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Psalms 53-56

If you felt like you were experiencing déjà vu while reading Psalm 53, you were. Much of this psalm repeats what is in Psalm 14. You may well wonder why that is the case. Our current Psalter combines several collections of psalms. Just as many hymns appear in more than one hymnbook in our own time, some of the psalms appeared in more than one collection in ancient times. So why would the person or persons making the final selection for our current Psalter leave two such similar psalms in the final cut? Perhaps the reason is that the collector(s) found the differences in these two psalms important enough to include both. Another reason may be that the position of these two psalms in Book I and Book II were important to the flow of the entire collection. However, these are only guesses.

Verse 3 is often quoted in support of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. You may remember that it is also quoted by Paul in Romans 3. “There is no one who does good, no not one.” However, in the context of the Psalm, this is said of the fools who do not know God, in contrast to “my people” Israel. As we have already seen, the various psalmists often seem to think that they are without sin, they are righteous, while everyone else in the world, the non-Jews, are, as we would say, “going to hell in a hand basket”. While we may not agree with Calvin that the Bible teaches anything like total depravity, we should at least agree with Solzhenitsyn who wrote in The Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The heading of Psalm 53 refers to “Mahalath”. Does this word refer to a tune or an instrument? Some even think the word means “sickness” and therefore in the context of the psalm refers to the spiritual malady of foolishness and atheism. However, the fact is, we do not know for certain what this word means.

The word for “fool” in Psalm 53 is “Nabal” and so there may, in this psalm, be a play on the name of one of David’s enemies. Nabal eventually died and David gained his wife Abigail. 

According to the heading of Psalm 54, the context of this psalm is one of the times when David was hiding from Saul and the Ziphites betrayed him. This may be a good psalm to pray whenever we feel betrayed. It is always best to do what David does here: entrust the matter to God’s hands and realize that God will deliver us.

Psalm 55 may be envisioning the time when David’s throne was usurped by Absalom. Though Absalom was David’s son, the betrayer referred to in verse 13 as “my equal, my companion, my familiar friend” may in fact be him. Of course, we also see in this verse a foreshadowing of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, a betrayer who fits this bill precisely. David, like Jesus after him, experienced ever-increasing betrayal: from Doeg to Nabal to the Ziphites to his own son, Absalom. No wonder he wanted to fly away and be at rest. In fact, David had to do just that, he had to fly from Jerusalem to escape his treacherous son.

However, as David soon realized, trying to run away from one’s problems never really works. Elijah discovered this too. The first, best step to dealing with our problems is not to try to run away from them, but rather to talk to the Lord about them in prayer, as David does in this psalm, and as Jesus spoke to his heavenly Father in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The heading of Psalm 56 calls this psalm a “Miktam”. The term may refer to the metal cover of a vessel and thus to an instrument. This term may also refer to the content of the psalm that is all about David’s need for a covering by God, a refuge.

The context of this psalm is the time when David fled from Saul to enemy territory among the Philistines. The enemy seized him and David pretended to be crazy so that they would not take his life. However, in the end, it was God’s power and love that delivered David, not David’s own cleverness.

When we pray this psalm in times of distress, it can bring us great comfort, just as the process of praying and writing this psalm must have brought comfort to David. It is important to realize what David recognizes here: that God knows us intimately. God knows how many times we toss and turn in bed at night when we are enduring a stressful time (56:8). God will even record our tears and, metaphorically speaking, keep them in a bottle.

Paul writes words in Romans 8 that echo the words of David here: “If God be for me, then who can be against me?” If God is on our side, we need no other defender. Indeed, as followers of Jesus, we can walk before God in the light of life forever.


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