New European Commentary


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Psa 53:1 For the Chief Musician. To the tune of Mahalath. A contemplation by David- "Mahalath" means "sickness", and this may have been written or used with reference to the time when David was sick after the sin with Bathsheba. The AV adds the title "Maschil", for instruction; as if this may have been one of the songs David wrote after receiving forgiveness, in an attempt to bring others to know the grace he had experienced.

The fool has said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity. There is no one who does good-
The Psalms are sometimes paired, and we wonder if Ps. 53 continues the reflections of Ps. 52 about Doeg. However, "Nabal", whose name means "fool", died from heart failure; and perhaps he is here in view. Or perhaps a Psalm initially about Nabal was reworked to be relevant to Doeg and other individuals who had rejected God. The denial of God need not refer to atheism as we understand it; for atheism was almost unheard of in David's time. Rather does it refer to the inner mentality which acts as if there is no God. The same phrase is used in Ps. 14:1, and the Targum on that verse is ‘There is no government of God in the earth’. God may exist theoretically, but is not a factor in human life. And we too can be effective atheists in this sense.

The quotation in Rom. 3:10 from Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-3 is about the fools who say in their heart that there is no God; and it seems David has specific enemies of his in view, perhaps Nabal or Doeg. Yet Paul applies this to every one of us, himself included. What he’s doing here is similar to what he does at the end of Romans 1- he speaks of the grossest sins such as lesbianism and reasons that we are all in essence guilty and condemned as serious sinners before God. Here he quotes passages which speak of effective atheism and applies them to us all, himself included- even though atheism was abhorrent to the Jews, and Paul may have seemed the last person to be an atheist. But the ‘atheism’ occurs within the psychological thought processes of the human mind- the fool says in his heart that there is no God. In the context of Romans, Paul is arguing that we call God a liar when we disbelieve His offer of justification and salvation. To deny this is to effectively say in our hearts that there is no God. If God is, then He is a Saviour God. To deny that He will save me is effectively to say He doesn’t exist; for a God who won’t save me may as well not exist. Far too many people claim some level of belief in God’s existence, but in their hearts deny Him, in that they personally doubt whether His promised salvation is really true for me.

Psa 53:2 God looks down from heaven on the children of men, to see if there are any who understood, who seek after God-
David clearly assumed that although this was generally the case, he and the righteous did understand and seek after God. But as noted on :2, Paul sees David as being overly generous to himself, and "concludes all under sin", including the righteous. We note that understanding God is paralleled with seeking after Him. Nobody arrives at 100% understanding of God; the true understanding is to have a heart which seeks to understand Him.

Psa 53:3 Every one of them has gone back. They have become filthy together. There is no one who does good, no, not one-
David often describes himself as "upright in heart" just as Job was (s.w. Job 1:8; 2:3). David sees this as characteristic of all God's people (s.w. Ps. 11:2; 19:8; 32:11; 36:10; 64:10; 94:15; 97:11). But he sees the wicked as those who are not upright, who have "gone back" (Ps. 14:3; 51:1,3). But these words which David writes about the wicked are then reinterpreted as applying to all men, God's people included (Rom. 3:12). Like Job, David had to be taught that actually he was failing to see the seriousness of sin; righteousness and acceptability with God is imputed to men by grace through faith, because actually there are none who are upright in heart, apart from God's representative son.

Psa 53:4 Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and don’t call on God?-
This Psalm which was originally about Doeg or Nabal comes to be reapplied to the general enemies of God's people, who 'ate them up' as did the Babylonians and Assyrians. Their abuse of people was because they lacked "knowledge", and yet adultery is also a sin reflecting a lacking of knowledge or understanding (Prov. 6:32). Again, David uses terms about the wicked which become relevant to himself. All sin against others is a reflection of a lack of understanding and personal calling upon God.

Psa 53:5 There they were 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-
As noted on :4, a Psalm which began as David's reflections upon individuals like Doeg or Nabal comes to be applied to Israel as a whole. A comparison of Psalms 14 and 53 illustrate the process of re-writing at Hezekiah's time. These Psalms are both "A Psalm of David", and are virtually identical apart from Ps. 53:5 adding: "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 rejected them". This surely alludes to the Assyrian army encamped against Jerusalem (2 Chron. 32:1), put into fear by the Angels, and returning "with shame of face to his own land" (2 Chron. 32:21). Perhaps the idea is that the Jews who feared them need not have feared them. Yet both Psalms conclude with a verse which connects with the exiles in Babylonian captivity: "Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When God bringeth back the captivity of his people, Then shall Jacob rejoice, and Israel shall be glad". So it would appear that the initial Psalm was indeed written by David; the version of Ps. 14 which is now Ps. 53 was added to and adapted in Hezekiah's time (Prov. 25:1), and both versions had a final verse added to them during the exile.

Psa 53:6 Oh that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When God brings back His people from captivity, then Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad
- "Salvation" is Yeshua. Clearly the desire is for Yeshua / Jesus to come out of Zion, and this is how it is interpreted in Rom. 11:26. Many NT passages mix a number of OT passages in one 'quotation'; e.g. " The deliverer will come from Zion" (Rom. 11:26) is a conflated quotation of Ps. 14:7; 53:6 and Is. 59:20. And Heb. 13:5 combines quotes from Gen. 28:15; Josh. 1:5 and Dt. 31:16. Heb. 13:5 doesn’t quote any of them exactly, but mixes them together. As noted on :5, this Psalm had initial application to individuals in David's time, but :4,5 are reworked with relevance to the Assyrian invasion; and now in this verse the Psalm is given relevance to the exiles awaiting restoration to Zion. And this is how we too are invited to personalize and use the scriptures.