George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalms 14 and 53

Since these two psalms are almost identical, the commentary here will follow 14, and further details about 53 will be added at the appropriate points.

1. Structure

Until v. 7 the subject is the godless fool. Then the last verse asserts that God is in control.

2. Historical setting

The fact that Psalm 53 follows a psalm with an explicit historical title about Doeg the Edomite, and precedes another psalm about Saul’s hunt for David the outlaw, suggests that this psalm also belongs to the same period in David’s life. This hint yields results. Phrase after phrase makes an easy link with Doeg’s betrayal of David and his vicious massacre, at Saul’s command, of the priests of Nob (1 Sam. 21; 22).

Psalm 36:1,2,12 has marked similarity, but the tone of the rest of this psalm is markedly different.

The fool (nabal: 1 Sam. 25:25) hath said....There is no God. This is not “atheism” in the modern sense of the term, but in the same sense as 10:4,6,11-13 and 97:7: ‘God is inactive; He will take no notice; and if He does, He certainly won’t punish.’ This is precisely the attitude of many religious people today: they are willing to believe in God and follow religious observance so long as God leaves them alone and lets them run their affairs in their own way. Notice the change from “the fool” (singular: Saul?) to “they” (plural: Saul and Doeg?).

They are corrupt: s.w. Gen. 6:12; Judg. 2:19. But literally this Hebrew word means: they have caused to destroy, with reference to Doeg and the priests of Nob in 1 Sam. 22:18,19. Hence the phrase: abominable works (changed to the more specific “iniquity” in 53:1).
The Lord looked down: s.w. “looked” in Gen. 18:16, where the angels begin their investigation of Sodom. This is the language of direct Divine intervention, as at the time of the Flood: Gen. 6:5,12.

The children of men. The sons of Adam. But, because of the absence of vowel pointing in the original manuscripts, this could as easily read: the sons of Edom, with reference to Doeg the Edomite.
Became filthy. For what kind of uncleanness was Doeg detained before the Lord (1 Sam. 21:7)?
Who eat up my people as they eat bread. An allusion to Doeg’s ruthless massacre of the priests: 1 Sam. 22:18. The Hebrew could read: ‘Did they not know, those who eat up my people who eat the bread of God? They (i.e. my people, the priests) did not cry out.’ Thus there are historical references to priests, shewbread (‘bread of God’), and the heathen ignorance and indifference of Doeg, in the enormity of his crime.
There were they in great fear. This was the ultimate outcome of Saul’s mania for persecuting David and his friends: 1 Sam. 28:5. And the jealousy and hatred of God’s enemies was finally turned to great fear before the Philistines.
Where no fear was. Initially, Saul’s (and Doeg’s) marked lack of the fear of God.

God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee. This describes the end of Saul the persecutor: 1 Sam. 31:9-13. (But David’s bones were kept: contrast Psa. 34:20!) By a very slight alteration, this last phrase would read: him that was hanged, on the walls of Beth-shan!

Because God hath despised them, RV: rejected.; s.w. 1 Sam. 16:1: God’s rejection of Saul. This exposition indicates that this 53:5 was added by David at some later time — the interval between 1 Sam. 22 and 1 Sam. 31 at least) — or even when the psalm was appointed for sanctuary use, at the time the ark was brought to Zion (2 Sam. 6).
Ye have treated shamefully the counsel (given by Ahimelech the priest) to the poor (David, in flight), when the Lord was his refuge (at Nob).
Jacob....Israel suggests allusion to Gen. 32:24-32; 33:1, when Jacob’s fear of Esau/Edom, the fool who had no fear of God, was removed.

3. The relation between Psalms 14 and 53

It is usually assumed that Psalm 14 is the original. But this is not certain. It is noteworthy that Psalm 53 has Elohim where Psalm 14 has Jehovah (right through, according to the Sopherim). The same interesting phenomenon appears in Psalm 40:13-17 (= 70:1-5) and Judges 5:4,5 (= Psalm 68:7,8). But why? Bullinger guesses: A distinction between private and public use of the psalm. Waller guesses: The psalms were used at two different sanctuaries of the Lord: Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4) and Zion.

4. Subtitle

The subtitle Neginoth, appended to Psalm 54, means Smitings (an intensive plural?). The Hebrew text of Isaiah 38:20 has neginoth (translated “stringed instruments”), and might suggest that Hezekiah was personally responsible for the psalm titles. The Neginoth psalms, like Isaiah 38 itself, all seem to have allusion to more than “stringed instruments”; that is, to a smiting by hard circumstances, or by the power of God: consider Psalms 3:1,2,6,7; 5:6,10; 53:1,5; 54:3; 60:1-3,6-9; 66:3,11,12; 75:4-8,10; Habakkuk 3:5-17.

As the musician strums and plucks the strings of his instrument to produce the desired music, so the Almighty uses pressures and other circumstances to produce certain actions from (and to develop certain characteristics in) His children.

