Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The deep and universal corruption of mankind is traced to its source in their failure to seek after God (Psalm 14:1-3). This corruption is illustrated by the cruel treatment to which ‘the people of Jehovah’ have been subjected (Psalm 14:4). But He proves Himself their defender (Psalm 14:5-6); and the Psalm concludes with a prayer that He will gladden Israel with a full deliverance (Psalm 14:7).
It is commonly supposed that the Psalmist is describing the depravity of his own age and his own country. But at least in Psalm 14:1-3 it is of mankind at large (the sons of men, Psalm 14:2) that he is speaking. His words recall the great examples of corruption in the primeval world; in the days before the Flood, at Babel, in Sodom.
The reference of Psalm 14:4-6 is less clear. It depends on the meaning assigned to ‘my people’ in Psalm 14:4. (1) ‘My people’ may mean the faithful few in Israel, the godly poor, who were devoured by heartless oppressors. In this case Psalm 14:5-6 must refer to the future, prophetically anticipating the judgement which will overtake these godless tyrants. (2) If however ‘my people’ means the nation of Israel, Psalm 14:4-6 must refer either to some present oppression by foreign enemies and their anticipated discomfiture; or to a typical example of oppression and deliverance in the past, such as that of Israel in Egypt. If we are right in supposing that Psalm 14:1-3 refer to the primitive history of mankind, the latter interpretation seems preferable. The Psalmist naturally passes on to the oppression of Israel in Egypt as the next great instance of defiant antagonism to Jehovah. Psalm 14:5-6 are then to be explained as a historical allusion to the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea: and the memory of that great national deliverance leads up to the concluding prayer of Psalm 14:7.
The Psalm recurs in Book ii as Psalms 53, with some variations. Elohim (God) is substituted for Jehovah (Lord) in accordance with the general practice of the editor of that book (see Introd. p. lv f.): and Psalm 14:5 differs widely from Psalm 14:5-6. Is this difference due to corruption of text or to intentional change? The curious similarity of the letters is in favour of the view that the text of Psalm 53:5 is a restoration of characters which had become partially obliterated: but it is equally possible that the editor of the collection intentionally altered the text in order to introduce a fresh historical reference, probably to the overthrow of Sennacherib.
The structure of the Psalm resembles that of Psalms 11 : two equal stanzas of three verses each, with a concluding verse.
The title of Psalms 53 runs “For the Chief Musician; set to Mahalath. Maschil of David.” Mahalath (cp. title of Psalms 88) may mean sickness, and is best explained as the initial word of some well-known song, to the melody of which the Psalm was set; rather than as denoting a mournful style of music, or some kind of instrument. On Maschil see Introd. p. xix.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.1. The fool] A class of men, not a particular individual. The word nâbâl here used for fool denotes moral perversity, not mere ignorance or weakness of reason. ‘Folly’ is the opposite of ‘wisdom’ in its highest sense. It may be predicated of forgetfulness of God or impious opposition to His will (Deuteronomy 32:6; Deuteronomy 32:21; Job 2:10; Job 42:8; Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:22): of gross offences against morality (2 Samuel 13:12-13): of sacrilege (Joshua 7:15): of ungenerous churlishness (1 Samuel 25:25). For a description of the ‘fool’ in his ‘folly’ see Isaiah 32:5-6 (A.V. vile person, villainy).
hath said in his heart] It is his deliberate conclusion, upon which he acts. Cp. Psalm 10:6; Psalm 10:11; Psalm 10:13.
There is no God] Cp. Psalm 10:4. This is hardly to be understood of a speculative denial of the existence of God; but rather of a practical disbelief in His moral government. Cp. Psalm 73:11; Jeremiah 5:12; Zephaniah 1:12; Romans 1:28 ff.
They are corrupt &c.] More emphatically the original: They corrupted their doings, they made them abominable, there was none doing good. Mankind in general are the subject of the sentence. Abandoning belief in God, they depraved their nature, and gave themselves up to practices which God ‘abhors’ (Psalm 14:6). ‘Corrupted’ describes the self-degradation of their better nature; ‘made abominable’ the character of their conduct in the sight of God. Such was the condition of the world before the Flood. See Genesis 6:11-12; and with the last line of this verse, cp. Genesis 6:5. P.B.V. follows LXX and Vulg. in adding no not one as in Psalm 14:5. For doings Psalms 53 has iniquity:—‘they did abominable iniquity.’
1–3. The universal depravity of mankind, and its cause.
The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.2. For a while Jehovah as it were overlooked the growing corruption. At length He ‘looked down’ (Psalm 33:13-14). So in the yet simpler language of the Pentateuch He is said to have ‘come down to see’ the wickedness of Babel and Sodom (Genesis 11:5; Genesis 18:21; and note the use of ‘look down’ in the latter narrative though in a different connexion, Psalm 18:16). Are not these typical examples of human corruption in the Psalmist’s mind? ‘Jehovah looked down … to see if there were any that did understand (or deal wisely, R.V. marg., for the verb often denotes right action as well as right purpose), that did seek God.’ Cp. Psalm 9:10. The use of God, not Jehovah, is significant. It is of mankind in general, not of Israel, that the Psalmist is speaking. God made Himself known through the voice of conscience, and in the works of creation, but men would not follow the light of conscience, or read the book of nature. See Acts 14:17; Acts 17:27; Romans 1:19 ff.
They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.3. The result of the investigation. All were turned aside from the path of right (Exodus 32:8; Jdg 2:17): together had they become tainted, a word which in Arabic means to go bad or turn sour, but in Hebr. is used only in a moral sense, here and in Job 15:16.
