David once wrote, “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread.” In his experience, David had never seen God wavering in His faithfulness to His people.
But there was something else in the Psalms that David saw as constant, something that never changed: the conceit of fools and the general condition of mankind. In fact, he wrote about this twice, once in Psalm 14 and again in Psalm 53. These two psalms are nearly identical, except for some slight variations in vv. 5–6.
As we study Psalm 53, we do so with a view to grasping how to understand both theoretical and practical atheists; that is, how to understand the likes of Richard Dawkins as well as the likes of you and me.
A Word about Repetition
Boice points out that part of these psalms are repeated again in Romans 3.
The most important part of these psalms is also repeated in Romans 3 at verses 10–12…. Anything God says once demands attention. Anything he says twice demands our most intent attention. How then if he says something three times, as he does in this case? This demands our keenest concentration, contemplation, assimilation, and even memorization. These are words which, to use the often-quoted phrase of the collect from the Book of Common Prayer, we are to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.”1
Spurgeon commented on Psalms 14 and 53 that “all repetitions are not vain repetitions. We are slow to learn, and need line upon line.”2 He then likened these two psalms to physical ages. He said something to the effect that, whether one is 14 or 53, he encounters the same conditions in this world: fools and those who at times behave like fools. I concur. I have been 14 and am now 53. Spurgeon was definitely on to something. And I assume that when I am 73 and 83 and 93—and even 103!—that I will be singing the same tune. Man has not evolved and is not evolving. If anything, he is devolving. In fact, Paul, in Romans 3:10–12, uses the very words from Psalms 14 and 53 to drive home how man has descended since the fall.
The challenge is for us to guard our hearts from becoming fools and from behaving like fools. Rather, in Christ, may we find the wisdom necessary to live for God’s glory, thus avoiding the sense of terror that haunts the unwise.
The Setting of this Psalm
This matter of repetition is significant and not merely arbitrary. Let me explain.
We know from the superscription of Psalm 52 that David wrote it out of anguish over the evil deeds of Doeg the Edomite. This story is recorded in 1 Samuel 22. Psalm 54 informs us that it was written concerning events arising from the treachery of the Ziphites. This account is recorded in 1 Samuel 26. What I find interesting is that, while Psalm 53 carries no superscription, the first line may indeed give us an historical setting.
The word translated “fool” is the Hebrew word nabal. There is a man in the Old Testament with this very name. I don’t know what was going through his parents’ mind when they named him. Perhaps we should assume that it was a nickname that he had earned over the years by his disposition and behaviour.
Anyway, he had a noble wife by the name of Abigail. To make a long (and interesting) story short, Nabal lived up to his name, God struck him dead, and David ended up taking Abigail as his wife.
Now, I mention this because the story of Nabal is recorded in 1 Samuel 25. Nabal played the fool and caused David grief smack in the middle of his problems with a foolish Edomite and some foolish Ziphites. Fools exist not only amongst the heathen, but sometimes sadly even amongst God’s people.
I am of the persuasion that Psalms 52–54 were written with reference to the same time period, and so when we read Psalm 53 we should do so with the historical context of 1 Samuel 25 before us. It was most likely very much before David. And it is for this reason that these words are repeated from Psalm 14. Perhaps Psalm 14 was dealing with the same historical occasion, though I very much doubt it. I would rather propose that the repetition of these psalms is for the purpose of equipping us to handle foolish living both outside and inside the professing church. But further, and this must be emphasised, these psalms remind us that we too can often behave as fools. And proof of that is found in a previous psalm that we recently studied: Psalm 51.
As we study this psalm, let us do so soberly with a view to listening self-critically. This study, in other words, is not primarily so that we can deal with Dawkins, but rather so that we can deal with ourselves.
The Declaration of the Fool
The most well-known verses in the psalm are found in the first half of v. 1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity.” Literally, “the fool has said, ‘No, God.’” The implication is, “No, God, for me.” The fool lives as if there is no God. “Not only does he not believe in God, he also acts on his conviction.”3
As noted, the word translated “fool” is the Hebrew word nabal. Kirkpatrick notes that the word speaks of “moral perversity, not mere ignorance or weakness of reason.” It refers to “a practical disbelief in [God’s] moral government.”4
In other words, “in his heart” the fool has deliberately chosen to reject God’s rule. He is angry at the God whose existence he denies and he hates the God whom he has decided does not exist. Two things can always be said of an atheist: one, he says that there is no God; and, two, he hates Him.
