Psalm 53

Submitted by admin on Mon, 2006-04-17 10:51.

Posted in | printer-friendly version »

In the Masoretic Text, the wording of the first four verses (five verses, if the superscription is counted as verse 1) of Psalm 53 is almost identical to that of Psalm 14. This is also the case in the Septuagint.

The Dead Sea Psalms scrolls (dated from the second century BCE to the first century CE) reveal that various collections of psalms existed during that comparatively late period. These collections include compositions not found in the Masoretic Text and the order in which the sacred songs appear is also not identical. Psalm 53, therefore, could be a variant of Psalm 14 from an ancient collection that had been revised to fit a new development and adapted for different musical accompaniment. The superscription for Psalm 53 does, in fact, include more instructions. With only the significant differences incorporated or mentioned in the notes, the comments that follow repeat the material from Psalm 14 but do reflect a different setting.

Psalm 53 is attributed to David. The words “according to mahalath” may have informed the “musical director” or “leader” that the song be sung to the accompaniment of a tune known as “Mahalath” or that particular instruments be used, perhaps flutes. That the significance of the term “mahalath” has been lost is apparent from the Septuagint reading maeleth, which also is a transliterated form of the Hebrew expression. The meaning of “maskil” is likewise uncertain. If linked to the Hebrew verb sakál, the term incorporates either the meaning “to contemplate” or “to give insight.” This could mean that “maskil” is either a contemplative or an insightful composition. The Septuagint translator apparently associated the term with “insight” and used a form of synesis, meaning “understanding” or “intelligence.”

In his heart, or within himself, the fool says that there is no God. This expression is not a spoken denial of God’s existence but an inward rejection of any accountability to the Most High. The senseless one does not lack mental capacity but is morally deficient, conducting his affairs as if God did not exist.

From the divine standpoint, senseless persons are corrupt and engage in abhorrent practices. Not a person among them does what is good or godly.

The psalmist portrays God as looking down from his heavenly position upon the “sons of man” (earthlings) to determine whether any among them are acting wisely (in harmony with his purpose and will) and seeking him, earnestly desiring a good relationship with him. According to this penetrating divine examination, all have “turned back” from the path of uprightness. All were corrupt, without even as much as one doing good or what is divinely approved. In view of the mention of God’s people thereafter, evidently this is not a blanket condemnation of all humans, but a description of those who are enemies of his people.

The question about their having no knowledge probably is to be understood as meaning whether they do not recognize that evil deeds merit punishment. They are depicted as devouring God’s people like bread. This may be descriptive of their ruthlessness in warfare. These enemies do not call upon God, not recognizing him as the only true God.

Confident that the Almighty will not indefinitely allow the suffering of his people to continue, the psalmist referred to a time when the enemies would be in great terror. Although somewhat obscure, the Hebrew may be understood to mean that they would experience a fear or fright they had never known before. God would scatter the bones of these enemies who set up a military camp against his people. This scattering of the bones suggests that the corpses of the attackers would be left unburied as food for carrion-eating birds and beasts. Because God would reject the attackers, the Israelites would put them to shame by remaining undefeated. Their enemies, on the other hand, would suffer humiliation.

Because God’s sanctuary or representative place of dwelling was in Zion, the psalmist prayed for Israel’s deliverance to come from there. Upon rescuing his people, God would bring those taken captive back to their land. At that time, Jacob (as their ancestor representing the people) would be able to exult and Israel (the new name given to Jacob and which also designated his descendants) would have reason to rejoice.


Regarding the expression thought to mean “musical director” or “leader,” see Psalm 9.

In the Masoretic Text, the name YHWH does not appear in this psalm. This also seems to have been the case in the Dead Sea Psalms scrolls. In the preserved portion of verse 4(5), where the corresponding verse of Psalm 14 reads YHWH, the Dead Sea scroll says “God.” No ancient Greek fragments of this psalm have been found, and so there is no way to know whether the original translation contained the Hebrew YHWH. In the existing text of the Septuagint, kyrios (Lord) appears in the last verse, suggesting that YHWH is the underlying Hebrew reading. Otherwise, throughout this psalm, theós (God) is used.

According to the reading of the Septuagint (53:5[6]; 52:6, LXX), “God scattered the bones of men pleasers. They were put to shame because God disdained them.”

For additional information, see Psalm 14 and the accompanying notes.

Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.