Psalms 14 and 53

Dear Reader,

Last year my resolution was to blog on reformed Christian education, and, except for some slacking in December, I followed through on that (you can find that series here). While I’m not dropping that project, this year my resolution is to be more regular in working through the Psalms. You can find a recent example including some background on how I approach the Psalms and why here.

I’d like to cover two Psalms today. Looking back I found I have already blogged on Psalms 1 through 13 so I decided to be orderly and pick up with 14. I am including 53 because the two are almost identical.

Textual Issues . . . and Why We’re Ignoring Them

I’ve studied biblical Hebrew at a couple of secular grad schools and I can tell you that these two psalms could provide some good fodder for textual criticism. There are verses which are difficult in the Hebrew. Add to that that we have two almost identical versions and your alarm bells should be ringing — Which is original? Was one corrupted? Or was the other hard so the former was smoothed out to make it make more sense? Why keep two versions? Did they have a common — most likely oral — source?

I am not going to answer all these questions or deal with all the particulars of the difficult words. That is not my goal in this series. I do have to make some judgment calls in order to translate them, but my goal here is not to discuss  or to do textual criticism.

I come to the text with some presuppositions. First and foremost is that it is the inspired Word of God. A corollary is that God has given us what He wants us to have. However these two Psalms came to be, they are what He wants us to have now. And He wants us to have two versions of this particular Psalm. So we may revisit the “why we have two” question at the end but we are not going to dwell on how the text came to be the way it is.

Translations

Because we have two psalms to look at and want to be able to compare them — and largely because I don’t know how to make a table in WordPress — I am going to refer you to this Google document for my translation of the Psalms:

My translations of Psalms 14 and 53

Our usual approach is for you to print out the Psalm and spend some time looking over it, colored pencils in hand (again see this post for some background how-to information). This time I’d like you to think about some specific questions as you do:

  • Read one of the Psalms by itself first. This Psalm doesn’t have as clear a structure as usual. There is not a lot of nice parallelism. You can still look for repeated words and ideas and any kind of structure. Are there any sections here? Any movement through the course of the Psalm?
  • What do you think the setting is? What situation is the psalmist (or those he speaks for) in? Does the Psalm itself tell us anything about the historical context? Has anything changed by the end of the Psalm?
  • Now look at the two side by side. What differences are there between them? What is the effect of these differences? Are there different ideas? Tones or emphases?

Analysis

I ask you to spend some time with the Psalm before you read my comments so that you can have your own relationship with it. God’s Word is living and part of what that means is that we can come to it multiple times in multiple ways and get different things from it each time. I am going to give you my observations but if yours are different, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. As always, if you did have other conclusions, I’d love to hear them.

I asked what the setting of this Psalm is. The Psalmist and his people are clearly in distress, in need of salvation (line 10). The end of the Psalm seems to give us the specific context — they are in captivity (line 11). This may be the Babylonian captivity which began around 586 BC when the southern kingdom of Judah was destroyed and its elite taken away (cf. Ps. 137). There is also some indication that the enemy have encamped or are encamping around Israel (Ps. 53, line 8). The enemy, whoever they are, do not recognize God; they do no good; they “eat” the people “like bread.” There is little change within the Psalm; it ends with a cry for a deliverance which has not yet come.

Because the resolution of the problem is not seen within this Psalm, there is not a lot of movement, that is, the Psalmist’s situation does not change. But there is some stylistic change within the Psalm. There are two markers of this: the verb tenses and repeated words.

The verb tenses (see footnote #2 in my translation) clue us in to one division within the Psalm. Most of this Psalm is written in the past tense; these are things which have been done. But at the end of the Psalm, there is a future tense: “Who will give salvation” so that Israel and Jacob may rejoice and may be glad (line 10; Psalm 14 also have the future in line 9, but we will examine that further when we compare the two Psalms).

What repeated words and ideas did you notice? I tried to translate it in such a way as to highlight the “there-is-not,” which, as I said in my notes, is one short word in Hebrew. It stands out in the Hebrew in a way that is hard to convey in English. This little word, Hebrew eyn, occurs four times in the Psalm, in lines 1 and 2 and twice in quick succession in line 6. In the middle, we find one occurrence of its opposite, yesh, “there is,” in line 4. This repetition provides a kind of tight coherence to the first half of the Psalm. Not only does a short word predominate, but this section of the Psalm is rather choppy, full of short phrases with short words. In line 7, by way of contrast, we get a mouthful (no pun intended), a long statement that seems to shift the style of the Psalm. This continues through line 9 when there is a shift again, marked by the verb tenses as we have seen, but also by a return to somewhat shorter and definitely easier to translate phrases.

I’d like to look a little more closely now at each of these three parts, noting also the differences between the two versions of the Psalm.

What binds the first 6 lines together is that little word “there is/are not.” In line 1, it is the fool who says “there is no God.” In line 2, the Psalmist intervenes with commentary, telling us there are none who do good. In lines 3 and 4, the tables are turned, God looks down and asks “Are there any?” The Psalmist then comments again, telling us that all are corrupted (line 5). And in line 6, the verdict comes from God “there is none” who does good and repeating the key word: there is none, not even one. We could lay these lines out like this:

The fool says in his heart: “There-is-no God.”

They destroy. They abominate wantonly. There-is-no doer of good.

The LORD from heaven looks-down upon the sons of man:

To see is-there-any who understands, seeking God?

All turn-aside; together they are corrupted;

There-is-no doer of good;

There-is-not even one.

The first part, lines 1 through 6, is almost identical in the two Psalms. The main difference (besides one word difference in line 2, wantonly versus unrighteously; these are very similar words in the Hebrew) is the use of God in Psalm 53 where Psalm 14 has LORD. This difference continues in the latter portions of the Pslam (cf. lines 7, 9 and 11).

