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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 53

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-3

Psalms 53:1-3

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

The folly of unbelief

There were Atheists in David’s days, practical Atheists at least, as there have been in all days, and probably ever will be, and the general bearing of this psalm teaches us pretty clearly the judgment which David formed of them. David at once goes off into a description of the abominably wicked lives of those who said so; the man who says there is no God is declared by David to be a fool, a man wanting in judgment, in clearness of head, in powers of reasoning; this is an imputation upon his mind, his intellect: but the matter does not rest there, for David does not proceed to deplore the weakness of the Atheist’s faculties, but the rottenness of the Atheist’s heart; he says they are corrupt, altogether become abominable. He clearly sees the cause of the man’s infidelity in his wicked course of life. He would not leave off sinning, that were too great a sacrifice, but at length a light opens upon his mind, but it is a light such as in swampy places sometimes tempts a traveller from the right way--no light of the sun, no guiding star. And what is the light? It is this, that after all perhaps all this about God is a cunning fable, an invention of priests, a mere bugbear to frighten children. And to a man who is determined to sin this is right comfortable doctrine. It is easy to believe true what we wish to be true. And what could a man who has become corrupt and abominable wish to be truer than that there should be no God? This is evidently David’s judgment upon the matter. But the man is a fool who says there is no God! His wickedness is lost in his folly. For what folly is his who says there is no God! There is the argument unanswerable, “Who hath made all these things?. . . The heavens declare the glory of God,” etc. And equally unreasonable is the denial of God’s moral government. A kind of denial this which is alluded to in the psalm, “and yet they say, Tush, God shall not see it.” Yet this view also may, I think, without much difficulty, be convicted of folly; for let us consider, is it possible to think of God as being otherwise than perfect? Surely not--an imperfect God is no God at all; if perfect, then He must be perfect in goodness, in holiness and truth. Can He smile equally on the false and the true, the murderer and the saint? is it conceivable that St. John and Judas Iscariot should be equally pleasing to their Maker, differing from each other merely as two stones of different colour differ? Surely all this is monstrous; it is not merely contrary to the Bible, or to the inventions of priests, but it is utterly opposed to the plainest dictates of reason. Therefore I find no difficulty in agreeing with the expression of the text that he who in this way denies God by making Him only the Creator and Preserver, and not the righteous Ruler and Judge, gives evidence thereby of his folly. There is, however, one other manner in which a man may deny God. He may allow all that I have contended for hitherto, and may agree with me that it is contrary to sound reason to deny it; but he may still refuse homage to that God whom we worship as revealed to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. We know that there are such persons, that there always have been such; and we know that the leaders of such a party have accounted themselves as clearsighted beyond others, men of great freedom of thought, not slaves to vulgar prejudices, but rather men who have risen above all vulgar prejudices into an atmosphere of their own. Well, men may be wise in their own conceits without being really wise, and it seems very possible that these infidels may after all be of the class of David’s fool. If this be so, it will not take long to show it. For--

1. The holiest and wisest men have found in the revelation of God in Christ the satisfaction of all their spiritual wants.

2. Then in estimating the reality of the revelation which God has made to us in Jesus Christ, it is necessary to observe the wonderful power that the revelation has had; how it has broken up kingdoms and formed others, how it has reduced whole nations to its dominion and then civilized and informed them; how it has unquestionably been the mainspring, the chief mover of all the history of the world since the time that Christ came. Once more, it is to be noted that if Christ be not “the way, the truth, and the life,” at least there is no other; either God has revealed Himself in Christ, or He has not revealed Himself at all; for there is no other religion in this world which any one will pretend to substitute. David, as I have already observed, passes abruptly from the speech of the fool’s heart to the state of his heart” “corrupt are they, and become abominable in their wickedness.” What are we to learn from this part of the text? Surely this most true and valuable lesson, that the denial of God generally proceeds from the heart more than from the intellect. I do not say that this is so in all cases; for when systematic attempts are made to destroy the faith of mankind, it is not to be wondered at if in some instances the belief of simple men should be disturbed; but depend upon it, the fear of a future judgment, and the wish to get free from the thought of it, is the root of much unbelief. And yet doubts and fears do sometimes trouble the mind; the best of men have sometimes felt them; it may be that to experience them is part of our appointed discipline in this world: if, then, any person should be so tempted and tried, I should remind him of our blessed Lord’s promise, “He that will do the will of God shall know of My doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of Myself.” You see that our Lord gives an essentially practical rule for strengthening our faith; He does not say, shut yourself up in your study and go carefully through all the evidences and weigh them with an unbiased mind--but go and do God’s will. And so when He heard the Pharisees disbelieving, He did not say, how can ye believe who will not look into evidences, but, “how can ye believe which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour which cometh of God only?” Here was the defect: the Pharisees were well read in the law, men of acute minds, cultivated intellects: if Christ were the Messiah, why could not they, who were actually looking for Him, recognize His true character? because they were seeking their own glory, seeking honour one of another, and not that which comes of God. What a strange reproof was this to those who piqued themselves upon their wisdom! Christian brethren, let us do God’s will, and then we shall know of the doctrine that is of God. (Bishop Harvey Goodwin.)

