The sister of the father mentioned below only began to read the Bible earlier this year. She is working her way through from Genesis and had not yet read the Book of Psalms. Yet interestingly in the midst of a family crises and attack on their personal integrity, Psalm 53 came into her mind. She had no idea what it was about.
The father had been attending a fiasco known as the Family Court. At great cost, he was fighting a lost cause to prevent his eleven-year-old son being relocated to another part of the UK, where he is now living with his mum and her ‘partner’. Generally speaking, the Family Court appears to be a place where a mother can have all her demands legally rubber-stamped by magistrates (three women in this case). The father’s barrister told him that Family Courts are not interested in evidence – a fact he had discovered for himself during the past four years. Unless a mother is an outright drug addict or similar, a father has little or no chance of being given custody of his children. The courts are biased toward the mother.[i] The concept of equality (or even justice) hasn’t entered into the atmosphere of Family Court
During an interview before the court hearing took place, the father’s son was asked by the Cafcass Officer if he wanted to move to another country in the UK. Because he has trouble speaking to strangers, he wrote his answer down for her. He told her that he did not want to go; he wanted to stay and to live with his father. The Officer, in her wisdom, decided he was only saying what his father wanted him to say. Perverse lies were told to the Court and other authorities by both the mum and the partner; there was also the twisting of facts by some of those in positions of authority. It is truly appalling and unseen unless you have been involved. The Family Court system is one of fake justice. Who knows what damage will be caused to such a young life? He sees his mother and partner lying to doctors, Early Help, and to various people in positions of authority; he has seen the Cafcass officer claiming that he didn’t mean what he said. What are we doing to the minds of young people? From an earthly perspective we see injustice and hopelessness. From a heavenly perspective: “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:27-28).
It is interesting that Psalm 53 came into the mind of the father’s sister because it covered so much of what they were suffering. The mother told the court if the father had custody, the son would not be able to do what he wanted, because of the father’s family’s Christian faith – meaning he would not be able to be a scientist because it would conflict with their faith. Astonishing when you consider how many scientists were and are Christians. I think the Psalm is not just applicable in this particular situation where one’s character is being repeatedly assassinated, but to others throughout the world at this time, not least those that are suffering personal attacks because of their faith in Messiah, now and in the days to come. Believers will suffer fierce injustice and unjustified attacks against them. “For behold, the wicked bend their bows. They set their arrow on the string to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart” (Psalm 11:2). What is happening today is target practice for the battles to come; the target then as now, is “the upright in heart.” The wicked imagine that they will continue to have the upper hand against the upright; but God sees. God is looking down (11:4), and is preparing retribution for those that deserve it. The wicked will not go unpunished however much they revel in their hatred for the righteous. God is gracious, giving time for the wicked to repent – indeed, where would any of us be without God’s grace and mercy? “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9); but should we continue to refuse God’s mercy, judgment can fall quickly, as with pharaoh’s chariots and his army (Exodus 15:4). This could be the reason why this father-son family is not vindicated immediately, and why the son is not immediately released from the grip of his mother and her partner, even though very young; but their mourning will turn to joy (Psalm 30:11). There is a Divine work in progress.
Psalm 53 mirrors much of what is in Psalm 14, so we will refer to both as we go forward. In many English versions, verse 1 speaks of the fool. The fool says in his heart there is no God. The word fool (Hebrew = nāḇāl) in bible usage refers to one who is morally deficient. He lives his life believing that there is no God. The denial of God’s existence these days might be atheism, for which there is no excuse (Psalm 19:1; Romans1:19-20), or the denial of divine justice (Psalm 10:4). An illustration from the bible of such a fool is Nabal. He was a wealthy Calebite whose name portrays his character, and is the same word used here, meaning “fool” (1 Samuel 25). Abigail’s description of Nabal is: “for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly [nᵉḇālā] is with him (1 Samuel 25:25). People with the attitude he displayed are corrupt, and God struck him down (1 Samuel 25:38). “His heart died within him, and he became as a stone. And about ten days later the Lord smote Nabal; and he died (vv.37ff). Therefore, Nabal lived the last ten days of his life as he had the rest – with a heart like stone, unresponsive to the needs of others. “When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, ‘Praise be to the Lord, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept His servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal’s wrongdoing down on his own head’” (1 Samuel 25:39). Nabal was like the fool described in Isaiah 32:6, “For the fool [nāḇāl] speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity… to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.” Nabal refused to give food to David’s men (1 Samuel 25:8-12; [see also Matthew 25:41-43]).
