Notwithstanding some serious biblical warnings about the dangers of calling someone a fool (see Matthew 5:21-22 ), I have long been fascinated by the message of Psalms 14 and 53. After all, the psalms both start with a bang, saying that the fool says in his heart that there is no God. Therefore, we may take Psalms 14 and 53 (which are almost identical) as commentaries on the problem of atheism. And that we shall do later on if we have the time.
Let us proceed in analyzing these psalms to take a somewhat different course than most of the commentaries we have done so far on the book of Psalms. Given the fact that Psalms 14 and 53, both listed as Psalms of David (Psalm 53 comes with the additional commentary that it is set to the Hebrew tune “Mahalath,” and that it is a Maschil, or contemplation, of David), are so close, we will examine them verse by verse with the two psalms quoted next to each other, to allow for better comparison. We will then examine why the psalm personally appeals to me, what other biblical authors quote the psalm in the rest of scripture, what relevance the psalm has prophetically, and what the psalm has to say specifically about our present corrupt culture.
A Verse-By-Verse Comparison of Psalms 14 and 53
Let us examine both Psalms 14 and 53 (they are short psalms) by looking at what each psalm has to say, noting the fact that they are almost identical. Psalm 14:1 reads: “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have done abominable works. There is none who does good.” Psalm 53:1 reads almost the same: “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity; There is none who does good.”
Psalm 14:2 reads: “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God.” Psalm 53:2 reads: “God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God.” Here the two psalms are exactly identical. Psalm 14:3 reads: “They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one.” Psalm 53:3 reads Every one of them has turned aside; they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one.” Here again, as in verse one, the two psalms are not identical, but are almost exactly the same. So far, within the first three verses, there are few differences between the two psalms.
Psalm 14:4 reads: “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call on the Lord?” Psalm 53:4 reads: “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people s they eat bread, and do not call upon God?” Here again there are slight differences, but with the same meaning overall. So far the two psalms are nearly identical.
Psalm 14:5-6 is different, though, and reads: “They are all in great fear, for God is with the generation of the righteous. You shame the counsel of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge.” Psalm 53:5, on the other hand, reads: “There they are 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 despised them.” Here the difference appears to be that Psalm 14 focuses on God’s deliverance of the righteous and the poor whom the wealthy and powerful of this world despise, while Psalm 53 says that those who besiege the righteous will have their bones scattered in what would appear to be a messianic prophecy of the future days (shades of Revelation 20:7-10 and Ezekiel 38-39, perhaps).
Finally, Psalms 14 and 53 close with nearly identical endings. Psalm 14:7 reads: “Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad.” Psalm 53:6 reads: “Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When God brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad.” Again, this is substantially identical, the only difference being the difference between using Yahweh or Elohim for the word of God, a difference that appears to be consistent (Psalm 14 uses Yahweh, and Psalm 53 uses Elohim). Other than Psalm 14:5-6 and Psalm 53:5, there are few differences between the two psalms, which leaves open the question as to why two substantially identical psalms would be included in the Bible. Let us examine this matter later when we discuss the contemporary relevance of the two psalms, as it is possible each has a different intended audience.
There Is None Righteous, No Not One: Psalms 14 and 53 In Romans 3
Early in my teenage years I saw in Psalms 14 and 53 a source for my own derision of the fashionable atheism that I saw all around me, and so I wrote my criticism down in a poem called “Fools Have Said There Is No Good,” which is a paraphrase of both Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1, done knowingly. Later on in high school, it was an assignment of mine to give a hellfire and brimstone sermon in the style of the Puritans, as our English class was reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter at the time. Not being in the habit of speaking ferociously at the time (unlike my present, fiercer speech and writing), I decided it would be best to quote the Bible.
As it happens, I quoted Romans 3:10-18, which gives a long litany of ferocious comments about the sin and wickedness that are natural to mankind. The first quote from this list comes from Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3, and the list goes on to quote or refer to Psalm 5:9, 140:3, Psalm 10:7, Proverbs 1:16, Isaiah 59:7-8, and Psalm 36:1. This list of biblical condemnation of the sinful heart of man is the preface to the famous and often quoted statement that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” in Romans 3:23. Before making that statement, though, Paul quotes the prophets and the writings extensively to show that this insight was possessed by godly people of the past and is not some sort of new truth previously unknown and unrecognized.
Indeed, that is a point we all have to recognize. At least potentially, all of us (including David, the author of the psalms) is an audience of Psalm 14 and 53. Indeed, all of our righteousness is as filthy rags. Apart from the righteousness of God and Jesus Christ living through us, we are all wicked and none of us understands or seeks after God. We all practice deceit, our mouths are all full of cursing and bitterness, destruction and misery are in all of our ways and none of us know the way of peace (as some of realize all too well). Indeed, it is thanks to God’s mercy and to it alone that any of us are able to know and follow God’s ways, as such ways are foreign and hostile to the way all of us naturally live our lives apart from the grace and assistance of God. So let none of us seek any sophistical contrivances to excuse ourselves from falling under the same condemnation that falls to others. Before we criticize others, we must look at ourselves and to realize it is thanks to God’s mercy and not do to our righteousness than any of us (myself included!) are in the position to warn or criticize anyone else for their wickedness. This is what David meant in Psalms 14 and 53, this is what Paul means in Romans 3, and that is what I mean in this post and any of my other imprecatory messages.