Cause of infidelity

In Scripture the fool and the sinner often mean the same person, and infidelity is therefore usually found connected with great depravity. Its progress is gradual; it begins by opposing those doctrines that impose restraint upon a man’s favorite vices, and from denying these it proceeds to deny others, and, finally, all the rest. This subject is very important to the age in which we live, Europe being deluged with impiety. What, then, are the causes of infidelity? And we name--

1. Vice. It is not the difficulties of Scripture, but its forbidding of their sin that men dislike. All experience proves this. At first conscience remonstrates, but, unable to secure obedience, conscience is soon silenced, and the sinner seeks to justify those propensities which he declares himself unable to subdue. For it is necessary that men should reconcile their conduct to their opinions, or else there will be continual misery through self-reproach. And they soon succeed in the endeavour, for when a man studies to deceive himself he always can do so. His wishes, not his reason, decide upon the truth. The libertine hates the purity of religion; the dissolute, its temperance; the proud, its meekness; the gay worldling, its piety. But if they cannot get rid of the authority of religion, the thought of the future will make them tremble. Hence they labour to destroy that authority, so that conscience may have no more ground for her reproaches. They represent death as an eternal sleep, and, that men may indulge unrestrainedly the passions of brutes, they labour to show that his end is as theirs. Another proof that infidelity springs from vice is that it usually keeps pace with the passions. When these are strong it is strong. It flourishes in prosperity, but loses its confidence in adversity. Many instances might be adduced in proof that to the infidel the approach of death is terrible. Such is one chief source of infidelity. (S. Smith, D. D.)

Theoretical Atheism

We cannot converse with any human being without instinctively judging of his intellectual capacity. We cannot help assigning him a place either amongst those superior or inferior in intellect. But sometimes we meet with those who will believe what, to all others, is absurd; or disbelieve what, to all others, is evident. Such a man we designate as a fool. And they, also, deserve to be so regarded who, when convinced of the truth of a physical or moral law, yet act as if they knew that which they believe to be certainly false. They will learn wisdom neither from observation or experience. The profligate, the inebriate, the frivolous, are of these fools. The former class may be termed theoretical, the latter, practical fools. In proportion to our respect and reverence for a powerful understanding is our contempt for him who says “there is no God.” Now, such denial of the existence of God may be either theoretical or practical. It is theoretical when we affirm that no such being exists, but practical when, admitting His existence, we act, in all respects, as though we believed that He did not exist. Let us speak, at present, of the first of these errors--the theoretical. It may show itself in either of two forms.

That of absurd credulity. For surely it is such credulity to believe an assertion when no evidence is brought forward to sustain it, and especially when, from the necessity of the case, the evidence, if it did exist, is beyond the reach of the human understanding. Now the Atheist declares to us that there is no God. What is the proof of his assertion? There is none. It is no proof to say that nothing exists but what manifests itself either to the senses or to consciousness. How does he know but that, among the truths which have thus far escaped his notice, one may be the existence of God? See this argument drawn out at length in Foster’s Essays.

