The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their ways are vile;
there is no one who does good.
God looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
By the time you’ve read Psalm 53 you might well have a feeling of déjà vu, a feeling of ‘Haven’t I heard this before?’ And you’d be right because Psalm 53 is almost identical to Psalm 14.
There is a slight variation in the title where Psalm 53 adds ‘according to mahalath’ and describes the Psalm as a ‘maskil’ of David. The exact meaning of both of these Hebrew words is less than clear although Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner suggests that ‘mahalath’ maybe the name of a tune or even an instrument.
The other minor difference is that Psalm 53 uses the word God (Elohim) rather than the LORD (YHWH).
A greater difference occurs in verse 5 where the wording is somewhat different to Psalm 14:5, 6. There may be a slight shift in emphasis from the deliverance of the righteous poor (14:5, 6) to the fate of their oppressors (53:5), but any such shift is marginal.
At this point we may be left wondering why in the oversight of the Holy Spirit a Psalm that is, to all extent and purposes exactly the same, is repeated. Perhaps it is simply because the theme is so important.
The temptation of ‘practical atheism’ is ever present. The fool does not necessarily visibly reject belief in God but does so in practice, in their heart (v. 1). When the fool has discounted the existence of God everything is up for grabs, morality lets loose of its moorings and is all at sea or as the great Russian author Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted.’
Let’s face it – many atheists are incredibly moral people. But that may be in spite of their beliefs rather than because of them. One of the practical consequences of rejecting God is that it can lead to the exploitation of others, fellow human beings are no longer unique and precious individuals made in the image of God but are simply there to be used for my satisfaction (v. 4).
The Psalm offers a counterbalance. In spite of what might look to be the case, there is a God who created the world and cares for that world, and God is still sovereign and reigns from his throne (v. 2). The Psalm celebrates an occasion that God dealt with the arrogant and the entitled who think they can terrify others and not suffer the consequences (v. 5). Sometimes we have to live in the gap between the promise of deliverance and its fulfilment, but, as we wait, we do so in the knowledge that Christ has defeated sin and death and is even now working all things for good (Romans 8:28).