Psalm 53

Psalm 53 is probably more well known as a passage from Romans, where Paul quotes it in setting out his rubric of Christian faith. I’ll talk a little bit about the theology, because it’s interesting, and then I’ll get back to the more poetic side of things. We’re looking at Romans 3:10-12 here – it’s actually a combination of Psalms 14 and 53. I’ve not written about Psalm 14, but you can read it in its entirety here. You’ll notice there are continuities with Psalm 53 – they both begin “Fools say in their hearts ‘There is no God’.” This type of language links the two poems with Proverbs, which often employs the binary of the wise and the foolish: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;/ fools despise wisdom and instruction.” 

Curiously, the language of Romans 3 doesn’t precisely match the wording of either psalm. It reads thusly:

“There is no one who is righteous,
not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.” 

Even though the wording isn’t the same, there are enough structural links to draw the comparison. The repetition of “There is no one who” matches the form of both psalms, which repeat the phrase “There is no one who does good”. The similarities between ‘does good’ and ‘is righteous’ are significant enough to make me wonder whether Paul was simply working out of a different translation. The second half of the Romans quote supports this theory most strongly:

Romans 3:12 Psalm 53:3
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who shows kindness, there is no one who does good,
there is not even one. no, not one.

For reference, Psalm 14:3 is identical to 53:3, with one slight change – “fallen away” becomes “gone astray”. 

So even though the wording’s slightly different, I’m happy seeing Paul as basically quoting more or less directly from these two psalms. We’ll focus more on 53 for now, but it’s interesting to note that there’s another one that basically says the same thing. Romans borrows this passage as a precursor to explain how everybody has sinned and fallen short of perfection. That’s Romans 3:23: “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The extract from Psalms is designed to reinforce that idea – there’s nobody who does good, everybody has fallen away from God.

However, that’s not necessarily the meaning of the original psalm in its context. If you look at Psalm 53, yes, it talks about how there’s nobody who’s wise and everybody’s evil – but then in verse 4 it talks about how the evildoers “eat up my people as they eat bread”. It seems that there’s a distinction made between the evildoers and the people. We’re assuming that the perspective is that of King David – hence ‘my’ people. The evildoers seem like an outside force – they don’t come from within the people, within the community. They’re outsiders who undermine the integrity of the people. This idea is supported by the final stanza, where David prays for deliverance for his people:

“O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of His people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.”

He’s waiting to be saved – and not just to be saved personally, but for his people to be saved. The implication, to me, is that his people are being persecuted by these evildoers, and he’s decrying the sinfulness of these outsiders (who are sinful because they persecute God’s people), while praying for relief. The contrast between the end of the fifth stanza and the start of the sixth further supports this idea: God has rejected them (the evildoers), while Israel waits for deliverance. If the people of Israel had been rejected, they wouldn’t be waiting on deliverance, because there wouldn’t be any deliverance coming.

All this basically serves to illustrate that when the speaker says “God looks down on humankind” but “they have all fallen away”, it’s not necessarily literally all of them. It seems like the Israelites are portrayed as still being alright. Returning to Romans, then, Paul is taking the passage and using it in a way that’s contrary to its original intention. Paul uses it to suggest that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. When he writes that there is no one who is righteous or seeks God, drawing on the language of that psalm, he changes the meaning to include the Jews. Where the original psalm lamented that the Gentiles were all evil and assaulting the Israelites, Paul uses it to suggest that actually Gentiles and Jews alike are equally under the power of sin, and equally damned. It’s a precursor to his argument that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by Jesus, and therein relieved of any obligation to Jewish law.

Now, really that’s all fine – it’s not the case that because Paul has changed the meaning of the Psalm his theology is now invalid. Rather, it illustrates the appropriative nature of the New Testament. We might describe it as parasitic on the Old Testament, in the sense that it interprets and reinterprets and recontextualises its contents. It’s something that happens throughout: in Matthew 1:23, for example, the writer quotes Isaiah, suggesting that Jesus fulfills those prophecies and is the Messiah. It’s why the Old Testament as such is so important to Christianity: as a religion, we’re founded on the traditions of our Jewish heritage. Our faith is cast in terms of the pre-existing Jewish beliefs, and it doesn’t really make sense outside of that context. In short, fuck you, Marcion.

Psalm 53

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.

God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, these evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?

There they shall be in great terror,
in terror such as has not been.
For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly;
they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of His people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

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