Psalm 53 Reflecting Again on the Unjust

Herny Ossawa Tanner, Sodom and Gomorrah (1920)

Psalm 53

To the leader: according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David.
1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts; there is no one who does good.
2 God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3 They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge[1], those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?
5 There they shall be in great terror, in terror such as has not been. For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.
6 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

When I was putting together my first collection of poems to publish, Creative Words, I almost included the same poem twice. It made it through several edits by me and two editors who looked at the work. In one of my final times working through edits I discovered the duplication. I share this story because Psalm 53 is a close twin of Psalm 14, which may seem incredible when one considers that these ancient texts had to be hand copied, but in a large collection it is easy to forget what one has previously included in the collection. There are some differences, Psalm 53 indicates that it is ‘according to the Mahalath’ which probably indicates the tune or melody for the Psalm and this Psalm, unlike its twin, uses the generic ‘Elohim’ (God) throughout instead of the name of God (often indicated as LORD in English translations). Even though the poem mainly follows its twin there are some additional subtle changes that make it worth treating independently and its placement within this portion of the Psalter helps give some additional insights into reading the Psalm.

In the worldview of the ancient Middle East there is no concept of a world without God or gods but here we encounter one who functions as a practical atheist. In Hebrew, the heart is the seat of will and decision making, and so the one who says in their heart ‘There is no God’ chooses to live in a way that assumes that God or gods will not intervene in their life. The fool here is not unintelligent but instead acts in a way that does damage to the community. The lack of wisdom here is acting in a way that neglects the commitments to the community as described in the law, and instead choosing a way of life that views people as a consumable commodity that can be consumed as easily as bread. These foolish and perverse ones may be within the people of God, or they may be from other nations who are imposing their practices upon the chosen people, but the damage done by this godless lifestyle calls out for judgment.

This foolish humanity which the Psalmist finds themselves surrounded by creates an inhospitable world. The image of God looking down from heaven seeking the wise ones who live according to justice and finding only fallen, perverse evildoers who practice this metaphorically cannibalistic injustice echoes the story of the LORD’s journey to Sodom and Gomorrah. The LORD encounters hospitality from Abraham but goes to investigate the outcry of inhospitality and injustice from these towns which become synonymous with the judgment of God upon these unethical fools. The story of Sodom (Genesis 18: 16-19:29) is frequently misunderstood as being about God’s judgment on homosexuality, but what the story reflects is a society that does not practice hospitality to strangers and sees those strangers, and even residents, as resources to be exploited. The LORD was willing to accede to Abraham’s request not to destroy the city if ten righteous are found within this community, but the divine figures in the story[2] only find Lot who is willing to practice hospitality in this inhospitable place. Many modern people are uncomfortable with these stories of God judging these communities, but the faith of the Psalmist relies upon a God who does judge and does not allow for injustice to continue forever.

The Psalmist trusts that those who live this foolish life will eventually be shamed, rejected, and experience the terror that they have inflicted on others. Unlike the wise who are buried when they die, these foolish ones have their bones scattered and they lie forgotten in the earth. Perhaps the Psalmist envisions a judgment of those who have ‘eaten the people like they eat bread’ like the one associated with Sodom. Regardless of what form the judgement takes, they believe in a God who is an executor of justice and a protector of the community from these godless ones who corrupt the earth. The times of misfortune for the wise ones who live according to the covenant are temporary. The righteous can commit the judgment of the foolish injustice which dominates their world to their God who will bring about deliverance.

[1] The knowledge here is probably closer to the French word connaître, which refers to the knowing of a person rather than the knowing of a fact. As Beth Tanner notes the word is an active verb and the activity of ‘not knowing’ is active rather than passive. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 465) This would be more active than the NRSV’s ‘Have they no knowledge.’ These evildoers actively choose not to enter into the relational knowing of God.

[2] The actors change between men at the beginning of Genesis 18, to the LORD who speaks to Abraham and finally to angels who arrive in Sodom.

1 thought on “Psalm 53 Reflecting Again on the Unjust

  1. Pingback: Psalm 57 Fleeing to the Steadfast Love and Faithfulness of God | Sign of the Rose

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