This psalm may be familiar to us because it’s almost identical to Psalm 14 which we studied together last November; and Paul the Apostle quotes lines from these two psalms in Romans 3 to make the point that Jews and Gentiles alike are sinners in the sight of God. And while it’s true that Jews and Gentiles alike are sinners in the sight of God, we should nevertheless note that the psalmist draws a distinction between two kinds of people. First of all, there are those who are designated as fools who say in their hearts that there is no God and who are corrupt and their ways are vile. These people have turned away from God and they do not do any good. And therefore they’re called evildoers in verse 4.
So, in the course of the psalm, the psalmist describes this first group of people: the fools. But we also read in verse 4 of a second group of people who are called ‘my people’. These are God’s people. And the psalmist refers to them again in the final verse of the psalm where he refers to them as Jacob and Israel:
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
God’s people are called Jacob and Israel because Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, who were God’s people in Old Testament times.
So, on one hand we have the foolish evildoers; and on the other hand we have the Lord’s people. We’ve come across this distinction before, because way back in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord, the Lord contrasted the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. He was referring to two lines of people which can be traced throughout the Bible and throughout history. The seed of the woman is the line of believers; and the seed of the serpent are the line of unbelievers. The righteous and the wicked. The church and the world. Those who belong to the Lord; and those who belong to Satan. And do you remember? In the Garden of Eden, the Lord referred to the enmity between these two lines. These two lines can never be united or reconciled, but they will always be in opposition to one another.
And so, in this psalm, the psalmist describes the line of the serpent: they are the fools who deny God and who do evil. And he describes the line of the woman: they are God’s people. And look: according to verse 4, the foolish evildoers want to devour God’s people. They want to destroy us. And according to verse 6, God’s people are waiting for the time, they’re longing for the time, when the Lord will save his people from their enemies.
Verses 1 to 3
Let’s turn to verses 1 to 3 to see what the psalmist says about the foolish evildoers. I’ve explained before that foolishness in the Bible is not a matter of the intellect or education. The fool is not someone who is necessarily stupid or whose education has been limited and who hasn’t passed many exams. The fool may very well have a PhD or two and be very bright. That’s because foolishness in the Bible is a matter of the heart and the will, and not the head. The foolish person in the Bible is a wicked person who has rejected the Lord and his word. The fool lives a godless life; and in his daily life — and in the things he says and does, and in the way he thinks about life and in the way he treats other people — he lives as if there were no God by whom he will one day be judged and to whom he must give an account for his life. By contrast, the wise person fears God, because he knows there is a God in heaven above, who made all things, and to whom we must answer. The foolish person denies God and lives a godless life, whereas the wise person believes in God and seeks to live a godly life.
What else does the psalmist say about the fool and those like him? He says they are corrupt and their ways are vile. The same word for ‘corrupt’ was used back in Genesis 6 to describe the state of the world before the flood. In those days, the world was corrupt in God’s sight. And when God saw how corrupt the earth had become and how the people had corrupted their ways, he decided to put an end to it. That’s how things were before the flood; and that’s what the psalmist is describing here. The foolish person, the ungodly person, is morally and spiritually corrupt and ruined and their deeds are vile. More literally, he says they do abominable iniquity. What they do is abominable to the Lord; it’s something abhorrent and loathsome to him. And so, none of them do any good.
When we studied Psalm 14 I explained that the theologians sometimes talk about ‘civil righteousness’. By that phrase, they’re making the point that unbelievers are able to do many good deeds: deeds which everyone around them would acknowledge as good and praiseworthy. An unbelieving man is able to love his wife and his children and he might be kind to the poor and he may tell the truth and so on. He lives a good life. However, while in the eyes of the world, this unbelieving man is able to do many good things, nevertheless in the sight of the Lord, his deeds are evil, because they’re spoiled by sin and unbelief; and when he does good, he’s not doing it for the glory of God. And that’s perhaps the best way to understand what we read at the end of verse 1. The foolish person may, in the eyes of the world, do many good things. But in the sight of the Lord, he does not do any good, because even his best deeds are spoiled by his sin and unbelief.
And so, the Lord looks down from heaven upon these corrupt fools to see if any of them understand that there is a God in heaven above who deserves their praise and thanks. Do any of them seek him? Do they pray to him and give thanks to him? And the answer is no, because all of them have turned away from God and together they have become corrupt and they’re unable to do good in the sight of the Lord, because everything they do is spoiled and ruined because of their sin and rebellion and unbelief.
