Week of 26 October 2017 – Psalm 53

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Chapter 53: Psalm 53 is attributed to David and is identical to Psalm 14. At only 7 verses in length, it decries humanity’s tragic and foolhardy preoccupation with corruption and sin, offering the hope of salvation for the righteous. G-d chastises those whose pursuit of evil has led to persecuting others, while ultimately giving encouragement to Jacob, Israel & Zion to take heed and rejoice.

Yet it is deeply puzzling why David would have repeated here what seems almost entirely the same as Chapter 14. We’ll compare verses from both Psalms to demonstrate their similarity & difference.

אָמַר נָבָל בְּלִבּוֹ, אֵין אֱל-ֹהִים; הִשְׁחִיתוּ, וְהִתְעִיבוּ עָוֶל– אֵין עֹשֵׂה-טוֹב. The fool said in his heart: ‘There is no God’; they’ve dealt corruptly, and have performed abominable sins; none does good. (Psalms 53:2)

For the Leader. [A Psalm] of David. The fool said in his heart: ‘There is no God’; they’ve dealt corruptly, they’ve done abominably; there is no one who does good. (Psalms 14:1)

הֲלֹא יָדְעוּ, פֹּעֲלֵי-אָוֶן: אֹכְלֵי עַמִּי, אָכְלוּ לֶחֶם; אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא קָרָאוּ. Shall not the workers of iniquity know, who eat up My people as they eat bread, and call not upon God? (Psalms 53:5)

Shall not all the workers of iniquity know, who eat up My people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD? (Psalms 14:4)

שָׁם, פָּחֲדוּ פַחַד- לֹא-הָיָה-פָחַד:כִּי-אֱ-לֹהִים–פִּזַּר, עַצְמוֹת חֹנָךְ; הֱבִשֹׁתָה, כִּי-אֱ-לֹהִים מְאָסָם. There are they in great fear, where no fear was; for God scattered the bones of the one who ‘encamped’ against you; putting them to shame, because God rejected them. (Psalms 53:6)

There are they in great fear; for God is with the righteous generation. (Psalms 14:5) You put to shame the counsel of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge. (Psalms 14:6)

מִי יִתֵּן מִצִּיּוֹן, יְשֻׁעוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל: בְּשׁוּב אֱ-לֹהִים, שְׁבוּת עַמּוֹ; יָגֵל יַעֲקֹב, יִשְׂמַח יִשְׂרָאֵל. Oh that Israel’s salvation were to come out of Zion! When God turns the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Psalms 53:7)

Oh that the salvation of Israel were to come out of Zion! When the LORD turns the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad. (Psalms 14:7)

According to Rashi, metaphorically Psalm 14 prophesied the destruction of the 1st Temple, thus Psalm 53 would do the same for the 2nd Temple. But King David obviously lived before the period of the 1st Temple (built by his son Solomon). So this Psalm – while it may have had a prophetic component – must have also had relevance to David’s life.

The clue may likely be in the disparity of Verse 6. The triple Hebrew reference to ‘a fear (pahad) where there was no fear’ can be linked to the Biblical chastisement known as the  Tokhaha appearing both in Leviticus 26 and in Deuteronomy 28 – the Israelite’s rebuke for not following G-d’s commands. Another clue may be the reference to ‘scattered bones’ which often connotes devastation from war.

Perhaps (like Chapter 52) this chapter refers to the life-threatening experiences David had with King Saul or worse, to Saul’s demoralising death during war with the Philistines. But, as for why David recorded this Psalm twice, further investigation is required.