From Jewish sources:
Hashem smote Nabal so that he died (1 Samuel 25:38). What brought it upon him? That he was wanting in good deeds. Nabal is Laban (נָבָל) – the letters [of both names] are the same [they both shared the same deceitful traits]. He even denied the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it is written, Nabal said in his heart, “There is no God!” (Psalm 14:1). He had forbidden relations and entertained thoughts of idolatry (Shocher Tov 53:1).
The Holy One, Blessed is He, suspended his punishment for ten days, like the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so that he would repent. But he did not (Yerushalmi Bikkurim 2:1; Rosh Hashanah 18a).
Radak suggests that “naval” [nabal], benighted, is a very strong term that carries moral overtones; 2 Samuel 13:13, in relation to Ammon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar.
With all of that in mind, let’s look at our Psalm. The verse order in the Hebrew bible is slightly different to that of English versions.
To the lead player, on the mahalath, a David maskil.
53:1 The scoundrel has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They corrupt and do loathsome misdeeds. There is none who does good.
This speaks of empty people, contemptible, villainous, with darkened hearts and minds. Psalm 14 has ‘alilah, “acts,” – They corrupt, they make loathsome their acts; whereas Psalm 53 uses ‘awel, “misdeed[s].” The thought here is not just of a theological nature, or a question of God’s existence even in the strict sense in which we use the term “atheist.” It is the scoundrel’s lack of conscience. The scoundrel feels he can act with impunity; he has no fear at all of divine retribution – But we know that the Lord sees. He sees the scoundrel, and He sees what the scoundrel does and thinks. There have been, and are some that deny the existence of the covenant God. There are others that without absolutely denying His existence, deny His providence. There are numerous others who profess to acknowledge both, but deny them in their hearts. Therefore, they live as if they were really persuaded that there is no God to either punish or reward. They recruit others to join them in their wickedness. There are others, as we see in the life of Jesus that claimed to know God, and to serve God, yet sought to put Him to death. They recruited their disciples and conspired with others to join them in their wickedness. “Now the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were seeking testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but they did not find any. For many bore false witness against Jesus, but their testimony was inconsistent. Then some men stood up and testified falsely against Him” (Mark 14:55-57); and we shall see in Psalm 83, at the end of this article how groups conspired together. Something similar is said concerning the people of God, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). Using God’s name to do what is in one’s heart.
53:2 The Lord from the heavens looked down on the sons of humankind to see, is there someone discerning, someone seeking God.
The illusion the scoundrel lives under that there is no God examining human actions is spectacularly refuted in this verse. God, the Creator, looks down. He looked down and saw the corruption of man before the Flood (Genesis 6:5). He came down and saw man’s rebellion against God at Babel (Genesis 11:5); and He heard the outcry of evil at Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:21) and observed to see whether there were any wise people among the fools. God looks; God Comes; God hears, and God observes. He is aware. He looks down as witness and judge, observing the actions of mankind (bᵉnê-’āḏām) “sons of men” (Psalm 11:4). God sees the affliction of His children (Genesis 10:14; 11:4-5; 102:19-20). Those who are being falsely accused, God knows. He sees and hears your accusers. He observes those who are afflicting you. God will deliver you, and God will vindicate you (Psalm 102:19-20; Psalm 135:14; Psalm 138:7-8; Deuteronomy 32:36).
The discerning, the wise are those who understand [maśkîl] and seek [dōrēš] after God; and they love to do the will of God on earth. The man with understanding (maśkîl; Proverbs 10:5; 16:20; 21:12) is in sharp contrast to the “fool.”
53:3 All turn astray, altogether befouled. There is none who does good. There is not even one.
They have all turned aside…become corrupt (Romans 3:23). The dismaying, pervasive corruption is evident in the Hebrew, it is a universal reality of the sinfulness of the human condition (Jeremiah 17:9-10). All have sinned. All have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). They have “turned aside” (sār), “become apostate” (sāg). It is like looking at Babel all over again, “all”, “together”, and “no one.” Humankind has turned aside and “become corrupt” (ne’ᵉlāḥû) – (“to make sour,” and rancid as in milk; they are worthless individuals). (See Romans 3:11-18). By nature, and from nature, by practice, every human is sinful and corrupt. Only the grace of God can change such hearts; only God can give a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19; 18:31; 36:26); only God can make a new creation turning a sinner into a saint (2 Corinthians 5:17).
53:4 Do they not know, the wrongdoers? Devourers of my people devoured them like bread. They did not call on God.