Verses 4 to 6
I take it that the Lord himself is speaking in verse 4. And he describes the fools who deny God as being evildoers, who devour his people as men eat bread. So, just as you might take a loaf of unsliced bread and tear it apart in order to eat it, so the foolish evildoers are intent on tearing God’s people apart and destroying them. And, if you’re familiar with your Old Testament history, then you’ll know how the pagan nations attacked the Lord’s people again and again. Think of the Midianites in the days of Gideon who used to sweep down and destroy their crops and animals. Think of the Philistines in the days of Saul and David and how Goliath threatened to give David’s flesh to the birds and beasts. Think of the time when the Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah. Again and again, the pagan nations wanted to attack Israel and to devour God’s people. And the Lord describes them as those who do not call on the Lord. In other words, they don’t call to him in worship, even though that’s what they were made to do.
Now, in Psalm 14, the Lord reassures his people at this point and reminds them that he is with them and will be their refuge. And so, Psalm 14 is about comforting God’s people who are under attack. But Psalm 53 has a different emphasis, because in Psalm 53 the emphasis in verse 5 is how the Lord will judge and destroy the wicked. The psalmist depicts the wicked as being overwhelmed with dread, where there was nothing to dread. When he says ‘there was nothing to dread’, I think he means that one moment, they felt no dread at all, but then the next moment, they were filled with dread. So, one moment, they were relaxed and confident, everything was going their way and they were sure that they would succeed. But then, the next moment, the Lord intervened and filled them with dread and fear. To illustrate what the Lord will do, the commentators refer to the time when the Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem. And the commander of their army was so confident and he called on Hezekiah to surrender. But then, one night, the angel of the Lord went out and put thousands of them to death; and those who were left broke camp and went home. One day, they felt no fear at all. But then the judgment of the Lord fell on them.
And so, the psalmist depicts a time when the wicked will be destroyed. Their bones will be scattered and God’s people will put them to shame by defeating them in battle. And God’s people will be able to defeat them in battle, because the Lord despises the wicked and has rejected them.
And so, whereas the emphasis in Psalm 14 was no comforting the Lord’s people with the knowledge that God is with them when they are under attack, the emphasis in Psalm 53 is on the fact that the Lord will judge and condemn the wicked one day.
We come to verse 6 where the psalmist longs for the day of salvation to come, when the Lord will save his people from their enemies who hate them and who want to destroy them. The psalmist expects salvation to come out of Zion. By referring to Zion, which is another name for Jerusalem, he’s expressing his faith in the Lord, who dwelt among his people in Jerusalem. And he’s longing for the time when the Lord will restore their fortunes and when he will make them rejoice and be glad.
What the psalmist describes here matches what we read in the New Testament, because the Lord Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins who were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. Five were foolish, because they were unprepared, and where shut out of the celebration; and five were wise, because they were ready, and they were invited in to share in the bridegroom’s joy.
And the Lord Jesus told the parable of the talents and how the servants had to give an account to their master for what they had done with the money he had given them. And the master was pleased with some, but he was angry with another who had done wickedly; and he was thrown into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And the Lord told the parable of how he will come to judge the world; and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. And the wicked were sent away to be punished with eternal fire, whereas the righteous were invited to God’s eternal kingdom.
And then, there’s the Apostle John, who was allowed to see into the future and to the coming of the Lord. And John saw how the dead will be brought before the Lord; and books will be opened, books which contain a record of everything we have ever done. This is the great judgment day. And though we have all done evil, because there is not one of us who has not sinned and who does not deserve to be condemned, nevertheless on that day there will be a great separation. Those who belong to the Lord — and who have been washed in his blood, and pardoned by God — will live forever in the new heavens and earth, experiencing that fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore which the Lord has prepared for his people. But those who do not belong to him will be condemned and cast into the lake of fire to be punished forever for all the ways they have sinned against the Lord and done what is evil in his sight.
For now, in this life, those who belong to the Lord and those who deny him live side by side in this world. And in this life, very often those who belong to the Lord are harassed and persecuted by those who deny him, so that we weep and moan and must cry out to the Lord for help. And in this life, it very often seems that those who deny the Lord will triumph over those who belong to the Lord, because there are many who do not believe and they seem so strong and so confident and so sure of themselves. But victory belongs to the Lord and to the Lamb, who was conquered and who makes his people more than conquerors. And so, despite what we may have to suffer in this life, we know that in the end, we will rejoice and be glad in the presence of the Lord in the new and better world to come. And so, instead of giving up and giving in when opposition comes, we must continue to trust in the Lord and to put our hope in him.