5. Fulfillment in Hezekiah’s day

In view of the likelihood of psalm revision in the days of Hezekiah, it is worthwhile also to read 14/53 against the backdrop of events in his time:

The fool hath said....There is no God. Rabshakeh’s tirade against the God of Israel: Isa. 37:23,28.
Corrupt....abominable works....who eat up my people. The enormities of the Assyrian invasion.
(and especially 53:5). The siege of Jerusalem and its shattering outcome: Isa. 37:36. In great fear, where no fear was (53:5) is wonderfully appropriate to the arrogant self-confident Assyrians.
Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge. Rabshakeh’s mockery: Isa. 37:12,13.
Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad. This might even be Hezekiah’s addition (like 89:49-52), for assuredly Israel’s salvation did come out of Zion then, and a great captivity did return home with gladness (Whittaker, Hezekiah the Great, pp. 85,86).

6. Messianic reference

In his sufferings Christ was both the true king (like David) and the true priesthood (like the murdered priests of Nob).

The worldly unscrupulousness, manifested in Saul and his minions, was even more marked in Caiaphas and the rulers of the Jews.

There is none that doeth good. LXX: chrestoteta, suggesting “Christ-like”. Paul applies these words and verses 2b, 3 to Jew and Gentile (like Saul and Doeg), alike impervious to the gospel (Rom. 3:10-12). Compare the citation of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-28, where Jews = Herod and the priests, and Gentiles = Pilate and the Roman soldiers. Contrast the generation of the righteous (v. 5), i.e. the new Israel in Christ (Rom. 11:5).
LXX and Rom. 3:12: There is none that doeth good, not until One, with reference to the extraordinary and absolutely unique One!
See alternative rendering (Par. 2) and compare Christ, the true priest, “devoured” by his enemies just after he ate the bread of God (at his Passover). Or, Christ (who is the bread of God: John 6:35, etc.) complacently “devoured” by his unheeding enemies. Like a lamb led to slaughter (Isa. 53:7), he did not cry out.
Oh that salvation....were come out of Zion. Apparently a highly- inappropriate verse in this psalm, but how well it describes the climax of salvation in Christ and the bringing in of his kingdom! The one who was brutally slain (see v. 4) is now raised from the dead, at last to return to the scene of his death, but now in glorious triumph (cp. with Isa. 59:20, cited in Rom. 11:26; see Whittaker, Isaiah, p. 512).

7. Other details

In his heart. Contrast what the fool says in his heart (here) with what the righteous says in his (15:2)!

Abominable. Some things may be abominable to God even though they are highly esteemed by men: e.g. covetousness (Luke 16:15). And men’s works can be abominable even when they profess to know God: Tit. 1:15,16.
To see if there were any. “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight” (Heb. 4:13).

Understand = Hebrew maschil, exactly as in the title of Psa. 53.

That did seek God could be an ironic allusion to 1 Sam. 21:7. Doeg was “detained before the Lord”, possibly for some ceremonial uncleanness, but certainly not to “seek God” in any meaningful sense!
All gone aside: s.w. Exod. 32:8. The repetition of “all” suggests the experience of Noah’s day, when mankind was a lost race, except for one lone family.

Filthy Hebrew alach = worthless, rancid, tainted — as sour milk; “stinking” (mg.); “unprofitable” (Rom. 3:12). NEB, expressively: “rotten to the core”! A word that graphically describes character deterioration. Compare the idea in Isa. 64:6,7.
Who eat up my people. Similar references in Psa. 79:6,7; Prov. 30:14; Lam. 2:16; Jer. 10:25; Mic. 3:3,4. “To eat”, as the wild beast or gluttonous man does, eagerly devouring, without remorse or regret.
God is in the generation of the righteous. Contrast 12:7.
Salvation is an intensive plural, meaning: God’s great salvation.
Oh that salvation were come out of Zion. Zion was the home of Melchizedek. Nob, the location of the sanctuary and the priests, was hard by Zion (1 Sam. 21; Isa. 10:32; cp. 1 Sam. 17:54 with 22:10. Is Nob to be identified with Golgotha? see Psa. 8, Par. 10). After the murders of the priests, this sanctuary was probably left desolate until David took Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6). But then the memory of that gruesome slaughter might be partially erased, when God’s glorious ark was at last brought to its secure resting place.

When the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people. See Psa. 85:1; Deut. 30:3; and many a verse in the second half of Isa. 49.
God hath scattered the bones of him that encamped against thee. An allusion back to Goliath (1 Sam. 17:54; 21:9)? The LXX has “the men-pleasers”, an alternative reading of 53:5.

8. A Summary of Bible “fools”

The unbelieving fool
Psalm 14:1/53:1
The rich fool
Luke 12:20
The self-righteous fool
Proverbs 28:26
The scornful fool
Proverbs 14:9
The righteous “fool”
1 Corinthians 4:10
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