. We should seek—

1. Moral intelligence. “Understand,” or act prudently—the antithesis of the fool in Psalms 53:1. Not intellectual attainment, but practical wisdom.

“Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,
Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which wisdom builds,
Till smooth’d, and squared, and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber whom it seems t’enrich.
Knowledge is proud that he has learn’d so much;
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.”—Cowper.

“The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way.”

2. Divine aspiration. “Seek God.” Hengstenberg: “To seek God, designates the desire of the heart after Him, the longing directed towards Him.” Where there is any true wisdom, or any spiritual life, it will manifest itself in seeking fellowship and union with God. Only through the mediation of Jesus Christ can this union be obtained. Our well-being is impossible apart from Him.


1. He who now scrutinises will one day judge man.

2. His judgment of man is infallible. He deliberately, patiently, and thoroughly examines into every case before pronouncing judgment.

3. He is also the merciful Saviour of men.

4. Our supreme interest is to seek to know Him as our Saviour.


(Psalms 53:5-6.)

The poet here represents the destruction of the wicked—

I. As utter and irreversible. “God hath scattered the bones of thy besiegers.” The figure points to the most complete and terrible destruction of the enemies of the Church. Not only is their power broken and their forces dispersed, but they are slain, and their bones, unburied, are scattered upon the earth. Moll: “It was the greatest disgrace that the bones which had not been gathered and buried should be scattered to become the prey of wild beasts, or manure of the field” (Psalms 141:7; Jeremiah 8:2; Jeremiah 9:22; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 25:33; Ezekiel 6:5). The wicked must either submit themselves unto God, or suffer irretrievable overthrow. If any one will resist Him to the uttermost, by so doing he will bring upon himself utter destruction (Job 9:4; Job 40:9).

II. As effected by God. “God hath scattered,” &c. Doubtless there is an historical allusion here. Most probably the allusion is to the destruction of the vast and mighty host of Sennacherib before Jerusalem. In one night one hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrians were slain by “the angel of the Lord.” “I will defend this city to save it,” said the Lord, “for Mine own sake, and for My servant David’s sake.” There was no battle. He needed no assistance. With the breath of his nostrils he slew them. How insane for any creature to battle against Him! He can crush the mightiest with a word, or wither the most vigorous with one glance of His eye!

III. As overtaking them when they regarded themselves as quite secure. “There were they in great fear where no fear was.” It is incorrect to interpret this as groundless alarm or unnecessary fear. The meaning is, that when the enemies of the Israelites saw no reason to be terrified, and felt themselves entirely safe, suddenly and utterly contrary to their expectation, destruction overtook them. “A sound of terrors is in his ears; in prosperity,” &c. (Job 15:21). “When they shall say, Peace and safety,” &c. (1 Thessalonians 5:3). In opposition to God there can be no safety, under any circumstances. In alliance with Him there can be no real peril, however threatening the aspect of affairs may be. (Comp. 2 Chronicles 20:1-30.)

IV. As inflicted because of their hostility to the people of God. The enemy was utterly overthrown because he was besieging the chosen people. No one can attempt to injure even the least of the people of God without calling forth His interposition.

1. He is in covenant relation with His people, and is pledged to help them. He is ever true to His covenant engagements. “He abideth faithful; He cannot deny Himself.”

2. He is profoundly and tenderly interested in His people (Isaiah 49:14-16; Matthew 18:5-6; Matthew 25:40; Matthew 25:45; Acts 9:4). From these portions of Scripture it is quite clear that He identifies Himself with them: what is done against them He regards as done against Him; what is done for them, as done for Him. In this we have—

(1) An inspiring and strengthening consideration for the people of God.
(2) Motive and encouragement to those who would aid them.
(3) Warning to those who would injure them.

V. The destruction of the wicked in former times as an encouragement to the good to expect salvation from present dangers. This we take to be the connecting link between Psalms 53:5-6. “Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion,” &c. Notice—

1. The poetic view of salvation. It is here represented as deliverance from captivity. Captivity is a figure to represent restraint, misery, &c. “Turning the captivity” is a figure for the turning of an unhappy condition into a restoration to former prosperity. A state of sin is a state of bondage and misery. The Lord Jesus introduces man to freedom and joy.

2. The grand source of salvation. “Out of Zion,” &c., because there the Lord was enthroned in the sanctuary as in His habitation. The salvation of man from the sins and sorrows of life can come only from God. It is His to “proclaim liberty to the captives,” &c.

3. The earnest desire of salvation. “Oh that the salvation of Israel,” &c. Our fervent desires are our true prayers. Through all ages the prayers of true hearts have been offered for the redemption of the world from sin and misery.

4. The anticipated result of salvation. “Jacob shall rejoice, Israel shall be glad.” To the individual the realisation of salvation is a joyous experience. And when its blessings shall be enjoyed by all mankind, the exultation will be universal in its extent, and enthusiastic and reverent in its character. And unto God shall all the glory be ascribed.

5. The encouragement to expect salvation. Past deliverances inspire the poet with confident hope of salvation from present difficulties and dangers. God is unchangeable. What He has done in the past He is able to do in the present. He is faithful. What He has promised that will He perform. Every new deliverance is an additional reason for trusting Him. “Because Thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice.”

“His love in time past

Forbids me to think

He’ll leave me at last

In trouble to sink:

Each sweet Ebenezer

I have in review,

Confirms His good pleasure

To help me quite through.”—Newton.

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 53". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.