David does not have in mind a theoretical atheist, who has intellectually grappled with the evidence and has unemotionally concluded that no God exists. (In fact, there are no such people!) He describes those who are defiant in their rejection of God. He refers to those who are like Nabal: self-righteous, angry, self-absorbed, judgemental and despicable before the eyes of most people who have any moral sense. You can probably think of someone(s) who fit this description.
But further, this describes a class of individuals rather than some particular individual. Though David may have had Nabal on his mind when he wrote, he also realised that there are many who fit this category.
The word “corrupt” speaks of the self-degradation of their better nature, and this leads to the reality that “abandoning a practical belief in God, they depraved their nature, and gave themselves up to the practices which God abhors.”5 Whenever you refuse to bow the knee to your Creator you open yourself to further moral degradations, and eventually “abominable iniquity” (disgusting perversion) is the consequence. And when a society goes down this path, we have its apt description in Romans 1:18ff.
It is because people silence by searing (or is it sear by silencing?) their conscience, and because people refuses to read the book of creation, that atheism gains a hearing and eventually a voice that proclaims, “There is no God for me.” Kirkpatrick captures it well: “God made Himself known through the voice of conscience, and in the works of creation, but men would not follow the light of conscience, or read the book of nature.”6
But of course such insolent confidence does not change facts. “In the beginning God” remains the central truth of the universe.
The Depravity of the Foolish
Verses 1b–3 describe the depravity of the foolish.
They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. Every one of them has turned aside; they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one.
It seems quite evident that, having identified a particularly sinister type of atheism (v. 1a), David now moves from the particular to the more general. In a sense, he is saying something like, “There are those who defiantly shake their fist in the face of God for all to see, but come to think about it, none of us is too far from the same kind of folly. In reality, there is none who does what is truly good, at least as far as God’s standard is concerned.” Every one of us falls short of the glory of God. As P. C. Craigie notes, “The fool is not a rare sub-species within the human race; all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God.”7 And Boice helpfully writes, “Left to ourselves, our minds run to utter foolishness, and we act the fool too. But in Christ we find a wisdom from God which is able to save us and lead us in the way of righteousness.”8
Leupold notes that “fools have always said there is no God. What is described is more largely practical atheism rather than theoretical atheism. Both may be included…. Atheism bears its proper fruit in rotten conduct.”9
When dealing with Dawkins, we need to also deal with our own hearts for, in point of fact, there but for the grace of God go you and me. We should be horrified by this description of our natural condition. “Every sin implies the effrontery of supposedly knowing better than God, and the corruption of loving evil more than good.”10
When David writes that “there is none who does good,” he is, of course, speaking of good as defined by God. There are plenty of people who do good to others in a humanitarian sense, but no natural man does good in terms of seeking to glorify God. Jesus made this point to the rich young ruler when, having been addressed as “Good Teacher,” He replied, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matthew 19:16–17).
Paul expounds on this section in Romans 3 and makes it clear that this description covers every one of us.
Some have interpreted in v. 2 with reference to Genesis 6, where God looked upon the earth with the conclusion that He would destroy it. This may or may not have been in David’s mind. What we can say for sure is that God’s assessment is spot on. It’s as though all “the children of men” have been made to pass in review before Him, and the Judge has declared His verdict that there is absolutely no one who is upright in life. At the risk being misunderstood, there are none among all of “the children of men” who are “straight.”
God’s conclusion is that every one of us, apart from saving grace (and sometimes even with saving grace), behave as practical atheists. Men and women in sin do not “understand”; we do not grasp God and His ways. We do not grasp His glory, and the result is that we fall short of His glorious standard. And for this reason, we foolishly do not seek God.
At this point, some might raise an objection. Aren’t there any who seek God? After all, consider Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill:
God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.
There are many who claim to seek God, and Acts 17:27 seems to speak of those who “seek the Lord.” How, then, can David claim that “there is none … who seek God”?
The point is simply this: Anyone who is truly seeking God has first been sought by God. There are many who appear to be seeking God, but they are in fact seeking fulfilment, happiness, improved relationships, or “inner peace.” Of course, being reconciled to God puts one in a position to experience these longings. However, to seek these things is not to seek God. God uses such longings to awaken us to the self-centredness of such longings and to bring us to the knowledge of why we are so restless. But it is biblically axiomatic that no one, on their own initiative, seeks after God. In fact, our spiritual understanding is so darkened that we have no interest in seeking God. We may pursue God-substitutes, but not God Himself. The depth of our spiritual depravity is that we think we do seek Him!
