Psalm 53: A Tale Told by an Idiot?

As I study the book of Psalms, I am increasingly convinced it has more complexity than many of us realize. I don’t mean to say it’s difficult to understand, rather, its profound wisdom is accessible even to the simplest of minds. But I believe we often miss a structure lying underneath its profound simplicity connecting each psalm to a larger narrative. And this structure, helping us understand the book of Psalms, also answers one of humanity’s deepest cries: how do we know our part in life’s grand play is not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

To explain what I mean, let’s look at the first twelve psalms of Book 1 (Psalms 3-14) and the first twelve psalms of Book 2 (Psalms 42-53) and I think we will notice some striking similarities. (I’ve excluded Psalm 1 and 2 as they are generally thought to be an introduction to the entire book of Psalms and not part of Book 1).

Book 1 begins with psalms crying for relief from oppression by wicked men (Psalms 3-7), much like Book 2 (Psalms 42-44). Whereas this section of Book 1 does not find hope, Book 2 offers a picture of the coming groom who conquers the wicked (Psalms 45-46).

Following these sections, (and curiously the sixth psalm in each book), we find Psalm 8 and 47, both of which are praise psalms: 8 praises God’s majesty and his lifting up of mankind, and 47 praises God’s works and the groom being lifted high upon his throne.

Interestingly, the next psalm in each book is filled with cries for Zion: Psalm 9 speaks of the Lord enthroned in Zion and all that he has done, while Psalm 48 offers a triumphant description of the fortress of Zion wherein God dwells and from which comes judgment upon the wicked.

Following both cries to Zion, comes a section of very personal psalms. The psalmist in 10-13 longs for God’s hand to be present while the wicked continue to have their way. And in Psalm 49-52 he describes how the righteous should continue living with a contrite and humble heart while waiting for God to judge the wicked. Both Psalm 13 and Psalm 52 end with claims of trust in God’s unfailing love by singing his praise and declaring him to be good.

This brings us, finally, to Psalm 14 and 53 that, with very few exceptions, are near exact duplicates of one another. One might, at first glance, be tempted to move past Psalm 53 and not ask why there it is a repeating psalm, but I believe that would be a mistake.

A quick study will show that while there are some minor differences, (which we will not discuss today), there are major differences found in Psalm 14:5-6 and Psalm 53:5, both of which are below:

Psalm 14:5  There they are in great terror,
for God is with the generation of the righteous.
6  You would shame the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is his refuge.

Psalm 53:5  There they are, in great terror,
where there is no terror!
For God scatters the bones of him who encamps against you;
you put them to shame, for God has rejected them.

Both begin by describing the evil ones as being in great terror, but Psalm 14 states how the evil ones try to shame the righteous, whereas Psalm 53 declares how God overcomes the wicked ones and puts them to shame. Psalm 14:6 concludes by calling the Lord a refuge for the righteous, but Psalm 53 ends with God’s rejection of the evil ones.

By shifting shame from the righteous (Psalm 14) to the wicked (Psalm 53) a subtly different meaning to the final verse in each of these psalms emerges:

Psalm 14:7 and Psalm 53:6 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When God (the Lord) restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

The trusting cry for salvation, as found in Psalm 14, arises out of the confusion of apparent abandonment and in the light of the shame brought on him by the plans of the wicked, thus, becoming a cry of hope for a future freedom. But, given that Zion has been revealed in Psalm 48, along with the conquering groom in Psalm 45, 46, and 47, the same cry, found in Psalm 53, now becomes a victory song. The psalmist acknowledges God’s final and complete victory that has already been won!

While this does not explain specific events in life, I believe it helps us understand that God is in control, even in the midst of painful circumstances. The purposeful organization of these psalms thus betrays a deeper structure in our lives helping us make sense of pain and uncertainty. Our lives are not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” rather they are part of a story written by God, albeit full of pain and suffering, full of meaning.

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