Absurd incredulity. Its unbelief is as unreasonable as its belief. For--

1. The idea of power, of cause and effect, is the universal and spontaneous suggestion of the human intelligence. We cannot imagine an effect without a cause. And that the Creator, shown to be infinite in power and wisdom, is also a holy God. We have ample proof that He loves virtue and hates vice. Socrates, from an observation of the works of creation and Providence, arrived at very nearly this conception of the Divine character. Now, the Atheist, in the face of all this evidence, affirms that there is no God. But this is to deny the existence of the elementary principles of human intelligence. And this Atheistic belief is absurd because it wholly fails in the purpose for which it is intended. He would seek to get rid of the idea of immortality and of future moral retribution. But we do exist, whether there be a God or not: why, then, may we not continue to exist? And there is a moral government, with its penalties and rewards, now: why may it not continue to be? Even if there be no God, that government is; why, then, may it not be carried on through eternity? Such is the absurdity of Atheism. It asserts that which cannot be known by any finite intelligence, and it denies that which cannot be disbelieved without denying the essential laws of human thought, and this for a reason which would remain unaffected whether Atheism be true or false. (F. Nayland.)

Practical Atheism

We may not be theoretical Atheists, but yet we may be such in practice. Now, many are so. They admit the existence of God, bat they live as if they denied it, and thus they are guilty of practical Atheism. To show this, let us--

Unfold the conception we have formed of God. We all conceive of Him--

1. As a person. We cannot have the idea of qualities as existing without a subject in which they exist.

2. And to God we ascribe self-existence. He must be the cause of causes, or else there must be an infinite succession of causes, which is absurd.

3. To this conception we add on the idea of eternity, both in the past and in the future.

4. And also infinite and absolute power.

5. Omniscient wisdom, as contrasted with the limited wisdom of even the greatest of men.

6. And every moral attribute in infinite perfection. “He is a rock, His way is perfect: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He.”

7. And He is not only the Judge, but the Father of us all. This shown not only in His providence, but yet more in our redemption.

How important to us, then, must be the fact of His existence. No other fact is comparable to it. It is by far the most practical truth that we can conceive. And what must be the condition of the man who believes in the existence of such a God, and yet suffers not this belief to exert any practical influence upon his conduct? What folly can be compared with his? And yet, are not many of you chargeable with it? Some pass whole months without even thinking, in any devout way, of God. Others, under the influence of passion, or fear of being thought precise, will knowingly disobey God. The reason of all such practical Atheism is that they did not like to retain God in their knowledge. Hence are they given over to their evil ways. Think what must be the end of this. But God, in the Gospel of His Son, is offering to us reconciliation. “I will,” saith He, “take from you the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.” Give Him now your hearts. (F. Nayland.)

Unkindness of scepticism

The Philadelphia Inquirer tells this story of the late Washington McLean: One terribly snowy, sleety day in Washington, he was sitting in the Riggs House reading-room, looking out upon the dreary scene on Pennsylvania Avenue. Presently, in came Colonel Bob Ingersoll, the great agnostic. As he entered the apartment he held out his hand, saying, “Hello, Wash., how do you do?” Mr. McLean took his hand, and, as he did so, said, “Bob, I wish you could have been here a little while ago. I saw a scene out there that made me wish I was twenty years younger. A poor, old, crippled soldier was limping across the Avenue, when a young, lusty fellow ran by him, and, as he did so, kicked the crutch from him, and tumbled him down into the slush.” “The villain,” said Ingersoll, “he should have been sent to the penitentiary.” “Do you really think so?” said McLean. “Why, certainly!” replied the colonel. “What else could I think? And yet, Bob,” said McLean, “that is what you are doing every week in the year. Here are poor, old, infirm Christians, with nothing to aid or support them but their belief in religion, nothing to keep them out of the mire of despair but faith, and yet you go about kicking the crutch from under them worse than even this fictitious fellow did to this fictitious soldier.” Very true, with the one exception that our faith is a living thing, and can never be knocked away. (Sword and Trowel.)

Verses 2-3

Psalms 53:2-3

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.

Universal corruption of mankind

This is a description of human nature at all times (Romans 3:10-12).

Seeking the Lord is here supposed to be the criterion of a good understanding. It includes--

1. Our choosing the best good for our portion. God’s service is its own reward.

2. Repentance for sin.

3. The sacrifice of every earthly good for His sake, and accounting His favour to be better than life.

4. Resting all our hopes of salvation upon the promises of His Word. There is no other door of hope, no other way of acceptance, but what is provided in the promises of the Gospel.

All men by nature are corrupt, and utterly destitute of this understanding.

1. The loss of the Divine favour is the greatest of all evils, and yet no one lays it to heart, or is careful to seek after it. To be contented in such a state, and indifferent about the favour of God, is truly dreadful: yet such is the case with all men by nature.

