To the leader: according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David.
1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.
2 God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
3 They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, those evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
5 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.
6 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
To a modern reader, Psalm 53, which opens with the line “Fools say in their hearts there is no God” would seem to be addressed to atheists, those who don’t believe in the existence of any divine being. I’m going to make the case today that this is an incorrect reading of Psalm 53–a classic intrusion of a very modern idea into a very ancient text. But of course, that still won’t stop me from sharing with you one of my favorite atheist jokes…
An atheist was going for a walk in the woods, when suddenly he happened across a huge grizzly bear. The bear, clearly angry, began to chase him through the woods, and was just about to catch him when, in desperation, the man cried out to God for help. Suddenly, everything froze, and a voice boomed from the heavens saying “You say you don’t believe in me, but now you’re asking for my help?” The atheist said to God, “Okay, okay, but I believe in you now! If I become a Christian, will you save me from the bear?” God thought about it and said, “I’m sorry but I have a policy of not accepting conversions made under duress. If you like, however, I can at least make the bear a Christian.” With no other options on the table, the atheist agreed, everything unfroze, the bear knelt down, put its paws together in prayer and said, “Lord, for this food which we are about to receive, we give you thanks.”
Psalm 53 begins with a “triple inscription.” It is addressed “to the leader” (probably the worship leaader or choir director), and then “according to Mahalath” which could possibly be a particular tune or melody or musical category (no one really knows) and then finally it is described as “a maskil of David.” The word maskil comes from the Hebrew root שָׂכַל (sakal) which means to consider or to understand. So the psalms labeled as “maskils” are usually wisdom psalms, or psalms intended to teach us something.
Psalm 53 is also fascinating in the fact that it has a twin. Keep your finger in your Bible to hold your place at Psalm 53, but while doing that, I want you to flip several pages before that and find Psalm 14. Compare the two psalms. They are almost identical, no? Almost. There are some minor differences in verses 4 and 5 between the two psalms, and one major difference that is almost invisible to readers of the two Psalms when translated in English. Almost.
Look at verse two in Psalm 14, then look at the same verse in Psalm 53. In particular, look at the first word, or two words in those verses. Psalm 14 has “The LORD” looks down from heaven (and notice that LORD is capitalized), while Psalm 53 says “God” looks down from heaven. There are four total places in psalm 14 that refer to God as “The LORD” (capitalized) while those same four places in Psalm 53 simply say “God.”
And that’s a huge difference, if you know what it means. Allow me to clue you in. Anytime you see the words “The LORD” (capitalized) in an English translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the capital letters are a clue that the word you’re seeing isn’t really that word. It’s a stand-in for the Hebrew name Yahweh, the personal name of God in Jewish tradition. In Jewish tradition, it’s considered inappropriate to say aloud the proper name of God, so when a Jewish reader comes across that name in the Jewish text, he or she substitutes the Jewish word “Adonai” which means…Lord.
Well, in most English translations of the Bible, that convention is formalized and the translators simply translate Yahweh as “The LORD” (capital letters). And we’re so used to that, that when our eyes see “The LORD” we simply think of it as being the same thing, and interchangeable with the word, “God.”
But it’s not. Because the word “God” is a translation of a different Hebrew word, the word “Elohim” which contains another personal name for God, “El” plus the plural ending “im” so it can be translated as God, gods, or the God of gods.” Why are there two different names for God in the Bible? Because originally there were two different gods, corresponding to two different groups of people that eventually came together to form Israel.
The people of the North, the Canaanites, were henotheistic — meaning they believed in lots of gods, but that one was the chief or foremost among them. El, or Elohim, the God of gods.
The people of the South, the Judahites, were polytheistic — they also believed in lots of gods, and one of those gods was Yahweh, the thunder God (kind of like Thor). Eventually, however, they rejected all of their gods except Yahweh, and became an early adopter of monotheism–the belief that there is only one God. They kept all the other heavenly beings around though, they just demoted them to the lesser status of angels and demons, not gods, properly speaking.
In time, the two peoples (North and South) merged to become Israel, and the Southern concept of monotheism prevailed. To avoid excessive confusion and disagreement, they decided that their chief gods, Elohim and Yahweh, were actually the same God, just using different names. They also brought with them their own separate worship books — their separate collections of Psalms — and spliced them all together into one book. Because the two peoples shared a common language and common culture with lots of overlap and interchange between them, it is not surprising that there was also overlap among their favorite songs, and that a few of them–Psalm 14 and 53 for example–survived the splicing of traditions independently, and exist today to remind us that all things–our songs, our cultures, our languages, and even our beliefs about God, evolve, grow as we do, and change through time and human interactions.
Which brings me back to atheism–the conviction that god or the gods do not exist. This, too, is an evolution in human belief, and a relatively recent one at that. The word “Atheist” doesn’t show up in the English language until the 16th century. It comes from an older Greek word, ἄθεος, but even in Ancient Greece and Rome, that word didn’t refer to those who denied the existence of any gods — it referred to people who rejected the officially sanctioned gods of the Empire. People like Jews and Christians, who were, ironically, tried and sentenced to death for the crime of Atheism.