Verse 3 nails the verdict conclusively. Absolutely no one does good, and in fact everyone has chosen to turn away from God and to live a depraved existence. Phillips says, “Man is very bold and brazen in his unbelief as he struts across the stage of time. But he will be gripped with stark, naked horror when he stands doomed at the great white throne.”[1, John Phillips, Exploring the Psalms, 2 vols. (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1988), 112.]
So, why does David speak in such a way? Why does he now condemn all humanity, including himself, rather than maintaining his focus on “the fool”?
Perhaps he wants to guard his own heart as he considers the depraved actions and attitude of Nabal. But I think he is also reminding himself that, in this world, we should not be surprised by decadence and depravity and spiritual darkness. He wants us to see, as he sees, that our holy hope is the Lord. He honestly assesses society, and this is essential if he will have any hope. He needs a work of God in the light of the disaster in which he lives.
The Devouring by the Foolish
David further laments in v. 4 concerning the conduct of the foolish. He asks, “Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?” The “workers of iniquity” (the fools of v. 1) take advantage of and oppress God’s people. “They live by means of ungodly preying upon their victims … who devour My people to feed themselves.”11
This is precisely how Nabal treated David and his men. It also accurately describes so much that happens around us. Kidner describes this sinful treatment of others as the work of “arrogant materialists.”12
Do you ever become despondent at how God’s people are oppressed by those who defy God, while at the same time wondering why God does not intervene? Apparently David did. But, as we will soon see, God’s silence is merely apparent. He is working in the situation.
Let us learn from this not to be surprised when the wicked prosper at the hands of the oppressed church. Fools sometimes win—even fools within the walls of the church.
The Dread of the Foolish
David next speaks of the dread of the foolish: “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” (v. 5).
The “fear” described in this verse might be a reference to the feat brought by the foolish upon those who wisely serve the Lord. More likely, it speaks of the fear that the foolish sense deep within, even though there seemingly is nothing to fear. “Driven by a guilty conscience and, perhaps, their own superstitions, they have experienced great and unspeakable terror.”13
The foolish live with a deep-seated fear of judgement, which is interesting since they live in such a way that they deny judgement. Nevertheless, the Lord haunts them deep within their soul.
Some see in this a reference to a terrible event in history that came upon God’s enemies—perhaps the destruction of the Assyrians under Sennacherib. Perhaps. The point is that the Lord crushes the foolish. Those who despise God are in turn despised by God. Those who scorn God are scorned by God. Read Psalm 2. Read the Gospels, followed by a reading of The Wars of the Jews by Josephus. God will not be mocked.
The Deliverance from the Foolish
The psalm concludes in v. 6 with a prayer that the Lord will deliver His people from the foolish: “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.”
The prayer is that God will restore the fortunes of His people. Again, there is some debate about the meaning of this verse. Some see in it a prophetic prayer for the restoration of God’s people after the Babylonian exile. Others see it as referencing the return to prosperity after the Assyrian defeat. But it may very well be David’s plea that his being on the run from Saul (which is the context of his conflict with Nabal) come to an end. David may very well be praying for the establishment of the promised kingdom under his rightful reign.
Regardless of the exact context, “the psalmist sees a similar depravity rearing its ugly head also in Israel (v. 3). But he knows full well that God cannot tolerate such iniquity (v. 5f) and prays that Israel in particular may be restored to its ideal state.”14
If I am correct in my suspicion that David is praying for his own return to Jerusalem and the establishment of God’s kingdom under his kingship, we are presented here with a good opportunity to make a Christological connection.
When we see and hear the foolish seemingly winning the day, we need to look to the promises in God’s Word of Christ who will build His church regardless of the enemies. He will crush His enemies. This should encourage us as we face His enemies on His behalf (Romans 16:17–20).
So, as we close, let me leave you with this application: Be wise and kiss the Son. Fools are doomed to lose.
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:445. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:445. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1:114. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms (Cambridge: The University Press, n.d.), 66. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, 303. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, 67. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1:117. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 1:120. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 139. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press), 1973, 1:79. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, 139. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms, 1973, 1:79. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 415. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 138. ↩