Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This Psalm is a variation from Psalms 14. Which was the original, or whether both are not corruptions of some lost original, are questions involving minute comparisons and examinations of the Hebrew text, and possibly do not admit of satisfactory answers. Instead of “Jehovah” in Psalms 14, Psalms 53 has Elohîm, according to the style of this part of the collection. The other differences are discussed in the Notes. (See Introduction and Notes to Psalms 14)
Title.—See title, Psalms 4.
Upon Mahalath.—One of the most perplexing of the perplexing inscriptions. We have a choice of explanations from derivation between upon a flute, and after the manner of sickness. The word occurs again in the Title of Psalms 88, with the addition of “to sing.” It is against the analogy supplied by other inscriptions to refer this to the sad nature of the contents of the Psalm, though in the case of Psalms 88 such an interpretation would be very appropriate and not inappropriate here. As in other cases, we look for some musical direction here, and if we take the root, meaning “sick” or “sad,” we must render “to a sad strain,” or “to the tune of a song beginning with the word ‘sadness.’”
To the chief Musician upon Mahalath, Maschil, A Psalm of David. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.(1) And.—The conjunction is wanting in Psalm 14:1.
Iniquity.—Instead of the general term, “doings,” in Psalms 14, as if the adapter of the Psalm felt that a word applicable to good as well as evil was not strong enough to express the hideousness of the profanity.
Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.(3) There are two unimportant variations from Psalms 14 here: “every one,” instead of “the whole,” and “gone back” (sag) for “gone aside” (sar).
Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread: they have not called upon God.(4) Notice the omission of the expressive “all” found in Psalms 14
There were they in great fear, where no fear was: for God hath scattered the bones of him that encampeth against thee: thou hast put them to shame, because God hath despised them.(5) Where no fear was.—This—the most interesting variation from Psalms 14—appears plainly to have been inserted to bring the Psalm into harmony with some circumstance belonging to the time for which it was adapted, but to which we have no clue. As to the choice among the various explanations that have been given of it, we must remark that the one which takes “fear” in a good sense (“Then were they in great fright where there was no fear of God”) is excluded by the fact that the same word is employed in both clauses; and, as elsewhere pāchad is used of a “cause of terror,” we may render, There were they in great fear, where there was no cause for fear.
Apparently, from the immediate context, this statement is made not of the enemies of Israel, but of Israel itself, and was so constantly applicable to a people supposed to be living under the immediate protection of God, and yet liable to sudden panics, that we need not try to recover the precise event referred to.
Of him that encampeth against thee.—Literally, of thy besiegers. The bones of the beleaguering host lie bleaching on the sand. But the text seems to have suffered. The LXX. and Vulg. have “the bones of them that please men,” and a comparison with Psalm 14:5-6 shows such a similarity of letters, with difference of meaning, that both texts look like different attempts to restore some faded MS. Many attempts have been made to restore the original, but none eminently satisfactory.