Turning to the second section of the Psalm, lines 7 through 9, we find longer clauses and the biggest differences between the two versions. Line 7 is identical in the two (other than the God/LORD difference), but in line 8 for the first time we have a different idea. Both have the clause: “There they [the enemy] dread greatly.” Psalm 14 tells us why “they dread” — because God is among the righteous (i.e. Israel). Psalm 53 tells us instead that their dread is not real: they dread though there is nothing to dread. Psalm 53 also contains a statement with no parallel in Psalm 14: “God scatters the bones of your [Israel’s] encamper” (that is, the one who encamps against him). 

The transition to the second person (which occurs at the end of 8 in Ps. 53 and in line 9 in Ps. 14) is awkward in English. Hebrew is more comfortable with such transitions. Still, this is a rocky part of the Psalm, particularly for Ps. 53.  In Psalm 14, the “you” in line 9 seems to be the enemy who is now addressed — it is he who shames the needy (i.e. God’s people). He does so because they put their trust in God. There is a little bit of tension here: on one hand, the enemy dreads because God is with His people (line 8); on the other, he mocks them for their faith (line 9). I don’t think this is a tension we need to resolve. I don’t know about you but this sounds like human nature to me — the wicked both mocks and fears the faith of the righteous which he does not understand nor share.

The main connection between line 9 in the two Psalms in the word “shame.” Beyond that they have little in common. Psalm 53 reads: “You put (them) to shame for God rejects them.”  This is a bit opaque but my interpretation of it is this: the “you” is the enemy (in contrast to line 8). As in Psalm 14, he puts Israel to shame. But whereas Psalm 14 tells us the enemy mocks Israel for his faith, Psalm 53 provides another kind of reason: the emeny mocks Israel —  that is, he is allowed to mock Israel — because God has rejected him (Israel). [This idea — that the exile happened because God rejected Israel – is common in the prophets (cf. Isa. 5:1ff).]

This interpretation leaves some awkwardness, even by Hebrew standards. “You” in line 8 refers to Israel while the “you” of line 9 refers to the enemy. Because the latter half of line 8 in Psalm 53 breaks the flow of the Psalm and because it has no parallel in Psalm 14, the text critic in me would say that it is an added gloss by a later scribe that has become incorporated into the text. I don’t think that is entirely a wrong inclination. On one hand, it does feel added, but, on the other, it is part of the Scriptures as we have them, as God wants us to have them. The question we should be asking, then, is what this line contributes to the Psalm.  This is, frankly, a pretty discouraging Psalm with a cry for help to come at the end but little concrete consolation in sight. In fact, apart from the clause in question, there is nothing God does here to alleviate the psalmist’s suffering. So the Psalmist breaks in here with a word of encouragement: though things look hopeless, God does scatter the bones of our enemies who are at this very moment (perhaps) encamping around us. 

Moving to the final section, lines 10 and 11, again the main difference is in the divine name, God in Psalm 53 versus LORD in Psalm 14.

There is one more difference I would like to highlight and it is in the superscriptions. If you read footnotes, you may alreays know what I am goign to say. Psalm 53 has a longer superscription than 14 does. It contains a refernce to what may be a tune, saying the Psalm is “according to mahalat,” and it also has that it is not just “of David” but a “maskhil of David.”  This is not at all uncommon in the Psalms but I think it is significant here because the same word, maskhil, occurs in line 4. In the title, a maskhil is usually taken to be a kind of song or poem. The base root has to do with prudence or understanding so scholars often translate it as something like “a contemplative poem.”  In line 4, the exact same word (not just the same root) appears as “understand” in “is there any who understands?” In the Psalm, the answer to that question is no, there is no one who understands which is here equated with seeking God (knowledge and God-fearing being closely related in the Scriptures; cf. Prov. 1:7). But the title hints at something different: David had maskhil; he was a God-seeker. And in truth, though the Psalm starts with a blanket statement: there is no who seeks God, in the course of it, the psalmist seems to be saying not that no one at all seeks God but that among the nations, particularly those oppressing Israel, there is none who seeks God.

What then are we to make of all these differences? What is the net effect of them and why do we have two such similar Psalms? Though there is a lot of overlap between the two, they do seem to have slightly different thrusts. Psalm 14 uses the proper, covenant name of God (LORD) which always calls to mind God’s covenant faithfulness to His people. It also says God is among the righteous (line 8) and is a refuge to the needy (line 9). When God’s people are mocked, it is for their faith. In some ways this is the less depressing version of the Psalm.

In contrast, Psalm 53 never uses the divine name and it places the blame for the current troubles not directly on the enemy but on Israel itself. Their trouble is a punishment for rejecting their God. The line with no parallel, the latter part of line 8, tempers this a bit as, oddly enough, does the added superscription which reminds us that men, like David, have been wise and sought God. Other than just not bringing to mind God’s covenant, the use of the more generic “God” seems to give this Psalm a bit of a universal flair. The nations may not know about the LORD but they should have some awareness of a God yet even this they do not acknowledge.

Conclusions

These are hard Psalms. They are not easy to translate or to understand. Nor are they easy to internalize. Their message is a harsh one and while there is a call for salvation, there is no realization of that hope within the course of the Psalm. Though Psalm 53 tries to temper the message, it is the harsher of the two, blaming Israel for its troubles. Though most people reading this do not live with oppression, I hope they still speak to us in a time when most of the world around us says “there is no God.”

Nebby

One response to this post.

  1. […] Since Psalm 14 was so tough, we’ll relax a bit this week with the next one down the pike. Psalm 15 is pretty straight-forward and it has some nice parallelism for those of you who are just getting used to Psalm study. You can find all my Psalm posts here, including some background on how and why we do this. […]

    Reply

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