Psalm 53

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 53 and its interpreters.  In this post, I’ll do what I did a few weeks ago with Psalm 51: I will copy and paste the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on the verses that I want to comment on.

To the chief Musician upon Mahalath, Maschil, A Psalm of David.

What does “Mahalath” (or, actually, “Machalath”) mean?  It could be an instrument, or even a dance, for E.W. Bullinger associates the term with the Hebrew word mecholoth, which refers to dances (Judges 21:21; Psalm 149:3; 150:4), and Bullinger speculates that this Psalm relates to David’s dance after God had brought David through difficulties.  Jewish and Christian interpreters have related the term to the Hebrew word machalah, which means “sickness”.  Some Christians have argued that Psalm 53 is about humanity’s spiritual sickness, for it talks about human depravity in vv 2-4, plus Paul quotes v 3 in Romans 3:10, as part of his argument that all have sinned and thus need a savior.  The Jewish interpreter Rashi holds that the term is used to convey that Israel was sick after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E.

Another Jewish interpretation is found in the medieval Midrash on the Psalms, and it states that Abigail brought forgiveness (mechilah) to David after he sought to kill her husband, Nabal, for his ingratitude and inhospitality towards David and his men.  Psalm 53:1, after all, refers to the “fool”, and the Hebrew word for that in this verse is navalIn this interpretation, Psalm 53 concerns the events in I Samuel 25:  Nabal’s churlish behavior did not indicate any God-consciousness on his part, but David trusted that God would deal with Nabal, and David received forgiveness for his own quick-tempered and drastic attempt to kill Nabal and Nabal’s men.    

1The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.

I have two points for this verse.  First of all, I got tired of listening to smug sermons on this verse saying that atheists are fools whose unbelief has nothing to do with intellectual objections that they may have to the existence of God, but rather pertains to their rebellion against God’s authority over their lives. Granted, there are many atheists who may not like what traditional religions (namely, Judaism and Christianity) have defined as “God’s rules” (especially in the area of sex).  But that does not mean that the atheists’ arguments are invalid.

Second, Charles Spurgeon made a comment about how atheists may not be vicious, but the principle of atheism left unchecked leads to immorality.  On the one hand, I disagree with Spurgeon here, for there are countries that do not have a strong theistic component yet have low crime rates.  On the other hand, I can see a degree of merit in what Spurgeon is saying because, in a culture that does root morality in theism (such as ancient Israel), a rejection of theism could entail a rejection of morality, as people conclude that they can do what they want without consequences.  A culture that does not root morality in theism, however, most likely won’t have that problem.

 2God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.

Augustine asks why God has to look for people who understand and seek him, when God (being omniscient) already knows how that search will turn out.  Augustine’s answer is that the Bible says that God seeks something when it really means that human beings are seeking it.  Augustine appeals to I Corinthians 2:10, which says that the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.  That passage says that the Spirit searches, when actually the Spirit is enabling human beings (in this case, believers) to search.  According to Augustine, because the Spirit’s search in I Corinthians 2:10 is intertwined with human activity, Psalm 53:2’s statement that God searches means that human beings are the ones looking for God-fearing people.

3Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

I have three points for this verse.  First, in my post on Psalm 14 (which is very similar to Psalm 53), I noted that some interpreters (both Jewish and Christian) did not regard Psalm 14 to be an indictment of all of humanity, but rather an indictment of all of a particular group, such as the invading Babylonians.  I found the same sort of thing in my study of Psalm 53 and its interpreters.  Rashi, for example, says that Psalm 53:3 means that no one in the army of the Roman Titus stood against Titus’ plan to ransack Jerusalem and the Temple.  All of Titus’ army was corrupt!  (For Rashi, Psalm 14 is about the Babylonian invasion of Judah and Jerusalem in the sixth century, B.C.E., whereas Psalm 53 pertains to the Roman invasion in 70 C.E., and that is why there are two Psalms that say essentially the same thing: they are commenting on two separate events.)

