God’s Word for You
Psalm 53:1-6 Of original sin and God’s grace
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Sunday, May 29, 2022
This summer I will attempt to add devotions on Sundays with the hopes that this will not inconvenience anyone, and that the additional excursions into the Word of God may even be welcome. This was formerly my practice when God’s Word for You began in 1999.
We can be fairly certain that David did not write Psalm 53 until, as king, he had conquered the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem, since there is a reference to Zion in verse 6. A great many of the psalms that David wrote during the crisis at the end of Saul’s life are maskils, Psalms that describe (and ask for) God’s deliverance in a time of trouble. Here David returns to the maskil form while secure in the new City of David during those years when he was at war against Moab, Ammon and Edom, around 1002-990 BC.
Except for verse 5, this Psalm is almost identical to Psalm 14, except that “the LORD” in Psalm 14 is “God” here in Psalm 53. This reflects the pattern of the first two books or divisions of the book, since Psalms 1-41 favor the name “the LORD” for God (“The LORD is my shepherd,” Psalm 23:1) and Psalms 42-72 favor “God” (“My soul finds rest in God alone,” Psalm 62:1). Most of the Psalms in both parts were written by David. The other important difference is that 14:5-6 are considerably different here (53:5). Which was written first? This isn’t a question we need to concern ourselves with. They were both written by David for the benefit of God’s people, and like a good prayer or a refrain, it does no harm to repeat what has been said once before.
53 For the director of music.
According to mahalath.
A maskil of David.
Dr. Brug says that mahalath “probably refers to a sad melody to be used during sickness or affliction.” A similar word is used in the heading of Psalm 88. See my comments on Psalm 52 (this coming Wednesday) for “maskil.”
1 The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their ways are vile;
there is no one who does good.
First, David notes, the truly foolish man is the atheist. An atheist thinks there is no God. An agnostic thinks that one can’t know whether there is a god. The difference is only in degree; neither admits that the God who made heaven and earth is truly supreme. And while God is invisible and intangible (John 1:18, “No man has ever seen God”), “what may be known about God is plain because God has made it plain” (Romans 1:19). Nothing about the origin of anything in the universe can be explained unless there is a Creator. When I was a schoolboy in the 1970s, scientists tried to tell us that everything evolved and got better over time. But they could not say what everything first evolved from, or what the first item was. Where did the enzymes and electricity come from? Then in the 1980s, scientists tried to explain that there must have been a “huge inrush of hydrogen” that caused the so-called Big Bang that got everything started. But where did the hydrogen come from? What caused the “huge inrush”? And scientists have debated ever since about these things. But God’s Word tells us that God made it all, and more than that, God is the only solution to the sins of those who are corrupt, whose ways are vile, and who do no good.
2 God looks down from heaven
on the sons of men
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
This verse is written in a way that reminds us of the opening chapters of Genesis. Again and again after the Fall, God asks questions of his fallen children. “Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree I commanded you not to eat from? What is this you have done?” (Genesis 3). “Why are you angry? Where is your brother Abel? What have you done?” (Genesis 4). God looks and looks, searching for repentance in the hearts of sinners. When a sinner repents, all of heaven bursts into joyful cheers (Luke 15:7,10). The sin of this verse is the sin against the First Commandment. God wants man to search for him and to seek him (Acts 17:27), and he provides his Word so that we never need to travel far to do so. “Anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists” (Hebrews 11:6). This is only the beginning of faith, for God has also provided a Savior from sin, the Spirit who tends our faith and strengthens it, a church to provide us with fellowship and the means of grace, and more.
3 Everyone has turned away,
they have together become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
This verse teaches the complete depravity of mankind; Our “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12); the “sin living in me” (Romans 7:17), the sin that is “right there with me” (Romans 7:21) and that “so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1); the “body of sin” (Romans 6:6) and “the old self” (Romans 6:6), the “law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:23). This is the way the Scriptures describe the sin we inherit, our original sin. Sin infects us our whole lives, and it infects even the newborn infant. David testifies that he was sinful “from the moment my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5), and here again he says: “Everyone has turned away.” This turning away can’t only be about actual sins that we commit. In fact, this verse cannot be spoken at all if it only refers to actual sins of sinful men and women. David would not say “everyone” if he did not mean everyone. Even saying that “everyone” is hyperbole (exaggeration for a rhetorical effect) falls to dust when we see that David pairs this statement with “there is no one who does good, not even one.” This is not hyperbole. This is a lament over the total depravity of all mankind. Of course little babies are included. This is also why God’s judgment of the flood included infants and babies still in their mother’s wombs when God said: “Every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And this is why God gives us the gospel and the sacrament of baptism to rescue even little infants from their sins; a washing that requires nothing from the child, but only gives grace just as a mother requires nothing from the baby when she holds him in her arms.
“There is no one who does good,” David accuses me, “Not even one.” Am I tempted to cry, David, you sinned more than I have!? But God doesn’t call a perfect man to point out my sins. There is no perfect man on earth who can point out my sins, but there are sinners. It was the perfect man who rose up, God hidden in flesh, to pay for my sins. That’s where our voices need to sound—not in accusation of one another, but in adoration of the one who died for all. For me.
4 Will the evildoers never learn—
those who devour my people as men eat bread
and who do not call on God?
5 There they were, overwhelmed with dread,
where there was nothing to dread.
God scattered the bones of those who attacked you;
you put them to shame, for God despised them.
When God scatters the bones of attackers, he is taking all honor away from his enemies. This is his promise to uphold his will at all times; glory is his and his alone. Therefore he “prepares a table before my enemies” (Psalm 23:5), not to honor the enemies, but to force them to watch God’s servant be cared for by his own service. They will receive only burning coals on their heads (Psalm 120:4), while his flock receives their fill of all good things from his own hand (Psalm 107:9).
6 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad! (NIV)
Here all other thoughts are overwhelmed by Christ, the Salvation of mankind, who came out of Zion. He came out to be crucified. To the Jews and to the Romans, as to today’s pagans, it looked like a defeat, a dead man on a tree. But it was the greatest victory the world will ever know: God paid for the sins of mankind with a single humiliating act. God rescued us. God saved me. And you. When David proclaims, “God restores the fortunes of his people,” we can shout: “God did restore the fortunes of his people—and he brought us along with him! God saved us!” What better day than today to thank him with our lives?
Pastor Timothy Smith