Psalms 14 and 53 as Prophecy
Let us now examine Psalm 14 and 53 for their prophetic importance, as these psalms both have prophetic implications. Psalm 14 and 53 both (strikingly) feature a plaintive call that the Eternal would bring back the captivity of His people and that salvation would come out of Zion, presumably with the rule of Jesus Christ over all the earth. This would appear to refer to a time when Israel and Jacob rejoice in their salvation from captivity at the beginning of the thousand years of righteous rule of Jesus Christ over the whole earth.
Likewise, the statement that God is with the “generation” of the righteous and that He is the refuge of the poor whose counsel and advice is neglected by those wicked leaders who consider themselves high and mighty in present worldly institutions is itself a harsh condemnation of our present wicked generations in authority over so many of our world’s institutions, and the way in which they engage in ungodly politics rather than in respecting and honoring all, including the poorest among us. Psalm 14 makes this point devastatingly clear. Psalm 53, on the other hand, is focused more on the fact that those who do not fear God (presumably because they do not believe in Him) will have their bones scattered, and not be given honorable burial, because of their violence towards God’s people. May God’s kingdom come, and may His word be fulfilled against all evildoers who refuse to repent of their wicked ways.
The Village Atheist As The Village Idiot
Having examined the prophetic importance of Psalms 14 and 53, let us now take the two psalms to be aimed a different (but related) group of fools and idiots who deny God’s power and judgment. Let us begin with the “low-hanging fruit” of humanistic atheism and let us continue to the slightly higher-hanging fruit of functional atheism that pays lip service to God but does not truly obey Him. Let us remember, after all, that there are more ways to deny God than simply not to believe in him, but to deny the reality of God’s judgment and the applicability of His biblical standards by which we are to live as Christians, we deny God’s authority and act as rebels against Him.
First, let us understand that Psalm 53 seems to be referring to the atheist side of those fools who do not believe in Him. There are many worldly wise fools (see 1 Corinthians 1 or Romans 1) who have always used sophistical humanistic reasoning to deny the divinity of God or the existence of a higher power or a higher law above their own vain reasonings. This temptation is very easy for those who are knowledgeable by the standards of the world and who are respected as wise and intellectual by mankind. It is an easy temptation when one is so much smarter than other people around to be puffed up in pride and arrogance about one’s wisdom and to deny our equality with other men whom we look down upon. However, God has made all mankind out of one flesh and one blood, partakers of the same nature, created in God’s image, but flawed as a result of the penalty of sin and pain and death that we all suffer in this fallen world. No one, not the wise nor the wealthy nor the powerful, are exempt from the effect of our fallen and corrupt natures. The fact that atheists often presuppose a godless, materialistic universe (which they cannot prove, and indeed it is impossible to prove) to avoid the implications of God’s rule and control over His universe–including holding their own sinful actions, words, and desires in judgment–is itself proof that atheists have become foolish by blinding themselves to the evidence of God’s creation that exists beyond a reasonable doubt.
Nonetheless, we cannot assume that atheists with their bogus evolutionary worldview are the only fools who deny God on this earth. Far from it. Psalm 14 makes the point that those who exploit the poor, and who deny the judgment of God or God’s protection of the poor and marginalize people of the world, are also fools who deny God and will face His wrath. Nor is this the only psalm to do so (see Psalms 10  and 113  as well). Those who exploit and oppress other people may be honored and respected members of their local congregation, but such people fall under God’s judgment because they honor God with their lips while their hearts are far from Him–for God demands more than lip service but that every thought, word, and action be brought in harmony with His biblical standard in His law. None of us (certainly not I) meet this standard, but the extent to which our own life denies the principles and judgments of God’s laws, which demand fair and just treatment for all people–whether foreigners, women, children, the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the infirm, or whomever else we might be inclined to oppress or neglect, and that even require us to take care of the animals and earth under our stewardship beyond the realm of humanity–we will enter into condemnation by God. For if we mistreat those who are created in the image and likeness of God, the least of these, we have mistreated and abused our Lord and Savior Himself (see Matthew 25:31-46). Far be it from any of us to do such wicked and ungodly things.
Now, let us conclude. We have seen how Psalm 14 and 53 are substantially identical, with some minor differences (a different word for God–Psalm 53 referring to a more general and less “personal” form of God, presumably reflecting a different intended target for David’s warning, while Psalm 14 uses the personal name of God to warn those who claim to be in a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ). We have also seen how Psalms 14 and 53 are quoted in Romans 3 to talk about the sinful fallen nature that all of us have to struggle against as a result of living in a wicked world full of the evil influence and results of thousands of years of rebellion against God and hostility to His ways. We have also seen how Psalms 14 and 53 both refer, it would appear, to different audiences, both those who are formal atheists who deny God’s existence and rule and those who pay God lip service but seek to oppress and exploit His people at the same time. God will bring both the godless and the oppressor whose faith is nominal and skin-deep into judgment for rebellion to His rule. Let us therefore not be counted as rebels against Our Lord and King, but rather let us be counted among the generation of the righteous, citizens of that heavenly city whose builder and ruler is God.