Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 53

Psalm 53

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1); 4QPsa (vv. 4-5, 7 [3-4, 6])

This Psalm can be described as an ‘Elohist’ version of Psalm 14. The relationship between Pss 14 and 53 continues to be debated, but most likely they represent two separate (independently transmitted and preserved) editions of the same underlying composition. As this composition was discussed in the earlier study on Psalm 14, here we will focus on the unique elements of the version in Ps 53.

The principal theme of the composition is YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous), consisting almost entirely of a description of the wicked. There is an implicit contrast with the righteous at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom tradition. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 2-4 [1-3]: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 5-6 [4-5]: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7 [6]: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

The superscription of Psalm 14 simply refers to it as a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=), while Ps 53 includes the following musical direction: lyK!c=m^ tl^j&m*-lu^. On the term lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), which occurs in the heading of 12 other Psalms, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32. The meaning and significance of the term tl^j&m* is quite unknown. The use of the preposition lu^ suggests that it could refer to a specific melody or mode/style of performance (i.e., “according to…”); it could also conceivably indicate an intended musical instrument for performance (“on…”). The term occurs again in the heading to Psalm 88.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“A foolish person says in his heart (that)
‘There is no Mightiest (One)!’
They are decayed and show detestable perversion
there is no (one) doing good!”

The initial two couplets are identical with verse 1 of Psalm 14 (cf. notes) with one notable difference: it has lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) in the third line, instead of hl*yl!u& (“deeds, actions, works”) in Ps 14.

Verse 3 [2]

“(The) Mightiest looks out from (the) heavens
(down) upon the sons of man,
to see—Is there any (one who is) discerning,
(any one) seeking the Mightiest?”

Verse 3 [2] is essentially identical with Ps 14:2 (notes), the only difference being the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the opening word.

Verse 4 [3]

All of them have turned back, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

Identical with Ps 14:3 (notes), except for the opening two words, with no real difference in meaning:

    • Ps 14: “They all have turned aside” (rs* lK)h^)
    • Ps 53: “All of them have turned back” (gs* oLK%)

The variation between the similar verbs rWs and gWs illustrates how easily differences and variations can crop up during the transmission of an ancient text.

This verse can either be read as four 2-beat lines (2+2+2+2) or two 4-beat lines (4+4); it is easier to present it visually as the latter.

Verses 5-6[4-5]

Verse 5 [4]

“Do they not know, (the one)s making trouble—
(the one)s eating up His people (as) they eat bread—
(is it) not (the) Mightiest they confront?”

Again, this verse is virtually identical with that of Psalm 14 (v. 4, notes), except for the particle lK* in the first line in Ps 14 (i.e., “all [those] making trouble” vs. “[those] making trouble”). We also have the typical Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for hwhy in the third line.

Metrically, I view this verse as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement (second line), into a tricolon.

Verse 6 [5]

Verse 6 is markedly different from the corresponding vv. 5-6 of Psalm 14 (notes). This presents an insoluble textual problem for those wishing to isolate the definitive original composition. Almost certainly, something was corrupted during the course of transmission. Here is how Ps 14:5-6 reads:

“There—(see now) the fear (that) they should fear ,
for the Mightiest (is) in the circle of the just;
(and so) the council of the oppressed will bring him [i.e. the wicked] to shame,
for YHWH (is) his [i.e. the righteous’] place of shelter.”

It must be said that the MT of Ps 53:6 [5] seems, at this distance, to be most difficult; some commentators would regard it is as more or less unintelligible (and likely corrupt). Here is how one might conceivably render the lines:

“There—(see) the fear, the fear they would bring!
(But) there was not (any) fear,
for (the) Mightiest has scattered (the) bones of (those) surrounding you,
(and) you put them to shame,
for (the) Mightiest has rejected them.”

Another way of rendering the opening lines is:

“There [i.e. then] they feared a (great) fear,
(such) fear (as) there has not (ever) been”
(cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 35)

It is possible that these two versions (Ps 14 and 53, respectively), each have attempted to make sense of an original text which, at this point, either came to them corrupt or with archaic poetic language that could no longer be understood. Unfortunately, the fragmentary Qumran manuscript 4QPsa provides no help (the text of Psalm 14 in 11QPsc also has a lacuna at this point).

It would probably simplest to opt for Psalm 14:5-6 as representing something close to the original text of the composition, since it would mean that the textual problem (and the corruption) can be located in the garbled text of Ps 53:6. As an example, it is possible to see how the letters of rdb (“in the circle”) could have been misread as rzp (“he scattered”); similarly, note how one might confuse txu (“[the] council of”) with tmxu (“[the] bones of”). There are other words similar in sound or appearance—e.g., –nu* vs. –nj); –shm vs. –sam).

A related theory is that Psalm 14 here was modified (intentionally) to fit within a different socio-religious or literary context (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 38f).

Psalm 14 here emphasizes how the wicked oppress the righteous, and how YHWH, acting as Judge, will ultimately vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. In Psalm 53, a very different line of imagery is found: the wicked are presented as an army besieging God’s people, but their attack will fail and they will meet with a humiliating (military) defeat (perhaps the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib is in mind). In both scenarios, the focus is on the protection YHWH provides for His people (the righteous).

VERSE 7 [6]

“Who will give salvation (to) Yisra’el from (out of) ‚iyyôn?
(It is) in (the) Mightiest turning back the turning back of His people
(that) Ya’aqob will (dance) around (and) Yisra’el will find joy.”

After the radical differences between Psalm 14 and 53 in the previous lines, here verse 7 [6] is virtually identical with Ps 14:7 (notes). The only difference is the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for the Divine name hwhy in the second line.

The final verse is best read as a 4-beat tricolon, which stands as a final declaration of hope and promise for God’s people. As the rather stilted translation above indicates, it is rather difficult to render literally the syntax and wording of these long (4-beat) lines into readable English.

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).