2. God visits men with such afflictions, and brings them into such circumstances, as are directly adapted to make them feel their need of Him: and yet God is not in all their thoughts (Job 33:15).

3. By nature we have no love to God, and therefore do not seek Him.

4. Men are full of pride and self-sufficiency, and hence they do not seek after God (Psalms 10:4). Religion is too mean for their notice, and fit only for the attention of the vulgar. Many say in their hearts with Pharaoh, Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice?

The lord keeps a strict eye upon the conduct of men towards Him.

1. Though “every one of them is gone back, and they are altogether become filthy,” yet some are distinguished by grace, and there is a generation of them that seek Thy face, O God of Jacob (Psalms 24:6). His eye is upon all such, and He will be found of them in truth; they shall never seek His face in vain (Isaiah 45:9).

2. The Lord also notices those who do not seek Him, and His eye is upon all their ways. Awful thought, to be under His inspection while utterly regardless of His presence, and sinning against heaven and before Him. (Theological Sketch-book.)

God inspecting man

God’s profound interest in humanity. He bows Himself forward; and with zeal and concern examines man’s moral state. Why is He so interested?

1. Because of the dignity of man’s nature (Genesis 1:27).

2. Because of the peculiarity of man’s moral condition. By disobedience man entered into the dread knowledge of evil. Unfallen angels are entirely holy. Fallen angels are utterly depraved. In human nature the battle between good and evil is being waged.

3. Because of the capabilities of man’s being. Man is capable of rising to the highest, or sinking to the lowest, position in the universe of God.

God’s searching scrutiny of humanity. His is the scrutiny of--

1. An all-seeing Being (Psalms 139:11-16; Ezekiel 11:5; Hebrews 4:13).

2. An infinitely holy Being. His dwelling, His ways, His works, His essential nature are all holy (Isaiah 57:15; Habakkuk 1:12-13; 1 John 1:5; Revelation 4:8).

3. An infinitely merciful Being. If there be in us any sincere efforts after truth and righteousness, He sees and approves them.

The supreme concern of humanity. Why does God so earnestly examine man? “To see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.” We should seek--

1. Moral intelligence. “Understand,” or act prudently--the antithesis of “the fool “ in Psalms 53:1. Not intellectual attainment, but practical wisdom.

2. Divine aspiration. Where there is any true wisdom, or any spiritual life, it will manifest itself in seeking fellowship and union with God. Only through the mediation of Jesus Christ can this union be obtained. Conclusion.

1. He who now scrutinizes will one day judge man.

2. His judgment of man is infallible. He deliberately, patiently, and thoroughly examines into every case before pronouncing judgment.

3. He is also the merciful Saviour of men.

4. Our supreme interest is to seek to know Him as our Saviour. (W. Jones.)

Verse 5

Psalms 53:5

Then were they in great fear where no fear was.