Second, I noted in my post on Psalm 14 that Augustine had an interesting interpretation of “there is none that doeth good, no, not one”.  I said: “The Septuagint for the verse can be translated to mean that ‘There is none that does good, there is not up to one,’ and Augustine interprets ‘not up to one’ as ‘except one,’ indicating that the verse is saying that there is only one man who does good. For Augustine, that one man is Christ.”  What was interesting in my study on Psalm 53 is that I encountered a similar interpretation in the Jewish Midrash on the Psalms, only it said that the “one” who was not wicked was Abraham, and that Psalm 53 concerns the vast wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Third, the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll translates sag in v 3 (which the KJV renders as “is gone back”) as “are dross”, presumably because a Hebrew word for “dross” is sigim.  Drawing from the Midrash Shocher Tov and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Artscroll states: “One who has gone astray can find his way back.  But dross cannot be reconverted into a refined metal”.  According to this interpretation, Psalm 53 is about the hopelessly wicked.  But I’d like to think that there is always hope when God enters the picture—-that people who cannot become good by themselves can become good through divine intervention.

 4Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread: they have not called upon God.

W.O.E. Oesterley translates this verse differently: “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge?  They devour my people; they eat the bread of God but call not upon his name.”  Oesterley gets “his name” from v 5, which begins with the word sham, “there”.  Oesterley thinks that sham should be emended to shemo (“his name”) and put into the end of v 4.  For Oesterley (and many others), Psalm 53 is about corrupt priests, who eat the bread of God (sacrifices, or the shewbread) yet lack knowledge about God and do not honor God in their lives.  Oesterley dates Psalm 53 to the Greek period, and he says that Jewish interaction with the Greeks led to godlessness, a disregard of the God of Israel.  (Oesterley says that the Greeks had gods, but that the Psalmist regarded those gods as nothing.)

 5There 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.

John MacArthur aptly notes that v 5 is what distinguishes Psalm 53 from Psalm 14.  Because Psalm 53:5 appears to talk about a battle, with its language about encampment and the scattering of the enemy’s bones, MacArthur proposes that Psalm 53 was applying Psalm 14 to a battle situation, in which the Psalmist was hoping that God would defeat a foreign aggressor against Israel.  Others have this interpretation as well.  Marvin Tate believes that Psalm 53 pertains to a battle.  The fourth century Christian exegete, Theodore of Mopsuestia, apples Psalm 53 to God’s defeat of the Assyrian Sennacherib.  And, as I said in my comments on Psalm 53:3, Rashi related Psalm 53 to the Romans’ invasion of Jerusalem.  The application of Psalm 53 to a foreign aggressor against Israel comes into play in interpretations of Psalm 53:1, which condemns the fool who says there is no God.  After all, one of Rabshakeh’s arguments against Hezekiah was that the God of Judah was no more powerful than the God of Israel and the gods of the other nations that Assyria conquered (Isaiah 36:18-20).  And Rashi states that Titus thought that he killed the God of the Jews when he tore the Temple curtain!

There was an interesting interpretation of “thou hast put them to shame, because God hath despised them” in the Midrash on the Psalms.  According to this view, these were words that were spoken by Israel’s enemies against Israel, as Israel’s enemies believed that God had forsaken his people.  But the Midrash goes on to affirm that God will never despise his people, Israel.

 6Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When God bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.

On the basis of vv 5-6, I think that Psalm 53 relates to foreign aggressors against Israel, but what gives some interpreters difficulty is v 4, which criticizes those who oppress God’s people and do not call upon God.  As some have noted, the Gentiles were not expected to call on God, for God was the God of Israel, whereas the Gentiles had their own gods (see Deuteronomy 4:19; 32:8-9).  That’s why some conclude that Psalm 53 is criticizing Jews who are deemed to be godless.  But those who have dated Psalm 53 to the Greek period could say that the Jews who were considered godless had a close relationship with Israel’s foreign oppressors.  Whether Psalm 53 is pre-exilic, exilic, or post-exilic, perhaps it is lambasting all wicked people, foreign and domestic.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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