In Ancient Israel, in the age of the Psalms, the idea of someone denying the existence of God or gods would have been completely unthinkable. Which makes most English translations of Psalm 53:1 problematic.
Let’s look a little more closely. Verse 1: Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
The words “There is” are not in the Hebrew text…they are perhaps implied. But in Hebrew, the fools say in their hearts, אֵ֣ין (eh’yin) אֱלֹהִ֑ים (elohim), or “No gods.” Let’s look more closely at that word אֵ֣ין (eh’yin) or “no.”
The NAS Exhaustive concordance of Hebrew, which looks at every instance in which a word is used in the Bible and complies them all, says that this word sometimes means (among other things)…
almost, bereft, beyond, cease, countless, else, endless, fails, found, gone, had, has, has no, has nothing, have, helpless, incurable, infinite, infrequent, innumerable, inscrutable, lack, neither, never, no, no longer, no more, none, none other, nothing, one, or, powerless, senseless, undesirable, unfathomable, unless, unsearchable, waterless, without.
Uh oh. I’ve always said that it’s pretty dangerous to hinge an entire theological argument (or translation) on the meaning of one small two letter word. This is clearly one of those cases.
I suspect that, given the context of this Psalm and others like it, the Psalmist is really trying to say that those who don’t share his particular notions of who God is and how God’s people should act, are foolish, corrupt, and despicable. And that’s probably because the people he refers to are, in the words of verse 4, “eating up my people as they eat bread.” If someone were attacking your people, devouring them, so to speak, I suppose you would be inclined to call them fools, evildoers, or worse.
But just in case you are still tempted to read this Psalm as an attack on godless atheists–look closely at verses 2 and 3:
“God looks down from heaven on humankind (meaning everyone) to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. (What does he find?) They have ALL fallen away, they are ALL alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
In other words, we are all counted among the godless. Actually, I find it interesting that, according to the Psalmist, the criteria God is looking for is not “belief in him” but rather “wisdom” and those who “seek after God.”
I would like to suggest that in our culture today, the thing that separates most atheists from most Christians is this: Every atheist, by definition, has sought after God, or given some amount of time and thought to determining whether or not a supreme being exists, in order to come to the conclusion that one does not.
On the other hand, I know far too many Christians who have given no such thought to the matter, and simply accept on faith, without careful examination, what others have told them, or what they were taught as children.
Perhaps it may be said that the atheists are the most faithful among us to God’s (or at least the Psalmist’s) criteria for wisdom.
In the second half of verse 5, the Psalmist tells us what he thinks should happen to those who are “devouring his people like bread.” He says that God will “scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.”
Here again, the word “ungodly” is often used by modern preachers and Christians to bash to atheists, agnostics, or people other religions, all in the name of the Bible. And here again is a mistranslation that probably tells us a lot more about the prejudices of the 16th century translators than it does of the original authors.
The Hebrew word translated as “ungodly” is חָנָה (chanah). It’s a military term, and means, literally, those who are camped out, those who have pitched their tents and are settled in for a military seige. That probably means the enemies of the Psalmist, the ones who are devouring his people like bread. But there’s another possibility, one that speaks to us in our own era. Those who are camped out are those who are not moving, those who are circling the wagons and digging in for the long haul. In short, those who refuse to grow, evolve, or change in their theology, their politics, their understanding of God and the world around them.
These are the ones who have stopped seeking God, who have stopped questioning, stopped pursuing wisdom.
What shall happen to them? Nothing. They die. Their bones become scattered and life goes on, as always.
God has rejected them, says verse 5, but I think the reality is that God, and the world, have simply passed them by, allowed them to remain stuck in their place, and left behind.
Psalm 53 ends with the Psalmist’s prayer:
“O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.”
What I like about this prayer is that it’s still hopeful. All this after the Psalmist, a few lines earlier, said there isn’t a single wise person on the face of the earth. The psalmist also wants deliverance for his people to come from Zion–which is the name of the mountain upon which the city of Jerusalem is built. It’s another way of saying, God, please let deliverance for my people come from MY city, MY hometown, MY mountain, from us. Give us the chance to work to make this right. We’ll give the credit to you (when God restores the fortunes of his people) but please let us participate in the hard work, in the process, in the evolution and the growth.
Whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a doubter…or a Christian, a true believer, a person of faith in God and/or humanity, I hope we can all agree on this one simple thing, and make it our prayer, our hope, our dream:
That our deliverance, our salvation, the solution to all of our problems IS possible, whether by the grace of God, or through work of our own hands–but either way you look at it, it begins here and now.
In each one of us.
As we grow, change, evolve…
and continue to seek wisdom in this wide and wonderful world.