Psalm 53 – “Pedagogic Lesson/Imprecation”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
The psalmist describes a state of lawlessness, curses his oppressors, and puts his trust in God.

II. Photo
God looks down from his abode: “The Lord looks down from heaven on mankind to find a man of understanding, a man mindful of God.” (v. 3)

III. Select Verses    
2: The benighted man thinks, “God does not care.” Man’s wrongdoing is corrupt and loathsome; no one does good.
3-4: God looks down from heaven on mankind to find a man of understanding, a man mindful of God. Everyone is dross, altogether foul; there is none who does good, not even one.
5-6: Are they so witless, those evildoers, who devour my people as they devour food, and do not invoke God? There they will be seized with fright — never was there such a fright — for God has scattered the bones of your besiegers; you have put them to shame, for God has rejected them.
7: O that the deliverance of Israel might come from Zion! When God restores the fortunes of His people, Jacob will exult, Israel will rejoice.

IV. Outline
1. Superscription
2. Description of the fool
3-4. Description of anarchy
5-6. Pedagogic lesson/imprecation about the wicked
7. Wish

V. Comment
Psalm 14, which is almost identical to Psalm 53, is one of the most enigmatic psalms in the entire Psalter. According to Gerstenberger, even “Gunkel openly admits that the explanation of this psalm is impossible, apart from a preconceived notion of what the text could mean” (219). The psalm, which has features of the wisdom genre, might also be classified as a lament. Support for interpreting it as a pedagogic lesson can be drawn from the fact that Paul uses it in one of his sermons (Romans 3:10-18).  Gerstenberger believes that the Psalm’s message is about social inequality: “[The psalm is] aimed at justifying and strengthening the miserable peasants and craftsmen organized in precarious groups who had to pay the bills for the luxurious life of the high society” (220). He also notes that the exhortation in vv. 5-6, “in its threatening part in any case, is directed exclusively against those godless people, not against all humankind. This disproves all dogmatic interpretation from Paul to the modern exegetes… [Thus,] like Psalms 12, 36, 49, 52, etc., this poem belongs to the broader category of early Jewish synagogal speeches. More precisely, it is an instruction of the community concerning the fate of the godless.” (220)

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Collins, John J. “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Craigie, Peter C. “Psalms 1-50” Word Biblical Commentary vol. 19 (Waco, Texas: Wordbooks, 1983).
Gerstenberger, Erhard S. “Psalms Part 1 with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry” Forms of Old Testament Literature (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988).
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