Three verses follow here in the P.B.V. which are not in the Hebrew text, and are rightly omitted in the A.V. The first three verses of the Psalm are quoted by St Paul in Romans 3:10-12, in proof of the universal depravity of mankind. He supplements them by further quotations from Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7; Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 36:1 : and this cento of passages was at an early date interpolated in the LXX, from which it passed to the Vulgate, and thence to the P.B.V. The addition is found in the Vatican and Sinaitic MSS. (B and א), and other MSS. which represent the older unrevised text; but was rightly obelized by Origen, and has disappeared from the Alexandrian MS. (A) and the mass of later MSS.
Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD.4. Jehovah Himself speaks. The first clause may be taken as in A.V., ‘Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge?’ Are they so ignorant that they cannot distinguish between right and wrong? Cp. Psalm 14:2 and Psalm 82:5. But a much better connexion with Psalm 14:5 is gained by rendering, Were not all the workers of iniquity made to know? (or, following the ancient versions in a change of the vocalisation, shall not … be made to know?) i.e. taught by sharp experience to know their error. Then Psalm 14:5 follows as the answer to the question. ‘Yes, indeed! there &c.’ For this pregnant sense of know, cp. Hosea 9:7; Jdg 8:16 (taught, lit. made to know).
who eat up &c.] Lit. eating my people they eat bread. The A.V. follows the ancient versions in understanding this to mean, ‘they devour my people as naturally as they take their daily food.’ But the words seem rather to mean, ‘they live by devouring my people.’ Cp. Micah 3:1-3; Isaiah 3:14 f. And this they do without regard to Jehovah.
But who are meant by my people and the workers of iniquity? Possibly the godly few who alone deserve the name of Jehovah’s people (Micah 2:9; Micah 3:3; Micah 3:5; and often in the prophets), and the nobles who oppress them. But it is more natural to explain ‘my people’ of the nation of Israel; and in this case ‘the workers of iniquity’ must be foreign oppressors, or, if we assume a reference to past history as in Psalm 14:1-3, the Egyptians. In favour of this view it should be noted that Israel is constantly called ‘my people’ in Exodus 3-10; and the last clause of the verse is illustrated by Exodus 5:2. Cp. also Jeremiah 2:3.
4–6. The corruption of men exemplified in their oppression of Jehovah’s people. Its condign punishment.
There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.5. This verse is commonly explained to refer to the future, the perfect tense expressing the certain assurance of the Psalmist that judgement will be executed. Cp. Psalm 36:12. But it is more natural to refer it to the past. ‘There’ points emphatically to some signal instance in which panic terror and overwhelming calamity overtook ‘the workers of iniquity.’ If Psalm 14:4 may be understood of the oppression of Israel in Egypt, Psalm 14:5 will refer to the overthrow of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:24-25). Psalm 53:5 adds where no fear was, no natural cause for alarm.
for God &c.] Present among them to defend them. ‘The generation’ (see on Psalm 12:7) ‘of the righteous’ is synonymous with ‘my people;’ either the nation, which might be so described in respect of its calling, and in contrast to its oppressors: or the godly part of it. Cp. Psalm 118:15.
Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the LORD is his refuge.6. You have shamed] R.V., Ye put to shame. You deride the resort of the afflicted to Jehovah as mere folly. But the word usually means to frustrate or confound: and the line maybe explained, ‘Would ye frustrate the counsel of the poor! Nay! for Jehovah’ &c. Cp. R.V. marg., which gives But for Because.
the poor] Or, afflicted. Cp. Psalm 9:12 : and Exodus 3:7; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 4:31.
In Psalms 53 the equivalent of Psalm 14:5-6 reads thus:
“For God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee;
Thou hast put them to shame, because God hath rejected them.”
The bones of Israel’s enemies lie bleaching upon the field of battle, where their bodies were left unburied (Ezekiel 6:5). This can hardly be an anticipation of some future defeat. It must rather be an allusion to some historic event; and it at once suggests the miraculous annihilation of Sennacherib’s great army. The text appears to have been altered by the editor of Book II to introduce a reference to the most famous example in later times of the discomfiture of worldly arrogance venturing to measure its strength with Jehovah. With this reading it is clear that Psalm 14:4 must refer to the nation and its enemies, not to oppressors and their victims within the nation.
Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the LORD bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.7. Concluding prayer for the deliverance of Israel.
out of Zion] The dwelling-place of Jehovah. See note on Psalm 3:4.
When the Lord bringeth back &c.] Or, as R.V. marg., when the Lord returneth to the captivity of his people. At first sight these words appear to fix the date of the Psalm in the period of the Exile (Psalm 126:1). Nor does the first line of the verse exclude such a view. For the exiled turned to Zion even in her desolation (Daniel 6:10; 1 Kings 8:44), and from thence Jehovah might be expected to restore His people. But (1) it is very probable that the phrase rendered bring back the captivity means rather restore the fortunes. This meaning suits all the passages in which it occurs, while turn the captivity does not, except in the figurative sense of restoring prosperity. See e.g. Job 42:10; Ezekiel 16:53; Zephaniah 2:7. And (2) even if turn the captivity is the true meaning, the phrase is used by Amos (Amos 9:14) and Hosea (Hosea 6:11) long before the Babylonish Captivity.
Psalm 14:7 is frequently regarded as a later liturgical addition; and certainly it does not cohere very closely with the rest of the Psalm. But some conclusion is needed. The Psalm can hardly have ended abruptly with Psalm 14:6.
Jacob shall rejoice, &c.] Properly a wish or prayer (cp. Psalm 13:5-6): let Jacob rejoice, and Israel be glad.