Idle fears

Every one must have heard of borrowing trouble. It is generally done by persons who have little real trouble of their own. Now, this habit of making oneself uneasy about little or nothing, of groping among dark and painful subjects, which might have been avoided, is, in part, constitutional; it may rise from the physical habit, or from temporary physical causes: and in that case the preacher has nothing to say about it in his official relation to the self-tormentor. But there are many instances in which the thing is not constitutional, or at least only so in part; cases in which it is clearly one’s own fault that he vexes himself in the fashion which we have described, and must be held responsible, in great measure, for his own discomfort. Let us limit ourselves, now, to one special topic under the general head, and think of the case of those who borrow trouble by permitting themselves to be the victims of their fears. Of such persons the number is, unfortunately, great, and as for the causes of their alarm and anxiety, their name is Legion. What deserves special attention is this: that in a large number of cases there is really no ground at all for the anxieties into which they fall; and that many have found, after giving themselves no end of distress, that they had been afraid where no fear was; that the distress was the result of their imagination; that the evils they dreaded never came to pass; that, while they were shivering and shaking, all was going forward welt. This is the special case to which your attention is called; the very case described by the psalmist; and it may be useful to consider wherein lies the sinfulness of this thing, and by what means the fault may be cured. I spoke of this habit as a sin. There is a great difference in the quality and degree of sins; some are graver than others, some are positive and some negative. This is a sin of thoughtlessness and carelessness; the sin of one who overlooks what he might have observed, and ought, by all means, to have heeded, When there is real danger, a certain kind of fear is in order: not to have it would be foolhardiness; but as to the habit of being always nervously apprehensive, and never passing a day without dreading-one knows not exactly what, or dreading what we have no sound reason for judging to be imminent; this certainly shows a culpable forgetfulness of certain truths which form the basis of a peaceful life. Such an exhibition of weakness is what God’s servants ought never to make: if they suffer in that fashion, they put themselves in the place of the unjust. From panic and foolish dismay, their faith, their love, their trust, should save them; and when it is not so, we infer that in faith, love, and trust they must be far below the mark. Let us proceed to point out a cure for the habit thus hastily analyzed. First, then, we say to the timid, Keep God in mind. What should you fear, if you know that He is overhead? And next turn your minds steadily away from dark views of things. As Charles Kingsley puts it, “Never begin to look darkly at a subject, without checking yourself and saying, Is there net a bright side to this? Has not God promised the bright side to me? Is not my happiness in my own power? Do not I know that I am ruining my mind, and endangering the happiness of those dear to me by looking at the wrong side? There are two ways of looking at every occurrence--a bright and a dark side. Two modes of action--which is most worthy of a rational being, a Christian, and a friend? It is absurd as a rational being H torture oneself unnecessarily. It is inconsistent in a Christian to see God’s wrath, rather than His mercy, in everything.” And, next, there is a remedy against unreal fears, which, with any intelligent man or woman, ought H have great force. It lies in considering how, in real trouble, real, positive, and terrible distress, God in His providence has brought good out of evil. Even real disasters end in blessing, and light comes gloriously out of darkness. What then of your fears? There may be no foundation for them whatever, and in that case you ought to be ashamed of them. But even grant the worst, and suppose that they may be realized: what then? Cannot the same power turn them to good? May clot what you dread become to you the very thing you need to complete your development? Either way, fear not. If your fears are vain, it is mere self-torment; if there be ground for them, trust the Lord in this thing, and you may yet rejoice that the evil did not fail to come. In conclusion: if any ask how to do what is necessary to render himself independent of idle fears, or how to learn to bear the real troubles of this world, our answer must be, that the way is--first, to pray; and, secondly, to practise. Ask for the grace that you need; ask it day by day; such prayers cannot be vain. And, again, practise, by forcing your mind off from morbid, gloomy thoughts, by denying it the luxury of sentimental revelry, by insisting that it shall think of God’s love and goodness, by telling it that it shall look out of the windows into the sunlight, and not inside into the gloom and shadow. And as life passes on, you will find comfort and courage in your soul, where timidity and distress used to be, and, with the ending of this world, there shall come a large experience such as many of us must have had in our own little lives. (Morgan Dix, D. D.)

Fear, without danger

I may say to every believer in Jesus, that his condition is very like that of the landsman on board ship when the sea was rather rough, and he said, “Captain, we are in great danger, are we not?” As an answer did not come, he said, “Captain, don’t you see great fear?” Then the old seaman gruffly replied, “Yes, I see plenty of fear, but not a bit of danger.” It is often so with us; whoa the winds are out and the storms are raging there is plenty of fear, but there is no danger. We may be much tossed, but we are quite safe, for we have an anchor of the soul both sure and steadfast, which will not start. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Verse 6

Psalms 53:6

Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion.

The salvation of the Church, and the destruction of her enemies

The destruction of the wicked (Psalms 53:5).

1. Utter and irreversible.

2. Effected by God.

3. Overtaking them when they regarded themselves as quite secure.

4. Inflicted because of their hostility to the people of God.

(1) He is in covenant relation with His people, and is pledged to help them.

(2) He is profoundly and tenderly interested in His people (Isaiah 49:14-16; Matthew 18:5-6; Matthew 25:40; Matthew 25:45; Acts 9:4). An inspiring and strengthening consideration for the people of God. Motive and encouragement to those who would aid them. Warning to those who would injure them.

The destruction of the wicked in former times as an encouragement to the good to expect salvation from present dangers. This we take to be the connecting link between Psalms 53:5; Psalms 6:1-10.

1. The poetic view of salvation. It is here represented as deliverance from captivity.

2. The grand source of salvation. “Out of Zion.”

3. The earnest desire of salvation.

4. The encouragement to expect salvation. God is unchangeable. What He has done in the past He is able to do in the present. He is faithful. What He has promised that will He perform. (W. Jones.)


Psalms 54:1-7

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Psalms 53". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/psalms-53.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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