Psalm 14 has “all wrongdoers.” The words “them like” do not appear in the Hebrew, they are added for clarity. In verses 4-6 is the contrast between the workers of wickedness who do not call upon the name of the Lord, and the righteous who make the lord their “refuge” (maḥsēh) – these are the wise (v.6). They are called “my people” (v.4) “the company of the righteous (v.5), and “the poor” (v.6). The appetite of the godless is insatiable (Isaiah 9:20-21). They “devour” the possessions of others and include them with their own. They completely disregard the rights of others (Isaiah 5:8). Their hatred of the righteous reflects their utter disregard for God Himself; and they have no knowledge or “understanding” (5:13; 1:3) of God’s judgment to come. They show no remorse, nor do they request mercy, which reminds me of the judgments poured out in the Book of Revelation. The young son of his father that I have been speaking of, is being legally held against his will, in a strange land where he does not belong. His mother says, “It so breaks my heart when he gets upset”, but then tells people the reason he gets upset is because of the abuse he suffered at the hand of his father. The truth is that he doesn’t want to live with his mother and her partner; he wants to be with his father. He wants to be with the friends he went to school with. He wants to be with the family and people that he knows. The mother intends to break his resolve and says, “One day this will all be a distant memory.” Please pray for this boy and his father; pray that they will let this child go back to his father, and back to his land. Pray for those that are forcing their will upon him.
53:5 There they did sorely fear, – There was no fear, for God scattered the bones of your besieger. You put them to shame, for God spurned them.
The NIV puts it this way: “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.” Psalm 14 has, “For God is with the righteous band.” The word for “besieger” is literally “your camper” (the one encamped against you?). Psalm 14 has, “In your plot against the poor you are shamed, for the Lord is his shelter.” God’s judgment will come suddenly, striking down the wicked when the Lord intervenes on behalf of His people, and the terrorizing comes to an abrupt end. Then “dread” will overtake (pāḥªḏû pāḥaḏ) the fools.
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand will save me” (Psalm 138:7).
53:6 O, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue when God restores His people’s fortunes. May Jacob exult. May Israel rejoice.
So often in times of trouble we are absorbed with either our pain, or an enemy or situation. It is when our focus is not on Jesus that we lose our joy and thereby our strength, “The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah is 8:10). He is our Deliverer. Even in persecution, God is “the refuge” of His children. The hope and call for the salvation of Israel that will come out of Zion is expressed here (Hebrews 11:1). The focus on the object of faith is for the righteous among the people (vv.4-5), and the future final salvation of Israel when God restores His captive people – restores the fortunes of His people (Psalm 126:1-3; See Ezekiel 16:53; Zephaniah 2:7). The Lord Himself will remove the remaining dross (Isaiah 1:25) and will make them what they were always intended to be: “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), redeemed, righteous, and at rest. Then Jacob will rejoice, and Israel will be glad. There are two names for the nation of Israel, taken from the patriarch, and indicate all the people of Israel (Genesis 32:28; e.g. Psalms 20:1; 46:7,11; 146:5; Isaiah 46:13. God will vindicate His people and deliver them from the fools who oppress and harass them. Isaiah speaks of the redemption of Zion (Isaiah 59:20), and is quoted by the apostle Paul (Romans 11:26).
A cry to the Lord:
“O God, do not remain quiet; do not be silent and, O God, do not be still. For behold, your enemies make an uproar, and those who hate you have exalted themselves. They make shrewd plans against your people, and conspire together against your treasured ones. They have said, ‘Come, and let us wipe them out as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more.’ For they have conspired together with one mind; against you they make a covenant: The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites; Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assyria also has joined with them; They have become a help to the children of Lot. Selah.
Deal with them as with Midian, as with Sisera and Jabin at the torrent of Kishon, who were destroyed at En-dor, who became as dung for the ground. Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb and all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, ‘Let us possess for ourselves the pastures of God.’
O my God, make them like the whirling dust, like chaff before the wind. Like fire that burns the forest and like a flame that sets the mountains on fire, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm. Fill their faces with dishonour, that they may seek your name, O Lord. Let them be ashamed and dismayed forever, and let them be humiliated and perish, that they may know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth” (Psalm 83:1-18).
In the first years after Israel’s independence, around seven-hundred thousand Jews moved to the land that God promised to His people. Absorption settlements were built throughout the country to accommodate all those returning. One settlement was appropriately named Sh’vut Am (שבות עם), ‘the return of the people,’ taken from Psalm 53. Though it is translated here as “restores His people’s fortunes,” the words sh’vut amo (שבות עמו) in this verse also mean ‘the return of His people.’ In the course of just a few years, over one-hundred thousand new immigrants lived in Sh’vut Am. When salvation came to Israel with the return of the captivity, Israel rejoiced. Israel will rejoice greatly at the return of Messiah, and when, in the final eschaton, all Israel shall be saved (Romans 11:26) when God’s faithfulness to Israel is demonstrated by His completion of the New Testament Covenant promises. This is another Divine work in progress as Jews recognise their Messiah, and when the Kingdom of God is established on earth.
Blessings and shalom